Thursday, March 27, 2008

Taking the Prof Personally

I was teaching an excerpt from Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling today in my 19th Century class. In this passage, Kierkegaard masterfully discusses the absurdity of faith. An act of faith is by definition, for Kierkegaard, unintelligible. I love teaching this. But, today I started analyzing something in particular about how my class responded to Kierkegaard (and, frankly, to all the other thinkers we have read this semester). The students stopped me mid-Kierkegaard-rant to ask if he was suggesting that it is better to be a knight of faith? Is it better to be Abraham? Should one aim to be this isolated, unintelligible knight of faith? Their eyes were intent, concerned, eager.

One student threw his hands up and said "this is just insane." I had to step back from their intensity and reflect on what must be occurring when they read these dead, old thinkers from years gone bye. They turn to them as sources of wisdom. They read each of these texts as if the writer is speaking directly to them and telling them how they should act, live, and think.

I don't think this is necessarily the wrong way to read these texts, but I keep trying to point out to my students that not every one of these writers is telling you what to do or what to think. Some of them are just exposing the flawed assumptions of certain institutions, laws, and attempts to ground morality. For example, when I teach Kant's Groundwork, I have to constantly remind the students that Kant is not prescribing what they ought to do. He is not telling them that they are failures if they cannot always act from duty. He is describing what is necessary for a moral philosophy to be truly universally binding. And yet, the students can't help but read the Groundwork as admonishing them for failing to live up to Kant's ideal of the wholly rational, duty-bound subject. Today they were livid that Kierkegaard was (they thought) prescribing a way to being faithful to the divine that would practically make them appear crazy to others.

No matter how many times I tried to redirect them to seeing Kierkegaard as making a specific critique of the Lutheran Church in Denmark and Hegel, they couldn't get away from taking Kierkegaard personally.

When class was over and I headed over to the daycare to see Maddie, I started wondering if I had that kind of power over the students and didn't realize it? That is, if I made pronouncements about what I think is the proper way to act, would my word--as an authority figure--force them to be put into crisis in the same way that these texts do? That is how I see it, by the way. If they didn't see these thinkers as wise or worth listening to, they wouldn't keep asking me with such passion why Kant says X or Kierkegaard says y. They are looking for some guidance from these texts. I am not sure why, but they are.

So, are they looking for some guidance from me as well? Do I have this much power over them? There are probably plenty of professors who have realized they do have this power and abused it long before I managed to see it. And, now that I am fairly convinced that I have reached a point in my career where what I say, what I reveal about myself, what I share of my preferences carries a kind of weight that I didn't realize before that it did, I am sort of nervous.

I am nervous about how easily one could get giddy from this power. I see far to many junior faculty fail to see how much power they actually have over students. In fact, they might even misread student reactions to them. Perhaps when students challenge them, it is not because they don't respect their authority, but rather that they are far too overwhelmed and challenged by what they assume is the wisdom of the prof. They feel indicted at times for not being as wise or being a virtuous as they attribute to the prof.

I dunno. Maybe they are just being asses. But, I can't shake the feeling that they are taking me far too personally.