Talking to Students

It happened again on Monday. We were talking in class about the importance of the body in Christian theology — not in any rigorous way, but I was pointing out that many Christians think that when you die you go to heaven and stay there forever. But then what about the Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”? If the body is the principle of individuation, then you will need a body (perhaps a “glorified” body) in order to be you. According to Christian tradition, dying and going to heaven is not the end of the story.

Anyway, prior to this discussion students were giving their opinions as to what happens after you die. Some said that you will come back in another body, perhaps even as an animal. Some thought you would come back, but only as some other human being. But, as usual, most thought when you die (if you’re good) you go to heaven forever. By the way, only a few thought some other people (bad people) would go to hell forever.

Then a couple of students asked me what I thought about it. As usual, I punted. I said, “Who cares what I think? I’m just some guy.” They insisted. I replied that I have a certain power relation to them, and that if I were to give my views either (a.) students would believe it was true because it was my view; (b.) students would not believe it, but would regurgitate it on the test in the hopes of getting a better grade by appearing to believe what I believe; (c.) students would just fixate on my beliefs to the detriment of our learning the views of some really important thinkers. One student, however, asked, “Well how about (d.), simple curiosity?”

All this brought to mind a piece in Chronicle of Higher Education by my good friend, Paul Sracic, entitled, “Teach Only What You Know,” (10/11/2007). Sracic, a professor and Chair of the department of political science at Youngstown State University, was asked during one of his government classes whom he intended to vote for in the presidential election. Sracic refused to answer. Indeed, he took the fact that his students did not have any idea who he supported to be a sign that he was doing his job well. He said the college catalogue description of the course didn’t say anything about his sharing his political views, and, besides, he was no more qualified to answer that question (as an academic matter) than anyone else in any other department. He argued that in cases where knowledge (as opposed to opinion) was available, then we ought to consult the person(s) holding that expertise. But in cases where such knowledge is lacking, let everyone decide for himself. No one is an expert.

When we are all equally ignorant, we might as well vote.

His piece elicited a great deal of commentary and criticism. While many applauded his professionalism, many others took him to task for cheating his students of something they came to college particularly to get: the informed views of teachers and scholars who’ve done some real legwork in the questions that we all face. Students, the critics argued, are not sheep, and they will not mindlessly ape their teachers. Why not tell them your views? They asked.

The more intense criticism tried to make analogies: What if they asked you your view of torture? Would you simply coyly demure? Is there not a moral imperative attached to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom? And would it not be a moral failure to refrain from making moral judgments (no matter how unpopular).?

I may have mentioned that I am no fan of the comments section of websites. However, back in the day I felt compelled to toss in my two-cents’ worth on the matter. I have reproduced those comments here, but the gist is that, while I am sympathetic to Sracic’s concerns, the university – especially in the humanities – has lost its way in exploring the great questions of existential and spiritual concern in its obsession with “professionalism.” Being a professional is important, of course, but can we professors not put ourselves as well as our learning into our work?

So today, I had to decide what to say – if anything – to my students who I put off on Monday. I was not sure what I was going to do even up to the point I opened my mouth to begin the class. But I told them about Paul, about my response, and how I did not think I was consistent with my otherwise deeply held views. I then asked them if they would like me to share my opinions about such things as life after death and other questions about which no one has any expertise – certainly not I.

For the most part, they said yes they would. One student preferred that I did not because he had had an experience with another prof who always gave his (or her?) personal view, and then students who got bad scores on papers chalked it up to their disagreement with the prof. Another student pointed out that, in effect, they trust me not to be like that. I think I can say that they really can trust me on that point.

So I told them what I think. And now, with the same trepidation, I will tell you, dear reader: What I think is both (a.) that when you die, you’re dead and (b.) that Kellie (my wife) and I will be together somehow forever and ever, that we are far more connected than physics can explain or comprehend. I have no reason to think people come back. I believe that each and every human that has ever lived is unique, a singularity as Caputo would say, and when we die the world – the cosmos – loses something. I don’t keep a scorecard for beliefs vs. knowledge. I know I don’t know what happens after death. The question for me is whether the answer to that question matters now, in this life, and if so, how? But, for what it’s worth (and it’s not much), I told them (and now you) what I think.

They asked me my religion. I told them: “Heinz 57 Varieties.” They asked me if I go to church. I told them I go to brunch or go birding. They asked my why I had trouble with the RC church. I told them I felt abandoned when I went through a crisis. They asked me if I am an atheist. I told them that I am definitely not, but that I usually act like one. They asked me a bunch of questions. I do not mean to say that anyone was truly prying, and I did not in any way “over-share,” as they say. But for a few minutes I did feel unusually vulnerable.

I found it was a bit difficult for me at times. Maybe that’s because I hide behind my persona too much. Maybe it is because I know that as today’s discussion was oriented, it was not the purpose of our class meeting. Maybe I was uncomfortable not knowing (and exhibiting that non-knowing). Maybe I didn’t like my own views, or didn’t like that I couldn’t articulate them well or explain them satisfactorily.

These kinds of questions, as you can easily see, are either personal questions (and not really part of the curriculum at all) or broadly philosophical questions that cannot be managed in soundbites. One student – one of my very good ones (in a whole class-full of very good ones) – noted that the questions raised today were “too big” and would be better discussed “over coffee.” She is right, of course. Good philosophical method dictates one should try to analyze the big questions into more manageable bites and certainly to give arguments for those views. I freely admitted I had no good arguments (although, maybe I have “arguments” of some sort…).

I will never be the guy who comes into class and wastes a lot of time talking about sports or my hobbies or spouting off my political views (I have a blog for that!). But I suppose if in the future I am asked for my opinions about such things as I usually refrain from addressing, I should consider answering if there is some way to tie it into what we’re doing (as I tried to do a couple of times even in today’s session). I think it might help deepen the trust relation that I am fortunate to have with my students. I had to trust them, or I would not have had that kind of conversation with them today.

Every class I collected a notecard from the students which includes their understanding of the key points of the day’s class and a question or two that arose for them. I read today’s notecards with particular attention. I would say that the overwhelming majority of students who offered their opinion of the day’s session as a whole indicated that it was a positive experience.

I am grateful to them, and I would not want to cheat them in any way.

Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students – even himself.

[Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 63, trans. Walter Kaufmann]

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  1. Reply to Sracic (2007) | Peripatetic Praxis

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