Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Some thoughts inspired by the end of another semester

 After such a long time out of the regular face-to-face classroom—here’s hoping it wasn’t just an interlude before a return to Zoom—it was regenerating to be back in the classroom with real people with real bodies, even if I couldn’t quite see their faces. Maybe because I was a bit out of practice or just because I was as tired at the end of the semester as all my students so obviously were, the last day in most of my classes was just a here-have-some-cookies-I-baked-and-let’s-chat-about-the-exam day. Students had few questions about the exam but in all of my classes a large proportion of those who came that last day stayed until the end of class time. I like to tell myself that they liked my company enough that they wanted a bit more of it. It’s much more likely that they liked the company of their fellows or that they just didn’t have anything else to do until the next period began.

One of my classes turned into an AMA. I used to take the approach that I would, under almost no circumstances, let students know my own views on anything, the better to appear evenhanded. As I’ve gotten older and had more years in the classroom, I’ve changed approaches. Now, I am more likely to let students know what views I think are most plausible or implausible. I still do my best to give the strongest arguments for those views that I think are wrong; in fact, I often give more charity to those I’m least sympathetic to and am more critical of those I find appealing. It’s best to trust the students to evaluate my presentation of different views with the background information of where I stand or which way I lean. Anyway, that’s what I’ve come to believe. This change was partly motivated by a student of probably close to a decade ago who asked me in class what I professed, since I was, after all, a professor. Of course, I’m not a professor, but merely an instructor, if I’ve got my current title right, but the point was a good one nonetheless.

So, I was answering questions ranging from what my favorite movie is to what ethical theory I think is closest to right to whether I believe in God or not. Answers to that last one probably disappointed half the class and surprised the other. I don’t know whether it’s because of the way faculty are presented in the contemporary media or because of dross like those God Is Not Dead movies, but students have very clear expectations for what sort of beliefs and ethical and political commitments their professors, especially those in the social sciences, liberal arts, and humanities, are likely to have. As with so much else of our contemporary culture, those commitments are, it seems, supposed to be derived from a very particular party political identity. 

There’s something sad in this, I think, as there is in all pigeonholing. Assumptions about what other people must certainly believe make it harder to connect with them or to learn from them. It flattens others and removes from them their very reasonableness. It’s hard—and maybe harder than before—to see the person in one another, but we have to.