I now cringe when I think of my 18-year-old self in a college classroom, under the spell of Objectivism, arguing for the merits of selfishness as a basis for morality. Or being rudely evangelical about atheism. But I also see these obnoxious phases as important points in the development of my critical thinking skills, in my individuation process, in my learning first to identify the values I’d been taught or picked up via osmosis, and then learning how to question these assumptions. Twenty-five years later, the assumptions I make about the world around me are certainly more carefully considered than they were then, and I hope I’m more open to questioning and change than I was at 18. I think I have better questions now, and better answers. But my goal is to keep trying to improve, both my answers and my questions.
I try to remember this learning process as a teacher when I encounter students who confidently announce that sexism no longer exists, or attempt to make jokes about the homeless in their essays. I’m not privy to where they are on their learning curve—they may be repeating what they heard their parents say (as I did on a fourth-grade test asking what MARTA was an acronym for. At least I knew enough to replace “Africans” with “Americans” in my answer.). Or they may be continuing thoughts begun in late-night dorm conversations. Or they may be completely making it up as they go along.
I’m thinking now about a student I had once who—during a class discussion about Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—offered that, in Charleston, slavery was a good job opportunity for the enslaved, according to a docent at the Daughters of the Confederacy museum. Or the student who wrote an essay arguing that we should feel sympathy for the husband in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Or the student who got mad that he was expected to know that “retard” was an inappropriate word to use in an essay. As a human being, I wanted to ask, “Are you crazy?” As a teacher, however, that wouldn’t have been the most useful response.
It’s my job to provide access to historical accounts of events, and to correct errors in knowledge. It’s my job to explain argument fallacies and discursive conventions, and give strategies for identifying them in readings and avoiding them in writing. It’s my job to teach verification of source credibility, and to provide practice in analyzing the validity of sources as well as the rhetorical situation of various sources. It’s my job to provide models of compelling and eloquent argument and analysis, and to coach my students through achieving success in articulating their own arguments and analysis.
It’s not my job to tell them what that argument should be. I can ask that they address opposing viewpoints they may not know about. I can point out gaps in reasoning, argument fallacies, and non-credible evidence. I can also ask them to articulate their purpose, their message, their intended audience, and the strategies they used to convey this. I can also articulate my own understanding of our shared rhetorical situation pointing out aspects of, say, the audience that they might not be aware of (the likelihood of students who are not straight, not cis-gendered, not Christian, not affluent, to give a few examples), and how it’s important to keep such things in mind when one is trying to communicate to a heterogenous audience.
Still. I share the frustration and fear of many of my academic colleagues, as we find ourselves faced with the challenge of teaching in the ways I’ve described in an era which many now characterized as “post-truth.” Can we fault our students for lacking evidence in their classwork when such standards in public seem to have been eviscerated?
Of course we can. But I feel that onus is on us even more so now—not to convince students to share our own political leanings, but to be more aware of our own audience of students. Teaching is communication, and it has a rhetorical situation of which we should be cognizant. And it’s even more important now for us to be aware of our purpose in the classroom and the most persuasive means with which to accompany these purposes. If the purpose of a liberal arts education is to develop the intellectual capacities of the whole human being, then we must figure out the most effective methods to achieve this.