Full Text:  “Pedagogical Disjunctions, Or, If I Say I Want My Students to Be Mainly Learning X, Why Do I Think Mostly About Teaching Y?,” Journal of Cognitive Affective Learning I.1 (October 2004)

NB:  This publication was solicited for the inaugural issue of a new, peer-reviewed, open-access electronic journal—the first issue will appear in October 2004—to support the Carnegie sponsored Center for Cognitive-Affective Learning (established at Oxford College of Emory University).

[Editor’s Headnote:  The author argues that teaching goes beyond the transmission of ethically neutral disciplinary knowledge and into the realm of ethical learning and development. Because teaching is comprised of social, as well as cognitive, interactions, students evaluate their teachers not only on their intellectual abilities, but also on their ethical displays of fairness, respect, charity, and civility. Thus, teachers have both an opportunity and a responsibility to model the ethical dispositions they most want their students to learn: open-mindedness, creativity, curiosity, intellectual flexibility, civility, persuasiveness, etc. ] 

In the spring semester of 2002, when I was in residence at Emory University as a Visiting Professor directing a pedagogy seminar for faculty from the professional schools, I experienced something like an epiphany on the very first day of the very first seminar. I did not literally see a god shining through the mundane that day. In fact it was merely a cold and rainy afternoon in a dark and dingy room adjacent to the Emory Law School student lounge, which is an unlikely spot on any kind of day for a real epiphany, but even without circus glitz and TV glamour my almost-epiphany  knocked my socks off because I didn’t see it coming.

I have been working with teachers on teaching improvement since the early eighties and I generally do see what’s coming, at least in a generic sense, especially when I am working as I usually do with colleagues from the humanities and sciences. In the spring of 2002, however, I was working with four doctors, a lawyer, an economist, two administrators, and four health researchers who were all statisticians. All in all, these were the very kinds of persons who, I had always believed, tend to view humanities-and-science types like me as little more than superfluous vestiges of an untidy process of university evolution. I felt plagued by an absurd anxiety that the statisticians would somehow intuit that thirty years ago I had almost flunked an undergraduate statistics course, a fact that I sat on with a thin veneer of fake nonchalance. For this and for a variety of other reasons I was a little nervous, but I plunged right in and began the seminar with a question that is a typical opener for me. “If you were to make a list of the qualities, skills, or kinds of knowledge that you most intensely desire for your students to learn,” I asked, “what would go onto that list?” The participants’ answers floored me. I fully expected the lawyer to say that what she wanted her students to learn was “the law,” and the doctors to say “medicine,” and the health researchers to say “statistical probabilities,” but they didn’t, and this is when my not-quite-epiphany occurred.

What the faculty from the professional schools constructed in their list of most desired learning outcomes was identical to the list of most desired learning outcomes usually constructed by humanities and sciences faculty. This is what I did not see coming, and what it suggests to me is an insight into teaching that is both simple and profound.  The insight is that while we teachers differ as disciplinarians, many and perhaps most of us share a few deep aims as teachers that, curiously, have little to do with disciplines as such. The skills and qualities that both sets of faculty typically identify as the most intensely desired learning outcomes they want for their students are the following.  They want their students to

•become more open-minded,

•become more introspective,

•become more creative,

•become more curious,

•think more critically,

•become better problem solvers,

•imagine more vividly and in more detail,

•use evidence more responsibly,

•make better arguments,

•use language with greater clarity and precision,

•find joy in learning for its own sake,

•become more intellectually flexible,

•become more tolerant of differences,

•become more sensitive to moral principles, and to

•show greater ethical concern for other people.

Finding out that doctors and lawyers and statistical researchers create basically the same list of most desired learning outcomes as art historians, chemists, and philosophers suddenly revealed two truths that had been in front of my face in every teaching seminar I have ever directed but that hitherto remained submerged below the threshold of my critical notice. They are also two truths that lie right in front of your nose in every classroom you enter but which, if my experience is typical, you seldom think about. You do “see” these truths but you don’t think about them. Your reactions are automatic, not considered. My aims in this essay are, first, to recreate that “blink”  experience, and, second, to unpack the most significant implications of this experience for us as teachers.

The first truth that I think we all live with as teachers but that we seldom notice, partly because we don’t have very good language for discussing it, is that most teachers employ  an ethical orientation at the core of their teaching even if  they are reluctant, as they usually are, to employ ethical language to describe that orientation.  The second truth always present in our classrooms but that we seldom take any vivid notice of points to one of the disjunctions referred to in the title of this paper. We spend our time teaching disciplinary knowledge but when we articulate what we most want our students to learn we seldom put disciplinary knowledge first. Instead, as I have already noted, we compose our most-desired category out of ethical dispositions such as open-mindedness, creativity, curiosity,  intellectual flexibility, civility, making good arguments, and so on.

