The Teaching Workshop

The Teaching Workshop: Gina Schouten on Preparing to Trust One’s Judgment

One of the best things we can do to improve our pedagogy is share and think seriously about our teaching failures–our missteps, our lost opportunities, our unfortunate blunders in the classroom. So, for this installment of the Teaching Workshop, Gina Schouten shares a situation in which she failed. Have a failure of your own to share, or questions to be answered? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.

The situation:

At Illinois State, I regularly taught a general education course called The Ideal of Democracy in which students gave short presentations. This involved introducing an issue of current political importance using a news source that they deemed reliable, and then arguing either that the issue can help us think better about some aspect of the relevant course content, or that the course content can help us think better about the issue in question. The assignment was deliberately a low-stakes affair. Students weren’t expected to become experts on the issue. Mostly, they were meant to have thought more than the rest of the class about the philosophical implications of the issue in question, and to help us think better about it by sharing the fruits of their own careful deliberation.

This assignment has always terrified me. I’ve never fully trusted myself to handle the possible complications that might arise and turn them into valuable classroom conversations. I don’t trust myself to balance the value of allowing some discomfort against the need to protect against a genuinely harmful discomfort. But developing the classroom management skills for walking that line successfully plausibly requires practice. How else to practice the skills than to invite the circumstances for exercising them?

What went wrong:

On the day in question, one of my two non-white students (in a class of thirty-five) was presenting an article about the Black Lives Matter movement. In the ensuing discussion, a different student argued that differential policing of black communities was justified because of disproportionate crime rates in those communities. Now, to be clear: The student making this case was not trying to defend police violence; only disproportionate vigilance. And she was being very careful to make her point while being supportive of the speaker. We had talked a lot about my expectations that they would support each other, and they understood well that support requires more than mere respect. No student is a villain in this story.

Even so, the presenter became visibly uncomfortable. No other students jumped into the discussion. I have a very low tolerance for discomfort—a real pedagogical liability of mine—but I counted slowly to seven. The presenter caught my eye. This was my signal to tag in. Part of the low stakes aspect—and a way to manage the risk to me, as well—was students knowing that my jumping in to redirect wasn’t an indication of their failure. I smiled at the presenter, then joined her at the front of the room and smiled at the other students to assure them that all was well.

Here’s what I could have done just then:

I could have noticed that the faces looking back at me were intrigued by the challenge their classmate had raised. They were worried that having wondered something similar made them racist, or made it likely that the presenter or I would regard them as racist. If they hadn’t been before, they were now wondering why disproportionate criminality wouldn’t justify different kinds of policing, but they didn’t know if it was okay to be wondering this. I could have made the question more precise, and helped them to disentangle the empirical premise of disproportionate criminality from the normative question of what sort of police response it would justify. I could have noticed that only five minutes remained in class, and asked them to use that time to write informally about the questions they had.

For myself, I could have noted what is surely true: that it was no teaching failure that I didn’t have the relevant empirical data on the tip of my tongue. I could have turned that task over to them, providing some guidance on how to investigate further. I could have asked them to come to our next session prepared to talk about the data and about what policies it justifies. I might have asked them to think about what principles support their judgments, and what verdicts those principles would render regarding policing on their own largely residential college campus.

How I failed:

I am convinced that teaching my students well requires resisting my impulse to set everything straight right away. It requires that I recognize that students learn best when they sit with a problem and work through it on their own, that I surrender to them a larger share of the work of disentangling that problem, and that I take the long view of student learning. I had anticipated that opportunities just like this one might arise, and I had prepared for them as carefully as I knew how. I read. I thought. I worked from day one to build trust and community. I built a foundation of shared language, shared concepts, and shared experiences. I built smaller group communities within the larger classroom community. I crafted the assignment obsessively, determined that when exciting and scary opportunities like this arose, I would be ready for them.

