A New Assay Regarding College Teachers’ Conduct

I have to give credit where credit is due first–in the course of a conversation after Thursday’s Boethius class with a student of mine, I found myself articulating the beginnings of this post as an answer to a good question about disagreements with one’s classmates.  So if that student is reading, thank you for beginning this train of thought.

I have written a fair bit in the last few years about college teachers’ responsibilities in the classroom, and I have found the movement surrounding (but not identical with) David Horowitz wanting time and time again.  I still think that Horowitz is a partisan operative with little real concern for college teaching; that much I still believe.  But I also believe that Horowitz would not have nearly the influence he has were something not wrong with large universities’ classrooms and the ways that professors and students interact therein.  So while I do not believe that there is any epidemic liberal bias, I have to think that either students are being too touchy in modern classrooms or that professors are behaving badly. I won’t discount the first possibility (after all, a third of respondents in the study I posted earlier said that they did not want anything they believed to change in college), but since I’m no longer on that side of the equation, my comments here will deal rather with the professors’ side of the game.

I know that starting with the culture of television has become one of my tropes, something that one might put on a Gilmour Bingo board with some confidence.  But it’s a helpful tool for thinking through these questions, and it bears out on this question. One of the grand developments of the television era is the talking head, the Cronkite or the Murrow who stands as the face and voice of the news.  As a reaction to the abuses of the press in the first half of the twentieth century, these television journalists assumed a stance of neutrality, a normally-unspoken claim to stand above the arguments of the moment.  The format of broadcast news lent power to that model: although people are formally free to disagree, nonetheless they cannot step onto the set and debate publicly the anchor of a news program.

Another development that television makes possible is the national protest.  The sorts of protests that arose in the Civil Rights era no doubt aimed at good aims and moved with the best of motivations.  Nonetheless, they were exploiting a new dynamic impossible in a time without television: as King himself sometimes noted and as James Cone and others have written, the aims of such protests were not to spur the consciences of the cops in Mississippi or the diner owners in Alabama but to give television cameras something to capture, to create pressure by those means in places like Massachusetts and California which in turn would lead to action in Washington.  While they drew inspiration from Gandhi, they ultimately hoped not that they would become so troublesome that the nation would let them govern themselves but that they would inspire pity via televised news coverage.  What the Civil Rights movement and later the anti-war movement and later still the anti-abortion movement learned from such moments was that television cameras were powerful instruments, that an event that “raised consciousness” could yield political results entirely out of proportion to the event’s effects in time and space unmodified by mass communications, again largely because nobody had the power in the moment to present counter-images or responses in the same medium.

A college lecture hall is not the same as a national televised audience, but the relationship between the professor and the students is analogous.  In a modern research university, even if a professor wanted to develop and sustain classical friendship with all 300 students (I’ve overheard conversations in the halls of my own department that indicate emphatically otherwise), such an outlay of time would be impossible given the limits of the human body and the other demands of the professor’s life.  So the professor becomes in some cases the class’s anchor, speaking to a sea of faces without stories, or at most the moderator of a call-in show in which people can fire in one-liners and raise objections but ultimately only provide fodder for the “host’s” already-programmed talk.  In fact, the college lecture no doubt influenced the format for the AM radio news talk show, another strange development of the era of mass communications.

The problem with the college lecture, from a moral standpoint, is that students have a sense, and I tend to think it’s a good sense, that a talking head has no place calling for the kind of change that a friend can demand.  Assuming for a moment that Aristotle was wrong and that friendship can happen between a teacher and her student irrespective of the differences in status and power, a college lecture hall is not a place where any sort of friendship has room to develop.  In a hall full of 300 tuition-paying customers, a professor cannot even know the stories, much less establish anything like a sense of common ends, with any of them.  Some might start out already pursuing the professor’s ends, but those starting otherwise simply do not have time in 15 weeks to establish those sorts of connections.

