Every time I walk into a classroom or advise students, my goal is to take them someplace they would never have gone alone. I suppose I really do believe that a good academic is someone who thinks otherwise. It doesn't much matter to me where they go (it will be different for each student, and at the best of times itwill be different from what I had intended), although I do have two rules about how they get there. The first is"reflective practice" (to use Donald Schon's name for it). This rule is based on Socrates' dictum to "know yourself--and nothing too well." It is a continuous dialogue between what I think I know and what experience teaches me. In the process, one is always questioning what seems most surely known. It is an interrogation--like Montaigne's dictum, "Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?")--but not as radical as Descartes' "de omnibus dubitandum est" ("Doubt everything"). The second rule, rising directly from the first, is Parker Palmer's "Obedience to theTruth." Knowing yourself should bring the realization of how little one knows of that, much less anything else. Part of obedience to the truth is humility in the face of our own ignorance, a readiness to accept that there is more to it than was dreamt in our philosophies (to paraphrase Hamlet). The other part is a realization that engaging theworld in a dialogue carries with it a reciprocal obligation of behavior. Learning carries with it a moral obligation to act in sympathy with what is known. For me, this has meant acting with tolerance and receptivity to other ways of seeing. Someone (now a friend, but at that time on "the other side") said shewanted to get to know me because my reaction to her disagreement with me was to say, "Now that's interesting. I see it this way...."
Learning, for me, comes out of the encounter with something or someone "other." It occurs when the head snaps up and the eyes blink and one says, "Oh, this is something different. Isn't that curious!" It is not some "hydraulic process," as though knowledge were water poured from the tower in town, through the pipes of the city, into each of the waiting students, like homes neatly lined up on city streets. I think of Fr. Ed Scheuermann, walking in the first day of class and for 45 minutes asking, "Quis est? Est lux. Domine Filipovitch, quis est?" And the next day, when he repeated his gibberish and I stumbled onto a response, "Lux?" his eyes lit up and he chortled, "Bene, bene. Est lux!" Or Fr. William Markowitz (WAM to his friends and enemies alike), assigning a composition in Latin class and, upon being asked "What language?" replied sarcastically, "Anything but English." So when a Coptic classmate wrote his in Coptic, WAM returned it the next day with a grin and a flourish--and with corrections, in Coptic! That was a class act. Or John Sallis,who gave me a B in the Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty and gave my wife an A. When I asked why I got the B, what didn't I understand, he replied, "Oh, you understand Merleau-Ponty. It's philosophy you don't understand." I meditated on that lesson for many years before I realized how really profound it was; and the lesson was worth the hit on my GPA.
Not all my mentors were acquaintances. In many ways, I am an autodidact--essentially self-taught. Although neither of my parents were working-class immigrants, they were fairly close to those roots. Both graduated from high school, had much higher ambitions for their children, and learned along with us rather than teaching it to us. I was raised on John Dewey and his experiential approach to education. I came to the craft of teaching convinced that one learns best by doing, that learning comes from the engaged mind. In my student days, I enjoyed Summerhill and Freire. Yet I also have the advantage of a classical education (we read John Henry Newman in high school). Like Tugwell, Adler, Bloom, and Hirsch, I honestly enjoy reading the Canon, and I have been trained in the Great Books method of inquiry.
Intellectual growth--the goal of learning--for me is a process of breaking boundaries, of seeing connections where before there were barriers. For each of us, the results of this process are unique because each of us brings different experiences (and, hence, different connections and barriers) to the process. Emerson used to say that if two people think the same thing, at least one of them is not thinking.
I also believe that thinking holds some similarities to weight training. As with the muscles, one can train the mind to greater and greater flexibility, strength, and endurance. When I graduated from high school, I could regularly focus and concentrate in class for as much as 20 minutes (but the class periods ran 40!). By the time I graduated from college, I had worked it up to 50 minutes (but many of my classes ran for 90 minutes). By the end of graduate school, I could work all the way through a two-hour seminar (but they often ran for 3 hours). Now that I am a professor, it takes three hours just to warmup to an idea (but my students are freshmen, with 20-minute attention spans!). So, I find myself purposely trying to exerise my students' powers of concentration, while trying not to overindulge my own. I must take account of the "fanny factor" (after no more than an hour and a half--and often much less--the fanny becomesnumb and the effect spreads up the spinal column causing stupor). And I can extend the span of time over which a class will concentrate by varying the"brain muscles" exercised (the learning style invoked). But there is always a maximum limit beyond which "the eyes glaze over"and no further work gets done.
Mary McDearmon, a junior colleague here for awhile, taught me the "androgogical" (adult-centered) model. Learning is more a process than any content. And what I have most to teach is a process for learning throughout life. And from John Gardner (among others) I have come to realize that people come at their learning differently--what engages the mind is different for different people, and the "doing" may be tactile for some, auditory for some, visual for others. And from Bloom's Taxonomy, I learned to pay attention not only to the levels of cognitive learning, but also the affective and moral levels of learning. Benjamin Bloom is probably best known for his "taxonomy" of cognitive learning objectives, beginning withknowledge (simple recitation) through comprehension and application to analysis and synthesis and culminating in evaluation (critical thinking, in today's terms). He also developed a taxonomy of affective learning objectives, which he argued were as central to learning as the cognitive objectives. these begin with receiving (paying attention), and proceed through responding and valuing to organizing (conceptualizing values) and culminate in characterizing (generalizing values to behavior).
So, what is my teaching style? First, teaching and learning are moments of the same act. I learn so I can teach, but in teaching I learn more. For me, teaching is exploration. Second, I often teach by "scattering a trail of bread crumbs." I purposely give the students more than they can currently use, leaving them a trail they can follow later, and tantalize them to realize there is more to it than they currently know. And I try, whenever possible, to lay "land mines"--ideas or experiences which may not mean much now,but will go off later when something triggers them. (I like the idea of this metaphor, but I hate the actual image.) And, finally, as an oveall strategy, I try to bring them in my teaching to
How do students respond to all this? There have been the rare occasions when I held an entire class spellbound (I've had an entire intro class sit glued to their chairs past the assigned time to end class--twice in twenty years). But usually I find teaching to be a balancing act, like the juggler who keeps all those plates spinning atop the bamboo wands. I have to be constantly aware that different people learn differently, respond with different learning styles, and i have to try to be sure that there is always something going on for everyone (or, for each one).