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.

CUNY And The Public University That Couldn’t

In the fall of 2015 I taught my philosophy of law class in a hostile environment: my classroom.  With windows and doors open, it was too noisy to be heard; with windows and doors closed and the air conditioner turned on, it was too noisy. With the air conditioner turned off, it was too hot. We–my students and I–struggled with this state of affairs into November, till the time it finally became cool enough to allow us to conduct the class with the door and windows closed. Till then, sometimes we shouted, sometimes we sweated; mostly we fretted and fumed, irate and vexed by this latest evidence of the City University of New York’s inability to provide a working infrastructure to facilitate its educational mission.

Over the weekend, the New York Times finally brought to this city’s attention a state of affairs at CUNY that for its students and staff has been a grim reality for too long: a severely underfunded educational institution that has gone from being an ‘engine of mobility’ to the little public university that couldn’t. A crumbling physical foundation; no contracts for its staff and faculty; overpaid administration; reliance on underpaid contingent labor; all the pieces for eventual failure are here.  A strike might yet happen in the fall.

It is common, among progressives, to bewail the continued under funding of public education as an act of class warfare, one animated by racist prejudice. It is worth making that claim explicit: public education is a threat to established social, economic, and political orders; it threatens to bring education–not just textual knowledge, but critical thinking, reading, and writing–to the disenfranchised and politically dispossessed; that fact, on its own, paints a bulls eye on public education’s back, inviting pointed assaults by a surrounding neo-liberal order. Make no mistake about it: public education is under attack because it seen as serving the wrong communities for the wrong reasons.

New York City’s financial health is considerably better than it was during those periods of time when the university was fully funded by the city and the state, when it was able to educate the children of immigrants and send them out to work the engines of the nation’s economy and move themselves and their families up the rungs of American life. But priorities have changed over the years. Now city and state budgets must attend to: university administrators and their desires for bigger salaries and plusher offices; management consultants and their latest pie-charted dreams for ‘process’ and ‘best practices’ and ‘unique selling propositions’; capital projects that do not advance core educational missions; and a host of other diversions that have nothing to do with learning. Run education like a business: shortsightedly, with an eye to the next quarter’s profits; learning be damned.

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.


Lessons From A Skeptic About Hobbes

During my first semester of teaching philosophy, in my class on Hobbes and social contract theory, I introduced my students to the usual excerpts from Leviathan: the passages in which Hobbes describes the severely attenuated and impoverished life that awaits those who live in a state of nature, how this creates the need for a sovereign maintainer of power, and so on. As I did so, I was brought up short by a line of questioning directed at me by a student.

First, the student asked me if I knew where Hobbes was ‘raised’–where was he born, where did he grow up. I lamely answered ‘England’ even as I knew few to no details beyond that: I did not know the extent of his travels or journeys to lands elsewhere. ‘Hobbes’ was the name I attached to a particular theory; it was the author’s name. That recognized and acknowledged, I moved on to the theory associated with it, figuring out where and how the theoretical particulars I read about were associated with other theories. Those were the objects of my concern, not the author. I decontextualized the theory, not caring where it came from, who presented it, where and when it might have been written; the premises and conclusions of the various theoretical moves I encountered were evaluated and considered but that was about it.

Second, the student asked me how Hobbes had arrived at the view of human nature he had presented in Leviathan: had he observed such behavior in action, had he traveled to lands that were pre-political in the way Hobbes imagined it? Perhaps Hobbes’ view of human nature was a narrow one, based only on the experiences he had observed, and could not be extrapolated to all mankind, and thus could not serve as the basis for a supposedly universal theory of political philosophy? In response, I said that Hobbes’ was not relying on empirical knowledge of a known state of nature as much as he was providing a kind of rational reconstruction of how the existent political state with its contingent features came to be, based on a generalization of various aspects of human nature assumed or presumed to be universal because of their seeming ubiquity in human behavior. But, my student persisted, Hobbes’ theory was supposed to apply to all humans; it was made without reference to time or place; how could it claim such universality? When I made reference again to the extrapolation based on incomplete knowledge, on a certain kind of psychological generalization, my student pressed me on whether such an induction was justified or not. I found myself a little flummoxed by this line of questioning and do not remember if I had an adequate response at the time for my student.

I was aware of the context in which this discussion was taking place. My student was a young black man; he was reading a text which described an achievement of ‘Western philosophy’ and which made reference to a primitive form of man, one whose shortcomings were overcome by a particular philosophical maneuver associated with the ‘West.’ Perhaps the student had himself been assimilated to this ‘primitive man;’ perhaps the student had encountered schools of thought which regarded ‘primitive man’ as morally deficient in the ways in which Hobbes’ theory at first glance understood him. Perhaps my student was resisting Hobbes’ view of man because he regarded the view as not being benign in the way that other students might have.

My education then was incomplete; I was a graduate student still working on my dissertation. I had not thought much about the provenance of the theories I read and discussed; I had not thought of their varying implications for their diverse audiences. My student was not the only learner in that discussion in the classroom.

