I alone am tentative…
from the Tao Te Ching,
chapter 20, called sometimes “Wandering”.
Outside in, or inside out?
Coming in as an outsider (in many ways), I am still struggling with the idea of a “pedagogical portfolio”. Not the least of my difficulties is my ongoing ambivalence about the project of the American university, as it stands, and the driving forces behind it. There is a particularly profound difficulty for me, arriving with a “wrong side of the tracks” background, and having absorbed a significant amount of the common cultural distrust for academia; yet, by the same token, I have always been inclined towards the “thinker” end of the spectrum—and been treated as an outsider because of it. I have sympathy for some of the ideals behind the project of intellectualism, a natural affinity for the compulsive rationalist behind many scholars. But, I ask myself, what are we doing here at the University? What of this conceit of the “scholar”? Is my dissatisfaction secretly driven that of the idealist, of the outsider, the nerd who wants hir own space, away from the hoi polloi? How does this figure into my contrasting Dewey-esque ideal that, with more education, general enlightenment will eventually prevail? I feel, directly off the starting block, an outsider—not only for my “socioeconomic/cultural background”, but also for my distinct lack of faith in any kind of “T”ruth, any kind of singleness of approach, unifying theory. I have no sympathy for what often seems the academic project—to freeze the Thing and dissect it, leaving it fit only for the morgue.
In the classroom, I need to negotiate several different terrains. In one sense, my lifelong role of “outsider” seems to make me a natural for ignoring certain boundary topics, particularly in the case of marginalized students. At the same time, my radicalism, intellectualism, irreverence—all traits absorbed and incorporated from a very early age—might serve to frighten or at least alienate some students if they are particularly sensitive. I strive to include everyone, from the far-right to the radical left, in the general conversation. My general credo is—if you can state your position well, support it, and do it in a respectful way, then by all means, share. And if you can’t, share anyways, because that’s the only way to get better at it. When faced with viewpoints opposed to my own, I strive to evaluate them fairly. This last bears more exploration.
One of my central tenets is “Do not mistake the map for the territory.” Whatever we speak of, no matter the subject, is bound up in our preferred metaphors, our perceptual set, our Belief System, Reality Tunnel, etc. A key to managing the potentially riotous discourse of a multivalent discussion is to avoid what some refer to as “model theism”—the mistaking of one’s preferred metaphorical understanding of Whatever’s-Out-There for The-Thing-What-It-Really-Is, and proceeding to worship it. Even with continual diligence, however, all of us, from zen roshi to taxi driver, still fall prey to taking ourselves and our shibboleths too seriously. How do we deal with this?