TEACHING WITHOUT KNOWING
Hal Pepinsky, firstname.lastname@example.org, pepinsky.blogspot.com
January 1, 2013
I just sent this thank-you note on the humanist sociology listserv to Mark Weigand, highly dedicated to teaching students across a heavy course load what C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination.” Mark inspired me to recall the attitude I brought to the classroom, my gut response to the problem of taking the superiority out of my own claims to knowledge and human understanding:
Happy New Year!
Thanks so much for sharing your own teaching craft. I’ve no doubt that you brought your vision of our world as social very much to life in your own way. I’m reminded of the wisdom a friend with a lot of experience shared with me about doing mediation: We each have our own style, our own way of making the process work. Your post is a nice new year’s present for me. I’ve missed the conversations about how we were trying to teach I used to have in the halls and over lunch. I used to say that my department offered students the value of a liberal arts education by an incredibly diverse faculty, in the experiences and perspectives we shared in the classroom, including foremost to students the ways we tested them. Survive this, I would tell students, and you will be well prepared to deal with the vagaries of the big, bad world.
In retrospect I was lucky enough to have taught 2 courses per semester and 2-3 preps per year, of courses where I took free rein to conceive them my own way, and to have had associate instructors in my one big (alternative social control systems) class for virtually my entire career, to enable me to experiment in grading as freely as I did. That said, my a.i.’s and I could sit down once a week and chalk up 30 students’ points as they read through journal entries, for minimal length, for saying something substantive about a reading and about class, and for reacting to classmates’ posts in a class chatroom (with NO makeups). In the read through, I’d see what students as a whole were saying. I could pull some out for closer reading and perhaps personal response; I would respond collectively each week in the same chatroom. As for class preparation, as I have gained confidence by keeping on speaking publicly without written material, I need less prep time. I demonstrated that to myself down in Trinidad when I started my last visit by having a sergeant tell me I was on my way to deliver a lecture to a large roomful of police from around the country, that I recognized that most of the inner preparation I used to do was reassuring perhaps, but in the event superfluous. Which is to say that I spent less time examining students my way than I would have spent making up exams and carting the answer sheets over to the campus evaluation center. Which makes testing now seem to me in theory like a waste of any busy instructor’s time.
Since I enjoyed (or took?) the freedom to focus every course I ever taught on whatever currently contentious issue I was particularly concerned with myself, I myself became whatever knowledge I thought I had to impart to students. From my parents to my colleagues, I have never been allowed to take for granted that I know anything. Gift or burden, I walked into my first class of 250 totally agnostic as to what I had to offer students, and was chewed out by a senior colleague who demanded, “If you don’t think you know better than students what they need to know, what business do you have standing in front of the classroom?!” I have since gained confidence that others including students may learn from my experience, but still am unable to feel that I know better, which perhaps helps qualify me to mediate. And so, in the alternative social control systems class, I came to begin by telling students that although I didn’t know them personally, I presumed that most of them were victims of their education. I presumed that they had been taught that their views on things that matter were “JUST your opinion” (echoes of so many manuscript reviews I have received). “I believe it is fundamental to democracy for the people to feel that their beliefs DO matter. If you have never done so before, I hope that you leave this class believing that the journals you write during the semester are among the most valuable texts you hang onto when you graduate…” and so forth.
I also think back at how the things—the people, the events, the accounts—which are memorable in my education seldom come from my classroom days or readings in the classroom, and when they do so, in a linear sense, they do so unpredictably and unsystematically. If a substantial portion of students remembered, let alone applied, any single item of information from any of my classes, I figured I was doing my fair share of teaching something.
One thing I’ve learned is tremendous respect for how seriously many of us take teaching to heart in the best and worst of circumstances. We all too seldom get to talk over the various things each of us is passionate about teaching for. Any other takers? Thanks again, Mark, for carrying on the exchange. l&p