|Contemplating the journey (Sagrada Familia by Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona)*|
It would be easy for me to see this interchange as a teaching failure -- I failed to convince Pat to give up her belief. I failed to persuade her that such beliefs reflect a cultural mythology that justifies rape through victim-blaming. Certainly, I find such rape myths deeply problematic, part of a larger societal system that normalizes sexual assault and silences victims who believe they are somehow at fault for their victimization. Yet while I am utterly opposed to Pat's beliefs about rape, and I strive to eradicate such myths at every opportunity, I still consider this discussion a success.
Why? Because, even though it was abundantly clear that I didn't agree with her, Pat felt comfortable expressing herself in my class. She spoke out without fear of being belittled for her opinion. That tells me that I have created a space in which we can have honest, vibrant intellectual debate. Given the controversies that surround much of the material we cover in class, I expect that there will be divergent points of view among the students. It is important to me that I not quash these differing opinions, but rather create a climate in which students feel able to express themselves and engage in the discussion, even when they are in disagreement with each other or with me. In fact, I encourage students to disagree with the readings and with me, as this encourages critical thinking skills and enhances understanding of the key issues. The students who embraced one or more of the rape myths provided an excellent opportunity for the other students to formulate reasoned arguments against such beliefs. Indeed, other students argued with Pat (and with each other and with me), but the discussion remained respectful even when strong emotion was involved.
Respect is the key element. I strive to create a classroom in which we respect each other, in which each student's contributions are valued. We can disagree, even be impassioned in our disagreement, as long as we remain respectful of each other. I take my student's comments and perspectives seriously. I invite them to think about the issues and to weigh in on debates in the field. I try to create a sense that we are all collaborating in the intellectual enterprise -- to be sure, I am the acknowledged expert and I take the lead in discussions, but we are all contributors and I want my students to take ownership of the intellectual work we do. Even when a student's belief is factually incorrect, or when their comment is somewhat off-topic, I don't dismiss or trivialize their contribution. I find a way to weave it into the main point or connect it to the psychological theories we are discussing.
|The product of our discussion in Social Psychology about the complex web of factors that influence aggression (4/27/2011)|
As I have said before, college is not merely or primarily a place to learn facts; it is a place of change, of transformation. Of course, I cannot say how a student will be changed (or not) by their experience in my class. The transformation need not be immediate; change often takes time. It may be months or years before the ideas in a particular class have a demonstrable effect. All I can do is provide relevant information and diverse perspectives to try to get students excited about learning and engaged in critical thinking. Those goals were well-met by our discussion, in which the students were enthusiastic participants, providing diverse perspectives, experiences, and relevant information. Maybe I didn't change Pat's mind, but in many ways, that is irrelevant as a measure of success; indeed, her dissent provided a crucial springboard for a more sustained, in-depth discussion. And who knows what change might emerge in the future as a result?
"My idea of education is to unsettle the minds of the young and inflame their intellects."
-- Robert Maynard Hutchins
"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education."
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.
|Transformation at the Butterfly Conservatory (American Museum of Natural History, NYC)|
*I love this photo of one of the spiral staircases at the Sagrada Familia -- it gives a sense of the winding path we take in life, often into darkly unknown recesses. The Sagrada Familia itself has been a work of many decades, reminding us that we must be patient when we undertake great tasks.