Friday, September 23, 2011

Teaching and self-revelation

Episodes yesterday and today have me thinking about how much of myself I reveal in the classroom and how much I should.

My teaching style is pretty conversational. I try to keep discussion going, I try to keep things mildly entertaining, I try to be energetic. Keep in mind that these are things I try to do; that doesn't mean that I always succeed. So, in my lectures and discussions, I reveal some things about my life, but about others I remain quiet or vague.

For instance, I am usually pretty reticent about my views on most issues, no matter what we happen to be talking about. When we discuss God, I do not tell them whether I am a theist, agnostic, atheist or what I probably actually am. When we discuss abortion, I do not tell them my position. And, when I talk about my personal life, I do so in vague terms. I talk about my dog and my spouse and my house and goings on in my neighborhood and, but I never go into more detail than that. Particularly, I rarely say that my spouse is a man rather than a woman. 

Not divulging my ethical and philosophical positions and leaving my personal life vague might seem like two very different issues, but they seem—or have seemed—of a piece to me. After all, I teach philosophy, and we are supposed to care only about reason(s) and argument, not about the person who makes the argument. If I am to aim at objectivity, I should hide my own views so students can judge for themselves and I should try to make my personality so that they can focus on the arguments and not on the person presenting them, even if not advocating for them.

Today, after my early introductory class, I had an exchange with a student about what moral view I think is correct. I started to outline why I thought that some sense can be made of objective morality, but I told him that we would have to wait until we discussed Aristotle for me to tell him just how I thought this could work. Ten minutes after I got back to my office, I had an email from the student—a very intelligent and very active student—telling me that he wasn't trying to falsify my beliefs, he just wanted to know what I thought and not just what some other philosophers thought and his other philosophy professors never gave him straight answers about what they believe themselves. 

I responded, but it got me thinking about whether it makes sense for me to hide my beliefs. The fact that I don't tell them what they are doesn't mean that they don't exist. And, knowing them might actually allow them to be a little more skeptical of my arguments when it comes to those views and competing ones. It might actually help them do philosophy better. I believe I am very even-handed, but if I am then it can hardly hurt for them to know where I stand on issues, assuming that I don't require that they agree with me. 

Orthogonally, I am supposed to be teaching them something and, biased though I might be, I have thought about many of the issues we discuss for longer than they have, indeed longer than most of them have been alive, so shouldn't I have something to profess about the issues that we discuss together?

On a closely related note, a funny thing happened in class last night. With no provocation and while I was talking about the virtues of virtue theory, a student in the front row said to me, "You said you're married but you wear your wedding ring on the right hand. Why's that?"

The man sitting next to her replied, "You can't tell?" And then he went on a bit, without cluing her into what it was that she couldn't tell.

Now, I don't wear my wedding ring on my right hand because I'm gay-married. I have other, less fascinating reasons. But after class, the male student told me that, of course, he had realized the first day and my mannerisms, references, jokes all made it perfectly clear.

This told me both that I'm not obviously gay—my partner disagrees: "You are obviously gay, but not effeminate"—and that I am obviously gay. But it also made me think about how this is the kind of thing about which there is no point worrying. I do sometimes worry that if students realize I'm gay, they might discount what I'm teaching them or think that I only hold the positions (in some areas) because of my sexuality. Of course, should they think this they would have missed pretty much all the point of philosophy.

Without proselytizing or going into detail about my personal life, fascinating though it may be, shouldn't I be revealing more of who I am philosophically and humanly in my teaching? I tell them that it is important to know the context and something of the biographies of the people we discuss while warning them off the genetic fallacy; is that not true of me, too?

Of course, I don't have the benefit of tenure and that bears on the matter to some degree, but thinking pedagogically and philosophically, I think I may have been aiming for the wrong targets.

1 comment:

Greg Stevens said...

What a great post. I have two thoughts about this.

First, on "obviously gay". There are many different stereotypes about gay people, but not all straight people know all of them. Certain stereotypes about gay people, only gay people know, or straight people who know gay people. So, for example: I'm not effeminate at all. But, I'm an unmarried 38-year old who works out 5 days a week and likes dressing well. SOOOOO GAY.

Second, on expressing your views as a teacher: I don't think you should worry about influencing your students by presenting your views, as long as you are presenting them AS your views, and teaching the alternatives. College students are pretty independent. For as many students there are that will be biased to agreeing with your viewpoint BECAUSE it is your viewpoint, there will be students who gravitate to the opposing viewpoint for the very same reason. ;-)

Anyway, thanks for the great post.