“This is my voice, there are many like it, but this one is mine.” –Shane Koyczan, “This is my Voice“
Allow me to complicate things for this week’s topic:
I have two voices. One of them is silent.
Yet, both are part of my authentic teaching voice.
The Non-Silent Voice
When I walk into a classroom on the first day, usually into a philosophy class, I give a brief bio about myself and then jump straight into one of the most important parts of that class: community building and context setting. By context setting I mean being honest and transparent about the often unsaid and left out things.
For the unsaid (but sometimes implied):
- We as a class will be creating and making this classroom together
- We are responsible and accountable to one another
- My students are the core while I am a facilitator of their narrative and exploration into the topic
- I am more concerned with them learning to be honest with themselves about what they believe, and why, than with their actual views
- I will invite them to engage in difficult conversations and to lean into the discomfort of challenging discussions, with the hope that they will eventually trust that the conversation will take us all to deeper levels of understanding both about the topic at hand and, more importantly, about ourselves as interlocutors
For the left out (and rarely implied):
- We should be mindful of accessibility/We will remake the space as needed to make it more accessible
- We will discuss things they never learned or were intentionally not taught in school (null curriculum)
- They are welcome to be their authentic selves in the class; they don’t have to hide their beliefs or say what seems “mainstream”
- I am more concerned that they leave with transferable skills than knowing the minute details of the philosophers we discuss
- I am human, have opinions on these topics and I won’t reveal any of mine until the end of the course.
To this latter point, I tack on the truthful disclaimer that I will at times motivate and defend views I do think are false because they are the topic of the week and it is my responsibility as a facilitator to give them an accurate lay of the land to explore. That last part usually gets left out.
Next we do introductions. We take time, careful time, filling out note cards and an intake form that give background information that I want to know such as:
- past history in philosophy
- current beliefs (so I can flag the tensions that will pop up sections to section and so that they can reflect on what they believe at the end of the semester)
- things they’re actually interested in so I can work in topics/recommend readings
- “preferred” pronouns if they should have any
I also ask them to draw me a picture on the note card as well but I don’t tell them why until the end of the semester. Pictures and non-traditional methods of concept presentation/acquisition happen a lot in my sections. Finally, we go around the room and share one embarrassing thing that happened to us to establish lines of common, yet different, experiences (lots of people falling down stairs, I share falling down a hill into my first field hockey collegiate game) and we start talking about the reading.
In a normal class session we do processing to work through anything that folks aren’t quite sure about from the week’s readings, we do a peer led discussion where 2-3 students lead a discussion/activity on a given topic for their colleague, we unpack the activity, do another small group conversation, and end with a participation page where they can ask me questions/reflect on what they are thinking about. This is also where the introverts can participate in a more introvert friendly space.
So far everything I’ve named has been the (usually) audible, present voice I bring into the classroom. It is with this voice I try to nurture, not tolerate or merely accept or support, the voices, opinions and thoughts of the students I work with. It is with this voice I try to support them when they say they “just can’t get it” and challenge them to formulate the argument on behalf of their opposition when they get to haughty.
My teaching self tries to be both high in support and high in what is called “control” in Restorative Practices models but more accurately translates to “challenge”. I try to challenge all my students to improve even when they struggle and to reach out to one another as colleagues in a mutual labor of learning difficult concepts. They each receive feedback on their work and at the end of the semester they get an “improvement” based grade in addition to the university required letter grade since when I said I care about improvement, I meant it.
I try to foster a classroom environment where they are accountable to one another, not merely to me, and an environment where ultimately I would be irreverent. One in which unpopular opinions can be shared openly, honestly, and where we can have a philosophical discussion about the tensions among views without the need for facilitator oversight.
All of this (I hope) sounds pretty decent, right?
What then is the voice that is missing?
The Silent Voice
In the classroom an intentional style, and approach, I take given that it is philosophy is to tell my students almost nothing about my background. I tell them a little bit, like the main areas I work in so that they know I may give more feedback than normal if I know the literature; I flag that I’m a diversity trainer for the university (and that they may run into me outside of class); and give a bit of history (reslife, old majors) with the end note of “I know that unforeseen things will happen in your lives; just keep me in the loop when, and if, you need some sort of accessibility move to balance life’s challenges”. Like I said, high in support and challenge.
But what I don’t reveal is also of import when it comes to my authentic teaching self:
- I don’t tell them that I’m a moral realist, intuitionist, and deontologist.
- I don’t tell them that I’m a conditional vegetarian who thinks I should be a vegan.
- I don’t tell them that I think killing is self-defense may not always be morally permissible (a very unpopular view).
I don’t tell them a myriad of other philosophical views that I, reasonably, think I am probably wrong about at the end of the day.
And outside of philosophical views, I intentionally don’t tell them I’m trans.
In philosophy we have a major problem with bias both in the discipline and about the discipline and, historically, this bias impacts facilitators and students.
On their end, if students know that I believe x they are more likely to focus on either a) catering to my beliefs or b) take any criticism of how they formulate an argument to be only due to the fact that I think a different view is more plausible. There is also a tendency to link identities with beliefs and that’s one of the reasons I don’t say anything; why I don’t “correct” for pronouns and have a mixture of “ma’am/she” and “sir/he” floating around the classroom (and email) everyday. The trans*/minoritized identity=liberal=this belief about x is too pernicious to avoid it any other way. That and the fear of being perceived as “forcing my views onto someone’s child” for merely existing is a conversation I’d rather avoid.
While for some folks reading this, it may not make sense to have to hide, obscure, or simply leave out identities, not everyone can do that. There isn’t usually a lot of risk when someone who is in a different gender relationship/partnership mentions that they have wife/husband, for example. There can be tangible risks if you’re in a same gender relationship, a poly relationship, unmarried with a child, queer, etc.
As I said, I wanted to complicate things this week and this is the complication. Depending on your identities, or more accurately the identities that people perceive of you, this “authentic” self sometimes has to be policed by the very person it is supposed to represent.
We can’t talk about our authentic teaching selves without naming the things that we must leave unsaid.
Bridging the Gap
With my audible voice I “use” this silent voice at the very end of the semester to do a consciousness raising activity in what I think constitutes a type of ethical manipulation. Specifically, I use my silence as a tool to get students to reflect on what implicit bias means for them and their communities. During this class we talk about implicit bias, they do iceburg activities with one another naming the identities and histories they assume about their partner, and then they guess things about me. I don’t answer their guesses just as I haven’t answered their guesses during the other weeks.
In leaving a space of intentional uncertainty, my students get to see that not everyone makes the same assumptions about me, and I leave them with the question of which guesses were right, which guesses were wrong, and an invitation to consider what it would have meant if I walked into a space where folks were making multiple, conflicting assumptions. I end by asking them to take with them the question of what assumptions folks make about them and how those assumptions continue to shape their paths in the years to come.
My silent voice ultimately is not the one I speak with, not the one that shows up to facilitate philosophical conversations with students thrice a week beyond being present in absence.
In being silent, and silenced, this part of my authentic self gets used to at least raise consciousness and make a philosophical point that is memorable, transferable, and, just sometimes, world shattering.
It may be silent, but it shapes my approach to teaching as much as if not more than my non-silent voice.
When we speak about our teaching voices, the kinds of facilitators we are or are working on becoming in the classroom and lab, our approaches, techniques, strengths, oddities, I don’t think we can leave out the fact that some of us, if not all of us, must have dual voices.
Not all of us can be our authentic selves in every classroom without monitoring the plurality of voices that we have; each authentic, real, and felt in a different way.
I have two voices and one of them is silent.
What about you?