Yet Another Teaching Self-Evaluation

Time again, for a teaching self-evaluation. This semester, I taught three classes, and ran three independent studies. This workload was a mistake. I use the term ‘mistake’ because I signed up for those independent studies; that is, I chose to over commit myself. I had foolishly imagined I would be able to do justice to these multiple commitments; I soon found not I could not keep up. The result was one of the most disorganized semesters I’ve ever suffered–or made others suffer. The time taken up by class meetings–including the discussion sessions with my independent study students–and class preparations, reading weekly written responses, grading, office hours, and so on, quickly swamped many other commitments; and I failed to respond with adequate organization. (Yes, that dreaded ‘time-management.’) My students felt this lack of disorganization; I constantly felt harried, underprepared, late, and negligent. Several students complained to me that I did not respond to their emails in time; in each case, they were correct. I also committed the mistake–out of sheer emotion and physical weariness–of not sticking to my specified restrictions on assignment deadlines; the result was a blizzard of late submissions and resubmissions. Which of course just further increased my sense of disorganization. One manifestation of my harried feeling this semester was that I walked out of a class meeting when it became apparent to me no one had done the reading; I’ve done this three times in my fifteen years at Brooklyn College, and on each occasion, the fury I evinced left me feeling empty and spent. And my students bewildered.

What went well? I enjoyed great classroom interactions–of varying kinds–with two out of my three classes. Two of my three independent studies went well in terms of the quality of the discussions I had with my students. I used new syllabi for all classes; this was required for one class, which was new, while the other received makeovers; and in general, my selections–four ‘religious novels’ for my Philosophical Issues in Literature class; Plato, Hume, and Nietzsche for my Landmarks in Philosophy class; and Marx, Weber, and Durkheim for my Social Philosophy class–went over well with my students. (Some students, quite understandably, found the assigned readings from Weber a little too dry.) Many students impressed me with the quality of their responses to the readings, and by the sophistication and thoughtfulness of their papers. Some told me they enjoyed my teaching; an affirmation that is always gratifying. Some of these responses, to be honest, brought tears to my eyes; they included comments about my ‘passion for teaching’ and how I had ‘taught them a lot.’ I do not think I can adequately convey my emotional state on hearing my students express themselves so openly and emotionally to me in these personal and private encounters. I also think I did a good job in my one-on-one interactions with students when going over their papers with them; almost everyone I worked with told me they found these sessions useful.

So, another semester of learning–in both directions–comes to a close. Teaching remains my greatest philosophical passion; and my partners in this enterprise–my students–continue to enrich my engagement with philosophical thinking. I’m looking forward to the summer’s travel and writing plans, but I’m also looking forward to the teaching in the fall–more new syllabi, more unread books to be worked through. Hopefully, I’ll be a little wiser then too, and will have learned from this semester’s mistakes.

The Indispensable, Visibly Responsive Student

Every semester–with luck, in every class–there is one of them: a student whose physical expressiveness in the classroom acts as the wind beneath your teaching wings. There she (or he) is: eyebrows raised, smiling, astonishment or surprise breaking out on their facial features, experiencing ‘Eureka’ moments one after the other, informing you, with every word of your lecture, every point you make, every example you conjure up out of thin air, that you are on the right track, doing the right thing, bringing enlightenment to the masses, dispelling ignorance and gloom with your teaching. Sometimes, this student will not show, in their written assignments or their attendance record, a kind of uniform diligence in all the evaluative dimensions pertaining to student performance, but no matter; their most significant interaction with you is the most direct one, at the precise moment when teaching and learning seem to be proceeding in perfect unison and synchronicity, proof of which is being delivered to you, in real-time, by the student’s visible responses to your teaching.

I do not think I’m exaggerating the importance of this kind of student in the classroom; over the years, I’ve found that as I scan my students’ expressions in the classroom, I’m invariably drawn back to, and indeed, start to seek out, with varying degrees of awareness of my doing so, those expressions which offer encouragement to my solitary teaching self. I should, of course, already have made the classroom a group experience, but observing such reactions in one of my students helps me reach out further and work to make it so. Just like the bored and disinterested expression (or the endless clock-watching) can act as a disincentive to further teaching, the ‘connected’ expression keeps teaching going; it throws fuel on the flame.

