Twice in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading the news and had the sudden realization that my students have been indoctrinating me.
The most recent example occurred when I was reading about a new documentary film about the practices at SeaWorld called Blackfish. As I read the summary of the tale of Tilikum, the SeaWorld orca that killed one of his trainers in 2010, the details of his capture and imprisonment, his life of distress that some argue turned to actual psychosis, I nodded in agreement to the argument that Sea World should be compelled to cease the displaying of orcas.
I’d heard this story already, in a researched essay by one of my freshman composition students this past spring. The essay persuasively argued that orcas do not belong in captivity, particularly not the kind of captivity that SeaWorld practices.
Like millions of others, I’ve visited a SeaWorld (San Diego, about 15 years ago), and at the time, thought nothing of it. After reading my student’s essay I was horrified at my own callousness.
My student’s writing had awakened me.
The other example was a bit less dramatic, but still instructive. It involved the controversial farm bill trying to make it through Congress, an initiative most notable for its exclusion of food stamp aid. But thanks to a student essay from the previous fall, from which I’d learned more than I ever wanted to know about the byzantine nature of these laws, many of them rooted in Depression-era policy, I zeroed in on a provision that sought to make the subsidies in the law permanent, rather than giving them five-year expiration dates.
Thanks to my student’s essay, I knew that this was a very bad idea, and would be a very bad law for this reason alone if it passes.
These are not isolated incidents. At least once a week I find my views on information coming across my neural wire are in some way shaped by things my students have written for my classes, usually my freshman writing classes.
Of the 15 years I’ve spent in college classrooms on the teaching side of the podium, nine of them have included at least one section of freshman writing. Freshman writing will be part of my teaching diet for the foreseeable future. I’ve also taught fiction writing, contemporary literature, American humor, technical writing, business writing, humor writing, public speaking, and probably a couple of other things I just can’t remember, and freshman writing is, by far, the most demanding work I’ve done.
I’ve found that the amount of time and depth of engagement necessary to do it well extends well beyond any other course. I find I have to screw up my courage and my energy to go back to it each year. There’s times where I think I need a break, but I’m often reminded that the rewards in this class are unique.
There’s something electric about being present when a student first realizes the power to create knowledge and to express this knowledge in writing.
When I find my own thoughts shifting underneath me as I engage with a student’s essay, I sometimes get chills.
This is why I tend to laugh at the occasional forays into identifying or rooting out liberal bias among college professors, as most recently evidenced at the University of Colorado. They’re worried that the leftists on campus are warping young minds and stifling conservative viewpoints.
But who is protecting my sensitive liberal disposition from my students? I’ve been subjected to persuasive and compelling arguments from students with conservative or libertarian points of view on subjects like gun control, or home schooling, Adderall use, or the wealth gap, and found my attitudes altered on the other side.
Why aren’t we worried about my students turning me, their teacher, into an Ayn Rand quoting free market libertarian?
Maybe we aren’t worried because the exchanging of ideas is one of the core functions of colleges and universities.
The ninnies that wring their hands over possible indoctrination give the professoriate far too much credit, and students far too little. I’ve been liberally brainwashing my students for years, and not once have I managed to alter their fundamental values.
But I have changed some attitudes, some beliefs.
And they’ve changed mine. But they’ve done it is to write in such a way as to show me how a particular viewpoint is consistent with my existing values, as was the case with SeaWorld and the orcas, as has been the case with dozens of other issues over the years. They’ve helped me to know myself and the world around me better. If I can do that same service for my students, I’m doing a good job.
That’s not brainwashing or indoctrination; it’s enlightenment and self-empowerment.
Dare I say, it's freedom?
Enlightenment is possible through Twitter. (But it might be rare.)