David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Could Better Teaching Have Helped?

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Image: iStock

Last November, feeling unmoored by the result of the presidential election, I wrote a column consoling myself with the fact that, as a college instructor, I have the privilege of working with this country’s future. Throughout the past year, as I’ve despaired about the country’s elected leadership, what has kept me going is the importance of what goes in my classroom. That belief — that education can be a force for good, one that can counteract authoritarianism — rests on one of my central pedagogical principles.

I believe that our mission as faculty members goes beyond helping students learn the knowledge and skills necessary to develop mastery of our disciplines. We should be trying, as well, to help them develop into more capable, ethical, and critical scholars and citizens. I believe that a college education can achieve those aims, and that those of us who teach in higher education should devote ourselves to realizing them.

It’s easy to look around and find evidence of the failure of that mission everywhere. When women who report sexual assault are not believed, that’s our problem — one that we as faculty members can look to ameliorate in the college classroom. When mass shootings happen so regularly we can’t remember them all, that’s our problem. When the nation’s paper of record writes sympathetic profiles of white supremacists but hastens to point outthat a teenager killed by the police was "no angel," that’s our problem, too. Maybe it’s because I write about pedagogy, but I often read the news and think: How could better teaching have helped?

There’s a well-established meme in the sports-journalism world called "stick to sports."

Whenever an athlete or a sportswriter voices a political opinion or discusses politics at all, that familiar phrase quickly appears, as if summoned. Its argument is clear: Sports should be separate from politics, and any attempt to talk about political issues in the sporting world is inappropriate — fans follow sports to be entertained, not to be educated or lectured.

Something analogous happens in education. We seem to have a desire to bracket the world of politics from our conception of the college classroom. A college course should focus on the topics listed on the syllabus, and leave politics to other venues. But when people call for the separation of politics and education, they’re usually talking about the politics of the instructor, or about the discussion of politically sensitive topics (both of which I wrote aboutin September).

What I think is crucial to remember is that politics is made by people. And we teach those people.

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks distinguishes between "ways of knowing" and "habits of being." Most of the time as college instructors, we are concerned with ways of knowing. We want to teach students about our discipline, and train them to think like scholars in our field. We are rightly concerned with teaching them how to master the course’s subject.

But we should not neglect our duty to teach broader skills — ones that transcend the classroom and can be put into practice in the students’ lives beyond college. In her book, hooks writes about how her students, returning from Thanksgiving break, described the ways in which the concepts they had learned in class (about race and racism) made them see their parents and relatives in a different light. By trying to help our students develop habits of mind, we are guiding them in the future, whether they continue in our disciplines or not.

Patricia G. Devine, whose work on implicit biases I wrote about last month, also writes about habit. For her, racist and sexist associations are like habits — connections we make so often they become automatic. Breaking such habits is a long process that requires, she writes, "learning about the contexts that activate the bias and how to replace the biased responses with responses that reflect one’s nonprejudiced goals."

Part of our mission as faculty members should be to help students develop new, healthier habits to replace the bad ones we hope they will abandon. If you believe, as I do, that we should help students develop into more capable, ethical, and critical scholars and citizens, then we must take the 15 weeks we get with our students and look to develop habits of self-scrutiny, metacognition, critical thinking, and deliberate decision-making, among others. The way you approach your subject in your courses can help students develop those habits.

How, specifically, can you do this in your own teaching? By looking for ways to lessen the distance between your classroom and the world outside, to open doors instead of closing them:

  • Invite students to think about how the events in the newspaper relate to the topics in your course, and vice versa. Encourage them to draw parallels between the kind of thinking you do in your discipline with thinking they do elsewhere.
  • Look to integrate theory and practice, to demonstrate that chemistry, or sociology, or engineering doesn’t confine itself to the college classroom — that their lives will be enriched by what they are learning.
  • Call attention to the habits of being you are helping them develop, even if those habits are as humble as the quiet discipline of reading carefully before voicing an opinion. We could use more of that in our public life, too.

I’m not suggesting that faculty members should advocate for any particular ideology or political belief. Rather, I want us all to consider that part of our mission as college educators is to train students to be more critical of themselves and their culture, to be more aware of biases (their own and other people’s), and to be more compassionate and diligent in understanding people who are different, and more ethical in acting toward those people.

The development of such habits in our classrooms is not just essential to the betterment of our world, it’s essential to our disciplines. Being able to recognize the work of women as equal to that of men isn’t just necessary for good citizenship, it’s also integral to being a good scientist, or historian, or doctor. Being able to recognize and work to correct your own bias doesn’t just make you "woke," it’s a crucial skill for getting things right in any discipline. If students don’t learn these habits in our classrooms, will they learn them at all?

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