This semester, I have students who encourage me so in all three of my classes; I’ve lucked out. In each class, as I begin teaching, as if on cue, without prior co-ordination or agreement, I seek them out. They respond, as they always do, and I’m off and running. So strong is this interaction that traces of it persist beyond the classroom; sometimes, when preparing for class by working through the week’s assigned reading, I catch myself wondering how that particular student (or students) will respond–given their prior inclinations–to a particular passage or point or argument. Sometimes, I look forward to their reactions with pleasurable anticipation; they have been so gratifying in the past that now, they serve to motivate my preparation for my encounters with them.

Learning is, as we have been reminded again and again through both theory and practice, a co-operative endeavor. My work as teacher is, as I have pointed out here before, incomplete without my students. In this dimension of their relationship with me, supposedly the most superficial by one reckoning, they provide yet more proof of that claim. They show me that I’m welcome in this space; that I would do well to stick around. And learn.

Freud As Writing Stylist And Pedagogy Instructor

In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture¹(Oxford University Press, New York, 1978), Peter Gay writes:

All of Freud’s biographers devote an obligatory page to the efficiency and beauty of his prose–not without reason. Freud’s stylistic achievement is all the more remarkable considering the spectrum of his publications…Freud’s case published case histories–a genre that normally repels grace or wit–are classics in the literature of detection. Freud was a born writer who never neglected the essentials of his craft….his earliest surviving letters demonstrate that his energy, wit, and lucidity were not painfully acquired but were part of his character….He disciplined his ear by reading French and English all his life…He read continuously and intensely…Freud could derive instruction even from the laborious syntax and rebarbative vocabulary of academic writers; he learned what to avoid. But his real teachers were stylists who were enemies of obscurity and strangers to jargon….he highly valued, and rapidly absorbed, the qualities that distinguished other favorite authors: vigor, precision, clarity. [pp. 50-51]

Gay, of course, read Freud in the original German, so he knows better than I of what he speaks, but even I, who have only ever read Freud in translation,² via the usual Standard Edition route, have not been left unaffected by Freud’s limpid writing style. The Good Doctor is a pleasure to read; I unhesitatingly assigned large tracts of primary texts to students in my Freud and Psychoanalysis class a few years ago, telling them that while the material was ‘dense,’ it was clear and would reward close attention. The case histories–of, for instance, Dora, or the Rat Man–I recommended as short stories of a kind; they are literary in every way, and draw us all too quickly into their artfully constructed worlds. His later ‘cultural-literary-anthropological’ speculative essays are masterworks of erudition expressed with grace and style; they can be profitably read by any intelligent person.

My mention of teaching Freud brings me to Freud’s special qualities of exposition. (His Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis is a widely acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and still provides the best entry point to psychoanalytic theory.) Gay makes note of his talents in this domain and thus provides direction for not just writers but teachers in the classroom too:

He kept [‘the mode of discussion’] intact by employing devices that have been, the envy of professional writers: informality, surprise, variations in pace, adroit admissions of incomplete knowledge, patient handling of knowledge, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors. [p.55]

Indeed. When I look back at any successful classroom teaching–or academic conference presentation–these devices have always played a crucial role. They forestall boredom and stultification; they invite interactive inquiry; they provoke creative responses. We should all be so lucky to have our writing and reading and conversation informed and infected by ‘surprise,’ ‘variations in pace,’ and an ‘inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors.’ The world springs into sharper focus and becomes anew; what more could we want from our learning and teaching?

Lastly, Gay is a masterful writer himself.

Note #1: For some bizarre reason, the title of Gay’s book is missing an Oxford comma.

Note: #2: Here are a series of posts on the wonders of translations.

 

Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’: Talking About Religion, Identity, And Culture In A Philosophy Classroom

Last week, the students in this semester’s edition of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class began reading and discussing Chaim Potok‘s The Chosen. (We have just concluded our discussions of Chapters 1-5 i.e., Book One, which details the initial encounters between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, the book’s central protagonists.) I had not read the novel before the semester began, and had placed it on this semester’s reading list–the organizing theme is ‘the religious novel and its intersections with identity and culture’–on the recommendations of some friends who had. Thus far, this has been an exceedingly good move; I can wholeheartedly recommend the book to any other philosophers looking to place fiction on their reading lists.

