Some people get really pissed at universities that use and abuse their graduate students and force them to teach all the mundane low-level classes to undergrads who, often with a strong sense of entitlement, don’t care about class, don’t try, and certainly don’t appreciate you or the fact that you have your own work to be doing as you go through the motions before they get their easy “A.”
As a graduate student in the third year of my program, I have already taught about 150 students of my own in four classes (not to mention the 60 or so others I TAed for in a class that even I struggled to really appreciate). But for me, I view teaching as an opportunity and I am so happy to have had experiences in the classroom that have helped my learning, thinking, and growing more than almost any class I have had as a graduate student. That I get to teach is one of the only reasons why I have made it this far in my program (and by constantly reminding myself that my life was literally changed after taking one philosophy class from one of the best professors, so I know that it is at least possible to make a difference, even if my students don’t become “philosophers” themselves).
Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to put together my own syllabi for classes that I have been genuinely interested in teaching. In “Basic Problems of Philosophy” I focused the course on four questions: What is philosophy? What is the purpose of philosophy? Who is the philosopher? What is the philosopher’s task? I loved the 6-week intensity of teaching “Philosophy, Love, and Sex” this summer. Seeing my students every day was very conducive to the continuity in conversations that I think is essential to deep thinking. And finally, I have just concluded my course “Philosophy, Race, and Diversity.” We started with one of my favorite essays by George Yancy on philosophers as “trouble makers” and read some excellent books–Charles Mills’ ‘The Racial Contract,’ Linda Alcoff’s ‘Visible Identities,’ and Ladelle McWhorter’s ‘Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America” (go here for a recent interview about the book). This class was by far the most challenging of them all. At times, I was fearful that the class would end up a complete failure, worst of all, because my students were so often reflecting RACIST views, not anti-racist views (obviously, the latter are my preferred perspectives).
My goal in teaching is always to help my students cultivate the skills that will allow them to be more critical thinkers, not just about society and problems around them, but to understand themselves better, too. Just like any other kind of interaction, if students put their defenses up or are unwilling to be honest with themselves and others, we don’t get very far (sometimes, as I have just learned, it takes a whole semester for people to put their guard down…like life, I suppose, some people don’t ever get there in your time with them). Listening to others is crucial, being able to write and speak in ways that express your views is important, and the ability to be self-reflexive is completely necessary. And I don’t teach material just so they will know what so-and-so said about “x.” My methodology and selected content are intended to provide students with insights, perspectives, and questions that will enable them to be better students, better citizens, and better people (I am hugely influenced by hooks here). Pardon the redundancy, but I don’t want to just open them up to philosophical lesson. Ideally, I hope that by being more philosophical, my students will also uncover some life lessons that will help them as they move through the world (it’s philifesophy). Clearly, I have high hopes for my students and high expectations of myself!
Given the challenges of teaching, the highs and lows, the adrenaline rushes and great disappointments, the moments of insight and spells of insecurity, and the open-endedness of it all, which can often be devalued as just the cover of ineffectuality, I have to keep some record of the rewards. I don’t want to let myself get carried away in worries that this is worthless work or catch a spell of the contagious skepticism that is always circulating among philosophers (and academics) about what we do.
At the end of each semester, it’s always a bit scary to wait and see if any of the students “got it” (and not just if they adequately comprehended the arguments. I mean the point of this whole learning thing in general). Fortunately, after this go around, my students papers demonstrated that many of them did end up “getting it”–which is HUGE given that we had to bust through some seriously thick commitments to epistemologies of ignorance (Mills, 18). I am re-energized by the notes and emails that my students give me. Because this semester was especially challenging, I write some of the final reflections from students below:
“…I discovered a feeling that I had not had at the conclusion of other books. It’s not that I had it all figured out, but I did finally see the big picture. Instead of just trying to fix racial differences overnight, McWhorter stressed that we keep challenging what is normal and abnormal, as my classmate Ray pointed out. She wants us to keep “doing likewise”…While she–and I–knows that it is not a guaranteed that we can get [to a world without racism], for now this is all that we can do. At the beginning of our class, I was one of those people that thought philosophy really was about old white men and their ridiculous ideas. Now, I am one of those “trouble makers” myself, and I am damn proud of it.”
