As the Semester Begins

A new semester is like a new start. Things have little to no association with the course that came before (unless you are one of those teachers who uses the same old yellowing notes for each class). There’s a bit of anxiety, and a bit of happiness, and a bit of confusion. The start of the semester has a lot in common with the start of the human experience.

I mentor a few people here and there into the world of intellectual work, the “life of the mind” and teaching. This process benefits me a lot more than them. It forces me to reconsider not only my positions on various teaching practices and principles, but to reconsider how I articulate them. This space of reconsideration is something that is not only vital to developing good teaching, it might very well be good teaching itself.

In talking with someone who is going to teach formally for the first time this term, I said, “Whatever you bring with you is there.” This struck me, days later, as an excellent candidate for a first principle of teaching. Assumptions, beliefs, what-the-students-need, it will all come true if you bring it into a classroom.

This is not a good thing at all. Formal teachers, as professionals, are in a weird position. They are professionals who are rarely, if ever, evaluated by their peers for the quality of work they do. There is no “bar association” for teachers (although I strongly believe there should be). What often happens is the teacher looks to student attitudes, either formally or informally, to see if they are doing a good job. The results are easy to use for whatever purposes one wants. Students are happy? Good teaching. Students are unhappy? Good teaching. Both are equally true and can be rationalized as such with little room for rebuttal.

There is no good solution here - it is nearly impossible, and definitely unlikely, that the teacher can enter the classroom without assumption. Even entering that class with the idea, “I have no assumptions about this class, I have no idea of who they are” is an assumption. That will be there. The ideas, the ideology, the ontology of the instructor pushes out the possibility and potential for something organic to arise between both teacher and student, student and teacher. Paulo Freire was the first to write about this, about the need for students and teachers to blend their formal identities in order for a space for transformation to occur. But this is a much more difficult thing than it appears. To enter the classroom with this assumption is to make sure that the possibility is there in a fixed and immutable way - the teacher will determine that the students are teachers; the students will determine they are teachers; all will occur in a way knowable and observable as such by the teacher and the students in their appropriate roles.

Also working against this idea of bringing nothing into the classroom but an absence is the ideology of consumerism that permeates all educational activity, from pedagogical models to testing to the accreditation of universities. There must be evidence, evidence in the strictest, most scientifically derived sense of the term, that something “is being given” that something “is being made here” in order for there to be recognizable teaching. The model of the student arriving to acquire skills and abilities is only the tip of how deep this ideology permeates contemporary teaching. Teachers pride themselves where I work on assigning 20 page papers to undergraduates, of assigning huge amounts of textual production, ignorant of the very clear connection between this sort of pride and the pride of the captains of industry in the early 20th century making sure to get every ounce of productive labor out of those in the mills not because it benefits them in any way - but because it benefits the factory owner, or in this case, the classroom-owner, the teacher. That feeling of accomplishment is a dangerous one as it is indeed no different from other forms of surplus-value in capitalism. In fact, many professors I have encountered rely on explication so much they construct a very long syllabus that students must initial each page as if it were a contract, a binding agreement between teacher and student, where services will be rendered and performed in a way or all bets are off. This contract metaphor is praised as an excellent way to communicate to students the “seriousness” of the college classroom. It appears as novel metaphor encouraging better understanding. It is, in actuality, a move designed, through exposure, to conceal exactly how the institutions of education have hollowed out teaching and learning, drying them up. This appears to deepen the understanding of the importance of learning but all it does is serve to eliminate any unique features of the educational moment, putting it on par with renting a meeting space, or ordering office supplies. Contractual agreements are not rich enough to capture the possibilities of classroom “production” - to use a limiting metaphor.

The option of abandonment comes to mind when faced with a system that controls the possibilities so tightly and so well as to appear to be an open, even revolutionary, order. But abandonment is not an option for those who wish to engage in the formal art of teaching. Teaching is also labor coded in a way to allow for scholarship - in many places it supports the work of scholarship where there would be no other discernable way to make that work possible. The creation and articulation of differing ideas would halt, or occur in ways that would take a long time to gain the marks of credibility.

The only solution for now, without radical abandonment or complicity, is to enter the classroom with emptiness - sunyata, the term from Buddhism. Emptiness is not an absence, not a presence. It is assumption in suspended-animation, it is the concept of the potential for possibility. Emptiness is not an absence in Buddhist thought, but a beginning. It is a place that can be used productively, but it requires careful maintenance. It is not a default position as it is in the west for something to be empty, then filled. Emptiness, as a concept here, is full.

The politics of emptiness in the classroom are simple: Avoid explication at all costs. This is the most difficult thing, as everything about the system of schooling wants explication to occur. This is the root of pleasure for the teacher and comfort for the students. The teacher will make sense of it. The teacher will tell us what to do to get an A. This reliance on explication is to be replaced with questioning and engagement on those questions.

Be aware that explication - telling someone what something means, and explanation - helping someone understand something, are different things. A bad teacher is one who only offers explication. A dangerous teacher is one who believes he or she knows the difference, and refuses explanation to the confused student on the grounds that it is explication. This sort of teaching has captured the popular imagination, reducing the labor of teaching to little more than a few knowing glances and arrogant smirks across a classroom. Confusion cannot be solved by either explication or explanation, but explanation provides the grounds by which the student can begin to construct scaffolding to climb to reach a perspective. Often confusion arises at the point where the ground one assumed was below you is no longer visible. This point is simultaneously a great success, an end - but also a starting point for teaching. There is no gap between these two reads; it really is both, as many teachers know the difficulty in reaching the point where the ground no longer holds.

A teacher is not someone who provides, but someone who provisions. A teacher doesn’t race toward answers but tries to slowly focus the questions. A teacher doesn’t relish getting it right, but getting it. What will you bring with you into that auspicious place, the classroom? Whatever you bring will take on dangerous qualities. It's the nature of the place.