This is because, as might be suspected, the book provides ample material to spark philosophical discussion in the classroom–Potok was a philosopher by training, and it shows. I had not looked at his biography too closely before the semester began, but once I began reading the book, it was blindingly obvious to me that the author had either studied philosophy extensively or was an academic himself. (The central give-away for me was the mentioning of Russell and Whitehead‘s Principia Mathematica by Danny Saunders as he describes his intellectual interests and career plans to Reuven.) Literary critics might complain about the heavy-handedness of the symbolism employed in these preliminary chapters but philosophy teachers will not complain about the fairly explicit invitation to delve into the questions of how religious faith and practice inform our sense of self, what their limits are, and how intra-group differences can be more sharply drawn than even inter-group ones. Many of my students come from backgrounds where religion has formed an integral part of their upbringing; some have attended Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish parochial schools so they can relate quite easily to the yeshiva-educated central characters of The Chosen. (It does not hurt that the novel is set in Brooklyn itself.). These students have a diverse set of reactions to the influence of their parochial education on their identities; their discussion of the themes The Chosen focuses on lets them draw upon their personal experiences in their reactions to it.

The selection of The Chosen for a philosophy class also makes an acute topical sense in these times, for the opening chapters permit an examination of the peculiar position of a minority culture–one made up of refugees and their descendants–surrounded by a dominant one, one to which it feels it must prove itself in times of war and greater patriotism, even if at the cost of having to make adjustments to its dominant sense of priorities and norms. The use of a baseball game, the playing of which takes up the entire first chapter, allowed for a discussion of the intersections of nationalism and sport too–how and why does the sport field function as a proving ground for ideological claims?

I’ve often written on this blog on how fiction helps my teaching of philosophy; the opening weeks of this semester have offered a gratifying confirmation of that claim.

A Thank-You Note This Philosophy Teacher Will Treasure

Teachers love thank-you notes from students; they, along with great classroom interactions with students, are easily the highlights of our careers. Here is one I received recently, which as a teacher of philosophy, I will particularly treasure–because it cuts to the heart of the enterprise I take myself to be engaged in. It comes from a student who took Core Philosophy with me last year–in that class, I tried to teach an introduction to philosophy via the Stoics. My student was one of the best in my class; but he did not hand in his final as he had started to struggle with some mental health issues by then. He passed the class in any case, and then we lost contact. A week or so ago, I heard from him again:

Professor Chopra, I don’t how much this means, if anything, coming from an ex-student you taught but I feel compelled to write this message: Thank you. Over the past year, I’ve gone back to the Stoic readings we did in that class and reread them. They really helped me through some rough times with my mental health. They have helped change the way I think about a lot of things. Today, in a journal entry, I was thinking about how I often am burdened by my past and anxious about the future. That’s when I remembered how fondly you mentioned Alan Watts and “Become What You Are.” I read that particular essay briefly before but spent most of the day working my way through that collection. It really resonated with me.  Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your class greatly benefited my life. I was going to respond MUCH earlier in the year, but I was hesitant about doing so because so much time had passed. I wish you all the best. [links added]

In a follow-up he writes:

As far as I’m concerned, if the CUNYs do insist on a core curriculum, an introductory philosophy class such as yours, focusing on philosophy as a means to live a better life, should certainly be a requirement.

I unapologetically admit that I began studying philosophy as a kind of therapeutic method to help me deal with personal unhappiness, to find meaning in a life that seemed to have lost its anchors and become adrift, lacking in mooring and direction; like my student, I was anxious and apprehensive and melancholic. Academic philosophy was not what I imagined it to be, but I’ve never lost sight of that original impulse that drew me to philosophy. It is an impulse that animates my teaching of philosophy: I hope that the study of philosophy will make a difference to the way my students live their lives, and how they see the world, and themselves within it. I’ve lost some hope over the years that I can compete in any meaningful way with the various influences in my students’ lives but my personal relationship with philosophy ensures my teaching remains hopeful it can make some difference to my student’s lives, that it can introduce new, and hopefully, helpful, perspectives to them. This email assures me that my efforts are not entirely in vain; I should continue.

Note: I requested my student’s permission to quote his email to me anonymously; he agreed, adding on the note I have quoted in the follow-up.

Talking Kierkegaard With ‘Non-Traditional’ Students

Philosophy being the discipline it is, I often find myself commenting on the identity of my students: it is how I remind those on the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ that there are possibilities here, not always acknowledged, of ways of thinking about the practice of philosophy, inside and outside the classroom. I offer this vague preamble to set up a brief note about a wonderful discussion that took place in my classroom yesterday morning.

Our assigned reading was an excerpt from Kierkegaard‘s Fear and Trembling: the section on the ‘Teleological Suspension of the Ethical,’ which draws upon the Old Testament legend of Abraham and Isaac. I was apprehensive about the reading assignment; Kierkegaard is not straightforward at the best of times.

