WHY I TEACH
A story I often tell my students focuses on the first time I took a risk when writing a college paper. I was not at all sure what my professor “wanted”. In fact, I was stumped. However, I did know how I would interpret the particular piece of East African tradition I was examining, and I finally decided to allow my ideas to drive the paper. It was not without trepidation that I handed that paper in, and the reward was an equal mixture of exhilaration and vindication when the professor told me that the paper was publishable. I have always remembered that experience so well because it was the time I learned to think in college.
Unfortunately, this epiphany happened later in my college career than it might or should have. I spent most of my undergraduate years riveted on grades, and my early formula for getting grades was and is so durable that my own students carry it with them: find out what the professor wants and you’ll get what you want. In the role of instructor rather than instructed, however, I realize that what I want the students to give, is at once more complicated and more simple than I once believed. I don’t want a laundry list of correct answers. Rather, I want students to develop the appetite for critical thinking. My philosophy of teaching revolves around this goal. Students will participate if they can be persuaded that their opinion is valued and wanted. My goal is to find ways to do this.
I want to emphasize that learning is a dialogue. My preferred method of teaching is discussion. I tell students that they need to come to class prepared to participate, because I believe that everyone has ideas worth hearing. I tell students that there is no such thing as a wrong answer, and there are no “dumb questions”. On occasion, when asked for an opinion, a student will say “I don’t know”. My answer is “You don’t have to know. You just have to think.” I have to be honest and consistent about this. However, once students realize that I will value whatever contribution they might make, discussion comes alive..
To make this succeed, however, the classroom has to be a safe environment. Students often don’t want to stand out, particularly in any negative way. In my classes we discuss many provocative topics, such as immigration, identity, scientific racism, apartheid and genocide. Students may feel strongly about these issues, but feel equally strongly about not giving or taking offence. I remind them at the beginning of each semester that they will not agree with each other, but they must respect each other.
I believe that teaching should ideally be a shared experience of exploration. If they haven’t yet accepted the dialogue theory of education, students assume that part of the function of the instructor is to entertain them. My hope is that when we are able to open the floodgates of critical thinking and discussion, they will discover that creative thinking is fun, and that the responsibility is theirs. If they are willing to go on this journey, students become empowered. They will learn how to think. This is the most important skill they will gain at the university, and it is endlessly useful.
Finally, I remember that the most important letter of recommendation I ever wrote was to a judge asking that the parole of one of my students not be revoked. This student had entered the University hoping to change his life, had made the Dean’s List and become a member of Phi Eta Sigma. The judge agreed with me, and the student is now working on a degree in Social Work. Education changes students’ lives, but it also changes teachers’ lives. We really are the same.