Friday, June 08, 2012

Things to say

During the last two weeks of my classes i have had an interesting experience - i realized that, for once, i had things to say to my audiences.

The interesting part about being a Professor is that through convention, norms, and rules of the trade, you earn the right to talk by default: the moment you enter that classroom, those people in front of you become students, and you have to play the role of the teacher.  By default, you get that ominous silence, that air heavy with expectations for you to open your mouth, to express THE TRUTH, to teach, to impart the wisdom to the crowds awaiting. It is funny in a perturbing way how by default they assume that you know, that for some reason you hold the keys, the solutions, the answers to all the questions. And then, in the beautiful tradition of paradoxes, what you first learn upon entering grad school is that......
no, we do not know, we cannot know.  Maybe the kitten is dead.  Maybe it is alive.

Throughout those years of training the frontier of knowledge is made palpable, the uncertainty is increased with every day in the program, with every additional reading, with each discussion and attempt at philo-sofia. Again and again, you are confronted with everything that we actually do not know, worse, confronted with the actual impossibility of knowing.  Exposed to the concepts such as causal ambiguity or incommensurability, relativism and subjectivity, the exceptionality of social sciences.  Oh you, beautiful friends, strategic conundrums.

And then you have to somehow figure it out, find your own voice, and say something out loud to the world, write your own thesis, take a position, convincingly argue for it. On one side you are supposed to be objective and critical, but then, the moment the deconstruction is complete, you are immediately thrown into the soup and asked to swim: to contribute, to have an opinion, an idea, a research statement, a position.  Somehow, it is assumed that after all the deconstruction, after swiping the ground from below your feet, after realizing that there is no center, that even gravity is relative, that life is not unique, that all strategies are imitable because designed by human beings just like you, somehow, you are supposed to get right back up on your feet again, and defend the opposite, argue for your own immortality, carve your own niche of infinite glory and pride, say something new, something different, something outstanding, - while at the same time, if not totally blind, you have to acknowledge your similarity, the infinite similarity of human beings, of our brains, of what we do, of what we aspire to, of how we try to survive, of what we all dream about at night.  To be liked, to live a complete, a meaningful life.

How, how on earth is one supposed to reconcile the irreconcilable, to solve dilemmas and annihilate the trade-offs, the same ones that we all know to have no solution? To promise, and to sincerely try to give what does not exist, what is impossible from the start.  That, they do not explain how to do in grad school.  How to deal single-handedly with Sisyphus's paradox, paradox of being, of writing, of living.  To be different while staying the same, to take a position, to argue for it forcibly; to be convinced. While at the same time knowing the impossibility of conviction itself, the futility of arguments, the surrealism of attempts, of achievements, of goals.  Staying sane in the madhouse, staying happy in hell.

All this rambling to say that during these last two weeks I have had a small revelation in my teaching - I realized that while in research I am supposed to say something new, in teaching it is most meaningful to simply explain well both points of view.  While the student prides herself on arguing for something, the teacher has the "permission", no, the obligation, to argue for the opposite.  Dialogue or dialectic, Socrates or Marx, but that is the power of THE teacher - that is the ultimate fun of the profession - you are "allowed", no, you have to, argue the opposite.  That's actually when the students have the "a-ha" moment, that's when they might learn just a little bit more, that's when they can surpass their horizons - because you show them that the world is just a little bit broader, just a little bit larger, just a tiny little slice more infinite then they originally thought.  And in these (rare) cases i enjoy my right to speak, i actually have fun - I do not check my watch every five minutes and try to make the class end with all the power of my intellect.  I enjoy it, like climbing perfectly my favorite line, I argue, I take the opposite position.  Do they get it?  Does it matter?  Useless questions.  But I have fun.  Teaching - another strange profession, another surreal, useless undertaking.  Will i be able to find my place in this little world?  It is as surreal and senseless as others - but if I can carve out a couple of minutes of enjoyment here and there, maybe it could just be worth the effort.  Or maybe it is just for the money, and everything else is rationalizing.


Anonymous said...

Todas las situaciones y realidades de la vida se pueden interpretar más allá de lo que "son", incuso cando lo que´"son" ni siquiera lo conocemos.

Cualquier enseñanza tambien permite aprender, es un feed back.

Solo depende de la actitud, independientemente de si cobras o no. Aún no cobrando si tu actitud no fuera buena tampoco aprenderias tanto.

Felicidades pues por este paso

Henry Adams said...

I couldn't agree more with your sentiments. In order to ignite a steering academic debate and to open up the mind of the student, taking the opposing side is necessary especially when it comes to major projects such as thesis. It's part of our duty as educators to make them realize that there is a point of view apart from their own and that they need to know how to take their stand despite opposition.