Monday, March 10, 2008

Self and Confrontation in Teaching

While discussing Stanley Milgram's "The Perils of Obedience" today in class, I highlighted the following two passages:

"This may illustrate a dangerously typical arrangement in a complex society: it is easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of action."

"Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act."

After reading these passages, I asked a direct question:

"Are you responsible for sweatshops?"

I'm comfortable asking this question, and after a little discussion on the subject, I asked another question:

"Are you responsible for slaughterhouses?"

This question makes me slightly more uncomfortable. I'm challenging students on their consumption of meat, but as I teach at a school with a lot of students with an agricultural background, I may be challenging more than that. Furthermore, I made passing reference to disapproval of rodeos, knowing several of my students not only enjoy rodeos but likely participate in them (this reference was relevant to the conversation).

I do feel strongly about treatment of animals, but I also recognize that a college class on English composition is not the place to really make major issue of treatment of animals. I brought it up because I felt it was useful to the discussion (what does the Milgram experiment mean in our world today?), and I truly enjoy this type of discussion, but afterward I'm a bit uncomfortable and sheepish. Should I really be talking about my vegetarianism when I'm supposed to be teaching students how to read and write better?

Furthermore, my emotions are tied into it. Just as when I teach literature I love, I sometimes blast past discussion and start running around the room raving with joy, I don't bring up treatment of animals as an objective theoretical question. Thus, I respond to students with energy and emotion that might not quite fit with my typical demeanor (which is energetic, but with the requisite detached irony to focus on analysis), and is not directed toward the course objectives.

Is it worth it, in a discussion of obedience, trust, and situation, to confront students on their tacit complicity in some of the world's problems (or my own, for as I tell them, I rarely read the labels on items I buy, either)? To help students become better readers and writers, am I better off avoiding such thoughtful confrontation, or is thoughtful confrontation precisely useful to make students better readers, writers, and thinkers? For as Mark Edmundson writes in "On the Uses of a Liberal Education: Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students,"

"A willingness on the part of the faculty to defy student convictions and affront them occasionally--to be usefully offensive--also might not be a bad thing."

By being "usefully offensive," am I forcing students to think critically--and personally--about the essays they are reading, and the paper they will be writing?

I hope so.

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