Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Abandoning an Agenda

Most professors will tell you they never teach with an agenda, that they don't try to push their beliefs onto their students. But the truth is that any teacher in a classroom does this to a certain degree. It's rather hard not to do so. Let's say you're faced with a room full of racists, and you're reading a book about empowered black women. Would it be wrong to encourage your students to rethink their stereotype of the African-American community so that they can approach the book in a way that allows them to appreciate these characters?  Let's say you're faced with a room full of homophobes, and you're all reading a book about a lesbian who refuses to apologize for finally finding the one person who makes her happy.  Would it be wrong to encourage the students to be open to this literary character's admirable strength in the face of oppression, despite the students' reservations regarding what they do not understand?

I find I'm faced with this delicate balance every day.  At what point am I teaching them to think for themselves, and at what point am I encouraging them to see the world as I do? I'm constantly faced with people who say things like, "Homosexuality is an aberration of God," just like I might casually remark, "That's a very nice lamp you have there."  As if they haven't just shunned an entire group of people based on a narrow reading of one Biblical passage.  And I have to struggle each time with how to respond. Do I take the expansive, professorial role and say, "Oh? And what informs that opinion?" in an effort to get them to examine their beliefs? Do I point out that their profession of intolerance could've just isolated 1/4 of the room? Do I shake them by the shoulders for their close-mindedness? I'm happy to say I have never chosen option #3, though getting a little riled up has its benefits.


Pritchard said...

I, for one, completely acknowledge that I teach with an agenda. (To simplify it, though, it mostly revolves around my goal that, when my students graduate and go out into the world, they're not assholes. A few slip through the cracks.)

I admire you for not choosing option #3 although, I have to admit, I'm not sure I would be able to restrain myself. Lately, I've been calling out people bluntly for statements such as those you've mentioned (the homosexuality one, not the lamp comment) but I can get away with that because I teach high school. Additionally, I teach privileged, sheltered, mostly-white girls so, were I not to teach by injecting some of my own point of view into what we read, they might not be exposed to a different point of view very often.

Pritchard said...

Let me amend that last comment, though - my seniors are perfectly well-versed in various points of view. My freshmen, however, are just getting used to the world so I tend to be more heavy-handed in those classes. Not that I need to justify this but I realized I was sounding like an ass in that last post!