Professionalism and Teaching

It’s been a few months since I last taught an undergraduate class and that’s given me time to reflect on my teaching style. I’ve always maintained that my job as an academic is to provoke students, startle them out of their complacency and destabilise their cozy views of the world. I still hold that unquestioned assumptions are the weakest ones and if students possess any views then they should be able to critically explain them. For that reason, it has been my mission during classes to be the one continuously posing questions.

I recall clearly one occasion where on being asked for feedback about the class I had just taught, one student’s anonymous plaint was the slew of questions to which answers were not provided during lectures! I don’t think it is unkind to demand that students acquire information from selected readings in order to have a dialogue about the questions posed. My own experience was that it was always the most challenging and rewarding part of being at university–being able to have conversations about the most esoteric topics ever. For me, this giddying exultant love for learning was the most precious part of being a student.

It hasn’t always been easy to justify this approach but I didn’t arrive at it without carefully considering and comparing my teaching practice from year to year. Just lately I’ve been reading the transcripts of a series of Reith Lectures delivered by the late Edward Said in 1993 in which he addresses the role of the intellectual. Whether it is understood as such or not, teaching at university level is an intellectual task. Here’s what Said says:

“There is no such thing as a private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world. Nor is there only a public intellectual, someone who exists just as a figuredhead or spokesperson or symbol of a cause, movement, or position. There is always the personal inflection and the private sensibility, and those give meaning to what is being said or written. Least of all, should an intellectual be there to make his or her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.”

“the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public, in public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues who are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”

Some of those who’ve had to sit through my lectures will remember that in one of my favourite units I end the semester with a reflection on the sensibility that the curriculum was designed to share. That is the sensibility of the explorer, the seeker of knowledge and the asker of questions big and small. To that I will add that I hope that whenever I teach I will do so with the sensibility of an amateur and regard teaching as “an activity that is fuelled by care and affection rather than profit, and selfish, narrow specialisation” (Said, Lecture 4: Professionals and Amateurs).

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