On Becoming More ‘Confessional’ In The Classroom

A few weeks ago, in the course of a conversation with a colleague here at Brooklyn College, I remarked that over the years I had become more ‘confessional’ in my classroom  interactions with my students. When gently pressed to explain what I meant, I said that I had become more unguarded there, in that space–in expressing some previously undisclosed sentiments of mine about the teaching experience and about my ongoing relationship with my students.

To wit, I have become more open about telling my students that I regard my teaching as a kind of continuing education for myself, one in which they have a significant role to play. I tell them that I teach the material on my reading list in order to understand it better; I might have read an assigned article or book or excerpt before, but I do not consider myself to have truly understood it till I have discussed it in a classroom with those who are experiencing it for the first time. I tell my students that I consider philosophical education to proceed in three stages: first, reading the text by my self; second, discussing the book with a ‘teacher’; third, discussing the book with ‘students’; I, as a teacher, am now in the third stage with regard to the texts I have read before. I tell them that I teach a wide variety of classes because I consider my philosophical education incomplete and hope to make it more well-rounded by doing so. (This leads to a related confession: that I often place material on my syllabus that I have not read before precisely so that I will be obliged to take the time to read it. Sometimes I even tell them that old joke about an academic who asked another if he had read a particular book and was told, “Read it? I haven’t even assigned it!”) I tell them that when they do not do the readings, my disappointment is made more acute by the fact that these objectives of mine have been thwarted. I ask them to consider me a co-learner in the enterprise that we undertake in the classroom; I express the hope they will take this responsibility seriously.

Most of these ‘confessions’ occur in the first class of the semester but on occasion, I find myself returning to them during the semester too. I hope, of course, in doing all of this, to make them regard the classroom experience as something more than a mere passive exercise in receiving wisdom from on high. I hope that my ‘confessions’ will make them take the task of reading the assigned texts more seriously and help them come to class prepared to talk about it with me–and other students.

Like every other pedagogical ‘strategy’ I have adopted, this has only had limited success. I do not know if my students take me seriously, or if they can bring themselves to believe that they could actually move my education along. But because I do not consider myself to be insincere when I indulge in these confessional sessions in class, I intend to keep persisting with this ‘strategy’ for the time being.

Stepping Up To The Plate For Another Fall Classic

Around mid-August or so, my normal ‘auto-chattering’–the monologues I have with myself as I walk around the streets of New York City–picked up pace. I began rehearsing dialogues with an imaginary audience, holding forth, declaiming, answering questions, parrying objections–the whole package. The reasons for this are not hard to find. The 2015 fall semester begins today.

Which means, of course, that the summer is over and that teaching is upon me, once again. I have now completed thirteen years at Brooklyn College, but the feelings that provoked the extended rehearsals I note above have not ceased: stage-fright, performance anxiety, and apprehension of that moment when you step out, from behind that comforting desk, right in front of a group of strangers who hold the power to induce both the sublime and the sordid into your life. Those eyes on you, those expressions; will you see respect, contempt, or worse, just plain old boredom in them? Fourteen weeks to find out, I suppose.

Unsurprisingly, given the semester’s sequence of upcoming events, the conversation I have rehearsed the most during my recent perambulations is the opening day’s discussion of the syllabus. (Which begins in about an hour’s time for my Philosophy of Law class; an hour and a half after that, I will meet my Political Philosophy class; next week, I will meet my Introduction to Philosophy night section.) This is the time when I seek to lay down the ground rules for the semester: all those administrative and bureaucratic details that are designed to make my running of the class smoother. No late assignments; no laptops or smartphones; no plagiarism; do the reading; don’t come late to class; and so on. I hope, and I hope, and I continue to hope, that my students will read the syllabus and internalize it, that they will take my strictures seriously and see behind and through them to what I want to accomplish: a series of engaging discussions with them about the philosophical texts I have selected for their edification.  Some will, some won’t.

Opening day is tinged with, besides the apprehension I note, excitement too. There are many new readings on my syllabus–I cannot wait to encounter them with my students. There are old readings too–I wonder what I will find out about them in on this visitation. I wonder if there are students in my classes who will force a new reckoning of familiar material upon me; I look forward to those moments of creative discovery that so serendipitously occur in the midst of a classroom discussion. (Needless to say, I remain resolutely unexcited about the prospect of grading papers.)

I don’t have this teaching thing figured out yet, even though I’ve been doing it for over twenty years now. (I taught my first class as a graduate teaching assistant in the fall of 1988.) That’s why I need to keep on rehearsing, practicing, asking for feedback, and hardest of all, swallowing my pride. Someone or something will remind me of that at some point during the next fourteen weeks.

