A Daily Happening: The Intellectual Practice

I am going to go on record with the commitment to try to post every day here. I have such a nice page, such a nice blog, and it gets ignored. It's the perfect place to work on ideas by sharing them with an imagined audience (aren't they all at some level?). So why don't I do it?

It's because I've been "spoiling my appetite" with social media - the posting and reposting on Twitter and Facebook fills you up and makes you feel that same sort of goodness that sharing thoughts on a blog does. But the blog comes with a bit more chewing, a bit more rumination. It's the difference between the calories in a salad versus a sack of Oreos. But I'd rather eat Oreos anyday. . . .

The point of this spot is to work on ideas by sharing them. This is writing as epistemic to be sure, but writing as a critique of epistemology I hope. I hope I walk away from these posts feeling somewhat dissatisfied, ready to type again tomorrow when the time comes. I have a fear that it will be too much of the former and perhaps push me back to something easier. 

To start things off, I'll share some thoughts about Staughton Lynd, the great historian of the New Left (he was a historian in or during the New Left might be more accurate since he talks little of that time period) and he makes me remember how I used to feel about history when I was studying it and taking classes in it at Texas A&M back in the day. Staughton Lynd wrote a great number of great things but here's a line that has been haunting me since I read it earlier in the summer: 

 from page 138 of  From Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader

from page 138 of From Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader

What does this quote mean? For me it means that intellectualism is a constant labor/practice focused on clarification of problems as opposed to the distribution of answers. A former student of mine shared a pretty strange article today about a French mathematician who rejected teaching because he didn't want to "be the one who knows." Seems to me that the teacher has to be the most uncertain and flexible one in the room for there to be real intellectual practice in there.

Why is teaching intellectual practice? Lynd just assumes it. The reason, I think, is because teaching, no matter what you teach, is about practicing approaches to problems, whether with others or alone. We teach various approaches to identifying, clarifying, and questioning problems. This is what well-taught students can do, they can face things with the tools and experiences we provide as teachers. 

I hate saying "tools" because I do not agree with the black hole of discourse about education these days that simultaneously reduces teaching to both a simplistic material production ("the creation of tools") and the training of people in right-wayness ("provision of skills and branding for the workforce"). Good teaching needs to be against both of these ideas simply because we have no idea, and should be honest that we have no idea, what problems are going to be out there for our students when they leave the school. 

Our teaching ought to last as well.  Critical thinking isn't worth anything if it doesn't last fifty some odd years longer than the class. We can cement this power, I think, by demonstrating intellectual practice and performance for the students ourselves by bringing in the difficult subject matter of our time. That might be the laptop computer or the mobile phone, or it could be Black Lives Matter, or the rise of American fascists ("rise" might be a stretch, maybe "appearance?"). Regardless of what the teacher identifies as the cause of the time, the identification and the bringing of it into the classroom is the first intellectual act modeled by the teacher for the students. That foundation has to be a good one if we hope to build anything over the course of the semester.

2006_staughton_lynd.jpg

What is the "place" in Lynd's assessment? I think here he means a physical, material activism but I base that on what I know about the man's life. Does he mean this as a universal? I don't think so. I think that's what worked for him. But the question of "place" is a great one for us. I don't know about you, but I tend to slip into thinking that the college campus is a space distinct from the rest of the world. It really isn't. The students bring all of their experiences to the campus, and bad professors discount, ignore, or disregard these experiences as a teaching resource. The place to stand is right there with the students in the murk of it all and try to demonstrate for them the approaches you take to clarification. 

Place is also a pretty explicit call to politicize the classroom, which is a funny idea since it is already a deeply politicized space. People who reject politicizing the classroom are those who think that schooling is neutral, or at best objective, so they too need a lot of help with clarification and where to stand. It would be good if all teachers could be intellectuals, but they are not. The classroom remains politicized in favor of the workday, salary, career is your life value party which infects pretty much everything around me in my daily life. 

Politicizing the classroom is probably most frequently done by making the classroom part of the analysis of the class. The practices of the university, the school, or otherwise can come under scrutiny as examples and things like that. You don't need to bring in giant on-fire issues from the community or society if that's not for you. What you must do is bring in some reflexivity on the things that are being taught in order to give students some handholds on how this lesson, this class, or unit is not going to expire at the end of the semester - it remains connected. 

Lynd's statement has the tone of a clarification but ultimately just makes me ask a lot of questions and investigate a lot of my practices. Perhaps that's what good intellectual behavior is - to keep questions alive by continuing to pair down problems.