Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why I Teach

I generally don't respond to memes, but (1) I was tagged on this one by someone whose blog I love, Dr. Free Ride of Adventures in Ethics and Science and (2) it's an interesting question: "Why do you teach and why is academic freedom critical to that effort?"

Why do I teach? Four reasons. My dad always told me growing up that it was important for me to find a job that I love, that I do well, and that pays the bills. I always thought that "and that makes a difference" needed to be added to the list. Teaching does all four for me.

I love teaching. I love the things I get to talk about. i love interacting with minds that are just awakening to the problems that have been wrestled with for centuries. I love being able to stretch my own mind and make connections that I never would have outside of the classroom. I love the energy and the laughter and the spontaneity of conversations that you think you've had a hundred times, but always take a slightly different path. One reason I teach is for the sheer joy of it.

I teach, in part, because I'm allowed to. There is a sense of achievement and I think I'm pretty good at it, at least good enough to make it worth doing.

I also teach because it pays the bills. It is a job and one that, while the pay isn't anywhere near what some of my contemporaries make, still allows me to live comfortably with my family.

Finally, I do think that I make a difference by teaching. In the world's most powerful democracy, I teach critical thinking and ethics. Seems a bit relevant. I reach hundreds of minds and think that at least some of them may be a bit more thoughtful and deliberative as a result of what I do.

As for academic freedom, it is more relevant to how I teach than what I teach. As regular readers know, I invite students to ask any question at the beginning of each class. Literally any question, no topic is off limit. And no matter what the topic, I am honest in discussing my thoughts about it. I do so in a way that clearly sets out the arguments on both sides and why I find one side more convincing. I try to model the deliberative process and this means not pulling punches, not trying to be falsely neutral, being honest, even when it means clearly stating my views on a controversial issue. It is the process and not the conclusion that is essential to convey and nothing is more appropriate than showing how the process works in the hardest, most contentious of cases. The job of educators is to create citizens with open, but rigorous minds who have the fortitude to apply them to tough cases and if we are afraid to do it in the classroom, they too will take the easy path. Academic freedom mean that I actually can do what a teacher is meant to do.

So, I hate this part especially, but let me tag Aspazia at Mad Melancholic Feminista, Lumpenprof at Lumpenprofessoriat, Aaron at One Flew East, and Sage at Persephone's Box. But I'd be very interested in the thoughts of those playground playfriends who don't blog themselves (anymore, in some cases), who teach at any level. Why do you do it and how are you affected by academic freedom?