Let me be meticulous in explaining why I call such features as curiosity and intellectual flexibility “ethical dispositions” instead of merely calling them intellectual or cognitive skills. I admit of course that they are intellectual and cognitive skills but persistently calling them intellectual and cognitive skills ignores their ethical significance. We will all agree, I think, that such features of mind as curiosity and intellectual flexibility are constitutive of ethos, and are therefore distinctly different from those kinds of skills that lie on the surface of our ethos such as, for example, the skills of being a good golfer or having a good memory for colors.  Furthermore, we teachers hope intensely and work like heart surgeons doing an emergency bypass to make sure that the non-surface skills we teach do indeed soak into our students’ minds as deeply as possible. This aim defines the core ethical  [Note below] orientation that most teachers are committed to, for when teachers work hard to make the intellectual and cognitive skills they teach enter the mainstream flow of their students’ minds, and when they are highly pleased to see these skills organically influencing their students’ whole way of  thinking, they cannot pretend that they are merely fostering  intellectual and cognitive refinements.

[NOTE—Throughout this inquiry I will be using the term “ethical” not to refer to any doctrinaire scheme of rights and wrongs, and not as a synonym for “morality.” Instead, I will be using “ethical” in the broad classical sense to refer to whatever influences—in our case, the influence of teaching—exert pressure on the formation of one’s ethos, or character, in our case, the ethos of our students.]

There’s nothing “mere” about it. These skills are ethical outcomes as well as intellectual because intellectual and cognitive skills are important building blocks of ethos. Few teachers have any deep interest in merely enlarging the number of items in their students’ knowledge banks. We all want what we teach to become part of our students’ minds, not just a weight on their minds. We need to recognize, however, that to pursue this ambition is also to pursue an ethical program of instruction:  not a narrow or doctrinaire program of rights and wrongs but a broad ethical program of personal (ethotic) development. What students learn from us helps them become the kinds of persons they turn out to be.

This kind of influence is an inevitable consequence of our teaching except, of course, when students wall off their hearts and their character from what their minds are doing on the surface. Of course this denial on their part—this refusal to let us and our course content “in,” so to speak—is a choice that is powerfully formative of ethos, but it clearly produces a different kind of formative effect from the one that we want, which is an enlargement, not a shrinking or hardening, of students’ openness to the world of ideas and thought. But compartmentalization is a common thing, both among students and faculty. Far too many students have been trained—and, what an irony, trained by us, their teachers—to compartmentalize their minds into sections which oppose “real life” against “school work,” and which also opposes the content of one class against the content of all other classes. In the presence of our students’ habits of compartmentalization our influence as teachers can be heavily neutralized, but the kinds of teaching effects I am talking about in this essay are the effects of teaching when compartmentalization doesn’t occur, or when compartmentalization gets broken down over the course of a semester. To whatever degree any part of what we teach gets past, or through, the walls of mental compartmentalization, then to that same degree what I am saying about the ethical influence we exert as teachers becomes not only operative but inevitably operative.

How does this work? How can a teacher’s influence be ethically formative when the course content is ethically neutral? Learning calculus, you may think, is profoundly formative of one’s intellect but is no more ethically formative than catching a cold or having perfect pitch. But is this disjunction between intellect and ethos really true? Let me try to answer this question in this way.

When we teach disciplinary knowledge we help change not only what our students know about our subject matter but also what they know about the world and what they know about themselves. Someone who knows the calculus or Greek tragedy or the history of the French Revolution—or whatever—doesn’t actually see the world in the same way that those of us who do not know these things see it. The archetypal image of teachers stepping into students’ mental lives, replacing the pictures on students’ mental walls, and suggesting various ways to remodel students’ mental houses, even if the remodeling is mostly about supposedly “objective” material like mathematics and physics, is not an ethically neutral activity because the “who” that any of us is ethically is in large part a function of the “what” that any of us knows intellectually. Let me repeat this point: the “who” that any of us is ethically is in large part a function of the “what” that any of us knows intellectually. The circulatory systems of our intellect and our ethos merge with each other all the time and the living blood of influence flows in both directions. Change what I know and you change who I am. Change what your students know and you change who they are as well.

Helping to create thinking beings is clearly an ethical ambition. What is more constitutive of one’s ethos than the thoughts one thinks? And what is more constitutive of the thoughts one thinks than the teaching that changes one’s thinking? You might suppose that this ethical significance of teaching would be too obvious to talk about. But not talking about it—and not thinking about it either—is just what most of us do. However, except for being squeamish about calling our teaching ambitions ethical, teachers are never happier than when they see the content and method of what they teach systemically worming its way not just into their students’ minds but into their hearts, their feelings, their dispositions, their attitudes, and even their politics.

