Think like me

When should professors bring their own views into class?


A few years ago, a student of mine began a sentence with, “I don’t know what your religious views are, but…”. I can’t recall what the rest of the sentence was (I listened then, I just don’t remember now), but she went on and I wasn’t obligated to answer the implied question about my own religious views after all. But I thought about it for a while after that and wondered how open I, a vigorous atheist, ought to be about my religious views in class. It’s not always a pressing concern — I don’t teach religion — but religious questions often come up in literature — which is what I do teach — and, in any case, students occasionally ask.

This question came back to me during the explosive debate on these pages over the place of the religious university in Canada and all that that implies. Without going over that debate again — clearly we’ve covered that in enough detail — the larger question remains: when and how should a professor bring his own views into the classroom?

To begin, I think most scholars would agree that every intellectual must, by definition, have strong views on some subjects. And no expert worthy of that word could fail to hold strong convictions about issues in his own field. If I don’t have strong opinions on how to read Hamlet, or the extent to which intention is relevant to meaning, or the value of placing a play in its historical context — well, then I’m not really doing my job. Further, I think most professors would agree that it is perfectly responsible to make those positions known in a lecture of class discussion. If I have an interesting and well-supported argument for how to think about the language of Romeo and Juliet, I would be remiss if I did not share it with my class.

But now things start to get complicated. When does sharing a position verge over into trying to convince students of my position? In my own classroom, I try to give a variety of points of view, and make them as convincingly as possible, before letting students know what my own view is. Ideally, students shouldn’t be able to tell what my position is until I tip my hand, since I’ve made the case for each side so well. And if I’ve done it right, students should be able to make up their own mind, whether it accords with my personal view or not. I experienced an even better version of this multi-faceted approach when I had the pleasure of team teaching a course with a colleague: students were presented with, and could judge between, genuine debate from professors with competing perspectives.

So far, so good. Still, there are some positions where I do not feel that an equally convincing account of competing positions is honestly possible or even academically desirable. In my Shakespeare class, for instance, I usually spend a day on the so-called authorship debate, mainly so that students understand why it is that scholars agree that Shakespeare was Shakespeare despite the claims of enthusiastic amateurs to the contrary. I imagine that biologists might treat creationism the same way — if they touch on it at all.

Still, these are largely matters of fact. When broader questions like social justice come into play, the issues become even more vexing. A colleague of mine once complained to me that she had two men in her women’s studies classes who questioned the most basic assumptions of the course. It was hard to teach the class, she explained, if the students were not willing to accept at least a few basic premises about the oppression of women as historical and contemporary reality. But this raises troubling questions regarding where lines can and must be drawn. Certainly all disciplines have certain basic assumptions. My own discipline assumes that language is capable of generating some kinds of meaning (though what that means is up for grabs); science disciplines assume that empirical observation, rightly analyzed, can give us at least some information about the state of the real world. Philosophers assume that contradictions cannot be true, and theologians assume that there is a God, in at least some useful sense of the word. But are all these assumptions equally valid? What about a cultural studies professor who assumes that all culture is based on economic inequity, or a literary theory prof who takes for granted Foucault’s suggestion that all knowledge itself is a form of oppression?

In addition to assumptions about the nature of disciplines and sub-disciplines come assumptions about what the function of those same fields. What, precisely, are we trying to do to our students? Help them become better in some sense, to be sure. Better informed, more critical, more thoughtful. But what else? More compassionate? More skeptical? More tolerant? What happens when skepticism conflicts with tolerance?

I once had a student who, for a creative writing assignment, turned in a poem that ridiculed fat people as greedy, stupid, and, if they had kids, bad parents. Being rather on the wrong side of slim myself, I had a difficult time knowing how to respond to the assignment. Intellectually, I felt right in finding fault with the poem for the simplistic treatment of its theme. But at the same time, I wondered whether I would have reacted the same way if I were slimmer and fitter.

In reality, every professor will have to make these judgements in the particular moment depending on circumstances. But what will prevent students from getting an education limited to only certain points-of-view and presented from certain angles? I would say that this is precisely where the universality of the university comes in. Not that any university can provide every perspective, but that  all universities must strive to present a range of perspectives and require students to study a range of courses. Similarly, students seeking the best possible education should make a point of seeking out professors with differing views and approaches, or at the very least avoid deliberately taking courses from those few profs they like and agree with.

How are you to know what your professors’ deeply held convictions? Start by asking.


Think like me

  1. Note to readers: I hesitated to mention the Shakespeare authorship issue since I feared it would lead to misleading and mean-spirited comments that I have neither time to refute, desire to publicize, or stomach to let stand. It has.

    Readers of this space will acknowledge that I have allowed dozens, if not hundreds of responses criticizing me and my positions because they addressed relevant issues or because their personal attacks were not too nasty. But comments that are irrelevant or overly personal in their attacks will be deleted. The ability to moderate my comment section was a condition on which I agreed to blog for Macleans OnCampus in the first place, and I will continue to insist on a basic level of civility.

