Think like me - Macleans.ca

Think like me

When should professors bring their own views into class?

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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.