Let me offer an analysis of this dynamic. Consider for a moment that the single reason most teachers avoid teaching their personal ethical views is because they think such instruction is in itself unethical. Most teachers are committed to the ethical principle that indoctrinating their students with the content of their own ethics impedes their students’ progress toward intellectual and personal autonomy. But not only does this commitment bring ethics into the classroom as a guiding principle of the teacher’s conduct, but autonomy itself is clearly an ethical criterion: we think it is good for people to be autonomous and bad for them to be automatons. If the pedagogical practice of non-indoctrination is a profoundly ethical commitment, and it is, how can it be the case that we are not teaching our personal ethics when the very decision not to teach our ethics is an ethic that we practice right under our students’ noses?

There are some displays of ethics that teachers cannot avoid even when they try to, not to mention the fact that many classroom practices are based on ethical principles that teachers actively enforce, such as being honest on tests, being respectful of others, being tolerant of differences, being fair, being humble enough to receive correction without childish defensiveness, and so on. But these practices are seldom labeled as “ethical.” Both teachers and students mostly agree that in the classroom the teacher’s personal ethical beliefs have no role as content and should not get taught, but this only means that the practices which do teach ethics lie submerged below the water line of most students’ and, to speak frankly, below the water line of most teachers’ critical observation as well.

I do not point this out because I think we are hypocrites or because I think the collective refusal to turn our own ethical commitments into class content is the wrong thing to do—I think in fact that not doing this kind of teaching is the right thing to do—nor do I point it out because I think we deconstruct ourselves every day in the classroom. I mention it because the ethical refusal to teach our own ethics explicitly helps me get to my subtler point of how impossible it is not to wind up teaching our own ethics implicitly. The reason it’s impossible is not that we are careless about the way we talk and not because we all possess a secret desire to indoctrinate our students but because ethical considerations simply saturate almost all social interactions, and, whatever else teaching may be, it is also a social interaction.

Teaching is in part disciplinary coverage, in part assessment and grading, in part time and topic management, in part rhetoric and exposition, and in part an ever challenging mix of planned activities and spontaneous digressions. But teaching is also a social interaction, and while teachers often invest valuable resources of time and energy in learning to analyze or to improve the other parts of the teaching process, they think infrequently and  superficially about the nature of teaching as a social interaction. And since it is in the nature of social interactions to reveal ethical commitments even when they are not being discussed, we can succeed in concealing our ethical commitments to our students only so long as we deliberately deceive them or avoid interacting with them. We cannot conceal our ethical commitments merely by not talking about them.  [Note below]  The moment teachers start socially interacting with students, whether in the classroom or out of it, ethical considerations begin to condense around every aspect of the interaction like water beads forming around a glass of iced tea on a hot day. Teachers who think that interactions with students about calculus or literary criticism are entirely intellectual interactions and therefore don’t fall within the category of social interactions are just fooling themselves. To students all interactions with their teachers are both intellectual and social—and the social part of the interaction has at least as much to do with how well they learn as the intellectual part of the interaction. Students, in fact, will seldom pause to make this distinction.

[NOTE—This statement needs the following qualification. I can talk to my students for a long time without revealing my ethical views about public issues such as abortion, the death penalty, or pacifism merely by avoiding these topics, but none of us can avoid expressing the ethical values that guide our social interactions merely by not talking about them.]

The reason that not talking about our own ethical views hides very little is because none of us acquires much information about people’s ethics from their voluntary descriptions. When people are not talking about their ethical commitments, which is most of the time, we are still obtaining ethical information about them. We just get it in other ways. We attend to the nuances of the social interaction itself, not just to the things that are said about the topics of the interaction. We attend to what people do as they talk, to the manner of their discourse in general, in order to get the ethical information we need. It isn’t hard and we do it constantly. Unless we are being deliberately deceptive we cannot avoid showing some of our basic ethical commitments by the manner of our social interactions. The fact that we can deceive people but that to do so we must change the conduct by which people would otherwise infer the truth about us helps make my point that it is by such inferences that people do learn the truth about us. Those with whom we interact socially “read,” or infer, our ethical commitments as the active principles behind specific behaviors that mark all social interactions including those  with our students.

