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"The Longer I Teach, the Less Certain I Am of What I Know"

What one educator taught another about what teaching really means.
 
 
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“Good teaching is living your life honestly in front of students.”

I don’t recall exactly when Jim Koplin first told me that, but I know that he had to say it several times before I began to understand what he meant. Koplin was that kind of teacher—always honing in on simple, but profound, truths; fond of nudging through aphorisms that required time to understand their full depth; always aware of the connection between epistemology and ethics; and patient with slow learners.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Some background: Jim Koplin was, by way of a formal introduction, Dr. James H. Koplin, granted a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1962 with a specialization in language acquisition, tenured at Vanderbilt University and later a founding faculty member of Hampshire College, retired early in 1980 to a rich life of community building and political organizing. I never took a class from him, though in some sense the 24 years I knew him constituted one long independent study. That finally ended on December 15, 2012, not upon satisfactory completion of the course but when Jim died at the age of 79. He left behind a rich and diverse collection of friends, all of whom have a special connection with him. But I hang onto the conceit that I am his intellectual heir, the one who most directly continued his work in the classroom.

So, with that conceit firmly in place and his death fresh in my mind, it seems proper and fitting that I offer lessons learned from Koplin to the world outside his circle of students and friends.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in my 20 years of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin reflecting on Jim’s core insight, that good teaching is living your life honestly in front of students. The first, and most obvious, implication is a rejection of the illusory neutrality that some professors claim. From the framing of a course, to the choice of topics for inclusion on the syllabus, to the selection of readings, to the particular way we talk about ideas—teaching in the social sciences and humanities is political, through and through. Political, in this sense, does not mean partisan advocacy of a particular politician, party, or program, but rather recognizing the need to assess where real power lies, analyze how that power operates in any given society, and acknowledge the effect of that power on what counts as knowledge.

Every professor’s “politics” in this sense has considerable influence on his/her teaching, and I believe it is my obligation to make clear to students the political judgments behind my decisions. The objective is not to strong-arm students into agreement, but to explain those choices and defend them when challenged by students. At the end of a successful semester, students should be able to identify my assumptions, critique them, and be clearer about their own.

I would recommend this approach for all faculty members, but it has been particularly important for me because I am politically active in fairly public ways, which students often learn about through mass media and the internet. To make clear the difference between the goals of Jensen-in-the-classroom (encouraging critical thinking) and Jensen-in-public (advocating political positions), I have taken extra care to be transparent in front of students. This also was a product of my time with Jim, who insisted that if intellectual inquiry led one to conclusions about what is needed to advance social justice and ecological sustainability, then one should contribute to those projects. Jim’s life offered me a model for how intellectual work need not be separated from community and political work. In one of my early conversations with Jim about this balance, he referred me to one of his elders, Scott Nearing, who said that three simple principles guided his life: the quest “to learn the truth, to teach the truth, and to help build the truth into the life of the community.” Each of those endeavors feeds the other two; scholarship, teaching, and community engagement are a package deal for me. But Jim always reminded me that what one does in front of students is not the same as what one does in front of a crowd at a rally, or in an organizing meeting.

 
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