In 26 years of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, I never shied away from controversial topics in the classroom or from political controversies on the streets. I have been sharply critiqued (that’s welcome and healthy) and on occasion canceled (that’s not been so productive) by people from the right, left, and center, depending on the issue (capitalism, racial justice, transgender ideology, U.S. foreign policy, environmental degradation).
Watching today’s heated debates over academic freedom and freedom of speech on campuses, I find myself sometimes itching to be back in the fight and at other times grateful that I retired five years ago. Though I’m out of the game, I find myself still intensely interested in joining the conversation. The debates of the moment are important, but my instinct from the sidelines is to offer what may seem trivial: a reminder of how much fun intellectual life can be.
So, rather than analyze the current crises and argue about policy, I offer a reflection on teaching that I wrote in 2012, one of several “statement of teaching philosophy” essays I had to write over the years for performance reviews. Rather than pontificate on academic freedom, important though it is right now, I want to reflect on academic joy, about what can be so exciting about the life of the mind—even in the modern university.
Statement of Teaching Philosophy, January 2012
After years of research, I have developed a three-stage teaching method that breaks new ground in pedagogical theory: Stage 1: Pay attention. Stage 2: Be astonished. Stage 3: Tell about it.
The first thing to say about this sophisticated advance in our understanding of university teaching is that I stole it from Mary Oliver’s poem “Sometimes.”
If it appears that I’m trying to poke fun at university professors’ self-indulgent tendency toward pomposity, I am. Since I am a university professor who occasionally can be self-indulgent and pompous, I have standing to poke fun. Frankly, we don’t poke fun at ourselves enough. That’s part of my teaching philosophy: Poke fun at myself, as often as possible, especially in front of students.
In this regard, poets perform an important service for professors. If we professors are ever tempted to claim that we have had an original insight into the human condition, we should pause and remember this: There’s at least one poet, and likely dozens, who had the insight long before we did and who expressed it far more eloquently than we could ever hope to do.
I don’t teach poetry, but I often read poetry to my class. That’s part of my teaching philosophy, to remind students that whatever the subject, poets have something important to say to us. I read to my students even though I have had no voice training and am not particularly good at reciting poetry. That’s part of my teaching philosophy, too. I think it’s healthy for students to see professors stumble. When every word we utter in class is precise and polished, it can create distance between professor and student. Students are too easily impressed by us, and they can come to believe we are our performances. Better that they see we are human beings, struggling and stumbling, so that intellectual work doesn’t appear to be something only specialists can do. Our job isn’t to be smart but to help students understand that they can be smart, too.
So I read to my class, from Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, from Marge Piercy and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I play songs, too, though I’m sensible enough not to sing in class.
Back to Oliver. Those three recommendations comprise her “instructions for living a life.” They also are serviceable instructions for teaching. I try to pay attention, not only to the scholarship in my field but to the world around me, which means I try to get out in the world beyond the university as often as possible. I am constantly astonished by the human capacity for both depravity and love, and I spend considerable time trying to figure out these paradoxes. I tell about it as often as possible, as a teacher, public speaker, and writer.
After 20 years of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, I have written numerous statements about my teaching philosophy. Each exercise is an opportunity for me to challenge myself. The somewhat unorthodox style of this essay comes not from a lack of respect for the assignment but a desire to challenge myself in a new way. This might be because, after 20 years, I have a sense that I’m a better teacher than ever, but at the same time I’m less sure why that might be the case.
Here’s one plausible answer to the question of why my teaching might be better today: I’m more comfortable with ambiguity than when I was younger. As we age we have a choice. We can conclude that we’re right in our assertions about the world and proceed based on that assumption. Or we can conclude that we’re right and proceed based on the assumption that we’re missing something.
I have spent considerable time studying the role of news media in our culture, politics, and economy. I am confident that the assertions I make about that institution and those systems are compelling. I’m pretty sure that I’m right, and I argue strenuously that those assertions are the best way to understand journalism and society. And I also wonder about whether I’m indeed right.
Time for another poet. Faiz Ahmed Faiz concludes his poem “The City from Here”:
There are flames dancing in the farthest corners, throwing their shadows on a group of mourners. Or are they lighting up a feast of poetry and wine? From here you cannot tell, as you cannot tell whether the color clinging to those distant doors and walls is that of roses or of blood.
I read that poem to my journalism students as a reminder that when we look, we look from one perspective. “When you look at the city from here,” from any one place, it can be easy to confuse roses and blood. Since we are always looking from somewhere, caution and humility are important. I read that poem to remind students that their point of view is a point of view. I read that poem to remind myself as well.
With that winding introduction, here’s a concise statement of my teaching philosophy: I have the best job in the world. I get paid a salary that allows me to live comfortably and give back to the community. To earn this salary, I am asked to spend my time thinking, reading, writing, and talking, all things I enjoy doing even when not being paid. On occasion, I have to go to a boring meeting or file a stupid report, which can at times be annoying. But all in all, this is a really good gig. The least I can do is pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it with as much joy and passion as possible. When I do that, I think I’m a pretty good teacher, and I think I do that most every day I walk into the classroom.
But I’m not 100 percent sure I’m as good as I think. When I look out at my students and see roses, maybe that’s just how the city looks from the lectern. Perhaps I simply don’t see the blood.
Time for a closing metaphor, this time borrowed from Wendell Berry’s poem, “To Know the Dark”:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
We are the best teachers when we aren’t afraid of the dark. When I began teaching, I went into the dark with the biggest flashlight I could find. That light allowed me to see many things, but the intensity of the beam obscured other things, those traveling in the shadows. That light allowed me to feel smart, but these days I am less reassured by being smart. The older I get, the more I realize that being smart isn’t going to get us all the way home.
So these days I carry a smaller flashlight, and I turn it off as often as I can muster the courage. My best teaching is when I go dark.
Image credit: Paul Michel Dupuy, Children playing in the Parc Monceau, Paris