The first level of social interaction has to do with content. As we talk about content students make a whole raft of judgments about our professional and intellectual skills: our skill at explaining, our expertise in the discipline, our skill at leading a discussion, our ability to make good use of the black board or audio visual aids, the fluency and  clarity of our discourse, our skill at making tests, our  management of time, our ability to handle digressions either poorly or productively, and so on. The second level of the social interaction has an inescapable ethical dimension regardless of the topic, and at this level students make a whole raft of judgments different from their judgments about our disciplinary expertise or intellectual acumen. Perhaps it is easiest to think of these judgments about their teachers as answers that students construct for themselves across a wide of array of ethical questions. These are the same questions that you and I ask during our social interactions with students because they are the same  questions that we are likely to ask in all social interactions.  The fact that we ask these questions so far in the back of our minds that we are not always aware of them does not mean that they don’t play an important role in any social interaction. These questions include but are not limited to the following:

Is this teacher viewing me as likeable and engaging at this moment? Is this teacher really interested in what I am saying? Is this teacher really interested in what he or she is saying? Is this teacher manipulating me against my interests in any way? Does this teacher wish to do me harm or do me good? Is this teacher energetic and committed or lazy and inattentive? Does this teacher understand and care about my anxieties in this class? Does this teacher have genuine concern for my feelings and my well-being? Is this teacher showing proper respect for me as a person? Is this teacher fair and generous or prejudiced and mean-spirited? Is this teacher compassionate and kind or callous and cruel? Is this teacher going to judge me with sensitivity, charity, and fairness, or am I going to be judged superficially, uncharitably, and contemptuously?

The fact that student comments on course evaluation forms seldom show this degree of detail does not prove that such ethical categories of evaluation are not present. When filling out course evaluation forms students generally deploy ethical intuitions rather than ethical arguments, and their ethical intuitions tend to get wrapped up in clichés such as “nice,” “enthusiastic,” “helpful,” and “concerned” (or not).  But behind the clichés lie the categories of ethical evaluation I have just detailed. Teachers and students alike employ these kinds of ethical questions in all social interactions as a kind of charged grid that we all place between us and other people to protect ourselves from potential harm. We don’t have to think consciously or logistically about doing so. The ability to deploy the grid comes naturally to us as social creatures.

We never ask a student nor does a student ever ask any of us such questions as, “Are you honest? Are you kind? Are you cruel? Are you sensitive and fair or are you a selfish pig and an insensitive butt head?” And so on. Our students infer that we as their teachers are interested, concerned, kind, sympathetic, likeable, generous, and fair—or not—from a large detailed list of interactive nuances such as

•our tone of voice which can be inviting or guarded or contemptuous, and can in fact express an immense range of ethical qualities: threatening, loving, evasive, open, cheerful, depressed, anxious, nervous, smug, complacent, intelligent, stupid, sensitive, considerate, and on and on and on,

•our facial expressions which can also be inviting or guarded or contemptuous,

•the timing and manner of our eye contact, which can express either hostility or intimacy,

•our hand movements which can express impatience or annoyance or agreement,

•our gestures with arms and torso that might denote an invitation to be companionable or a tendency to be aggressive,

•the angle of our head which can suggest either skepticism about or sympathy with a student’s remarks,

•the brightness or darkness of our countenance which might suggest benevolence or inattention or a sharp search for some weakness,

•the mobility of our expressions that suggests whether we are not only tracking but are engaging with students’ words,

•the manner of our pauses which can make students feel either embraced or intimidated,

•the relaxed or tense way we hold our bodies which can express both pleasure or displeasure,

•the way our eyes dart about or return a student’s look in a steady gaze that can indicate how much we want to see this interaction either to the end or just want to see it end,

•the way we interrupt students which can either be rude and unfeeling or reflect eager engagement with the topic,

•and on and on.

There is no point in trying to make an exhaustive list of all the ways in which who we are as persons yields clues that students turn into ethical judgments. The important thing to realize is that the drawing of such inferences and the making of such ethical judgments simply is a part of all social interactions. Teachers do it with students; we all do it with other people, and students do it with their teachers.  It is important to insist here that unless we can “blink” and bring this aspect of teaching into sharp focus for ourselves we will never be able to see the classroom experience from the students’ point of view, because while  students are aware that teaching is also disciplinary coverage  and rhetoric and time assessment, the most salient aspect of classroom experience for them is the ethical nature—what they would call the “personal” nature—of their social relationship with us. Teachers who fail to understand the significance of this point from their students’ point of view are not full participants even in their own classrooms because they are blind to the single most influential dynamic that sets students up for learning or not learning.

Another feature of the ethical dimension of teaching that teachers need to be aware of is that students’ ethical judgments do not require formal education, high intelligence, or theory. Most of the time our students, and we as well, perform a complex agenda of ethical evaluations more or less automatically. We certainly do so without special training. It’s easy to suppose that most of our ancient forebears who lacked the talent for ethically evaluating the malicious intentions of their enemies did not survive long enough to send their flawed genes down to us. Our forebears who did have this talent have bequeathed to all the rest of us both an irresistible drive and a functionally high talent for ethically evaluating everyone we meet, especially when we are first forming their acquaintance, on such fronts as whether they are honest or dishonest, whether they are likely to treat us as means or ends, whether they are compassionate or callous, and especially whether they are  likely to treat us fairly or unfairly.

