On Teaching as Political Act

On Teaching as Political Act
David R. Weiss
September 12, 2012

I teach to change the world.

Great teachers come in all styles, and nothing in these reflections on my style is meant to suggest this is the only way to teach. It’s my way, and it works well for me.

I regard teaching as a supremely political activity, and an expressly subversive one at that. Not that I try to artificially make it so, but the way I am me in the midst of teaching creates a classroom dynamic conducive to learning in large part by unsettling power relationships—and that’s political.

In its root meaning “politics” refers simply to how people hold and share power. Political systems like our democracy represent one institutionalized way that we, as citizens, hold and share power. But there’s obviously a politics—a patterned way of transacting power—to every human organization, from workplace to bedroom, faith community to family, cafeteria to classroom.

Because I don’t believe that a politics grounded in hierarchy (as so much of our politics is) is an asset for learning (or for most other life activities!), I try to teach in ways that set aside the hierarchical power assigned to me. Here are a few things I am intentional about:

Name calling – part one

“Call me ‘David.’” Yes, I answer to “Professor Weiss,” but I prefer to be called by my given name, not my title, and I say that from Day One. I know plenty of fine fellow teachers for whom “Professor” is not a distancing form of address. But in my case, “David” rings most true—and not just because I don’t have a Ph.D.

It relinquishes power given to me (both by the title and by the institution), and it suggests that in my classroom learning happens in the midst of a relationship that is foremost human, not hierarchical. I want my students to experience themselves as companions, or junior colleagues, in this educational pursuit, and choosing to go by my first name reflects that. This is NOT because I don’t know more than them (about religion at least, I certainly do know more!) But I’ve found, in my classroom, that knowledge moves more easily from one person to the next the less that it is constrained by formality.

Dress for (something other than) success

Okay, maybe, I show up most days in blue jeans and a t-shirt (and shoulder-length hair) just because that’s how I feel most comfortable. But it’s also true that by doing so I choose to value my preferred way of being in the world as opposed to the world’s preferred way for me to be. And, to the extent that my jeans and t-shirt are an authentic expression of me, it’s also a pedagogical choice.

In far too many circles—and universities are hardly immune here—something as innocuous as style of dress is used to reinforce power lines. My choice to simply be me is a subtle but clear statement that I’m not playing that game. And that in my classroom something other than traditional status markers is where real power rests: in things like knowledge, respect, and civility.

No othering allowed

At some point in every semester I talk about Madagascar. This is the animated kids flick featuring the antics of a talking lion, giraffe, hippo, and zebra, who, through a series of misadventures find themselves relocated from a city zoo to the island of Madagascar. It usually engenders a giggle or two as students try to figure out what this could possibly have to do with a religion class. Short answer: everything.

Every movie needs a crisis to resolve and alongside much silliness aimed at both kids and their parents the crisis that emerges is the lion’s appetite. The other three creatures, all herbivores, find Madagascar a relative restaurant of delights. But Alex, the lion, whose food has always arrived in steak form, suddenly begins looking at his friends … and seeing meat. But how can he possibly eat meat that talks?!

Fast forward to the end of the movie (SPOILER ALERT) and the crisis is resolved when the animals discover that Alex can survive by eating fish. And the fish in Madagascar, quite unlike those in Finding Nemo, don’t talk. Lacking any lines (they’re the only animals in the entire film that aren’t personified with speech) they never become characters, which leaves them, quite literally, fair game for resolving this crisis.

Here’s the critical insight: if you don’t have a voice—in a kids film, in a faith tradition, or in a classroom—you can easily become the solution to someone’s else problem at great cost to yourself. So, in my classroom, insofar as I can insure, no one lacks a voice.

And that’s not just a teaching style. In a world where stark power differences remain a reality—the cost of which can still be measured in losses up to and including lives—it’s a political act.

Name calling – part two

Not only do I expect my students to call me by name; I expect to call them by name, too. Almost immediately. I have 40 students in my class. On the second day of class, I tried calling them each by name. Without notes, I managed to name 38 out of 40. I was understandably disappointed. On the third day of class I got 40 out of 40.

