I spend a good deal of my time as an English professor teaching my students not to be fearful. That is not what I imagined teaching would be like. But it didn’t take me long to discover that the students in my classes had learned how to be experts in how to be afraid. And such fearfulness has become such an accepted practice in college that it now seems to be a natural behavior, so natural it is invisible to them. But not to me. Early in my career, when I first encountered these fears, I thought it reluctance or resistance or lack of knowledge or ability -- even though there was nothing especially difficult in what I was asking my students to learn or write or read.
This fear becomes evident to me at the beginning of each semester when I ask students if they have any questions about the syllabus or an assignment or homework for next time or anything about the upcoming schedule. In response, they look frightened. This fear comes from being asked a question. This fear comes from having a question and being afraid to ask it. Given the commodification, quantification, bureaucratization and decontextualizing of learning that has overrun our educational system, it’s no surprise students feel the oppressive nature of questions and the asking of them. Intolerance of error in school and college will only produce students who run from risk and seek security in silence.
As a consequence, one of the first lessons I have to teach my students is that questions are good things. I tell them that I can’t know what they don’t know and need to know until they tell me what they need to know so I can help them be successful in the class, which, by the way, is what I’m paid to do -- that is, help them be successful. I have to tell them over and over again that questions are valued. And I have to demonstrate that they can trust me that asking questions will not make them vulnerable to ridicule and further shaming. Questions drive the kind of learning college wants from us. And admitting that we don’t know something is the only way to target what we need to learn.
It may be that some people inside higher education think students aren’t ready for college because they don’t know what they should know. Or students don’t come with the abilities we think they should already have. Or they don’t know how to learn. Or they can’t think critically. Or they don’t know correct grammar. Or they don’t know how to manage their time. All that may be true, but I believe none of it is going to be repaired if we don’t help them learn how to stop fearing questions, themselves and others.
I know this is fairly simple stuff. Basic, really. But it’s also not surprising that the most rudimentary ideas and values are the most difficult to appreciate and understand. I tell my students that the questions they have are probably the same question others in the class are sitting on, “So why don’t you be the one who asks the question and demonstrate the kind of bravery we all applaud and admire?” And then we move from there to a point later in the class when students are raising their hands gladly and volunteering to stand in front of the class and read their work and receive the respect and kindness of their fellow students in training.
I’m not surprised that our current political campaign season is swimming in fear. Fear of the major candidates. Fear of the fear the candidates are promoting. Fear of those who are susceptible to the deceptions the candidates are peddling. When I encounter my students’ fears, I understand again how pervasive fear is. I understand the power, the ubiquity and the unconscious embrace of fear our culture so skillfully teaches us. Fears that oppress and often silence us. Political fear. Social fear. Economic fear. Religious fear. Gender fear. Racial fear. Environmental fear. You name it fear.
My first academic publication was a 1998 JAEPL article titled “Attitudes Toward Writing.” It begins with an excerpt from Joy Harjo’s poem “I Give You Back”:
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I don’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice,
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart.
Based on Kathleen Blake Yancey’s classic Portfolios in the Writing Classroom (National Council of Teachers of English, 1992), I tried to argue in that article for the importance of a portfolio pedagogy that prompts students to reflect upon their writing histories and resulting attitudes so that they might become more conscious of the ways those histories and attitudes shape their current chances of success in writing. I also highlighted six pairs of the most common positive/negative attitudes that students demonstrate: honesty/dishonesty, courage/fear, persistence/procrastination, consideration/narrow-mindedness, humility/arrogance and hope/despair. In the end, I suggested readings and reflective strategies that might help students pay more explicit attention to the negative attitudinal dimensions of their learning so that they could develop a more hopeful and courageous approach to writing in college.
Almost 20 years later, I continue to search for ways to help students identify and overcome the fears that unnecessarily interfere with their likelihood of success in the classroom. These days, I incorporate aspects of the compassionate Buddhist tradition using contemporary teachers, especially Pema Chodron and specifically her book The Places That Scare You (Shambhala, 2002) in the daily lessons of my classes. The most helpful concept I’ve discovered in her teachings is “bodhichitta,” the ongoing consciousness of those who have developed the fearlessness necessary to extend compassion to one’s self so that it might be extended to others.
Chodron defines bodhichitta as the ready mind and compassionate heart capable of overcoming the fears we feel toward ourselves and others that often result in aggression, prejudice, despair and even indifference. According to her, those who dedicate themselves to training in bodhichitta are called “bodhisattvas or warriors -- not warriors who kill and harm but warriors of nonaggression who hear the cries of the world. These are men and women who are willing to train in the middle of the fire. Training in the middle of the fire can mean that warrior-bodhisattvas enter challenging situations in order to alleviate suffering. It also refers to their willingness to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception, to their dedication to uncovering the basic energy of bodhichitta.”
In my creative writing classes, I read a chapter from Chodron’s book each day. I also read selections from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior (Shambhala, 1984) by Chodron’s teacher Chogyam Trungpa and from The Shambhala Principle (Harmony, 2013) by his son Sakyong Mipham -- each including teachings on overcoming fear through bodhichitta. However, for the purposes of these classes, I replace the term “bodhichitta” with “poet warrior consciousness.” It is the courage we need to open our hearts, minds and other senses to the world of our experiences so that we might create the poems necessary to better understand ourselves, others and the world we encounter. Developing the nonaggressive habit of poet warrior consciousness is in fact the primary learning outcome of the course; the poems we write along the way are the footprints we leave on the path of this practice.
Fearlessness is a habit of the mind and heart that all disciplines require. We want students to ask questions so they can learn what they wish to learn. We want them to advance our fields with their honesty, courage, persistence, consideration, humility and hope. Ultimately, education should be in the fearlessness business. The object of any study is the subject of the self in dialogue with the world. Approaching that study with the awakening consciousness of a compassionate warrior is what we admire most in the best of our students, our colleagues and those who have gone before us.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University. His most recent collection of poetry, Local Bird, is from Lamar University Press.
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