The fact that we are often wrong in these assessments and that students are sometimes wrong about their teachers is irrelevant to my point, which is not that we are always right but that we can’t help always doing the evaluation. Too much is at stake for us ever to give up the ethical evaluations of others just because we are sometimes wrong. Moreover, we always turn our grid of ethical interrogation to its highest sensitivity setting whenever we are in the presence of people who have some kind of power over us, which suggests that our students, in whose eyes we teachers hold great power as grade givers, are especially sensitive to whatever clues we display about our ethical commitments. Ironically, they do this at the very same time that we are busily and dutifully avoiding the teaching of ethical content and thus thinking that we have successfully banished ethics from the classroom.

It seems clear, then, that we teach our personal ethical commitments by display, that is, by our manner, even if we do not teach them propositionally, declaratively, or assertively. Two questions emerge. First, what are the ethical commitments that are most likely to be of importance to teaching as a social interaction and, second, how can we, or should we, think about giving our display of ethical commitments the same kind of critical scrutiny and thoughtful analysis that we give to our teaching of disciplinary content?

There are four ethical commitments central to effective teaching from the standpoint of teaching as a social interaction: fairness, respect, charity, and civility. The intellectual skills we bring to teaching are also important, of course—disciplinary expertise, skill at explanations, skill at leading discussions, making good tests, displaying methodological soundness, and so on—but the ethical overtones of teaching as a social interaction always receive more attention from students, and this does not justify our accusing them of missing the intellectual point to the class or of making superficial judgments. All of us, not just our students, do this, and all of us react suspiciously to information if we are hostile toward the teacher (or other agent) from whom the information comes. Teachers are the ones being shallow if we evaluate ourselves solely on our intellectuality and professionalism and all the while ignore the fact that our students are evaluating us on our fairness, respect, charity, and civility. Let me briefly discuss each of these ethical markers.

Fairness. If students think a teacher is not evaluating their work fairly, that is, using defensible and intelligible standards of evaluation that he or she applies equally to all, then none of the teacher’s other virtues such as intelligence, professional status, or disciplinary expertise will outweigh students’ sense of injury—sometimes their outrage—at being treated unfairly. The ethic of fairness is the gateway through which every other teacherly ambition for any class must either pass or get strangled at the start.

Respect. Students tend to conflate fairness, respect, and civility but they are not the same. A teacher who evaluates a student’s work fairly may still treat that student with contempt or rudeness in any number of social interactions.  Respect is a bestowal virtue, a mode of interaction that bestows dignity on the student as a person, and on persons as such, independent of any negative evaluation that a teacher might make about a student’s performance. The ethic of respect is fundamental to good teaching because it is the one ethic that ties any community of human beings together, such as a classroom community, through the recognition of common human experience and common human need. Respect plays this binding role in communities because it is born of the insight, or at least the intuition, that regardless of whatever differences mark us as different from each other we still enjoy a fundamental existential equality as persons who share the inexorable human circumstances of human feeling, the need for companionship, the will to survive, the drive to procreate, curiosity about beginnings and ends and purposes, the decline of the body, the certainty of loss, and the inevitability of death. A person or a teacher observing the ethic of respect knows that no one person is ever completely self-sufficient. The disrespectful person or teacher does not know this.

Charity. The ethic of charity derives, first, from the teacher’s foreknowledge of the inevitability of human error  and weakness, and, second, from an awareness that students deserve forgiveness for at least some of their errors and weakness on the same grounds that we all deserve such  forgiveness: because we know that if such forgiveness is never forthcoming then life gets completely bogged down in unproductive resentments, self-pity, and the desire for revenge. None of us is perfect, none of us is smart all the time, and all of us are sometimes guilty of embarrassing lapses of manners, memory, and obligation. How many times have you caught yourself saying something stupidly insensitive that you would give $400 on the spot to take back if you only could? How many meetings have you missed from just blanking out on the time and day, and how many times have you failed to render that small act of kindness or sympathy that a colleague or friend needed and probably expected from you? And all the people we occasionally wrong in these ways occasionally wrong others in their turn and in the same ways. Human imperfection is part of the human condition and a part of all social interactions. Charity is the tolerance and forgiveness that heals our gaps in performance and leaves us free (rather than bound in guilt) to do better on another day. If charity is a necessary component of interaction in all social communities, this means that it is also an indispensable component of the social interactions in our classrooms. When a student comes to me and says, “My paper is late but I don’t have a good excuse. I just spaced it,” I try to remember to say something like, “You should have seen me the day I spaced a meeting with the President.” On the other hand, there’s an issue of fairness to other students if I simply let everyone who spaces an assignment off the hook, so I usually add something like, “Let’s sit down and talk this out” to my first response. The curve of my charity suffers a steep decline if the same student comes back to me with the same excuse a second time, but I think it’s important for all of us to keep the current of charity flowing not only in our relations with colleagues and family but in our relations with students.