Hamline used to have billboards up around town announcing, “Our professors know amazing things. Like your name.” (Although they never promised by Day Three.) I started this discipline over a decade ago, long before my first class at Hamline. It does make a difference.

Now, I happen to have a good memory, but this is still no small feat. I spend several hours on it, drilling myself on names, as I walk, shower, even drift off to sleep. But it’s also an investment that pays off. By Day Three every student in my class feels at least a little bit “known” by me.

And, seriously, you can hardly overestimate how much “readiness to learn,” how much “willingness to at least hear me out” is purchased in that sense of being known. But I don’t do it as a calculated cost/benefit parlor trick. I’m not even sure it would work if that’s all it was. I do it because names are the doorway for relationships. And in my classroom relationships become the context—the crucible—in which learning happens.

No, it’s not “rocket science”—it’s even more complicated: it’s religion!

Finally, establishing that sense of relationship is critical in a class like mine, because learning to think critically about religion … can … quite simply … rock your world.

Unlike rocket science, or math, or chemistry, religion does not lend itself to singularly right answers. I know that for every other subject, especially as you move beyond the introductory level, the “right answers” also become a bit fuzzy. But religion is its own animal because most students enter the classroom with pretty strong opinions regarding the “right answers” about religion. And that’s true whether those opinions are rooted in life and death conviction or (just as common these days) sarcastic indifference.

Sure, I can ask my students to check their opinions at the door. I can tell them that in the classroom we need to bracket our personal beliefs. I can also ask them to fly—and expect about as much success. The answers we claim about religion—whether intuitively or intellectually, critically or unreflectively—tend to be interwoven with the deepest commitments of our lives. We don’t surrender them lightly—and we shouldn’t. Teaching religion (at least at the undergraduate liberal arts level) begins with the recognition that this is the playing field.

Quite honestly, I think it’s the best playing field to be on. I want my students’ learning to leak out into their lives. This learning is risky business, and regardless of whether they’re devout (or more casual) Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Wiccans, or Atheists—or a member of the burgeoning Nones—what happens in my class may well have seismic repercussions in their lives.

I hope so. And whatever those repercussions are, I intend to frame them with a classroom in which authenticity is honored, in which names are known (and used), and in which every voice is invited forth. Because I think what we learn is shaped significantly by how we learn it. And I don’t regard the absence of hierarchy as chaos or anarchy; I regard it as an opening to, a potentiality for compassion. As I make choices that set aside expected (and accepted) power markers, I choose instead to privilege relationship as the locus of learning. I create occasions in which critical thinking occurs in a context ripe for compassion. And I happen to believe that makes for a better world.

As I posted for my Facebook status a few days back: Today was the first day of a new school year. I always find myself excited. Of the many ways to change the world, one of my favorite ways is to rearrange the furniture in young people’s minds helping them discover new ways to link head to heart to passion to life. It’s only one class, thirty-nine [now forty] students, but the ripples can last a lifetime.

It’s surely not the only way to teach to change the world. But it’s my way. And it does seem to work. And few things bring me greater joy.

* * *

David R. Weissis the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at drw59@comcast.net. Read more at http://www.tothetune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

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3 thoughts on “On Teaching as Political Act

  1. For some reason (and here I am outing myself as OLD) I kept hearing the Cheers theme song playing in my head while reading this (You wanna go where everybody knows your name). I needed to express my gratitude to you and for you for teaching, in your way, in this world. You see you are teaching not only your 40 so-called students, but all of us who are privileged to read here. Thank you!

  2. David , great stuff on teaching rooted in relationships, so happy for you to be the one doing that teaching . Just read Elizabeth Johnson,”She Who Is,” pages 216 to 223 how the Image of God rooted in trinity is mutal relationship rather than hierarchial , and even comes up with the image of a triple helix as the Image of God at the center of the mystery of God that overcomes patriarchal images of our past. Blessings on your ministry of teaching. glen wheeler

  3. David, I agree with the importance of learning students’ names; little a teacher has done made me feel more valued in the classroom. Also, the professor who made all of us learn each other’s names and use them in classroom discussion made a great impact on me. And I agree about the hierarchies of forms of address, whether first name or academic title. “Dr. So-&-So” often stands in the way of real honest discourse.

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