Monday, October 13, 2008

"Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat?"

My own reactions to Mark Edmundson's NYT piece on why professors are weird is somewhat ambivalent. It traffics in familiar stereotypes about the demeanor, fashion sense, etc., of the professoriate, but also captures something important about good teaching. A long snippet and some thoughts :
Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat?

Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call “counterintuitive” but to the teacher means simply being honest. The historian sees the election not through the latest news blast but in the context of presidential politics from George Washington to the present. The biologist sees a natural world that’s not calmly picturesque but a jostling, striving, evolving contest of creatures in quest of reproduction and survival. The literature professor won’t accept the current run of standard clich├ęs but demands bursting metaphors and ironies of an insinuatingly serpentine sort. The philosopher demands an argument as escapeproof as an iron box: what currently passes for logic makes him want to grasp himself by the hair and yank himself out of his seat.

Good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar. The philosophy professor steps in the window the first day of class and asks her students to write down the definition of the word “door.”...

Good teachers know that now, in what’s called the civilized world, the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance, though ignorance will do in a pinch. The great enemy of knowledge is knowingness. It’s the feeling encouraged by TV and movies and the Internet that you’re on top of things and in charge. You’re hip and always know what’s up. ... The cool character now is the knowing one; even when he’s unconventional, he’s never surprising — and most of all, he’s never surprised. Good teachers, by contrast, are constantly fighting against knowingness by asking questions, creating difficulties, raising perplexities.
Edmundson continues with some wry observations on themes such as the corporatization of the university and the sometimes pathetic way faculty introduce technology in order to seem hip and connect with their students.

I'm interested in others' reactions, but I had two thoughts.

First, in terms of our personas as teachers, I think 'weird' can be a good way to go. I don't necessarily mean by 'weird' here eccentric in a questionable-hygeine-forget-your-notes-mumbly-voiced way. I have in mind simply that it can be useful to be perceived by students as, well, different from them, simply because their perception of us is also a perception of what we teach. For example, I dress pretty professionally in the classroom ( a tie, sometimes even a bowtie a la 'The Paper Chase') in part to signal that the inquiry we're engaging in is distinctive. It's not surfing the Net or watching TV. It shows that I see the collaborative task we face as unorthodox, even demanding.

Second, I glommed on to Edmundson's remarks about teachers perceiving the world "in alternative terms" because it highlights something about the teaching of philosophy that often gets lost. In philosophy, a lot of the teaching is oriented around reasoning, but it is also an imaginative discipline in that by "asking questions, creating difficulties, raising perplexities" we help students to envision possibilities for themselves or for the world that may not have occurred to them otherwise. A lot of my best moments teaching ethics, for instance, have been when students, by following a line of reasoning, are caused to take seriously a position they had not previously entertained (that death is not an evil, etc.). Philosophy, when taught well, sparks students to ponder how the world could be rather than how they may have blithely supposed that it is.


  1. Thanks for this post Michael. I think that if we do anything in order to seem hip, whether it has to do with dress, technology, pop culture references, or whatever, we tend to get in trouble. First, I think it is just a bad motivation for action in general. Second, it is usually pretty obvious to the students that we're being inauthentic, at least as the semester progresses and they begin to get a sense of who we are as people. I actually point out that my references are dated, but it is obvious that I don't really care. Just today I was talking about what a "person" is as it relates to the abortion debate. I made the point that there could be non-human persons, like Vulcans or Klingons. As a fan of the old Star Trek shows and movies, these examples jump to mind. But I'm sure there are many more contemporary examples that are perhaps more hip. Finally, this relates to what we should do, which is be ourselves. The best teachers I had did sometimes strike me as strange, offbeat, or whatever, but they were passionate, clear, and not afraid to challenge students.

  2. About two two weeks ago Edmundson and another fellow did a recording on about education and the student mind these days. I really recommend it as I do "Why Read."


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