It is an educator’s calling to teach the incomprehensible,
to explain what must never be justified,
to seek truth beyond reason and reason beyond truth,
to be dedicated to a purpose that is larger than the whole of her being,
and to return every day to guide her students toward a better tomorrow.
To Teach the Incomprehensible:
We live in a world of overwhelming suffering. From genocide and ethnic cleansing to wealth inequality and food insecurity, there is no corner of the world untouched by the ravages of political pain. In my experience, students tend to “shut down” when confronted with the harsh realities of contemporary global societies, attributing suffering to a range of dynamics from “natural reality” to the ubiquitous presence of “evil” in the human world. Students thus exhibit a willingness to throw up their hands in a “there’s nothing I can do about it so I’d rather not think about it and I’d prefer that you not try to teach me about it” fashion. It is an educator’s responsibility to overcome these forms of student resistance in order to teach the incomprehensible. From reification within the context of culture studies to heteronomy against the background of international political economics, I ask that my students engage difficult, controversial, and sensitive topics from critical and analytical perspectives. I therefore introduce my students to a body of interdisciplinary resources that illuminate relevant themes and concepts, not to “overload” them with information, but to contextualize their academic pursuits.
To Explain What Must Never Be Justified:
If you seek to teach the incomprehensible, you resign yourself to explaining political realities that must never be justified. Political events and dynamics are grounded in histories that tend, overwhelmingly, to be unspoken, unwritten, and invisible. When educators strive to provide historical context, however, they must make history a visible force in political life without framing issues, controversies, and atrocities in ways that blame the victims of political dynamics for contributing to their own victimization. Moreover, and most importantly, those who teach the incomprehensible dynamics of history and politics must communicate to students that the presence of evil does not eliminate or even eclipse the transcendent beauty of the human condition—even in the midst of hate, injustice, and inequality, hope, mercy, compassion, and the emancipatory power of political love remain.
To Seek Truth Beyond Reason:
Students frequently complain that I do not allow them to express their personal opinions in their course submissions. They are correct. As an educator I am more interested in how students think than in what students think. To grapple with complex concepts and theoretical frameworks students must not be paralyzed by subjectivity and they must never think that opinionation is an end unto itself. Instead, they must learn to dethrone facts, deconstruct opinions, and argue compellingly within the frameworks of critical discourse. Students must learn to understand competing perspectives and they must be able, not only to make an argument with which they agree, but to understand intellectual debate against the tensions that define the human predicament. Students who are able only to express their opinions are limited to shallow discourse; I teach my students, therefore, to make an argument that can stand up to the standards of critical debate but that simultaneously reflect their individuality.
And Reason Beyond Truth:
Facts rarely speak for themselves and rote memorization represents only the most basic kind of learning. Nevertheless, the regurgitation of de-contextualized facts and figures remains a primary focus of contemporary education; learning environments tend to teach “right answers” when they should instead invite students to struggle with scholarly concepts and competing theories, to face the demands of critical analysis, and to seek right questions throughout the learning process. While it is certainly true that students must learn critical reasoning and problem solving skills, it is equally important that students develop the imaginative maturity necessary to live in an increasingly interconnected world; they must learn to listen to their teachers, to listen to their peers, and, most of all, to listen to themselves. Too many students live paralyzed by self-doubt and uncertainty, unwilling to speak up for what they know to be just. Teachers must therefore impart to students the dual lessons of humility and confidence—the willingness to say “I don’t know” but the equal willingness to say “I disagree”—by serving as a living example in their classrooms and their communities.
To Be Dedicated to a Purpose that is Larger than the Whole of Her Being:
Teaching is a high calling but a humble profession. Most students come to college knowing that they want a university degree but few seek edification; my goal is to teach my students that they want to learn, that learning is more important than grades, and that learning never ends. That commitment requires a commitment that transcends the day-to-day challenges of teaching large numbers of students, each with their own needs and ambitions. Educators walk a fine line between tailoring course policies to individual student needs on a case-by-case basis, an approach that opens the door to accusations of favoritism and inconsistency, and enacting inflexible and dogmatic rules, a technique that carries the illusion of blind justice but that, in my experience, lacks the conscience necessary to respond to the wide array of student needs and situations that characterize contemporary education. The challenge, therefore, is to be consistent but fair, equitable but open, and firm but compassionate.
To Return Every Day to Guide Her Students Toward a Better Tomorrow:
Teaching requires unending patience. The mark of an educator’s integrity is her willingness to persevere in the face of frustration and failure, to teach, not the students who sit in her classroom, but the people that they will become when they look back on the experience later in their lives. At its best, education brings us closer together, enables us to celebrate rather than to fear difference, and allows us to engage each other. Although learning environments change over time, although educational technologies transition quickly from cutting edge to obsolete, and although pedagogical theories come into and go out of fashion, teaching and learning remain largely the same. To be successful, the teacher must become the student and the student must learn to teach; an educator’s calling is to steer the learning process, to employ her experience and vision to guide students in their quest for imaginative and intellectual clarity, and to convey the lesson that learning is not sterile or docile or about getting the answers right—it is the very essence of living.