Teaching Today

A Pedagogy of Trust in the Classroom

Should we professors set aside at times the well-meaning how-to-think ethos, asks Scott Parker, in favor of forcefully articulating which ideas are permissible or not?

October 27, 2021
 
 
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We in the humanities mean it when we say that we teach our students how to think. It’s not just a rationalization of our place in the university in this era of STEM. Whether to produce capable citizens, desirable employees, agents of the future or -- my favorite -- people with the aspiration and ability to perpetually enrich their own inner lives, we take this mission to heart.

If it isn’t exactly God’s work, it can sometimes feel like it. And the very whiff of indoctrination of the what-to-think variety would profane that calling. Yes? For the most part, I thought so. But a couple of years ago, I ran into some doubts.

After reading David Foster Wallace’s “Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” my Writing 201 students were working on their own detailed accounts of their most recent travels -- the idea being that if they paid attention to whatever they had done, they might achieve some insight into aspects of the larger American culture. It was obvious that they enjoyed the chance to be the experts of their own experience and attempt their own works of literature rather than analyze another Famous Author’s Famous Work of Literature, as we often did in the class. I read of road trips and first journeys abroad, of visits to a girlfriend’s or a boyfriend’s parents’ house, and, this being Montana, plenty of misadventures in the mountains. It was the best stuff they wrote all semester.

But one essay troubled me. Its author recounted a recent visit to her hometown, which happened to be a tourist town. What began as a local’s complaint of thoughtless tourists soon devolved into a pointed criticism of one subcategory of them: Asians.

So I was forced to ask myself, in the context of the class, are there cases in which we professors need to set aside the well-meaning how-to-think ethos in favor of forcefully articulating which ideas are permissible or not? I could try to dissuade this student from her racism, of course, but on what ground could I simply forbid it? And if I allowed her the room to be racist, if that was where her thinking led her, would I be condoning it? My liberal compass didn’t know which way to point.

If you teach a discussion-style writing class in Montana, from time to time you’ll hear a comment that’s a little less couth or woke than what would pass muster in Portland, Minneapolis or other liberal enclaves. You’ll observe quickly that these comments stem from a lack of awareness, not from any kind of malicious intent. No student I’d had would admit publicly to holding overtly racist views, and I was pretty sure that not many more would admit to them privately. I’d never seen or heard anything like what I read in this student’s essay.

But I wanted to give her a chance to clarify, as she was a beginning writer and maybe hadn’t understood the force of her words. I asked her to come by my office after class to talk through the essay. She did. I shared my concerns. She said she understood where I was coming from and left, seemingly in good spirits, to go work on a revision. But when the revision came in, I saw that instead of expunging her racist views, she had exaggerated them.

I was dumbstruck to read words like, “the worst of these individuals being, yes, a particular race: Asians” and “This place is my home, and I feel that it has been defaced by the actions of these people.” This second example included a note explaining that it was the core of the essay. The whole thing was one long xenophobic screed of the kind I had always thought existed, if anywhere, in some dark recess of the internet unfrequented by anyone with enough intelligence to get into a decent state university. (My own bias presents itself.)

When we met in my office, I had been confident that if we discussed the matter soberly, she would quickly: 1) recognize that what she’d written was racist, 2) acknowledge that racism is bad and 3) rethink the relevant passages of her essay in that light. That is, I had assumed that how to think -- carefully, critically, reflexively -- would lead inexorably to what to think (i.e., race isn’t the cause of the effect I’m noticing).

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I had failed to anticipate her sticking to the line of thought that: 1) what she’d written was racist, because 2) race was the obvious explanation for why she found Asian tourists objectionable. Such an argument struck me as so evidently bad that I had failed to entertain the possibility that it could be advanced sincerely.

But sincere she was. And, in a way, I have to give it to her. She knew her essay wouldn’t sit well with me, acknowledging as much in a Wallace-inspired footnote, but she wrote it anyway because she thought it important to voice uncomfortable truths. It’s the kind of courage you’d want to see from any writer. But how could the thinking behind the courage have been so faulty? Hadn’t her teacher taught her anything?

Driven by both pedagogical fealty and plain curiosity, I emailed her, requesting that she explain her views, trying thereby to gently point out some of the flaws in her reasoning. How, for instance, could she dismiss cultural differences as the cause of the behaviors she found objectionable if all Asian Americans didn’t share in those behaviors?