I needn’t have worried; his central thesis, of individual, incommunicable to the rest of the world, departure from the universal ethical to a personally determined goal or purpose, was highlighted quickly. We were able to examine this claim in the context of the story of Abraham and Isaac and to contrast it with the behavior of the ‘tragic hero’ in the legend of Iphigenia:

The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is clearly evident. The tragic hero still remains within the ethical. He lets one expression of the ethical find its telos in a higher expression of the ethical; the ethical relation…he reduces to a sentiment which has its dialectic in its relation to the idea of morality. Here there can be no question of a teleological suspension of the ethical itself….With Abraham the situation was different. By his act he overstepped the ethical entirely and possessed a higher telos outside of it, in relation to which he suspended the former.

The discussion in class was dominated by four women students: two African-American, one Pakistani, one Jewish. Each drew upon the text, drawing the class’ attention to passages–like the one above–they thought were crucial and deserving of closer attention and analysis. One of them–no prizes for guessing which one–placed the legend in a broader context, supplying details from the Old Testament which enabled a better understanding of Abraham’s actions. Each, by focusing on the text, enabled its close reading and analysis for the benefit of their class mates. My responses to these students–in making note of how such ‘individual faith’ can come to resemble madness, and how Kierkegaard finds Abraham simultaneously worth admiring and yet incomprehensible and “appalling”–invoked the examples of CS Lewisinfamous trilemma arguing for the Divinity of Jesus and Jon Krakauer‘s  Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. They responded to these, in turn, with sharp and perceptive insights and further questioning. (They responded to my little joke about how Sarah would have told God to get lost with a few chuckles.) In responding to these, and in trying to offer as charitable an interpretation of Kierkegaard’s claims as possible, we were able to revisit central existentialist themes and establish connections with Kierkegaard’s distinctive relationship to theism and organized religion.

I could not help thinking, as I interacted with these students, of what a distinctively pleasurable moment it was to see them, by their presence in the classroom, and their responses to the reading, demolishing preconceptions and helping reconceive philosophy and philosophical practice in the process.

The Shock Of The New (Entry On A Class Reading List)

Teaching a new entrant on a class reading list is always a fraught business. It is especially so when the entrant is a well-established member of analogous canons and you have come late to the game. You are dimly aware you’ve ‘neglected a classic,’ and thus rendered your education–in several dimensions–incomplete; you are well aware banana skins might lie ahead. The classic might turn out to be unexpectedly abstruse and not-classroom-discussion friendly.

This semester, I have taught Machiavelli for the first time, ever; I have taught Political Philosophy twice before and have managed to compose syllabi that did not feature a reading from that source. In my first incarnation of the class, I concentrated on readings stemming from a trifecta of revolutions–the French, American, and Haitian–and in the second, I concentrated on nineteenth and twentieth century sources. This semester’s emphasis on political realism and Shakespeare means that Machiavelli and Hobbes set the stage for our reading of Shakespeare’s Henriad; time permitting, we’ll read a little Nietzsche–from Beyond Good and Evil–to close out the semester.

The reports are in: assigning and discussing Machiavelli was a success. The psychological foundations of politics, the separation of politics and morality, the concentration on the manipulations and distributions and managements of power, taken to be the fundamental political quality and quantity–these all made for engaging class discussions, especially when it became apparent that Machiavelli’s examples and analysis applied to modern political realities as well. Machiavelli’s writing style–which dispenses with elaborate constructions of arguments and consists instead of a series of free-wheeling psychological and political claims riding on a selective historical narrative–turns out to be a teacher’s delight; students respond to his ambitious generalizations and dry skepticism about human nature with anything but indifference.

I’m considerably less sanguine about teaching the Kierkegaard portion of my ‘Existentialism’ syllabus–which kicks off today. (I have never taught Existentialism before and neither have I had the opportunity to assign Kierkegaard on any other class’ reading list yet.) Kierkegaard has never been an easy read, and it was with some trepidation that I placed sections from Fear and Trembling, The Sickness Unto Death, Against Christendom’ on the list of reading assignments. I have made matters worse by picking long passages (but is it really possible to restrain yourself in this regard when it comes to a writer who was always incapable, in his writing, of being restrained similarly?) There is a lack of directness in Kierkegaard which might be off-putting for my students; I have prepared myself by highlighting passages of text I will direct the class to in order to focus the class discussions. As you can tell, writing this blog post also serves to ‘gee myself up’ for my class, which begins in less than four hours. Perhaps a joke or two about ‘dread’ might be in order.

Note: Sometimes, a ‘classic’ remains unassigned because you anticipate too many difficulties teaching it; such was the case with Heidegger, who got bumped off my Twentieth Century Philosophy reading list last year, and suffered the same fate this semester. On that problem, more anon.