The Clock-Watcher’s Punch In The Gut

Last Monday, as I taught my graduate seminar on The Nature of Law, one of the students in attendance turned to look at the clock: we still had some forty-five minutes to go in a two-hour meeting. As I saw this, I experienced a familiar feeling, one that, as usual, temporarily, if not visibly, incapacitated me, tempting me to call a halt to the proceedings right there and then. I didn’t, of course, but neither did I just get over it. (I’m blogging about it, am I not?)

I taught a university-level class for the first time, as a graduate teaching assistant, almost twenty-seven years ago. Thirteen years ago, I became a full-time member of the teaching faculty at Brooklyn College. All of which is to say: I’ve been teaching a long time. But no matter how old that gets, the clock-watching student always manages to cut through the haze and deliver a punch in my  gut. Some look left and right, some look back over their heads at the clock behind them. Doesn’t matter; they all make me feel the same way.

At that moment, I stand accused of a particularly devastating combination of pedagogical and personal sins: I am boring; I have failed to make the subject matter interesting enough. My pride is buffeted: I am not a riveting performer, entertaining and educating in equal measure; I’m not like those great teachers I keep hearing about who keep their students spell-bound and rapt with attention, sometimes keeping their uncomplaining and adoring brood in class well beyond closing time. Clock watching students seem to inform me, rather unambiguously, that their time could be better utilized elsewhere, that whatever it is I’m selling, it’s not worth their hanging around for it.

Little of what I have written above is ‘rational’, of course. Students are human beings and tire, just like I do. In particular, attending a night-time class is always onerous after a tiring day spent elsewhere, perhaps reading and writing dense material, perhaps working a full-time job. Sometimes clock-watching can be instinctive; we are used to the idea of calibrating our progress through the day with frequent consultation of our time-keepers. Classes are held indoors, and with windows granting access to what might be a more salubrious outside, who wouldn’t want to check on how long it will be before the frolicking begins? (This is especially germane now, here on the East Coast of the US, as we recover from a brutal winter and enjoy a glorious spring that has sent temperatures soaring into the sixties.)  Lastly, it is not as if all my students are so engaged in clock-watching. One or two out of twenty or thirty might do it; is that so bad? You can’t really please all the folks all the time.

And then, of course, there is dirty little secret that many students are well aware of: their teachers also watch clocks. They too want to be done subjecting themselves to this experience, which no matter how inspiring and edifying at its best moments, always carries just a tinge of terror: that unshakeable feeling that your ignorance, instead of your wisdom, will soon be on display.


Springing Back To Teaching

I return to teaching tomorrow.

The 2015 spring semester kicks off at 9:30 AM with the first meeting of my ’20th Century Philosophy’ class. The class’ description reads:

This course will serve as an introduction to some central themes in the twentieth-century’s analytic, post-analytic (or neo-pragmatic), and continental traditions. Time permitting, the philosophers we will read and discuss include: Dewey, Du Bois, Russell, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Gadamer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Austin, Davidson, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, Rawls, and MacIntyre.

Yes, this is a little ambitious, and I’m sure some of my readings will drop off the end of the queue as the end of the semester approaches. Besides, teaching some of the folks on that list makes me a little apprehensive; I have my expository work cut out for me.

Then at 11AM, almost immediately after I finish that class, I will hold the first meeting of my ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ class. (The fifteen minute break between classes, to put it bluntly, blows chunks; I barely have time to walk back down to my office, drop off my books, grab a sip of water, pick up the next set of books and then head out again.)

On Monday, my graduate class–‘The Nature of Law’–will begin at the CUNY Graduate Center. This  class’ description is as follows:

This course will serve as an introduction to theories of natural law, legal positivism, legal realism, critical legal studies, legal pragmatism, critical race theory, and feminist legal theory.  Some of the topics to be covered will include: the varieties of natural law, the Hart-Fuller debate, the relationship between legal realism and legal positivism, the political critique  of law mounted by critical legal studies and feminist legal theory, the legal construction of race (and science), law as ideology, the nature of pragmatic jurisprudence.  There will be, hopefully, an interdisciplinary flavor to our readings and class discussions.

The first half of the class has a conventional feel to it with the usual definitional debates taking center stage; the second half takes a critical look at the law.

Three classes; two new preps. The repeat prep is the ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ class, which I taught last semester. I had considered changing the reading list dramatically, but instead, dropped two novels–‘Canticle for Leibowitz‘ and ‘Dog Stars‘–from my original list and retained the remaining five. I did this for two reasons. One, I’d like to take a second crack at teaching these novels; even as I taught them last semester, I was aware my understanding of them had changed, and I was not able to cover all the issues they raise in their many different ways. Second, more prosaically, my two new classes threatened to swamp me with their reading lists; three new preps would have spread me out a little too thin.

The winter break–some of which I used to try to complete a book manuscript long overdue with its publisher–is over. There was some hopeful chatter about a snow day tomorrow, but truth be told, I’d rather get this ball rolling and get on with the business of making headway on the business of teaching. A winter break spent at home always makes me a little stir crazy. I’d much rather be walking to campus, getting in front of my classes and talking philosophy.

Famous last words: bring it on.