And yet, I failed that day to seize the moment the student’s presentation presented, even though I recognized that little else could have made a bigger educational difference than a well-executed working through of what was troubling them. I thought about what was planned for the next class session, and quickly considered the logistics of calling an audible. Presentations would need to be rescheduled. Absent students would need to be informed. All this would have been disruptive, of course, and irritating to many students. But I think the real reason I failed to seize the opportunity was that I was afraid I couldn’t pull it off, and worried about the consequences—particularly for the non-white students in the class—of trying and failing.

Basically, I chickened out.

I spent the remaining five minutes of class disentangling the empirical from the normative, quickly rehearsing some considerations that challenged each. Then I asked a final, benign question to the presenter, so that she could have the last word. It wasn’t a disaster. But it has stuck with me, I think, for two reasons: First, it was a missed opportunity to stimulate exactly the kind of learning that I am convinced makes classes like this so important in the first place—the kind of learning that demands public investment, and that we need to learn to talk better about to higher education skeptics. Second, it was a missed opportunity that I saw coming a mile away, worked toward, prepared for…and then watched sail by. I didn’t even swing.

Why didn’t I swing?

As best I can work out, it really was as simple as chickening out. I questioned my judgment and my capacity for execution. I was suddenly afraid to subject my students of color to yet another experience of white people displaying and sifting through their ignorance and privilege. I was afraid I wouldn’t know what to do when students came back to class armed with questionable news sources, now that challenges to the validity of those sources would be politically charged rather than mundane. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to nudge the conversation in productive directions without causing the very students I was trying to reach to shut down in the face of a perceived “PC-enforcement.”

Maybe I wasn’t as prepared as I thought. But I’m wondering if what I really need for next time is a different kind of preparation. Knowing what to do in any particular case requires good pedagogical judgment. And pulling it off successfully requires a kind of classroom management skill that seems difficult to characterize, but comes close to intuition. Both judgment and execution will involve nuanced calculations about circumstances that can’t fully be anticipated in advance. Advanced planning is important, but no substitute for good judgment. Learning theory is important, but no substitute for the skill to act successfully on a judgment once rendered.

What kind of preparation could have made the difference for me that day?

One possibility is to base more of our discussions of teaching on very thickly-described case studies. We might also consider talking more about our teaching failures. I often feel very confused about how to meet my students where they are. I feel ashamed that I missed such a great moment to do it, even when I recognized it for what it was. I worry about having the right language to guide my students through difficult conversations about race. And I worry that that worry means I’m not fit to do it. We share good ideas about how to teach well, as we should. I for one would benefit from talking more about getting it wrong. Maybe these very failures could help us formulate case studies to consider. I was excited to see that the APA Committee on the Teaching of Philosophy and the American Association of Philosophy Teachers hosted a “teaching hub” at this year’s Eastern APA that will include walk-in teaching consultations with expert teachers. This might be a great venue for just this kind of preparation.

Moreover, if the thing about teaching that makes it so difficult is the complicated judgments we have to render, then we need practice rendering those judgments. I think many of us might benefit from finding ways to put aside our insecurities to incorporate peer observation or teaching simulations into our professional development. But how?

Maybe we can find ways to change the incentives regulating how graduate students use teaching observations. Maybe we can self-organize into low-stakes peer review networks for teacher observations. One final thought: When we go to the APA to present our research, we take ourselves to be doing philosophy. Maybe we could start thinking of teaching sessions the same way. Talking about teaching is valuable. But I’ve been feeling lately like I could learn much more from seeing some of our discipline’s masters at work. I imagine sessions where we script simulations for one another to actually see how the masters might have exploited the teaching opportunities we ourselves missed or messed up. And, if I can work up the courage, I think I could also learn a great deal from having the masters see me at work. Maybe scripted scenarios can provide just the kind of opportunity for low-stakes practice that would better have prepared me to take a swing that day, rather than letting such a precious opportunity go sailing by.

My questions:

  • What kind of preparation would have equipped me to be more successful that day?
  • What lessons can we draw about ways to improve our professional development as teachers?

Do you have an answer to these questions? Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, Jennifer Morton and Michelle Saint, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.