FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Holding On to the Joy in Teaching

by ROBERT JENSEN

I am a tenured professor in a relatively stable university, which is quite possibly the best job in the world. I get paid well to read, think, talk, and write, and I have more job security than almost anyone I know.

Like many professors, I am critical of the increasingly corporate nature of universities. The conservative/neoliberal project of turning public schools into educational factories is also gathering steam in higher education, and there is much organizing work necessary just to protect what little space for critical thinking still exists.

But the longer I teach, the more I appreciate the privileges that come with the job, and the more fun I have. So, when I recently had to write a “statement of teaching philosophy,” I tried to be reflect that gratitude and pleasure.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy: Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it

After years of research, I have developed a three-stage teaching method that breaks new ground in pedagogical theory: Stage 1: Pay attention. Stage 2: Be astonished. Stage 3: Tell about it.

The first thing to say about this sophisticated advance in our understanding of university teaching is that I stole it, from Mary Oliver’s poem “Sometimes.”

If it appears I’m trying to poke fun at university professors’ self-indulgent tendency toward pomposity, I am. Since I am a university professor who occasionally can be self-indulgent and pompous, I have standing to poke fun. Frankly, we don’t poke fun at ourselves enough. That’s part of my teaching philosophy: Poke fun at myself, as often as possible, especially in front of students.

In this regard, poets perform an important service for professors. If we professors are ever tempted to claim that we have had an original insight into the human condition, we should pause and remember this: There’s at least one poet, and likely dozens, who had the insight long before we did and who expressed it far more eloquently than we could ever hope.

I don’t teach poetry, but I often read poetry to my class. That’s part of my teaching philosophy, to remind students that whatever the subject, poets have something important to say to us. I read to my students even though I have had no voice training and am not particularly good at reciting poetry. That’s part of my teaching philosophy, too. I think it’s healthy for students to see professors stumble. When every word we utter in class is precise and polished, it can create distance between professor and student. Students are too easily impressed by us, and they can come to believe we are our performances. Better that they see we are human beings, struggling and stumbling, so that intellectual work doesn’t appear to be something only specialists can do. Our job isn’t to be smart but to help students understand that they can be smart, too.

So, I read to my class, from Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, from Marge Piercy and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I play songs, too, though I’m sensible enough not to sing in class.

Back to Oliver. Those three recommendations comprise her “instructions for living a life.” They also are serviceable instructions for teaching. I try to pay attention, not only to the scholarship in my field but to the world around me, which means I try to get out in the world beyond the university as often as possible. I am constantly astonished by the human capacity for both depravity and love, and I spend considerable time trying to figure out these paradoxes. I tell about it as often as possible, as a teacher, public speaker, and writer.

After 20 years of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, I have written numerous statements about my teaching philosophy. Each exercise is an opportunity for me to challenge myself. The somewhat unorthodox style of this essay comes not from a lack of respect for the assignment but a desire to challenge myself in a new way. This might be because, after 20 years, I have a sense that I’m a better teacher than ever, but at the same time I’m less sure why that might be the case.

Here’s one plausible answer to the question of why my teaching might be better today: I’m more comfortable with ambiguity than when I was younger. As we age, we have a choice. We can conclude that we’re right in our assertions about the world and proceed based on that assumption. Or, we can conclude that we’re right and proceed based on the assumption that we’re missing something.

I have spent considerable time studying the role of news media in our culture, politics, and economy. I am confident that the assertions I make about that institution and those systems are compelling. I’m pretty sure that I’m right, and I argue strenuously that those assertions are the best way to understand journalism and society. And I also wonder about that.

Time for another poet. Faiz Ahmed Faiz concludes his poem “The City from Here”:

There are flames dancing in the farthest corners,

throwing their shadows on a group of mourners.

Or are they lighting up a feast of poetry and wine?

From here you cannot tell, as you cannot tell

whether the color clinging to those distant doors and walls

is that of roses or of blood.

I read that poem to my journalism students as a reminder that when we look, we look from one perspective. “When you look at the city from here,” from any one place, it can be easy to confuse roses and blood. Since we are always looking from somewhere, caution and humility are important. I read that poem to remind students that their point of view is a point of view. I read that poem to remind myself as well.

