Teaching and Physical Presence

I don’t comment on blogs and online articles as much as I once did. But when I do, I am still left with a feeling of dissipation, which starts with the knowledge that I spent time and thought on comments that, in retrospect, seem limited, even foolish, and that did not get through to the other participants. I am left with the sinking thought, “Oh no, why did I do that?” The most recent example is the comment thread on Leon Wieseltier’s column “The Unschooled” (online title: “Education Is the Work of Teachers, Not Hackers”).

One of the main points of his piece is that students need actual teachers—not virtual teachers, not scripted teachers, not stand-ins for teachers, but teachers themselves, in the same room with the students. They are essential precisely because they give us something that daily life (online and offline) does not. Once we leave school (be it high school, college, or graduate school), we make our way through life without formal teachers, for the most part. It is our teachers who help us prepare for this independence.

Most of what I learned from teachers, I owe to their physical presence as well as their intellect. What sets the classroom apart from other situations is, first of all, of someone who not only knows the subject well but strives to bring the students into it; second of all, a focus on something interesting in itself, whatever its applications may be; and, third, the allowance for thoughts in formation. I will focus here on this last point and its usual absence from online discussion.

In the classroom, you can say something that is incomplete, flawed, or utterly incorrect. This can contribute to the overall discussion, as the goal is not to score points but to arrive at greater understanding. A teacher or professor welcomes errors or limited assertions as an opportunity to probe further. (This requires, of course, that the students participate conscientiously and thoughtfully, instead of speaking haphazardly or bluffing.) What’s more, once you have said something in the classroom, it vanishes; unless you have made a particularly memorable point, or unless the teacher has picked up on it, it does not follow you around. (This is a good thing.) It is possible, in such a discussion, to clarify terms on the spot; to interject questions; to return to the text or problem; and to glean things in the speaker’s tone and facial expressions. The teacher, who has a longer and broader perspective on the subject than the students do, is able to bring together seemingly disparate points and take the discussion further. Sometimes the teacher does most of the talking—in some of my favorite courses, this was so—and that does not degrade the discussion.

In everyday face-to-face conversations, many of these features may be present. Two or more people may well learn from each other in person. There is room for tentativeness, as most of what is said gets left behind. The point is not only to learn but to enjoy each other’s presence. The teacher in such settings may well be absent—and so topics may be broached lightly or in depth, with or without accuracy or probing.

Online discussions are a different matter. There, the participants often do not know each other; often they hide behind fake names. Aware that their comments may remain on the website forever, they try to be right and to defend what they say. Because this can be extremely time-consuming with little reward, they also try to do it swiftly, without too much thought. Such commenting is different from letter or email correspondence, which is based on mutual regard, including the regard of adversaries. In far too many online discussions, mutual regard is absent. Worse, a great deal of online discussion is about nothing at all, or about a dizzying cascade of topics.

I am glad that I spent years in classrooms with teachers. When online discussions discourage me (and they often do), I remember that there is a different way of discussing things, a different way of handling ideas that are in formation. This has to do with examining and correcting oneself, sharpening one’s language, and finding the right mixture of integrity and openness. It is similar to what George Kateb describes as “self-possession” in Human Dignity:

By that term I mean the awareness of oneself as susceptible to intimidation and mental capture. One must catch oneself if one is not to conform thoughtlessly to codes, customs, and practices; if one is not to yield to the self-imposed tyranny of compliant habit; if one is not to give in to the inevitable pleasures of simplifying ideologies and the agitation of shifting fashions. One’s dignity rests on the ability to resist being too easily ensnared, and to avoid being a target of solicitations. One has to engage in self-examination in order not to succumb to false needs and wants; one must struggle hard and with only a modicum of hope to discover what one truly needs and wants and thus to approach somewhat more closely to being oneself rather than being a poor imitation of oneself and hence an unconscious parody of oneself.

Such self-possession is far removed from self-justification or self-insistence; to catch oneself, one must have guides to one’s own folly. One can find such guides in books, but one also needs their voices and gestures and faces; the nod, the quizzical look, the ability to pick up on thoughts in the room and show where they might go. Physical presence is not a good in itself, but it contributes to the “spirit of liberty” (in Learned Hand’s sense).

