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Jul 13 2005

Should professors reveal their views?

During the last academic year, UCITE organized a faculty seminar on whether, and how much, of their own views professors should reveal to the students in their classes.

One faculty member recalled one of her own teachers admiringly. She said that he had guided the discussions in her college classes very skillfully and in such a way that no one knew what his own views were on the (often controversial) topics they discussed. She felt that his avoidance on revealing his own views led to a greater willingness on the part of students to express their own, since they were not agreeing or disagreeing with the authority figure. She felt that his model was one that others should follow.

Underlying this model is the belief that students may fear that going against the views of the professor might result in them being penalized or that agreeing with the professor might be viewed as an attempt at ingratiation to get better grades.

I am not convinced by this argument, both on a practical level and on principle, but am open to persuasion.

As a purely practical matter, I am not sure how many of us have the skills to pull off what this admired professor did. It seems to me that it would be enormously difficult to spend a whole semester discussing things with a group of people without revealing one’s own position on the topics. It is hard to keep aloof from the discussion if one is intensely interested in the topic. As readers of this blog know, I have opinions on a lot of things and if such topics come up for discussion, I am not sure that I have the ability to successfully conceal my views from students. So many of us will betray ourselves, by word or tone or nuances, despite our best efforts at concealment.

But I am also not convinced that this is a good idea even in principle, and I’d like to put out my concerns and get some feedback, since I know that some of the readers of this blog are either currently students or have recently been students.

One concern about hiding my own views is precisely that the act of hiding means that I am behaving artificially. After all, I assume that students know that academics tend to have strong views on things, and they will assume that I am no exception. Those students who speak their minds irrespective of the instructor’s views won’t care whether I reveal my views or not, or whether they agree with me or not. But for those students for whom my views are pertinent, isn’t it better for them to know exactly where I stand so that they can tailor their comments appropriately and accurately, rather than trying to play guessing games and risk being wrong?

Another concern that I have arises from my personal view that the purpose of discussions is not to argue or change people’s views on anything but for people to better understand why they believe whatever they believe. And one of the best ways to achieve such understanding is to hear the basis for other people’s beliefs. By probing with questions the reasoning of other people, and by having others ask you questions about your own beliefs, all of the participants in a discussion obtain deeper understanding. In the course of such discussions, some of our views might change but that is an incidental byproduct of discussions, not the goal.

Seen in this light, I see my role as a teacher as modeling this kind of behavior, and this requires me to reveal my views, to demonstrate how I use evidence and argument to arrive at my conclusions. I feel (hope?) that students benefit from hearing the views of someone who has perhaps, simply by virtue of being older, thought about these things for a longer time than they have, even if they do not agree with my conclusions. To play the role of just a discussion monitor and not share my views seems to defeat one of the purposes of my being in the classroom.

The fly in the ointment (as always) is the issue of grades. I (of course) think that I will not think negatively of someone who holds views opposed to mine and it will not affect their grades. But that is easy for me to say since I am not the one being graded. Students may not be that sanguine about my objectivity, and worry about how I view them if they should disagree with me.

When I raised this topic briefly with my own class last year, they all seemed to come down in favor of professors NOT hiding their personal views. But I am curious as to what readers of this blog think.

Do you think professors should reveal their views or keep them hidden?

POST SCRIPT 1

The website Crooks and Liars has posted a funny video clip from the Daily Show that addresses how high levels of fear are generated in America, a topic that I blogged about earlier.

This article by John Nichols compares the British response to the tragedy with the way the American media tried to frame it.

POST SCRIPT 2

Also, for those of you struggling to keep up with the complicated set of issues involved with the Valerie Plame-Joseph Wilson-Robert Novak-Judith Miller-Matthew Cooper-confidential journalistic sources issue, there is an excellent article by Robert Kuttner that (I hope) clears things up.

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