Civility. What I mean by “civility” is the opposite of “pride” minus the dimension of passivity that the Christian tradition has attached to the word “humility.” Civility as I use the term here is not quite synonymous with the Christian notion of humility because the passivity of turning the other cheek, which is an unerasable part of “humility’s” semantic history, confuses the teacherly imperative of  challenging students always to do their best. Civility describes that kind of social demeanor marked by two features, one most easily described in negative terms and the second most easily described in positive terms. In negative terms, a person showing civility makes no presumptions of innate superiority over other social participants. In positive terms, civility is marked by an inviting, companionable, gracious demeanor. This is the demeanor by which teachers welcome the novitiates, our students, into the world of trained and developed thought. Civility shows how thoughtfulness creates social relations that underwrite rather than undermine human flourishing.

By emphasizing civility as a companionable, welcoming, and gracious demeanor I do not mean that teachers should ever be “we’re-all-just-folks” trucklers who imply to students that the reason they are on one side of the desk and teachers are on the other side of the desk is simply a matter of autobiographical accident. In terms of intellectual development, depth of knowledge, grasp of certain cognitive and critical skills, self-discipline, and in terms of life experience, maturity, and general thoughtfulness, teachers are almost always superior to students simply because teachers have acquired these skills of thought and virtues of character through years of long training and dedicated diligence. But this kind of superiority, valid as it is, sometimes invites teachers to slip almost unconsciously into the presumption of an innate superiority that is never valid. Teachers are superior because of their training but teachers do not constitute a special sub-group of innately superior human beings. A teacher’s sense of innate superiority, this delicious indulgence in pride, is not conveyed to students by assertion, of course, but by manner, usually manifested by such traits as aloofness, condescension, derision, arrogance, and, at its worst, contempt. Civility is the antidote.

For teachers the ethics of fairness, respect, charity, and civility are not necessarily reciprocal—that is, teachers are obliged by these ethics even if students violate them—and  they have nothing to do with who likes whom or who is  most like whom. When certain students violate these ethics the proper inference for teachers to make is these students  simply need more of what we are already trying to offer them—education—rather than make the improper inference  that students fail to do what they should because they are  intrinsically inferior to us in all of our glorious development.  Fairness, respect, charity, and civility are ethical commitments that teachers must hold on principle and exercise on principle, not because they pay dividends or carry rewards or get noticed or garner praise, but because communities without these ethics—and classrooms are social  communities—become sites where human interactions are  based solely on manipulation, power, selfishness, and greed.

Take note, by the way, that these ethics have little to do with the kind of ersatz criteria that often dominate  discussions of good teaching such as enthusiasm,  friendliness, humor, and niceness. These last four features are matters of individual temperament—they are not ethical principles—but there are many teachers who feel inadequate in the classroom because their temperamental tendency toward reserve, seriousness, and decorum makes them compare badly, they feel, to their colleagues who receive high praise for enthusiasm and friendliness. Teachers who observe the ethics of fairness, respect, charity, and non- egoism are never going to be unfriendly to students even if they don’t exhibit the enthusiasm of game show hosts, and some of the teachers who do exhibit the enthusiasm of game  show hosts may be masking both to themselves and their students a deplorable inattentiveness to matters of principle while they dazzle the classroom with entertaining jokes andpersonal effusiveness.

At this point some readers may have the uneasy feeling that my appeal to the importance of the four ethics I have just discussed constitutes a disastrous recipe for the Hallmark Card teacher: the teacher of effusive sentimentality, New Age shallowness, and Age of Aquarius brotherhood. Not at all. A few years ago I had a teacher in one of my pedagogy seminars tell me that his favorite metaphor of teaching is “boot camp drill sergeant,” and I have some sympathy with his view. Socrates proposed the metaphor of teacher as midwife, and many teachers like the metaphor of teacher as coach. None of these metaphors portrays the teacher as always or as necessarily soft, assenting, and yielding. Being a classroom drill sergeant doesn’t describe my own teaching style but I don’t think it is necessarily inconsistent with the teaching ethics I am advocating. The ethic of respect, for example, sometimes entails that we be tough on students because in fact we have more respect for their abilities than they do and it is part of our job to teach them what they can do, not leave them comfortable with what they do do. The ethic of civility may cause us to reprove the student who has violated this ethic in his or her relations with another student. The ethic of fairness certainly forces us to pain those students who wish to be judged on their effort or their intentions rather than on their performance. And the ethic of charity turns into an ethic of negative judgment when we have evidence that a student has abused our charitable gift of understanding. In short, these ethics are neither a call for—nor an excuse for— soft, teacherly squidginess. Teachers who are hard and demanding, however, without mediating their conduct through the ethical filters of fairness, respect, charity, and civility can sometimes wind up being guilty of self-indulgence, callousness, and occasionally even malice under the false flag of “toughness.”