This good is too important a gift to give up. If students do not know what a class discussion or lecture is, they may confuse online bickering, or even face-to-face shouting, with true exchange. Many already do.

Self-Doubt in a Culture of Certainty

I wouldn’t call my current state an intellectual crisis, though it might be. A crisis implies a dilemma, where one no longer believes in one’s former way of living and thinking yet hesitates before the alternatives. For me, something quieter is going on. I see the possibility of another level of thinking and writing but have not reached it yet. So I question many a sentence of that I have written, many a concept that I have embraced. At this point, I don’t reject my former ideas but see a need to sharpen them. (The sharpening may lead to the discarding of some.)

Such periods of transition can be exhilarating and upsetting at the same time—exhilarating because of the new understandings, upsetting because of the embarrassment. For me, the mix is bitterer than it has to be, because I have taken a culture of certainty a bit too much to heart. We live in a world where people brandish their views (or the views of a group) and lash at those who disagree. Once they say their say, they stand by it. If they waver at all, then they’re perceived as weak. I see through most of this, but some of it gets to me anyway, as it seeps into everyday life.

To think well, you need some removal from that environment. You need room to consider whether you might be wrong—or whether you might have used a word carelessly or failed to consider a possibility. None of that is weakness, unless it turns into self-indulgence. The self-criticism, or assessment of one’s thoughts and words, needs both sustenance and defense.

It’s difficult to find a place for uncertainty. As a teacher, one often has to act more certain than one is. I don’t mean that one pretends to know things one doesn’t know, or states things as fact that are open to question. (I do that sometimes without meaning to do so; the words slip out of me, and I catch them.) Rather, one has to present the material in a coherent manner, and that often involves simplifications. I often walk out of class asking myself questions about the lesson I just presented or about statements I made. It is good to do this, if I then have time to think through those questions and read carefully. Often there’s insufficient time; I have to rush to the next class, correct hundreds of homework assignments, attend meetings, and catch up with paperwork.

So the time left in the day for thinking is scarce, and one must take good care to guard it. It is all too easy to get into an online discussion or argument where neither side is looking to be enriched and where little ultimately gets said. It is easy, also, to sound wiser than one is when in an ephemeral setting—to be a vanishing frog croaking over a vanishing marsh. How much effort I have put, at times, into blog comments that were later forgotten (as far as I know) by all involved!

Also, it is not just a matter of thinking over what one has said. One must read a great deal (of carefully chosen books) in order to think well. The books that help me think better are those with discernment and wit; those that go far beyond the slipshod; those that jolt me wisely, not cheaply; those that hold beauty. I have commented recently on one such book; I have more thoughts about it but will let them work in my mind. Other books have been on my mind too. In order to read such books, one must set aside protected time for them.

I speak in terms of protection because interruptions and temptations are many. In particular, one is tempted (or I have been tempted) to seek the “quick fix” of blogging and other online writing. I don’t take this to extremes—and I put thought into what I do post online—yet I know the satisfaction of getting responses (however few), including those that don’t challenge me. In subtle ways one can shortchange one’s intellectual life for a short-lived kick, a sense that one’s words reach someone. I want to do more than reach someone. I want to get to the bone of things worth saying—and say them in that bony yet graceful way. I want to say it in a book, because then it’s less likely to be read in a rush. (People do read books for quick “takeaways,” but it’s possible to make clear that your book is not of that sort.)

That’s the other side of it. At some point uncertainty must come to an end; one must lay out that sentence. That must not happen too soon, but it must happen. If holds back for fear of saying something incorrect or incomplete, then the fools (including one’s own internal fools) will have their way. Blaise Pascal said, “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.”  This applies to the writer as it does to to the person choosing whether or not to believe in God. One must say something, if that is what one has set out to do. But learning when to say it and when to hold back–learning how long to work on something before putting it forward–takes staunchness, vigilance, and a strong sense of measure.