ON TRYING NOT TO BE A KIERKEGAARDIAN PROFESSOR
Presentation at the Tenth Annual Meeting of the Association for Humanist Sociology, Atlanta, Georgia, November 1985. Published on the web, August 2003.
A major impediment to love-making in our time is excessive attention to methods of erotic stimulation, as described in skin magazines and how-to-do-it books. A major obstacle to teaching is preoccupation with procedures for getting the material across. Not that technique is irrelevant in either case. Voice, dress, gestures, exercises, setting, lighting, props, audio-visual aids - these make an enormous difference. But technique by itself falls flat. In the classroom as in the bedroom, the measure of worth is how successfully human beings manage to meet and together come more fully to life.
There are three basic realities in our work: the teacher, the students, and the relationship between the two. This paper (whose worth can only lie in something besides originality) concerns the first and third of these. I'll say nothing about students. I seldom sit on admissions committees. When I walk into the lecture hall at the beginning of term, the students are simply there. I can't do anything about their backgrounds or motivations. Sitting in front of me quietly, warily, some quizzically, others blankly, they are a given in my experience. What I can do something about is just two realities: who I am, and what kind of relation they and I will achieve. Let me say something first about the first of these, the teacher.
Assume I have reviewed my notes, planned what to put on the blackboard or overhead, and otherwise technically prepared myself for class. What more is there? Nothing more, except the most important thing, the quality nobody ever fully achieves: authenticity. I don't know everything this grand word means. It encompasses C. Wright Mills's ideal of craftsmanship, and what David Riesman called inner-directedness. It opposes the narcissism of what Christopher Lasch identifies as the minimal self. The practical requirement of authenticity for me in the classroom is that I have thought through the ideas in my lecture to such a point that they are coherent with everything else about me: with all my other lectures, with where I live, with who my father was, with what I eat, how I vote, even what I do for a break. Authenticity demands that the side of me my students see on a given day in class should be just one facet of a perfectly chiselled integrity. If teaching is just what I do for a living, if I'm giving this course simply because it was assigned to me, if my heart is not in it, if I project an image instead of part of my own self, then I am no more a teacher to my students than a call girl is a lover to her clientele.
Authenticity does not imply idiosyncracy. It does not exempt the teacher of sociology from rules of evidence, from attention to data, or from reading, citing, and discussing other scholars' work. Nor does authenticity guarantee the worth of the ideas taught. One can be at once authentic and misinformed. The authentic teacher, however, has at least incorporated some body of knowledge into his or her own person, reconciled it to his or her own experience, and thus become more than a press agent, spokesperson, or huckster for what some other people think. An authentic teacher has consciously invested his or her own self in the words that come forth. You can therefore trust what such a person says, infinitely more than the words of any detached professional, even an expert one.
One of my models as I was growing up was my Uncle Henry, a rarity among my kin in that he was not a farmer but a judge. When he retired in 1963, a law journal dedicated an issue to him and offered this characterization of the opinions he had handed down: "He is scrupulously economical and mathematically precise in his citation of precedent. Yet the authorities seem to be added later after the opinion is written, as though there was only one way to decide the case by force of logic and justice....If all of the law libraries were burned, Henry Westhues could go right on declaring law" (In Orville Richardson, "Judge Henry J. Westhues: a Lawyer's Appraisal and Appreciation," Saint Louis University Law Journal 7. 1963, pp. 202-205).
I think this means that however often he may have been wrong, Uncle Henry was an authentic jurist. His opinions were not at arm's length from the rest of him, not applications mechanically drawn from other people's work. Similarly, an authentic teacher or writer in our field is one who, if all the journals and all the books reviewed in them went up in smoke, could go right on teaching sociology.
This attribute of a teacher, which I am placing before any other, forbids dependence on a textbook. Not the use of a text, but reliance on it. I tried to make this point three years ago on the first page of the instructor's manual published with my own introductory book. But this fundamental point—that authenticity precludes subordination of teacher to text—is apparently so heretical that an otherwise tolerant editor summarily censored the two offending paragraphs. I am glad for the chance to publish them here:
Most of us, I suspect, were warned early in our teaching careers to be careful to keep our classes under control. Students, so we were told, would take advantage if we did not insist, politely but firmly, upon our own authority in the classroom. They would strike up lively conversations with one another, disrupt our lectures, throw things, cheat, and make a mockery of the learning process. Hence the injunction, "Remind yourself that you're in charge, and don't let the students forget it." Coming from a generation too worshipful of Dionysus and being in any case too young, I at first resisted such advice. The results were not good. My students once went so far as to inject marijuana into a group discussion, not as topic but as audio-visual aid. Their course and my job nearly ended that day. The dean was an atypically kindly man. Gradually I learned, as you probably did more easily, to lay down rules at the start of each course and to enforce them steadily. We learn, that is, to take responsibility for the courses we teach. Thereby our students are gladdened and the cause of education is more faithfully served.