I hope by this point that at least two of the pedagogical disjunctions referred to in the title of this talk have become clear. First, if what we really want our students to learn from the knowledge we teach is how to incorporate that knowledge into their lives in some kind of organic and integral way, why is it that our conversations about curriculum and teaching mostly assume either that the curriculum works its way into students’ lives automatically or that it’s up to students to work it into their lives on their own because as teachers the most we can do is just lay it out, but not help students make the organic connections between the curriculum and how they live? None of us really believes that the effects of curricular content are automatic— if those effects were indeed automatic we could just give students books instead of giving them books and teachers—  and our own recollections of how our favorite teachers facilitated our own best learning argues against the notion that the most any teacher can do is lead the horse to water but not make him drink. The accomplished teacher should know more tricks than a circus poodle for making the stubborn horse drink.

The second disjunction refers to another omission in our discourse about teaching. If we wind up teaching ethics by display, or manner, no matter how carefully we avoid teaching ethics by proposition or prescription, doesn’t it behoove us to give some thought about how to examine critically the means by which we do this and how we might make sure that we do it responsibly? Do we studiously ignore this can of worms because it entails complexities that we have no experience in sorting out? Perhaps. But we can sort this out. We’re smart people. We just don’t spend much time thinking about this issue and I think I know the four primary reasons why we don’t.

First, some teachers may think that the ethics of teaching is simply an unimportant topic. These teachers may think that teaching is about the transmission of disciplinary  information and that if the transmitters are transmitting at  the manufacturers’ specified settings then it’s up to the receivers to pull in the information, please, and that’s the end of the teaching story. I limit my rebuttal to the single prediction that anyone who holds this notion will make a horrible hash of such social interactions as marriage proposals, apologies, expressions of grief, friendly teasing, telling jokes, comforting a friend in despair, and, oh yes, teaching. The content and the manner of teaching are like a reaction that produces a distinct chemical compound.  Change the manner or the content and the compound itself changes. If you wonder whether this is really true, imagine the way you would react to someone who gives you an apology in which he uses the “correct” content, “I’m sorry,”  but employs a manner and tone to his words that is  annoyed, brusque, and contemptuous. Where’s the real message, in the words or in the tone? The answer is not a mystery.

Second, teachers may automatically shrink from thinking about the ethics of their display because they think that all of us are locked by temperament and physicality into  our own distinct and unchangeable mode of teaching  performance. But if this claim were true how is it that we have no trouble consciously altering the display of our social  interactions for different social situations? Everyday life gives incontrovertible evidence of this point. Since we don’t offer comfort to a bereaved person in the language we use on the  tennis court or during coffee lounge banter, and since we are both aware of these differences and furthermore know why we use the differences, it follows that we can certainly  change our social manner if careful thought leads us to think that we should.

Third, some teachers may not take time to think critically about their display of ethics because they think that their good intentions will both guide them and protect their students. Because they know in their hearts just how intensely they intend to do good to their students, it doesn’t occur to them that failing to examine critically their teaching manner might actually allow harm or misunderstanding to  enter the teaching interaction. I don’t intend to sound censorious or self-righteous here. I think in many cases good intentions just do work for teachers but we all know that Nasty Place the path to which is paved thick with good intentions. It’s never good for anyone—teacher, preacher, or sentient creature—to be complacent about the automatic  good effects of good intentions. When our students fail to hand in their homework and research papers on time, don’t study for tests, don’t show up for appointments, and don’t carry their fair load of work in group projects, it’s never because they intend to do poorly. They all have good intentions. They really do. They will tell you so with energetic sincerity and shining faces. And we as their teachers are seldom amused or moved.

Fourth, and here’s the reason that has the most bite to it, I think, in explaining why many teachers don’t want to think about their teaching display. They resist examining this area of pedagogy because they feel both deep contempt for and deep resentment toward—in fact I think many teachers are furious about—the pressures exerted on them by The Age of Television to be entertaining in a superficially diverting way as the only way of securing their students’  attention and approval. “I’m not in the entertainment business,” we grimly mutter with eyes and mouths like slits, “and if I have to become the Jay Leno of psychology or the David Letterman of chemistry or the Whoopi Goldberg of art history in order to get my students’ attention or approval then they can just bloody well figure out what to do with their attention and approval deficits on their own because  I’m willing to let hell freeze over before I agree to become Dr. Entertainment Sellout!”  