I focus on the form of the college lecture hall because my own college years would not have been nearly as dear to me had a handful of professors not sought to change my mind, to do the sorts of things that Horowitz finds distasteful.  When I started college I found the word “pacifism” distasteful and the word “postmodernism” pernicious, having read C.S. Lewis’s famous essay on why he was not a pacifist and a handful of essays on the dangers of postmodernism.  But a philosophy professor, over the course of six semesters, worked on a handful of us, and by the time all was said and done, he had made disciples of us.  Yet when he taught his sections the college’s mandatory capstone class, Christ and Culture, he never took the hard line that he did with his philosophy majors.  Most folks who leave Milligan remain convinced of the goodness of military spending and handgun ownership, and most leave suspicious of postmodernism irrespective of having had a class with this professor.  He was content, with the students that he taught only for a semester, to provide some thought-provoking discussions and to muddy up some of the answers that once seemed clear.  With his philosophy students (I remain his philosophy student ten years later), he felt free to disciple and usually made disciples, and I remain to this day in contact with a handful of his disciples, hard-line just war theorists (that is to say, after the old tradition that holds most wars to be unjust) and suspicious of the progress that reason and democracy promise.

The difference, even in a small Christian college, between one semester and six is immense.  My professor knew that in fifteen weeks, he did not have time to earn the respect necessary for real discipleship.  Unlike the teachers in Horowitz’s horror stories, he did not take the classroom to be his own televised protest, a time to “raise consciousness” and to trumpet his own superiority over the students whose reactions would likely have been disgust and anger.  Instead he realized that he had different tasks to perform when he taught students for one semester and one semester only and when he taught those within his major: in the latter case he knew that he could do as Socrates and Jesus and Ambrose had done before him.  He could teach people to carry on the really important conversations and the debates beyond his classroom.  In the former, he did not.

Such is not to say that lecture courses are useless; on the contrary, a well-conceived series of lectures can bring students into new worlds, giving them rudimentary grasps on the vocabularies of Greek philosophy, physics, astronomy, sociology, and a broad range of human disciplines of knowledge.  Such things require a tour guide, not a friend, and to have those vocabularies, even if one does not become a psychologist or a mathematician, is helpful because of the resources to which one gains access.  (The NASA website, just for one example, is far more fascinating when one knows what one is looking at.)

To get back to the original question, I have a hunch that there would be fewer cases of students complaining about “liberal bias” or “indoctrination” if professors would give up the idea that they’re staging televised protests in the classroom and renew the interesting vocation of guiding students through unknown territories in human knowledge.  For that matter, although I have only encountered as many horror stories as Horowitz and the Georgia Guard Dawg have drudged up, I cannot think of any that occurred when a professor addressed students within her or his major.  (I know Horowitz objects to the very existence of some majors like Women’s Studies and Peace Studies and English, but that’s not what I’m talking about.)  Most that I can remember (I’ll be glad for comments to point to exceptions) happened in general lecture sections, places where students are in for one semester and out, places where Aristotelian friendship has neither time nor attention to develop.

As my own blog title attests, I do not suppose that I’ve got the last word on this, but I figured it might be useful to throw this out and ask for conversation.



Filed under teaching

2 responses to “A New Assay Regarding College Teachers’ Conduct

  1. In higher education, there are a set of directives coming down from the governing bodies that move away from lecture classes to a more interactive classroom model, for they’ve noticed that lectures don’t seem as effective as directed discussions. This isn’t news to any teacher with a passion for conversation, but it seems to be groundbreaking for some instructors who still see themselves as authorities bequeathing knowledge from Olympus instead of well-read members of the laboring horde.

    I, too, resist the idea that teachers and students can be friends as I define the term, though I tend to look at this as a Foucaltian issue of power instead of Aristotlean: that is, the position of teacher in an institution of education as well the role of student in that same institution inherently divides this duo, regardless of the depth and duration of that individual relationship.

  2. I was unclear; when I said “lecture classes” I meant those classes that students generally take as the only class in a given department. My own frosh comp classes are almost exclusively discussion, but I still think of them as lecture classes, and I’m inclined not to push on students the way I’d push on friends.

    I think that teachers and students must be friends if there’s to be any real education to happen. That said, I do concede that the power dynamic makes such a thing quite difficult. Nonetheless, I do know that I have become the teacher I’ve become because a handful of professors have ventured to take that risk, when I was an undergrad and when I was a grad student.

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