In a later email, this student also wrote,
I just wanted to thank you for this semester. I truly enjoyed every class that we had, and always looked forward to Tuesdays and Thursdays because of our discussions. This is a class much different than my others, not only because it was an elective, but also because I will be able to take so much from what we’ve talked about all semester. I really enjoyed our conversations, which led me to discover a few things about myself. I wish that all of my classes were like this one and hopefully we can meet up again in the future.”
“The semester before I had just taken Sociology 119 which had dealt with race, so I thought the course would be easy and that I would already know everything. I was very wrong. One can never know too much about racism, there’s always something to talk about and learn about. This is one of the things I have recently learned. I learned many things about racism including what the word actually means, how identities are formed and interpreted, and how many people think of racism itself. Along with what I have learned about the subjects taught to me the past semester, I have learned about myself.
I spoke in a way that reflected my confidence of me not being racist, and that I knew everything about racism. Outside of class I talked in a way that I was not racist and in a way that I knew all about the subject matter. Whenever I had a conversation about someone being racist I put them under the bus and defended my actions. This is much like 20th Century American and what they did to Hitler. After reading Mill’s (sic) book I had still not realized all the things I did and the way that I am still racist. Ironically I was a perfect example of Mill’s main point; I was part of the epistemology of ignorance. It is a term that I had never heard of before reading his book, but it is a term that I will use many times after. It ‘s a very ingenious term which describes the ‘White’ person’s ignorance to racism. I think the reason why at first I did not realize that I fell into his theory is because I had defined racism in a narrow way. I defined racism in a way that made me not racist.
I have enjoyed this class and am happy that it has allowed me to look in a mirror. It has allowed me to think in a different way, in a way that will make me a better person. Earlier I used the phrase that I was wrong with my thoughts, but I think that was a little inaccurate. (The sensitivity he demonstrates here blows me away!!-CW)I did not use those phrases to say that I am right now. That would allow me to quickly slip back into the epistemology of ignorance. I will never be right, there will always be something to learn or to adjust in my thought process. From this course forward, I will continue to learn, and I will do my best to make myself a better person especially when it comes to my ideas on racism.”
“After learning the genealogical account of our history along with ideas fostered by you, Cori, I feel today compared to the first day of class, that there is now something that I can do to help get rid of racism and racism against the abnormal.
Overall, this class really did broaden my horizons on things that actually happened in history to what the common beliefs are about such events…I did not realize it until the end, but I thought McWhorter’s book did a great joby to get us see that some of our values are flawed and that being more critical is necessary. Well, there you have it, these were many of the things I learned and that changed how I think and view society now. I was glad to have participated in a class that generated this much thinking, and really do feel my horizons have expanded from taking this class. Thanks, Cori, and hope to still see you around campus.”
Though shout-outs of appreciation warm my heart, the truly rewarding moments are when I see my students becoming better writers and better thinkers, and especially when they start making connections on their own!
I am immensely grateful for the work of those thinkers who write amazing books who give my students and me lots to chew on. I am also grateful for what I learn from my students and what I learn from undergoing the process of thinking through big questions and important issues with them. They help me grow, and they also motivate me to keep doing what I am doing because they prove to me that teachers DO important work, regardless of whether or not this happens in a classroom.
Teaching is a skill and an art form that I hope to continue cultivating in myself. It’s been my dream, my goal, and what I have wanted to do for a very long time. And I must admit, that I am quite pleased that at the ripe old age of 24, I have already had been able to do what I want to do, how I want to do it. Whatever happens after I actually get my degrees, I will be satisfied with what I have been able to accomplish as a graduate student. And I will, like some of my students, always try to keep in mind the lessons that I have learned and use them to help me be a better teacher, a better student, a better philosopher, and a better person.