With that winding introduction, here’s a concise statement of my teaching philosophy: I have the best job in the world. I get paid a salary that allows me to live comfortably and give back to the community. To earn this salary, I am asked to spend my time thinking, reading, writing, and talking, all things I enjoy doing even when not being paid. On occasion, I have to go to a boring meeting or file a stupid report, which can at times be annoying. But, all in all, this is a really good gig. The least I can do is pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it with as much joy and passion as possible. When I do that, I think I’m a pretty good teacher, and I think I do that most every day I walk into the classroom.

But I’m not 100 percent sure I’m as good as I think. When I look out at my students and see roses, maybe that’s just how the city looks from the lectern. Perhaps I simply don’t see the blood.

Time for a closing metaphor, this time borrowed from Wendell Berry’s poem, “To Know the Dark”:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

We are the best teachers when we aren’t afraid of the dark. When I began teaching, I went into the dark with the biggest flashlight I could find. That light allowed me to see many things, but the intensity of the beam obscured other things, in the shadows. That light allowed me to feel smart, but these days I am less reassured by being smart. The older I get, the more I realize that being smart isn’t going to get us all the way home.

So, these days I carry a smaller flashlight, and I turn it off as often as I can muster the courage. My best teaching is when I go dark.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, fall 2015). http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Radical-Living-Learning-Gracefully/dp/1593766181 Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Notes. [1] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106. [2] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). [3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, edited and with a revised translation by Susan McReynolds Oddo (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), p. 55.

More articles by:
May 31, 2016
Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz
Imperial Blues: On Whitewashing Dictatorship in the 21st Century
Vijay Prashad
Stoking the Fires: Trump and His Legions
Patrick Howlett-Martin
Libya: How to Bring Down a Nation
Uri Avnery
What Happened to Netanyahu?
Corey Payne
Reentry Through Resistance: Détente with Cuba was Accomplished Through Resistance and Solidarity, Not Imperial Benevolence
Bill Quigley
From Tehran to Atlanta: Social Justice Lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani’s Fight for Human Rights
Manuel E. Yepe
Trump, Sanders and the Exhaustion of a Political Model
Bruce Lerro
“Network” 40 Years Later: Capitalism in Retrospect and Prospect and Elite Politics Today
Robert Hunziker
Chile’s Robocops
Aidan O'Brien
What’ll It be Folks: Xenophobia or Genocide?
Binoy Kampmark
Emailgate: the Clinton Spin Doctors In Action
Colin Todhunter
The Unique Risks of GM Crops: Science Trumps PR, Fraud and Smear Campaigns
Dave Welsh
Jessica Williams, 29: Another Black Woman Gunned Down By Police
Gary Leupp
Rules for TV News Anchors, on Memorial Day and Every Day
May 30, 2016
Ron Jacobs
The State of the Left: Many Movements, Too Many Goals?
James Abourezk
The Intricacies of Language
Porfirio Quintano
Hillary, Honduras, and the Murder of My Friend Berta
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes on ISIS are Reducing Their Cities to Ruins
Uri Avnery
The Center Doesn’t Hold
Raouf Halaby
The Sailors of the USS Liberty: They, Too, Deserve to Be Honored
Rodrigue Tremblay
Barack Obama’s Legacy: What Happened?
Matt Peppe
Just the Facts: The Speech Obama Should Have Given at Hiroshima
Deborah James
Trade Pacts and Deregulation: Latest Leaks Reveal Core Problem with TISA
Michael Donnelly
Still Wavy After All These Years: Flower Geezer Turns 80
Ralph Nader
The Funny Business of Farm Credit
Paul Craig Roberts
Memorial Day and the Glorification of Past Wars
Colin Todhunter
From Albrecht to Monsanto: A System Not Run for the Public Good Can Never Serve the Public Good
Rivera Sun
White Rose Begins Leaflet Campaigns June 1942
Tom H. Hastings
Field Report from the Dick Cheney Hunting Instruction Manual
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail