Doing Justice to Our Profession

Sarah Deel’s piece resonated with me. I am very much exploring my own voice and classroom management style this semester. I tended to keep the national security and international security courses I taught at arm’s length last year, yet this year my fingerprints are all over the syllabus, course content, assignments, approach to the content, and to the management of the classroom. While this makes me feel more comfortable teaching the Arab-Israeli Dispute course, it also opens me up to productive frustration and disbelief, as was the case with my session last Thursday.

The session last week was hands-down the most depressing experience I have had in front of a classroom. My students lacked the kind of engagement I sought, and mostly seemed apathetic to what I view as a very provocative topic: the Adolf Eichmann Trial. We covered the 1950s up to the 1960s, ending with the Adolf Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1961. For me, this trial represents one of the ultimate provocations for reflecting on notions of justice, injustice, right, wrong, and relationships between individuals and wider systems. (to clarify, the Israelis learned Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal with a part in genocide, was living in Buenos Aires, so they capture him in 1959, then bring him to Israel to stand trial. His defense was basically, “I was a cog in a machine, I had no choice.”)

From my perspective, anyone with a pulse should have a view on some aspect of this case, whether it relates to justice, injustice, intersections of individuals with wider systems and structures, among others. Yet only about seven of thirty-seven students really felt compelled to contribute. I was in awe. I posed questions, such as “is his defense plausible?” “Did the Israelis have a right to breach international law to retrieve, then try him?” “Is his execution justice?” “How do you define justice or injustice?” “What is an example of injustice to you?”

Obviously, I did not pose all those questions at once, but after a few students chimed in. Yet it was the same handful of students who offered their thoughts. The rest of the class was silent. It is hard for me to fathom being in any room, where someone would not have a view worth sharing on this situation. While I did not break down or berate them, I told them that their task as individuals is to consider issues of justice, injustice, and consider their roles and views on issues, such as this.

I walked out of the class disoriented. I could not believe individuals could be so apathetic or indifferent to something of such import. For me, questions of justice and injustice – both in the immediate moment and the residue from the past – as well as the ways individuals connect to wider systems are the fundamental questions that frame my research and in many ways, inspire me to teach. “How could I fail to inspire students to recognize the importance or even get them to offer any reflections on such an issue?” In a way, this was both about what happened in the classroom and about so much more.

I’ve done a lot of reflection on that session with valuable assistance and input from several people. I’ve pondered those questions: “what went wrong?” and “what could I have done better?”

This leads me to the main reason for the above reflection: the more we as instructors situate our voices and ourselves in the courses we teach, the more those “hiccups”, shortcomings, or failures affect us. Those moments of silence are seared into my memory, but this simple fact also makes them incredible opportunities to retool my approach.

Yet in wrestling with the approach to the next session, I do not want the megachange Papert asserts as a remedy. I need to linger on those shortcomings (not throw everything out (although sometimes that may be necessary)), and continue to explore ways that may provide the meaningful engagement I seek. Occasional shortcomings and failures in the classroom are the natural order of things for instructors – not merely because we may be stretched extremely thin because we take four grad classes and sit in on a fifth – but the failures also represent the most powerful learning experiences. We cannot just discard those shortcomings, we need to dwell on them for a moment to recalibrate (and do so again and again) until we reach the desired results in the classroom. In this way, discovering our “authentic teaching voice” is (perhaps a never-ending) iterative process.

5 Replies to “Doing Justice to Our Profession”

  1. Very thoughtful insights Robert. Don’t be too harsh on yourself please, sometimes I feel the same way when students don’t respond to something I am really passionate about. However, you bring up a great point in the end “(perhaps a never-ending) iterative process.” and perhaps it is. Maybe if we keep thinking about it constantly we can continue to improve and not fall into a blackhole of repetitive teaching practices without changing for numerous years.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Like what Jyotsana said, please don’t be too harsh on yourself. I’ve also experienced the same disappointment – I taught a class once where every question I asked and every prompt I gave ended up in complete silence without a single volunteer. All I could do was to ask them to think about the topic at hand, and to come to me later if they had any questions. I also liked what you said about teaching being a “(perhaps never-ending) iterative process.” Perhaps all we could do as instructors is to reflect on what had gone well/poorly and to make adjustments. And perhaps to not be so rigid with our “plans”…

  3. There can be great benefit to being real about who we are and what we are passionate about in our teaching, but as you’ve pointed out, there is a large amount of vulnerability and risk in that as well. One of the things I respect about the good teachers in my life was that they were authentic about who they were, even if at times that was outdated and disorganized (lectures on transparencies and very disorderly notes) or super passionate about centipedes, and I respected them for that even if I didn’t share their passions or interests (I really don’t want to see giant pictures of millipedes at 8 :15 in the morning).

    Last week in another of my classes we read and talked about a article called “Obstacles to open discussion and critical thinking: the grinnel college study” (http://www.bsp.msu.edu/uploads/files/Reading_Resources/Obstacle_to_open_discussion.pdf), that I think you will find useful and illuminating. One of the main arguments of this study was that students today are willing to engage in an open discussion only when they have their opinions are fully formed and they are completely confident in them. These students engage in discussion for the purpose of convincing others of their view. Students who are undecided or not certain will not engage in discussion. I find this really alarming, that discussions are seen as a shouting match of opposing viewpoints and not a safe place to explore new ideas, but I can see myself behaving in the same way these students do in some situations. It could be that for most of your students, this case and these issues are not things they are familiar with or have wrestled with in their minds and consciences (although you have), so jumping feet-first into a very heated political, philosophical and ethical discussion would be a very difficult thing to do.

  4. We’ve talked about this already, but my guess is there were multiple reasons for “silence” including discomfort talking in a larger group to a lack of experience on the part of the students in engaging concepts such as justice. I remember last year, or the year before, trying to lead a discussion on Korean colonization. I was so vested, had given out primary source evidence that they read in groups and I was ready for a great conversation…only it didn’t happen. So back to the drawing board on that one…

  5. Oh wow. I totally feel your frustration and bewilderment. And your passion for engaging in meaningful dialogue about the grand questions surrounding justice, personal responsibility and learning from the past.
    If I can be so bold, I have a few observations about what you wrote. Since I have no experiences with your students, I want to try and make sure I am focused on your approach and what you’ve written.

    Here goes;

    “My students lacked the kind of engagement I sought, and mostly seemed apathetic to what I view as a very provocative topic”

    Your passion is evident just within your blog post. I imagine that students without a solid foundational comprehension of the time period and the events (much less the specific issue of Eichtman’s capture, trial and execution) may have felt that they had little (if anything) to contribute. Taking on the mindframe of a student, this topic is incredibly provocative, and charged on a number of fronts (racial, ethical, political, social). If I did not feel I understood the context thoroughly and believed I had a solid argument for my position, I would not offer up one (or even general thoughts) without some sense of ‘safety’ in being able to admit my ignorance. A safe environment is not easy to cultivate without a great deal of planning, practicing and group dynamic development, in my experiences*. There are pedagogies and classroom management techniques that can help cultivate that sense of safety, but they must be employed and practiced before engaging in a deeply divisive issue.

    “From my perspective, anyone with a pulse should have a view on some aspect of this case, whether it relates to justice, injustice, intersections of individuals with wider systems and structures, among others. ”

    Just on the face of it, this sentence feels fairly aggressive and confrontational to me. I don’t believe you said anythingn like it to your students, but it is possible that your passionate opinions about the issue shown through enough to stifle anyone who held an alternative opinion? I know that the entire episode was deeply frustrating to you, so I get where you’re coming from. Perhaps this is one of your first encounters with the ‘generational divide’ that Bethenny described in her comment (the Grinnel College Study)

    ” posed questions, such as “is his defense plausible?” “Did the Israelis have a right to breach international law to retrieve, then try him?” “Is his execution justice?” “How do you define justice or injustice?” “What is an example of injustice to you?”

    These are all phenomenal questions worthy of significant consideration and time to hear multiple opinions of each. But if they were asked for the first time in the context of a discussion that was not going well, they may have just exacerbated the dissociation you witnessed rather than spurred more people to respond. Perhaps they would be better received as a reflective writing assignment (choose one or two) to allow more people to think about and respond thoughtfully as well as critically both to what is understood and what they heard individually, as well as provide some personal opinions in a more anonymous manner.

    Somewhat of a sidebar: I am taking another class this semester on social science research methods where we have explored how humans are prone to rely more on their feelings, values and beliefs than the facts that they are presented with to make decisions. These are wrapped up in a few different theories related to cognitive biases: confirmation bias, normative bias, availability heuristic. Being aware of those biases, and acknowledging them, aids one in being better equipped to be open to the possibility that we may filter our experiences through those biases and miss out on some truth that is hidden (or at least masked) because of them.

    I deeply appreciate the raw honesty with which you wrote your blog post. I think you are on to something big in thinking about the iterative nature of teaching, and particularly in the case of the topic of the Eichtmann case. I find that when I am most agitated is when I have the biggest breakthroughs, which apparently is not a unique conundrum.
    I’ll leave you with a quote I find helpful when approaching a task engaging others:

    “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
    – Isaac Asimov

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    * i.e. weekly exercises and listening sessions where students gradually develop a sense of security in sharing their thoughts/ideas without concern of criticism or worse.

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