  2. My comment about your statement on the Shakespeare Authorship question was neither mean-spirited nor misleading. It simply pointed out that many in the academic community have a different point of view. My comment cited that the issue has now taken on new vitality with the formation of The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition


    a group dedicated to legitimizing the Shakespeare authorship issue by calling for signatories to a declaration of reasonable doubt about the identity of the author. To date, the Coalition has published the names of 132 prominent people in the arts and academia supporting the doubters including:

    Charles Champlin Former Arts Critic Emeritus, Los Angeles Times; founding member of the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable of Los Angeles.

    Sir Derek Jacobi Shakespearian Actor

    Mr. Mark Rylance Actor; Artistic Director, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre 1995-2006; Associate Artist, Royal Shakespeare Company; Chairman, The Shakespearean Authorship Trust.

    Dean Keith Simonton, Ph.D. Distinguished Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Psychology, University of California at Davis; Sir Francis Galton Award for the Study of Creativity, 1996.

    There have been countless others too numerous to mention. If you didn’t want to deal with legitimate comments about the issue, you should have left it out of your article.

  3. Howard, thanks for the more measured version of your comment. Readers can decide for themselves how seriously they take the signatories on the site you mention. I will say I glanced at the list of “academic” signatories and notice that they are generally not professional scholars in the field.

    One can find plenty of creationists with advanced degrees. But not very many actual biologists

  4. I have been interested in the Shakespeare Authorship question for more than 20 years now. I am still surprised and perplexed by how otherwise reasonable commentors like yourself feel the need to immediately denigrate the questioners without considering their arguments. “Academic” in quotes and “professional scholar” come across as attempts to demean the doubters who, on this list, are highly accomplished people in their chosen fields. The part of the web site you should look at and comment on is the Contrary Views section (http://www.doubtaboutwill.org/debate). Here Prof. Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust offers (besides the usual character assassination) the orthodox view of the authorship question. Mark Rylance, former Artictic Director of the Shakepeare Globe Theatre, responds in detail explaining the problems of the orthodox view and why authorship of the Shakepeare canon should be an open question and “be regarded in academia as a legitimate issue for research and publication, and an appropriate topic for instruction and discussion in classrooms”. There is really no better and concise description of what this issue is all about.

  5. Interesting piece. I think that the degree to which there is consensus within one’s academic guild (about method, content, what’s settled, and what’s ‘up for grabs,’) that consensus can help inform the professor about where and how she needs to make her biases explicit. My guild is philosophy and I teach, in addition to lower level introductory courses, upper level courses in philosophy of religion and epistemology. Now granted, not much is ‘settled’ in philosophy, but at least in the Anglo-American world, there’s general consensus about the analytic nature and method of philosophy (e.g., philosophical virtues include: harmonizing philosophical reflection with knowledge from other sources (especially science), attention to clarity and logical rigor, etc.). Moreover, for nearly every typical philosophical question and issue that falls in my areas of expertise, there are a range of mutually exclusive–but nonetheless, ‘acceptable’–views that have powerful advocates (powerful and acceptable because proponents of these views offer arguments that conform at the highest level to the standards set out by the guild itself). When I teach, I try to give an accurate portrait of the current philosophical state-of-play for each of the issues addressed in the syllabus. More often than not, I’ll indicate what my own view is about issue X, but because I’ve already indicated that there are a range of broadly acceptable options concerning issue X, students know that they are free to disagree with me (and they do) without penalty (so long as they, too, can support their views with cogent arguments that exemplify some of the methodological virtues outlined above).

    It’s always been a bit of a pet peeve of mine (because I think it’s disingenuous) when prof’s (including some of my own colleagues) state, ‘I’m not telling you what to think, I’m telling you how to think.’ This is disingenuous because telling a student how to think IS telling a student what to think–it’s telling the student what to think about how we should go about our thinking. So, I try and avoid the semantic sleight of hand that comes with this “I’m not telling you what to think” move by being explicit with my students that my approach to thinking about philosophical questions reflects the mainstream approach of my guild.

    One of the things I particularly value about the undergraduate education at my own institution is that all students have a fairly large core they must satisfy across disciplines (one philosophy, two English, two science (one lab science), one history,…,etc.). In this way, students gain some cross disciplinary corrective to the disciplinary binders and biases that would come from exclusive study within one’s own major. Of course, as a philosopher I think this is especially good for our students because a good course in philosophy is necessary for the fulfilled and well-lived life. Hmmm…probably betraying MY bias here…

    Myron A. Penner
    Assistant Professor of Philosophy
    Trinity Western University

  6. One more thing (forgot to include this in my post above) that pertains to the discussion you reference concerning the place of the religious university in Canada. I hope the model I sketched out above demonstrates how it is possible for the following to both be true: (a) students at TWU to get fair assessment in their classes when they take views that contradict beliefs of their faculty, and (b) faculty are not violating their commitment to TWU’s governing documents when they assess student work fairly (even when the students adopt views contrary to TWU’s governing documents).

    I’ve taught for nearly five years at TWU, and I’m pretty sure (though not certain–I don’t have conclusive empirical data, just lots of anecdotal evidence) that I’ve had atheist and agnostic students in every class I’ve taught at TWU. I don’t require that my students profess or adopt Christian belief. What I do require is that all my students–at least if they want a good grade–conform to the general standards for work set out by my guild.

    Myron A. Penner
    Assistant Professor of Philosophy
    Trinity Western University

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