Thursday, July 07, 2011

the ethics of teaching ethics

I had an interesting, brief conversation with one of the proprietors of the horse trail ride outfit we patronized in Sonoma County yesterday, about what I do for a living. He said he thought everyone should take a course in ethics, that people needed it, he said, in order to understand that what they do matters and that they should always be thoughtful about what they do. That sounds about right to me, I said. I mentioned my great experiences with nursing students in Professional Ethics and Bioethics, and he mentioned his own great experiences at UCSF hospital.

That got me thinking about the conclusion of The University in Ruins and my feeling that Bill Readings' postmodern excesses needed to be amended with something more substantive, more concrete, even - dare I say it - more practical. (Afflicted as he was with the 1990s pomo academic disease, he wasn't able to come out and say anything for fear of being accused of having said one thing to the exclusion of the other thing, or, still worse, of having pretended to have said everything! Lawd, help us! I digress.)

Readings says, as I mentioned before, that under the regime of "excellence," that is, in ruined universities, teachers have an ethical obligation to students, something related to justice, but which cannot be determined in advance. Removing the pomo posturing, what I think this boils down to is: college faculty, as teachers, have ethical obligations to our students. What exactly is the nature of these ethical obligations?

I think I know what it can't be.

(1) It can't be an obligation to prepare students for a career. Many folks in higher ed, especially in administration, and most folks who form public higher ed policy (most often, in blissful ignorance), would be absolutely scandalized by that remark. I remember well the radio program we heard once on a trip somewhere. A high-tech industry bigwig and a CSU exec were both on, talking about the way higher ed serves or fails to serve industry needs. The exec said that by the time skills and knowledge bases are taught at universities, they're outmoded, but that wasn't the problem. The company will train employees in the new stuff. But what they really need from the universities are to educate students in how to think for themselves, how to interact and communicate clearly with others, and in particular, how to communicate with non-experts. In turn, the CSU exec said he felt that industry needed the CSU to train future employees in the most up-to-date skills and knowledge bases, so they could jump right into the front lines.

The broader lesson, at least as far as I'm concerned, is that university education is not reducible to, and not even an appropriate place, for career training. Not even my PhD program trained me to be a faculty member. It credentialed me, but I learned how to be a faculty member on the job, the way everybody else learns to do a job, by doing it.

(2) It can't be an obligation to lead students to become specialized experts in a field of knowledge. Many students seem to expect this, and some (especially first and second year students) think they are wasting any minute of time outside of major courses. There's two reasons university education should not make people experts in a field of knowledge. First of all, any reasonably complex field of knowledge is too immense and evolving for four years (or so) to make anyone an expert. Second, I think it's naïve to the point of preposterousness to imagine that an expert should or can know only one narrow field - not out of some "well-rounded person" silliness, but because it's epistemologically naïve.

(3) It can't be an obligation to serve humankind.

(4) It can't be an obligation to serve the good of the nation.

(5) It can't be an obligation to serve Truth.

I won't comment further on these three. They're the subject of Lyotard's and of Readings' critiques.

(6) It can't be an obligation to liberate students. This would scandalize bell hooks and other Freireans, I suppose, and it hurts my soul a bit to say so, too, but I think it's the truth. First of all, as Readings actually pointed out nicely, taking this stance is just a leeeetle bit messianic, eh? Professor with a Christ-complex? I've slipped into this now and then, and it's embarrassing in retrospect. First of all, 99% of my students would have to be hit over the head with a club and dragged by their hair toward liberation. Secondly, the remaining 1% generally don't need my help to be liberated, and of the few who might be helped along in their own project of liberation by my teaching, I can't say I benefit any of them by giving them help.

(7) It can't be an obligation to model, and to provide opportunities, for virtue, or for citizenship. Who the hell am I to present myself as a paragon of anything - virtue or vice? Most of the time, I have to ask my students what day it is. (Okay, that's exaggerated for comic effect: 40% of the time, I have to ask my students what day it is.)

Okay, that's fairly complete. So, what's the content of the ethical obligation teachers have to students? The terms I want to use strike me as overly aesthetic, and I'm deeply suspicious of aestheticized politics, so with that caveat . . .

Meeting classes. The Cow State Santa Claus faculty handbook actually specifies that faculty have an obligation to meet classes. This is a policy initiated by a 1969 Chancellor's Office Executive Order (really! You can look it up!). But I'm taking it in an extended sense: we have an obligation to meet our students in the sense of acknowledging them, acknowledging their humanity, their difference from us, that they are not us, but them; we have an obligation to be present in a full sense in class, for reasons I may cash out in a later post; we have an obligation to be there.

Challenging students. By "challenge," I don't mean "make the class hard." I also don't mean "make the class intellectually demanding," at least, not to the exclusion of other challenges. We can, and should, challenge assumptions, challenge beliefs, and especially to challenge comforts - of all kinds. This is extremely difficult, in my opinion, for both students and faculty, and it can only happen if faculty abide by the obligation to . . .

Honesty. Here, I don't mean "telling the truth." In fact, you can be more honest while lying, sometimes. I mean honesty with regard to what we know and don't know, what we think and what we think no one should think, even if we don't have very good reasons for it. If you challenge students without honesty, you're bullshitting them, and yourself, and you're doing tremendous damage to everyone involved. I can't think of anything that shuts students down more than dishonesty.

Humility/Compassion/Not Being An Asshole. You'd think this would go without saying, unless you've been to college. The title of expert conveys a sense of self-importance that academia encourages academics to deploy in every arena as a weapon. A classroom is no place for a weapon. More than that, though, teaching, as I am trying to articulate it, can't happen in the context of the presumption that what the teacher is saying or doing is the most important thing in the room, let alone the world. What I do is far less important than what my students do, if what I want to do is teach. This is also hard, because ego defenses are just that. Between this obligation and honesty, I prescribe a lot of exposure to potentially painful experiences as the key to teaching and learning. (Oh, did I mention students have the same obligations? Cuz they do.)

Surprising. This might simply follow from challenging. Surprise here means saying or doing the instructively unexpected. You can't just spring out from behind a lectern yelling "Surprise!" - it has to offer something to think about. The surprise can't be dismissible as your insanity or quirkiness; it has to lead to wonder beyond that.


Is there some overall purpose to all this? It certainly makes life more interesting, which might mean it makes life more fulfilling. It might help people develop mental and emotional flexibility and strength. But I don't have a grand narrative to organize and give a foundation to this. I don't know where it leads, necessarily, since, for instance, surprise is essentially open-ended, and not being an asshole doesn't have a direct object. I'm also short on argument here. I just think I'm right.

1 comment:

Dave the K said...

Funny. Jumping out from behind lecterns has worked very well for me in the past.