Some reflections on teaching

March 23, 2024 00:36

I am still in my early days of my academic career. I’d like to think there is much I have yet to learn. In some ways, the best way to learn is to teach.

This is not only because teaching is vital in compelling one to condense, compress, and recalibrate one’s beliefs, but also because it is a hugely character-building experience – in the best ways possible. Teaching makes us reflect upon our own shortcomings as communicators, as thinkers, and as persons. Through exposing us to the questions and challenges from undaunted students, we – as teachers – are thereby equipped with the resilience and versatility to take on a much wider range of challenges, come what may. It’s life skills that teaching ‘teaches’ us – as opposed to merely substantive knowledge or bare facts.

For that, and for the fact that I get to do something I enjoy doing on a regular basis, I feel most grateful and blessed by the opportunities I am given to work with some very talented students.
And now, with all teachers, there is an innate temptation to ‘reflect’. And perhaps some self-referential critique would be in order before I proceed any further. Reflections are oft invoked as a de facto ‘filler’ trump card. Struggling with ideas to impart and dissect? Encourage your students to reflect! Looking for ways to kill time? Tell your students to reflect! Aiming to get class participation (what I term passive vocalisation – insofar as the vocalisation is neither conducive towards nor helpful in furthering the classroom progress) up? Prescribe reflection!

Yet reflection without well-defined, instructive guiding questions that can shape and mould individuals’ perception, could not possibly amount to a sound pedagogical tool. This is because reflection itself is an underdetermined process that can only generate sound outputs if the inputs are filtered and assembled with the right intention. If abused, reflection could end up doing little more than merely lip service – indeed, comparable to the level of lip service that many pay to those who call upon them to undertake introspection. When reflecting, we should be seeking clearly supported – even if not wholly proven and indisputably established – conclusions from the facts, whilst aiming to clarify and pursue the resultant prescriptions following on from such conclusions.

This thus takes me onto the first lesson I gained from teaching: classes should not be “made” engaging through embellishments and bells and whistles; instead, they should be designed to engage in the first place – independent of all the ‘extras’. Here, engagement denotes a dynamic of bidirectional interaction – it should not be the case that the instructor spends vast swathes of the class monotonously communicating and prescribing soundbites to their students; whilst certain students and learning styles would indeed be more compatible with a straightforward ‘Direct Instruction’ pedagogy, it is generally the case that students are more likely to learn, and find learning constructive, if they perceive themselves to be proactive agents.

As agents, they should be encouraged, indeed rewarded, for being willing to speak up and out for their own beliefs, as opposed to opting for silent, passive submission and acquiescence to the purportedly enshrined order. Instructors have the prerogative of facilitating a classroom atmosphere where disagreement is not only tolerated, but actively recognised as integral to the pursuit of the truth. This is how we get conversations that matter. I, for one, find debates and Socratic dialogues over what makes life meaningful – even if incomplete – always a fascinating way of bringing out differences in perspectives and lived experiences across my students. The more personal the stakes in a conversation are, the more interest there would likely be; none of this is to suggest that boundaries concerning privacy and confidentiality ought to be crossed.

The second lesson is that even for seasoned teachers, there is more that we don’t know, than we fundamentally know. This applies, in varying degrees, to all academics seeking to engage in knowledge dissemination – whether it be to students or the public at large. Knowledge has no boundaries – the Chinese saying “xuehai wuya” compellingly epitomises this thought. Yet in practice this adage is rarely translated or incorporated into the repertoire and speech of individuals in seeming positions of authority. What we are likely to hear instead, is that it is imperative for students to “zunshi zhongdao” – to accord to their seniors, elders, and mentors the appropriate level of reverence and deference, so as to preserve the ‘Dao’ of teacher-student relationships. Such a mindset is especially prevalent in Confucian cultures, where the teacher figure is venerated and placed on a pedestal: not without good reasons in antiquity, when teachers served far more functions and roles than mere knowledge disseminators.

Given these default assumptions that are ‘skewed’ in favour of respect for authority, it hence becomes all the more important that the authoritative speaker in the classroom learns to ‘self-govern’ and keep their own behaviours constantly in check. The best teacher is likely to maintain a steadfast sense of humility, an ardent yearning to learn (from mistakes, which one can easily and readily admit), and a recognition of their own fallibility in light of the situatedness of their judgments. Only then, could we – whether we be post-docs, lecturers, or professors – come to earn the true respect of students, who would no longer see us through the unrealistically demanding lenses of absolute perfection, but as individual figures and fellow learners with whom they can reasonably (and justifiably) disagree.

Finally, teaching is not akin to proselytism. Conversion is not the end goal when it comes to mass lectures. Instead, the key crux rests with stimulation. Time and time again I find myself wondering: how should I strike the balance between offering my critical commentary on seemingly valid yet fundamentally flawed arguments, and encouraging students to disagree (or agree) with the views they encounter on their own – through reading the texts on the reading lists? There is no easy answer. Too much critiquing, and students become inadvertently dependent upon reading the tea leaves of your views in order to ingratiate themselves with you. Too little critiquing, and you may find that some of your students have uncritically and inadvertently bought into the materials discussed class, thinking that if “they’re on the reading lists, they must be right”. As it turns out, this is not the case.

Yet in lieu of offering the objections and challenges straight-up, a far more conducive solution would be for those who teach, to pass on the skillsets required to dissect and oppose particular arguments. In lieu of teaching first-order reasons as to why the Non-Identity Problem does not stand, invite your students to reflect upon, on a higher level, the criteria for a successful resolution to the puzzle at hand. Skills and meta-thinking go hand-in-hand, and so do critique and innovation. Only through critique – of one’s self, of external ideas, of knowledge-claims about the world around us – can we move one step further away from the pitch-darkness of ignorance, and into more intriguing, more exciting, and thus invigorating true knowledge.

Assistant Professor, HKU