Today was a good day. My Bioethics class was pretty good – there were some good questions about Foucault’s critique of scientific discourse, and its application to the scientific discourse of medicine (through Canguilhem). My class is populated largely by nursing students who take the course to fulfill both the humanities GE requirement and their own program’s requirement for ethics education. The recent course material presented them with some serious intellectual challenges, and I decided to spend the class session today reviewing some of the concepts and trying to lead them to a deeper appreciation of the meaning of the critique for their own (future and present) practices.
One student asked a question about exactly that, and framed it in a very intriguing way. She prefaced by saying that for the last two weeks we’ve been discussing these issues, she has struggled in her nursing classes with accepting the assertions about medical conditions, diseases and deviations from “normal” physical conditions. If this is the “freedom” that Foucault’s critique leads to – the free choice regarding how and to what disciplinary practices and discourses we submit and subject ourselves through – then, she remarked, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Another student remarked that she was also struggling with that.
Score! A sort of ultimate ideal of teaching, for me, is to create the conditions under which a student can produce a powerful critical knowledge that matters for them intellectually and personally. Basically, when students are upset, I win. (I’m putting that in a deliberately contentious way.) Then another student chimed in on the same subject, objecting to Foucault’s critique in one of the classic ways – that his critique doesn’t tell us how to make ongoing social arrangements we rely on continue to work.
This is a class I’ve struggled with. It’s a good class – even a little too good, if you catch my meaning – and it’s been hard to provoke them to talk about the ethical questions I’ve tried to pose to them. There have been occasions over the semester when it has seemed they’ve been awake and aware on the level I’ve wanted to reach – a level of fairly significant discomfort, frankly. But I never felt I’ve been able to keep them working, thinking, and upset at that level.
After class, two very academically prepared students waited to ask about their term papers, and another student engaged in the discussion waited to ask more questions about Foucault. One of the students was asking where my office was, so she could talk to me during my official hours. Instead, faced with all four of them, I decided to hold my office hour just outside our classroom.
We spent the next hour together – partly talking about their term papers, but also about the discussion in class, what it meant for them in their future practice, how it was affecting their approach to their university lives, what we’d been discussing in class meant in the grand scheme of things medical…
And the magical thing happened, that all of us who teach for a living dream of. Without any prompting, without any provocation, they kept bringing issues, articles, discussions, themes, concepts, and moods and intuitions, that the course was built around, together, in their own discussion, their own understanding. It became clear from their discussion that all we’ve talked about, all we’ve read and discussed, has made a tremendous difference to them, has made them wonder, doubt, and think. I just can’t say how good that felt.
Like I said, it was an hour. I realized the time that had elapsed when the conversation finally slowed, and we realized we had our various places to go. The clock in the hall told me I had not only failed to get to my office for my official office time after class, but had spent twice that time there.
These are incredibly rare moments. They are what makes teaching worthwhile. I’m inexpressibly grateful to you today, gang.