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.