Teaching as Thinking in Public

I took the long route through graduate school, taking several leaves of absence to teach in different universities. During one year, I had a position replacing two different professors who were on sabbatical leave. In the fall semester I taught courses in religious studies; in the spring, I taught courses in philosophy. It was a pretty brutal year in terms of teaching load: four different preparations each semester. I spent much of the year exhausted.

I was taking a break in the departmental office one afternoon when one of the student assistants learned that I didn’t have a television set. (Perhaps I should say that this was before the internet had lost its initial capital letter and over a decade before the advent of the web.) The student was amazed. “What do you do when you go home at night?” he asked. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that I really didn’t have a life apart from grading papers and preparing to teach my classes. I said something like, “Well, I listen to music. I read. Sometimes I play my guitar. And sometimes I sit and think.” “Sit and think?” he asked. “What do you do when you do that?” How could I answer that question? “Well,” I hesitated. “I sit … and I think.” The student stood and thought about this for at least 10 seconds. Then he said, “I’d like to come watch you do that sometime.”

I was amused, but as I thought about it I came to see this as a good way to think about the practice of teaching. Teaching, I said in multiple gatherings of multiple faculty and graduate students gathered to think about teaching, is thinking in public. By this I mean that one of the things a teacher does is model just how one thinks in a particular discipline. In this modeling, the teacher not only identifies the terrain covered by a particular discipline, but also shows how an expert navigates that terrain. In my teaching practice, at times that meant that I modeled quite explicitly just how I read a text when I’m reading it for the first time. In fact, on occasion I would take transparencies (remember those?) of a text that I hadn’t read into the classroom, put the transparencies on the overhead projector (remember those?) and mark up a paragraph or three as I read the text. I wanted students to see that reading one’s way through a particular text isn’t a matter of passively observing the words on the page but instead is an active engagement: asking questions, noting claims requiring further thought, relating what’s said on one page to what that author said on another page.

Further, engaging in discussion of a text isn’t merely a matter of showing others what one knows (or, sometimes, doesn’t know!) about a text. It’s also a practice of thinking together, building on one another’s thoughts, making the effort to speak for the text’s author at times rather than merely criticizing the author.

In fact, to return yet again to the question “why am I blogging?”, this is yet another exercise in thinking in public. I suppose that if I’m going to take that seriously, I really should set up some sort of commenting feature on this blog. In the meantime, feel free to reach out by email or on mastodon.