But there is another threat to our authority in the classroom about which few of us were warned. It is far more menacing than the students, especially because it is more insidious. It is the threat of the textbooks we adopt. I am sure that every year hundreds of potentially first-rate introductory courses lapse into boredom and mediocrity because professors lose control of the class to the lifeless tomes they themselves have assigned. The authority of the printed page somehow undermines professors' own authority, even their self-confidence. The colleague who wrote the text is allowed to take charge of the class, forcing professor and students alike to mouth slavishly the definitions, distinctions and theories laid out in double-column prose. There are thousands of dull teachers who would be great if only they would let themselves go, assert the empirical truths they themselves hold most dear, share their own insights, report on their own research, relate their own experiences, and urge students to do the same. But instead these professors constantly hold back, making their lectures bland repetitions of the text, languishing in straightjackets of their own choice.
Upon deciding to take possession of self, to quit being an instrument of the literature or the text but instead to become a person of one's own, the teacher begins a new way of life. Not once and for all but steadily more with each passing day, with every assimilation of a new datum, with every delivery of a new lecture or manuscript, with every step taken toward completion of self. It is an awesome process. Alvin Gouldner tried to capture it in his preface to Enter Plato: "Writing, says Kafka, is a form of prayer. Until this book, I was never sure that he intended to include the writing of social scientists, and, in any event, I never knew quite what he meant. I think I now know: a man begins to work with something vague and formless within himself. He reaches for it first with his practical professional skills and familiar techniques and well-worn work habits and by relying on that settled knowledge of himself that has so far served him well enough. But this thing is so formless and big that he comes in time to see that his standard routines can never weave the net that will trap it and that, if it is to be landed at all, he must go down after it with his whole being. So the issue at last is joined and the contest finally pursued to the point at which he has to take reluctant leave of the secure, manageable routines and swim down into the inky waters of the self; he comes at length to that unsettling knowledge that the quality of his work —if it is to be more than a routine performance—depends, not only on what he knows and certainly not on any mere tricks of his craft, but on what he is.;It is bad enough when a man has to put his skills up for inspection, but writing becomes a form of prayer when what he places on the line is himself" (Basic Books, 1965, p. vii).
A lecture can be equally a form of prayer, but the price is the same: that one's own self be put on the line. Once, when I was still a boy on the farm, there was a banquet of some kind in the Knights of Columbus Hall in my hometown. The speaker was my Uncle Henry, the local boy made good. It was widely commented upon afterwards that during his address his hands trembled. This news disheartened me. Should giving an after-dinner speech intimidate the Chief Justice of the state supreme court?
This childhood memory came back to me a few weeks ago, when I served as moderator for a workshop on teaching at my university. The two speakers were among our best, most senior scholars at Waterloo. Beause I sat next to the podium, I could see that their hands trembled when they spoke. But now I understood. Kierkegaard distinguished two ways of handling jobs like ours: "One way is to suffer; the other is to be a professor of the fact that another suffered." ("The Professor,", pp. 117-118 in G. B. de Huszar, ed., The Intellectuals, Free Press, 1960).
The inevitable concomitant of authenticity is suffering. Kierkegaard knew that, and Gouldner. So did Uncle Henry, I guess. So, too, the scholars I watched recently at Waterloo. None of these was a professor of the fact that another suffered. Each was trying to be a person of his own.
The last thing I want to say about authenticity is that it is more a process than a static quality. One cannot be a servant of the discipline for twenty years and then become authentic overnight. Nor can this characteristic be turned on and off, as when a teacher spends ten weeks reviewing the text, acting as proxy for other people's thought, and then announces, "Today I'm going to present my own ideas." It is instead a matter, day by day and year by year, of taking other people's thought apart and building it somehow into one's own self, so that every lecture given, every paragraph written, is an integral part of "my own ideas." This is a lot of work! Figuring out where and how to fit Durkheim in, and Marx, the thirteenth century and the nineteenth, Spain and South Africa, today's newspaper, and last night's conversation over dinner: the task of making oneself whole never ends and is wearisome. But there is no other way to become a genuine teacher in this modern world. A peasant can be authentic more easily - there is less diversity of experience to assimilate, fewer pieces of time and space to set in place. Our students have no right to expect that any of us has quite got it all together yet. They deserve, however, to witness us in every class, on every page, making the attempt.
