Friday, August 15, 2014

Finally a Chance to Respond – Part III


You Made Me Grow…

 Ironically, in the end this student seems to have gotten what s/he sought after all. To wit:

…you pushed me more then many teachers... not in the way you wanted me to see how you thought you were right and i was wrong--but to investigate my truth and challenge what you proposed to be different. You made me grow significantly closer to God and in my faith….

 Of course this is hardly the first time I’ve been told that I’ve pushed a student harder than other instructors. While I don’t take any particular pride in such statements, it does suggest to me that I am doing my job properly. Indeed, comments like these also make me wonder what might be happening in other classes and why. While the consumerist values of comfort and convenience largely form the attraction to online classes, from a pedagogical standpoint good teachers should always push students outside of their comfort zones. The discomfort of cognitive dissonance is often the teachable moment.

I also take no small amount of comfort in knowing that the student grew significantly. That is, after all, the mark of a true educational experience as opposed to merely memorizing stuff and demonstrating a bottom line competency on a test. If one comes out of a class with exactly the same understandings of the world with which they entered, they’ve largely wasted everyone’s time and money.

One of the expectable results from critical reflection on one’s belief systems is the possibility that one will come to better understand what s/he believes with all of its strengths and weaknesses. As a result they will then have a much better idea of why they continue to believe those things and the conditions under which such beliefs are themselves credible to anyone outside the circled wagons of the like-minded.

This is particularly true of religious understandings.  Most of us inherit our religions from parents or other authority figures with little critical consideration. Thus, when challenged, we often have no response to offer regarding the credibility of our beliefs. The usual response to challenges in such cases is to anathematize the challenger. It’s not surprising that historical constructions of the Satan, the tempter, tester and trier and Lucifer, the angel who shines light on the darkness of one’s belief systems, are often the anathemas of choice for those who push us to reflect.

While growing closer to any given construction of G-d or belief system was not the goal of this course, at some level it would seem that the instructor whose teaching had prompted critical reflection which led to this result would be seen as having done the student a major favor. Of course, in all fairness, it could also have led to a morally  indignant retreat back into Plato’s Cave, fingers in ears singing “La la la, I can’t hear you…”

Be Open to All

The student’s response ended with the following:

I think that you should teach but everyone needs to evaluate how they are doing every now and then and see how to better themselves. you pride yourself on your familys teaching background and your history with it--you were designed to be a teacher but like this young man you wrote about... be an open mentor and influencer to ALL students not just the ones whose specific beliefs align with yours.

I always find the presumption that educators somehow are unwilling to evaluate their own performance unless somehow forced to do so rather remarkable. Why would that be so? I realize that my own experience is not necessarily normative for anyone other than myself. But there has never been a term that I have not sought to learn from my experience and modify my pedagogy and content in response. I have never needed anyone to bludgeon me into improving my classes. Indeed, I cannot imagine why a teacher would not want to do so.

That’s precisely why the carrot and stick approach of student ratings used by this and most universities is profoundly misguided. Moral reasoning that compels behaviors by threats of reward and punishment is the mark of children, Kohlberg’s pre-conventional level. While such conditional reasoning is inevitably the mark of consumerism (What’s in it for me?) it is unworthy of such an important enterprise as higher education.

Moreover, I readily agree that a good teacher needs ongoing feedback on their work. I’ve had my courses observed many times over the years by colleagues and superiors and I have always taken their feedback seriously even when I have challenged their observations. There is a world of difference between dismissing feedback out of hand and wrestling with it for days in forming a critically reflective response.

Finally, the fact that I have devoted several days to reflecting upon and responding to this student’s comments ought to suggest how seriously I take student feedback as well. While I don’t think faculty can be mentors to every student who comes along if for no other reason than the fact that mentors offer very personal skills and insights to those seeking the same, I do seek to reach every student who comes into my classes even as I know that is unlikely to occur. That includes those who arrive largely disinclined to seriously consider what my classes may offer them.

Of course, turnabout is always fair play when making critiques like this student offers. Might it not be fair to respond to this student that s/he should be open to all teachers, “not just the ones whose specific beliefs align with yours?” Doesn’t everyone need “to evaluate how they are doing every now and then and see how to better themselves?”

Use it Well

You are talented so use it well!

Again, I appreciate the student’s couching his/her comments in the language of compliment if not flattery. But I think this point is also a good example of the maxim that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

The reality is that a student capable of coming to a university and succeeding in a class like Christianity is also talented. While the workload of this class was not particularly burdensome, the level of cognitive consideration and existential wrestling this material demanded was considerable. A student who successfully undertook such a challenge evidences no small amount of talent him/herself.

Moreover, as the student says, such talent must be used well. The Christian scriptures reflect the belief that to hide one’s light under a bushel basket is ultimately a moral failing. That requires both the courage to confront one’s own limitations of thought as well as the willingness to continue engaging a process that may well prove painful in its cognitive dissonance.

I believe it is the vocation of a good teacher to call students to engage this kind of Hero’s Journey. Indeed, I believe the failure to do that is a waste of the teacher’s talent as well as that of the student. When the ability to live into that vocation becomes impossible in a system that no longer values heroes and heroines there will no longer be a place for good teachers or students in that system. Sadly, in a day of consumerist driven pedagogy, I believe that time is drawing closer and closer for this teacher.

Thank you for your response to my blog entry and for providing this opportunity to respond. You will find your comments posted at my blog site today. I do not labor under the misapprehension that my words here will have convinced you nor was it necessarily my goal to do that here, but I am grateful for the chance to actually say them for a change. 

As I say to all of my students in parting, “I wish you well.”

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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