Monday, December 17, 2012

A positive

Theorizing Religion ended with unexpected tenderness today. Students shared their "Final Reflections," many of which were quite personal. Most declared themselves more confused than when they started, but it wasn't quite a complaint. Biases coming in had been put aside, snap judgments shown the door, new and better questions discovered. Now, one student said (mashing up some arguments of Diana Eck), it seemed like the important questions had to do with relativity and commitment. I like to hear that sort of thing, so for her pains she was treated to a congratulatory snapshot of the Perry scheme of cognitive development, whose telos is "commitment in relativism," something each student must work out for herself but a good college curriculum helps along.

I also always like to hear that people have read more, have worked harder for my class than their others. And I especially like to hear student using texts and arguments we studied, though this time, I mock-complained after the Reflections ended, they were of no use to me at all: virtually all of the 25 texts we used had been mentioned by someone, and when we went through the syllabus to see if there were any nobody had mentioned, all but one of the remainder (Masuzawa's very bookish The Invention of World Religions) were claimed. How was I going to make room for new material next time around? To my feigned complaint one of the best students gave a feigned retort: it was my own fault for assigning texts that related to each other.

A good learning experience in the end after all, it seems! In the general camaraderie of the moment we had an entertaining exchange. One of the atheistic students (though she was sounding downright religiophiic today) asked, "Am I allowed to ask what you believe?"

"Are you allowed to?" I asked back.

She thought me an atheist. Others weren't sure. Another student, on the religious end, who knows me from another class, protested "he's totally religious, he's Episcopal!"

To which I replied, "That doesn't answer the question."

Not really changing the subject, I asked them if they'd ever heard of 血液型 ketsuekigata, Japanese blood-type characterology. (Ubiquitous in Japan, it's a remarkable example of old folkloric ways melding with new discoveries - no ancient Japanese person could have known about A, AB, B and O blood types!) Whenever someone asked me what type I was, I told the class, I always asked back "what do you think?" and whatever they replied, said "you're right!" which made them very happy.

"You just did that to us, didn't you?" said a perceptive student.

So it was time for my Weberian teaching credo: the power relationship of the classroom makes the lectern no place for preaching; what professors should instead do is provide "inconvenient facts" for every position.

The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts – I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than a mere intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts. ("Science as a Vocation," 147)

Probably mercifully I didn't have this quote to hand, but they seemed to recognize what I was talking about. Have I succeeded in this? Or have I been "all things to all people" - each thought I was in her/his camp. In any case, they seemed impressed that I had a thought-out pedagogical position at all. And nobody pressed the original question. It doesn't matter that I'm A-positive; they're aware of alternatives to their received ideas and on their way to commitments of their own.


elisamaza76 said...

And this is why you're still my favorite professor.

mark said...

for "not really changing the subject," i trust!