I sent that email on a Friday morning. By Saturday afternoon we’d gone back and forth four times before she lost her patience with me, writing,

"Of course, I was aware of the racist implications in my paper. I made a statement acknowledging that they may be viewed that way. The point was that the actions of Asian tourists have left a whole town with similar racist views as myself because we have only known the worst of it. And anytime I am around any Asian peoples it is the first thought to come to mind, that I immediately dislike them as a sort of PTSD. Now I have tried over and over to explain myself to you in and out of class, and I have grown tired of all the hidden philosophies. Let it lay professor Parker, please. I have done all my finals, and I would like to enjoy my break now."

I wrote her back one more time.

“I’m glad you are taking responsibility for your position now. I think if you wanted to interrogate the causes and effects of what you're calling ‘PTSD,’ it would make for an excellent essay topic. But we can end this conversation whenever you like. I just want to say that I have no hard feelings and have not meant to upset you. I see this conversation as an outgrowth of our class, and therefore it is one I will see through as long as it’s productive, which I actually think this has been.

Enjoy your break.

Scott”

I meant what I wrote. I did think the exchange had been productive. I was even proud of myself for not getting drawn in emotionally but staying levelheaded and modeling, I hoped, what dispassionate consideration looked like in practice. It was, I thought, one of my finer teaching moments.

How, Not What, to Think

At the same time, I had clearly upset my student. Part of an education is the process of outgrowing certain views, so maybe being upset can be a sign of growth. But the line between enticing a student to think better and shaming her for thinking badly was, in this case, hard for me to determine. When I try to take her perspective, it isn’t difficult to see how I must have crossed into shaming. No matter how hard I tried to stick to asking clarifying questions and refrain from pointing out the flaws in her argument as anything but an intellectual exercise, I was still a know-it-all, liberal professor pushing my antiracist agenda on her against her will. I was exactly who she led me to believe her dad had warned her about when he sent her off to college.

As gentle and undogmatic as I tried to be, it was too much. I had put her in the defensive position of having to argue a losing side. (I suspect part of her had come to that conclusion.) In such situations, the grace it takes any of us to admit our mistakes, especially to the person who is trying to convince us we’re wrong, is rare to come by. That grace was lacking in my student. But a reciprocal and more important grace was lacking in me. I had put my need to be right before my student’s well-being. Every time I asked a version of “Do you see how this is racist?” the subtext was “And racism is bad,” which, coming from me, must have sounded like “You are bad.”

But how I could have handled the situation differently? I try to hold my students responsible for their views without blaming them for those views. I don’t blame this student for her racism. It’s too easy to sympathize with how she came by it. The essay reveals that, from a young age, the adults in her life encouraged this attitude toward Asians by mocking them, yelling at them, insulting them and the like. There’s no reason to pretend I’m not opposed to this kind of attitude and behavior. Yet if I want to persuade her from those opinions, I will succeed not by putting up a fierce resistance but by meeting her where she is and paying her the respect of taking her seriously. And so I return to where I tried to begin: teaching how to think, not what to think.

I can easily imagine that some people will tell me I shouldn’t have given a B to a racist essay, but I did. Why? Because she thought about the issue to the best of her ability, reached the conclusion she did and had the courage of her conviction in the face of opposition. In my view, she’d reasoned badly, but not altogether worse than many students do -- it just happened that she had taken on a sensitive subject. And her essay did have its merits: she gave detailed descriptions; she attempted humor; she took risks; she inhabited the work. If I squint a certain way, I can even tell myself that someone was teaching her well.

Then again, maybe I’m too eager to assuage my own doubt. After all, what allows me to count this story as a pedagogical success is my conviction that if this former student continues thinking to the best of her ability, then eventually she’ll come around on the question of racism -- as, I’m convinced, all thinking people will. But maybe she won’t.

When I tell my students that clear writing is a means of training for clear thinking, I also tell them that I write about things I don’t understand, and usually when I’m finished, I understand them better. So here I am. For two years, I didn’t write about this former student. Then today, as I was preparing to teach tomorrow’s classes, she popped into my mind, and I realized I had to try to understand what happened with her, so I started typing.

Now approaching the end of this essay, do I understand it better? I think I might. My mistake was impatience. From the beginning, I had encouraged my student to think more clearly, to appreciate the consequences of the positions she took, to take responsibility for her ideas and her language. She had done that. As teachers we rarely see the fruits of the seeds we plant. We have to accept that. We have to respect our students enough to let them be wrong, enough to let them be racist.

Bio

Scott Parker is an assistant teaching professor in the English department at Montana State University.

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