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Simul kids et adults

June 2, 2008, 1:16 pm

I’m working on updating some of my professional documents, including my curriculum vitae and my Statement of Teaching Philosophy (SOTP). Both of these are badly out of date; I don’t think I’ve touched either one since I was up for tenure in 2005. That’s too bad, especially the SOTP; it seems like professors ought to be constantly re-examining their core philosophies behind teaching and having a critical look at what really characterizes what they do in the classroom.

The new SOTP is absorbing some flavor of recent developments in my personal life on the faith front. Since joining the Lutheran church, I’ve become more exposed to — and more appreciative of — the concept of holding paradoxical pairs of ideas in tension with each other and having a real truth emerge out of the dialectic between the two. In Lutheran theology, for example, we have the idea of simul justus et peccator — the notion that a Christian is, at the same time, both righteous and a sinner. My teaching philosophy turns out to have some of the same kinds of pairings.

The pair of opposing ideas that struck me as I was brainstorming it out was the following:

  • Teaching is best done when the teacher remembers that each of his students is somebody’s child.
  • Teaching is best done when the teacher remembers that none of his students are children.

(This is being written in the context of undergraduate education. In K-12 the students really are children.)

On the one hand, my teaching changed drastically once I had kids of my own, because getting an up-close look at how kids act, think, and react makes me a lot more sympathetic to them and to their parents. There were times past when I would get extremely upset at students for some kind of (truly) dumb behavior and have some awfully unkind thoughts about them. I can’t say I don’t do that anymore, but it is a lot less frequent and I feel the wrongness of it much more viscerally when it happens. Because those students are somebody’s kids. My girls, as smart as they are, have a long way to go before they can do the kinds of things my students do. Once they get there, I am going to be extremely proud of just about anything they do. The thought of having some priggish college professor ripping into them — even if they deserve it — for something they do or don’t do in class just makes me horrified.

So these days I tend to view my students as products of a long (long!) process of development, having gone through years of trial and risk and hard work on both their parts and their parents’ parts. Yes, students do dumb things and make bad choices and are often ill-prepared. But to even be in the position to do those things implies that they have come a long way, and I guess I “get” this and respect it more than I used to. And my teaching is better when I don’t objectify them. (I’d also argue that their learning is better when they don’t objectify me, but that’s another post.)

On the other hand, I really bristle when we profs refer to college students as “kids”. They aren’t children, not in the developmental sense at least. College students are fledgling adults. They don’t necessarily know how to act like adults (I didn’t, at that age) or even desire to act like adults (I didn’t). But that doesn’t mean that professors absolve them of the very adult world of actions, responsibility, and consequences. Just because those students are young and look like they are just out of high school, it doesn’t mean that we conceive of them as children — taking on their responsibilities, absolving them of the consequences of bad choices, etc. — and thereby teach them that they are children and can be expected to be treated as such.

And the truth that seems to emerge out of the tension between these two ideas is that teaching involves respect at its core. Profs ought to respect students for getting to where they are, and respect their intrinsic value as human beings. (Which is something Christian professors ought to find to be second nature.) But respect also means respect for who those students will be. If we cut students breaks all the time or give second chances when settling for the consequences of a bad choice would make them better-equipped to face the future, then we might be acting nicely towards our students and winning their approval, but that’s a long way from respecting them.

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