Saturday, April 12, 2014

Fear and Teaching

As mentioned here or elsewhere, I am working through Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach.  It is a must read, but I don't think it would speak to young teachers, someone in their twenties.  It is for people who have taught at least a decade and have enough life experience for what he writes to resonate with them.  It is both a wise and spiritual book.  I hope to write half so good something about teaching  in the future, and I plan to use the book as a basis for a learning community in the fall, related to my dissertation.

The chapter on fear and the Student from Hell so resonated with me that I am still in awe.  My students are fearful, and sometimes they hide it with bravado, rudeness, seclusion, avoidance.  I am fearful, too, stupidly of student evaluations.  So much is put on those that we good teachers are afraid to challenge.  I don't mean like the colleague who told his students to get their heads out of the a---. I mean to avoid pandering and putting a mirror up to them about their world.

As mentioned before, I am taking a class at UGA I am not particularly fond of, but I am working through that and learning anyway.  What has surprised me most is my classmates' lack of knowledge of the world; if these doctoral students don't know about China's one child policy, if they don't know what's going on in Syria, if they don't know why the U.S. should be concerned about Putin and the Ukraine (and these are serious questions brought up in class), how can I expect my students or Joe Blow on the street to care.  What the hell is wrong with us?  Why are we so self-absorbed?

I am reading, slowly, through Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, which could be called Fearful New World.  As a communication scholar, it's scaring me to death.  In Human Communication class the other day, (it's a very basic course) the chapter I was teaching was on Mass Media (from Julia T. Wood's book, Mosaics, which I highly recommend), and my lecture was the five theories of mass media's influence on us.  I started by having the students write on the board the TV shows they watched on a regular basis over the last three years.  What a collection--almost nothing I would watch (but I watch almost no TV anyway).  Then after the lecture I asked which theory explained their viewing.  They wanted to say Uses and Gratification theory, but it was clear to me it was cumulative effects.  They watch shows that have over the years caused them to not be shocked by anything!  So I said that.  I was not afraid to, and I think that is the difference between pandering and engaging, between being courageous and being fearful of what you will be thought of and that it might affect teacher evals.  This is why I hope, and think, that tenure will go away, and why we need better methods of evaluating teaching.  More on that later.

At the same time, I have been an incredibly fearful and wimpy teacher at times, more times fearful than courageous.


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