My teaching philosophy and pedagogical practice are grounded in a clear distinction between information and knowledge, and the closely related distinction between memorizing and learning. Most systemic education emphasizes memorization and regurgitation of information, but this is only the first step to anything resembling knowledge. Teaching in state universities and community colleges, and now even at private universities, I continue to see a (growing) overemphasis on quantifiable “outcomes” at the undergraduate level—business as usual for a generation of students raised with No Child Left Behind. The unstated implications of this emphasis—and the assumptions that these students bring to college—are that the “information” is always out there to be found, the questions are always given, and there is a (single) “right” answer to every question. While most of my students will admit to some vague recognition that “the real world” doesn’t operate in this fashion, these assumptions are deeply ingrained and entrained. The need to get good grades in order finish school and then get a good job combine in students with assumptions about the givenness of information to generate an attitude of “just tell us the answer” and “what’s going to be on the test?” rather than “what does that mean?,” “how can or why would someone think that?,” or even just “why?” Few of my undergraduate students have been taught how to think. What they have all been taught is how to take tests.
This emphasis on the accumulation of information supports the myth of “two sides to every story,” a myth grounded in a long tradition of agonistic debate that privileges the how of technique over the why of theory, winning over evaluating. But there are never only two sides, and there is never a single “right” answer. The “right” answer is pre-determined by a particular perspective and a given orientation to a given question. In life, however, questions are rarely given—in life (as opposed to school) answers are relatively easy; it is questions that are hard. This is precisely why I avoid the use of commercial textbooks at all costs: textbooks reinforce the myth of the “right” answer, the myth of the givenness of information, the myth of fixed relations. Productive questioning—or “critical thinking”—requires comparative perspectives and orientation. Knowledge is necessarily pluralistic.
In this sense, learning, like knowledge, is necessarily rhetorical. Learning to think critically is learning to think rhetorically—learning to acknowledge, understand, and accommodate different, sometimes conflicting, sometimes incommensurable perspectives. In my pedagogical practice I aim to give students “equipment for living” in tools for understanding. My pedagogy, like my teaching philosophy, is therefore inherently reflexive. The form of teaching and the unacknowledged assumptions about what constitutes “learning” are always themes in my courses, regardless of subject or level. My students are always challenged to think about why they are learning what they are learning and why they are learning or being taught it in this way. This requires comparison with their previous experiences of education, of learning, and of teaching. When necessary, I consciously work to undermine my own authority to achieve this goal: Do not trust me. Question me. Question everything. The practice of interrogating educational and pedagogical practice itself leads almost inevitably (or at least ideally) beyond processes of “critical thinking” (evaluation) to processes of justification. When students are able to justify—for themselves and in their own terms—why particular pedagogical practices are valuable in comparison to others, they are far more likely invest themselves both in those practices and in the specific, immediate outcomes of the assignments and the course.
As a middle-aged white male, I come to the classroom, like anyone else, enmeshed in cultural and categorical biases, assumptions, and expectations. I simply do not face the challenges that my female colleagues, or those of different ethnic backgrounds face. Students do not, for example, openly challenge me in the way that they will challenge instructors and professors who do not fit the traditional (as opposed to actual) category of “professor.” My challenges are, in fact, sometimes precisely the opposite. Where many of my not-middle-aged-white-male colleagues must forcefully demand respect and legitimacy as authority figures from students, I often must undermine the cultural authority of my gender, ethnicity, and apparent or assumed class in order to get students to question me at all. (If they do not question, they are not thinking.) Because I do not always behave like an authority figure (even in the classroom), students often “like” me, and my classes are popular. Though I firmly believe that students learn better from instructors and professors whom they “like,” teaching is not a popularity contest, and the line between teacher and friend must be carefully managed (ideally as mentor-mentee). I do this by making sure that the authority I have in the classroom—the authority, ultimately, to evaluate my students—comes from my knowledge and expertise and not from my title, position at the front of the classroom, or the way I look or speak. I work hard to make sure that my authority as a teacher is grounded in my students’ trust in me as a reliable source of knowledge (not just of information) and as a person who will judge them fairly based upon their merits, efforts, and uniqueness as thoughtful individuals.
In developing this perspective and approaching students in this way over the years, I can say that I have never had a “dumb” student. I have had students who were less prepared. I have had students who had never been taught to think. But in those cases, I have almost always been rewarded by those who felt that their inherent abilities and humanity were recognized. Similarly some of my biggest “fans” have been those truly exceptional students who have recognized and felt released from the treadmill of information accumulation to more deeply consider the whys of the subjects being explored, as well as the relation of the whys to the actual and potential hows.