I promised at the start to address two realities: the teacher, and the relationship between teacher and students. By now I have identified what is, in my view, the heaviest demand placed on the teacher: authenticity. Let me now define in brief what seems to me to be the heaviest demand placed on the teacher-student relationship: reciprocity.
Teaching is a kick. It is an exercise of power, not just in shaping students' minds but in dispensing the marks on which their degrees, scholarships, careers and self-concepts depend. There is no use denying this power, this authority, chumming it up with students in a masquerade of equality. Reciprocity is not blocked by inequality. It is not violated when a teacher lectures, insists on classroom order, assigns readings, gives tests, circles grammatical errors on essays, gives D's and F's when deserved, or otherwise properly asserts the authority attached to the teacher role.
Reciprocity requires, however, that every student be allowed and expected to respond to what is taught: to pick the teacher and the textbook apart, criticize them, revise them, and figure out how to incorporate them into his or her own self. More than this, reciprocity requires that the teacher listen to or read the students' responses, take them seriously, be willing to change his or her thought as a result of what the students think. Course evaluations at the end of term, wherein students rate a teacher's performance, do not at all suffice. What is called for is dialogue, a serious exchange of sentences composed originally for the occasion. Reciprocity means that an authentic teacher demands authenticity of students, and then engages in conversation with them.
There are more ways to violate this attribute than time lets me list. One is to go over or around the students' heads, to be so wrapped up in a subject-matter that one fails to connect with them or be intelligible. Surely no teacher has ever failed to wish that his or her students were better prepared to grasp the wondrous gift of knowledge being handed them. But no course can be good if students don't make sense of it. Much as it might hurt sometimes, the teacher has to meet students on common ground, speak to them where they are.
The difficulty of doing this, however, the problem (as it is called) "of coming down to the students' level" is much less severe than textbook publishers like to pretend. I find my students remarkably capable, at least once they are pushed a bit. A far more common violation of reciprocity, at least in large public institutions like mine, is to pander to the instrumental attitude many students bring to class. Few in fact are accustomed to an expectation of authenticity, or to the gut-wrenching work of making a critical response. Most want lists of memorizable concepts, entertaining stories, multiple-choice tests, a tidy package of knowledge they can hold at arm's length. Having lots of other things to do besides teach, we teachers are sorely tempted just to give students what these many want, do a nice soft shoe in front of them, hope for high teaching scores, and invest our honest energies somewhere else—without ever connecting wtih students in a human way.
Let me close with the violation of reciprocity that is hardest to resist for an authentic teacher, one who believes in what is being taught. For having sweat one's way to a particular analysis or theory, having put one's very self at risk in a lecture or book, a teacher cannot help but recoil from taking the necessary next step, namely asking students to find fault and welcoming their critical response. The more appealing course of action is to ask students to submit, to conform, to accept the knowledge given them. Possessing in the classroom a podium, an audience, and the power of examination, every serious teacher is tempted to play guru and use these resources to indoctrinate students to his or her point of view. The temptation is to make the prime criterion of successful teaching, the criterion even for assigning marks, how thoroughly students absorb the teacher's presentation, arrive at the same conclusions as he or she.
But authenticity is not transferrable. No one achieves it except independently, on the basis of his or her own experience. When we act in political roles, the chief measure of failure or success is indeed how completely others are won to our way of thinking—on the arms race, on Nicaragua, on the redistribution of wealth, or whatever. But not when we act as teachers. Reciprocity insists that in the pedagogical scale of values, first place be reserved for every individual student's autonomous intellectual development, whether that is in the direction we approve, or not.
The Canadian government is about to begin talks toward a free-trade agreement with the United States. The issue is a vital one for Canada, and as a matter of course I have lectured on it and promoted discussion about it in my introductory course this term. A number of students chose to write their essays on this topic. I marked them a couple of weeks ago. And I winced every time I was obliged to given an A or a B to a student who clearly favoured free trade. Hadn't my lectures been understood? Couldn't the student see that free trade with the U.S. will spell the end of Canada? But reciprocity required that I reward students for responding critically, authentically, coherently, with due respect for evidence, even if their conclusions differed from my own. What was worse, it meant I had to take their arguments to heart. What was still worse, it made me penalize those students who spewed back my own analysis, without evidence of independent thought.
To be a good teacher is to put yourself on the line, and then to be glad when some student takes a reasoned swipe at you.