Monday, November 06, 2006

"Fishing" for answers?

In his New York Times blog, Stanley Fish wrote a piece on October 22 in which he narrowly defined the role of a college professor.

I am trained and paid to do two things (although, needless to say, I don’t always succeed in my attempts to do them): 1) to introduce students to materials they didn’t know a whole lot about, and 2) to equip them with the skills that will enable them, first, to analyze and evaluate those materials and, second, to perform independent research, should they choose to do so, after the semester is over. That’s it. That’s the job. There’s nothing more, and the moment an instructor tries to do something more – tries to do some of the things urged by Derek Bok or tries to redress the injustices of the world – he or she will have crossed a line and will be practicing without a license. In response to this trespass someone will protest the politicization of the classroom, after which a debate will break out about the scope and limits of academic freedom, with all parties hurling pieties at one another and claiming to be the only defenders of academic integrity.

But the whole dreary sequence can be avoided if everyone lets go of outsized ambitions and pledges to just teach the materials and confer the skills, for then no one will be tempted to take on the job of moralist or reformer or political agent, and there will be no more outcries about professors who overstep their bounds.
His comments have generated plenty of debate, at least on the Times site. There were lots of comments posted in reply to Fish's original piece, and to his reply to those comments.

One of the strongest arguments against Fish's position is that the attempt to be an impartial, disinterested facilitator of discussion and critical thinking is, for many of us, and in many areas, an impossible goal. There's always going to be some bias, even unconscious bias. No matter how much one may try, one's biases are going to shape and frame the conversation one guides. So there's more intellectual honesty in making one's opinions known.

"As I used to say to my students, I don't care if you agree with my answers. The important thing is to see that there are questions to be asked." That's from a 1995 talk by musicologist Christopher Small.

A lot depends on context, of course. With some groups of advanced and motivated students, I imagine one could stick to the role of intellectual provocateur without revealing any of one's own views. But with many of the undergraduates I teach, it's pretty difficult to teach without honestly sharing one's enthusiasm for the subject.

Of course, the sort of teaching Fish is talking about deals with the analysis of texts and the debate of abstract ideas. Much of what I do as a music professor is coaching students and deals with the nature of their process in the activities of listening to, relating to, performing, and creating music.

How would one effectively teach, for example, a course in the "appreciation" of classical music without sharing one's own enthusiasm? You've got, often as not, a bunch of kids who have never listened to classical music, think it's boring, and are taking the class pretty much involuntarily, to fulfill a requirement. Is it really inappropriate to share experiences and perspectives, as well as structure a series of experiences for the students, with a motive of helping than experience the tremendous experience that listening to classical music can be?

There was a newspaper ad many years ago for Teach for America or some other educational initiative that showed the face of a teenage boy with an on/off switch on his forehead. I don't quite remember the caption; the point was that kids don't come with a switch that easy to access. Many students need that switch of intellectual and personal engagement turned on, and many of us, especially those of us teaching on the primary, secondary, and undergraduate levels see at least part of our job as doing everything possible to turn those switches on.

I put that ad on the outside of my office door so I'd see it every morning when I went in.

Fish takes strong exception to Derek Bok's idea that colleges should do thinks like “help develop such virtues as racial tolerance, honesty and social responsibility”; “prepare … students to be active, knowledgeable citizens in a democracy”; and “nurture such behavioral traits as good moral character.” I haven't read Bok's book Our Underacheiveing Colleges, from which Fish quotes. I'm no proponent of pressuring students to adopt any particular view.

On the other had, I'd have a difficult time arguing that colleges should not promote racial tolerance, honest, social responsibility, and active, knowledgeable participation in democracy. You don't have to hide your own views to teach critical thinking and to help students learn to think for themselves. Modeling those activities, being open about ones views , can go hand in hand with encouraging students to think for themselves. As Small suggests, if a teacher makes it clear the students aren't expected to adopt the teacher's answers, there's no harm in the teacher sharing his own answers.

All that said, I imagine Fish is an engaging teacher. He certainly got me thinking on this issue.

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