U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Bright Space

The first week of the fall semester is in the books.  It was All Right.  I enjoy teaching, and most of the time, I think, that joy comes through.  In any case, I am always so pleased to meet my students, and they usually seem pleased to meet me too.

A few of them were less than thrilled with my new electronics policy, and I expected that.  But I tried to frame it for them as I see it myself:  as a way of carving out, in a culture of constant surveillance and instant critique, a block of time and a corner of space where they have room to think, room to question, room to consider, to speculate, to ask or to answer, where they can give one another room to be wrong, room to learn from mistakes and leave them behind.

I also discussed another new section of my syllabus, a brief passage I added to my section on “Participation and Professionalism”:

Your interaction with your peers and your instructor should always be respectful, and you should demonstrate maturity and professionalism in our class discussions.  Like all college classes, this class may touch upon topics that are upsetting to students who may have prior experiences with or anxieties about matters under discussion.  If something in this class distresses you, please see me in my office hours and I will be glad to discuss the issue with you.

That’s the wording as it currently stands in one of my syllabuses, though I will probably tweak it a little bit to bring it closer to how I ended up framing it for my students on the first day of class.

Basically, I told them, college is a place where they will be encountering new ideas, new ways of thinking about the world.  They will be encountering and maybe trying out new ways of being in the world.  The flood of ideas and issues and questions and situations can be exhilarating, but also overwhelming.  It can be disorienting, even distressing.  And that’s all right.  That’s a normal reaction to the unsettling of our settled assumptions.  And if they feel unsettled by anything we discuss or anything they read, I want them to know it’s okay to say so, and I will listen, and I’ll try to help them.

I told them about what it was like for me, as someone who grew up believing that every word of the Bible was literally true, to go to college and take a class in which Genesis was treated as a work of literature, rather than a factual account of how the world came to be.  That was a profound shock to me; it was truly, deeply upsetting.  But for a long time I didn’t know that it would have been okay to talk to my professor about it.  Not only would it have been okay – it would have been an ideal response, and doubtless a most welcome conversation for a professor whose job and whose joy it was to help us grow as thinkers and as people.

That’s what teaching is about; that’s why I’m there. Wherever I happen to be adjuncting on that particular day, this is what I want my classroom to be: not simply a safe space for the free exchange of ideas, but a bright space, where the lamp of learning shines with humane warmth and unperturbed clarity, no matter what else is going on in the world.