Such speeches are all very noble and high-minded and splendidly energetic, of course—the academic counterpart of  Clint Eastwood’s “Make my day”—but they are also quite beside the point. I too resent the pressure from students raised in The Age of Television to be superficially entertaining, and I too lament the fact that Sesame Street seems to have trained all of our students to have twenty second attention spans at the end of which they expect some punch line, explosion, or pratfall. But my invitation to teachers to begin thinking critically and carefully about how they teach ethics by their manner of social interaction is not intended to convince teachers that they have to be trained thespians. Teachers who are energetically belligerent about not being entertaining will certainly succeed. They will indeed not be entertaining. But they might better spend the same amount of energy by trying to find effective ways of persuading their students to be serious rather than wasting so much energy trying to avoid being entertaining. Besides, let’s not be hypocrites. Who among us does not prefer an entertaining lecture to a dull lecture?  

For teachers to get tied up in knots of resentment about the Entertainment Imperative derived from our TV culture is just not productive. When have teachers ever had the option of handing society a recipe for the only kinds of students they are willing to teach? In the pedagogy seminars that I have directed for more than twenty years I grow weary, weary, weary of listening to teachers’ persistent, effete, self- absorbed, whiny complaints that their students are “not adequately prepared.” Can you imagine the contempt that would meet any corporate executive who tried to account for low sales in the boardroom by whining to his fellow executives that the public just “wasn’t adequately prepared” to buy the company’s product? You know what the other suits would say. “Well, Forest Gump, if this is the best you can do go do it somewhere else. It’s your job to get the public adequately prepared.”  

Sometimes I want to grab teachers by the shoulders, give them a good shake, and slam their foreheads with the Forest Gump rebuff. “Hello! Of course your students aren’t adequately prepared. Most of them are kids. Many of them have been raised on too many Pop Tarts, too many cartoons, and in too much luxury. What in the world do you expect? Teaching is about them, not about you.” In order for students to get adequately prepared they need the education that some of us become stiff-necked about giving to them because, we claim with aristocratic hauteur, they behave like the unwashed masses or like TV entertainment addicts. All this accusation really boils down to is that we would like students better if they behaved more like us instead of behaving like their parents or their peers. Fat chance. If our students want only to be entertained this is because our society has taught them to hold this expectation, and our job as teachers is just to bloody well deal with it, not blame  them for it. Who’s going to help them expect something different if we don’t?  

With respect to our disciplines we constantly pursue self-development and ever increasing critical self-  consciousness. So why can’t we pursue self-development and ever increasing critical self-consciousness with respect to our teaching, not just in terms of what we teach (curriculum) but in terms of how we teach, especially that “how” which involves not just our intellectual skills such as making good explanations but our personal skills such as displaying our  ethical commitments to honesty, fairness, respect, charity,  and civility? Doesn’t it seem like not only a good idea but a genuine obligation for us to think about how to shape and manage our ethical display in accordance with both our ethical commitments and our ambitions for effective student learning?  

The good news is that many teachers do well on this front without having thought much or thought critically about the issues—many teachers are guided well by their intuitions and experience alone; I am frequently astonished by how gifted some teachers are just “naturally”—but to pretend that this constitutes good grounds for not initiating an energetic inquiry into the issue of teaching as a social interaction is like saying that naturally gifted athletes don’t need special training when they take up any particular sport, or that naturally graceful persons don’t need special training when they undertake to learn ballet. Those teachers who are already good may have no idea how much better they could  be, and those teachers who are not so good may have no idea how much they could improve if they did undertake such critical inquiry.  

Perhaps inquiry into college teaching needs to be shaped into its own discipline but I think probably not.  Making teaching its own discipline would mean that we all stop talking together in mixed disciplinary formats and this would be a great deprivation to us all. We need to get together more often to talk about teaching in mixed disciplinary groups, and in addition to thinking about such useful topics as how to lead discussions in large classes and how to use Power Point presentations effectively, we need also to think about such issues as I try to raise here: those issues that lie submerged right below the water line of our critical examination but which, when suddenly brought into focus, provide us with rich resources for conversation and critical self-examination. The kind of conversations I envision potentially place us in greater command of our most highly prized teaching objectives, and also give to our students the advantages of being in the presence of teachers who know how to think actively not just about the  complications of their disciplines but also about the  complicated invitations for ethical influence displayed by the  manner of their teaching.  ♦

Journal of Cognitive Affective Learning, 1 (Fall 2004), 2-10.       

Copyright © 2004, Oxford College of Emory University. 1549-6953/04    


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