Compassion and Respect: The Problem of Discursive Inequality in the Classroom

This past week, a few students were telling me about the various times they’ve seen a professor viciously castigate and reprimand other students based on an opinion they expressed in class. Students used the terms “lay into,” “rip a new one,” and “destroy” to describe how the professor interacted with their student. I asked the students not to tell me who the professors were, because I’m not interested in personally addressing them; I’m only disturbed by an overall trend, and wish to express my general opinion on such a heavy-handed pedagogical move. I’m not trying to make anybody wrong; I am describing my ideals for a classroom environment. I am not accusing, whistle-blowing, or blaming. It doesn’t matter if this specific event did or did not occur, because I know that this is a thing that happens; I saw it happen in classrooms as a student, and it made me as uncomfortable then as it does now.  The whole point of what I’m saying is that shaming people into thinking “what’s right” is not an effective teaching practice, nor is it a kind thing to do to another human being. Dogmatic indoctrination does not belong in the classroom. Period. Certainly not in my classroom. From students, professors, or otherwise. And I will tell you why:

Being a new instructor, a few weeks ago, I had to formally articulate my “classroom policies”. After thinking about all of the strange and shocking things I’ve seen over my many years of education—as a student and an instructor—, I came up with two things: compassion and respect. All I ask of people in my classroom is that they practice compassion and respect in their writing, towards each other, and towards me. Originally, I drafted a syllabus with a long list of specific behaviors that might compromise compassion and respect. Among those were things like, “Don’t expect to do your best work if you’re consistently coming to class drunk and/or high.” One of my colleagues pointed out to me that this could be perceived as infantilizing to the students, especially since I’m dealing with older students (who could probably figure out stuff like that on their own). My final draft (is there such a thing?) was a bit more open-ended, and I’m trusting that my students know what that means. And they know that I trust them to know what compassion and respect mean. It’s only three weeks in, but I have the most polite, engaged, brave students that I could have ever asked for—also, their attendance has been amazing. I have been so grateful for the ways that they have been exercising compassion and respect in my classroom.

So, this student is telling me that one of their professors “laid into” one of her fellow students for saying something that I imagine was, indeed, somewhat misogynistic in nature. The student’s comment was not directed at anyone—it was part of a discussion and, apparently, the professor went all “social justice warrior” on him (please forgive me for borrowing this term from the far-right, but it is very descriptive for the purposes of this essay). The instructor did not follow up the student’s comment with a question, but rather launched into a fulmination of righteous indignation. This behavior, on the part of the instructor, violates compassion and respect for a couple of key reasons:
1) The instructor is not demonstrating compassion for someone who is trying to learn. The only way that learning will occur is if the instructor understands that their students may not know as much about a given topic as they do. The compassionate thing, then, is to guide them towards a better understanding. Students are working from a much more limited set of life data—they are not the ones who paid tens of thousands of dollars to go to grad school and obsess over things. Their journey is only beginning, and we are compassionate if we ask them questions to guide their own inquiry, so that they can become familiar with the sword of Reason and just how easily it slices through bullshit. It’s just the Socratic method—only, like, the first pedagogy ever, and I think it has a pretty solid track record.
2) The instructor is not demonstrating respect for the profound sacredness of the creative learning process. Not much is sacred in society anymore, and few people are willing to argue for it, which is what it is. If we consider the very process of gaining knowledge, though, we are struck by voices of long ago who described knowledge as something ‘stolen’ or ‘gained’ from God/the Divine. I think of the Judeo-Christian creation story, which describes knowledge as a forbidden fruit in God’s domain that was ‘stolen’ by the first woman and man. I think of the Ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humankind—this ‘fire’ is fruitfully interpreted as the metaphorical fire of Reason, technology, and progress. Knowledge can feel like accessing some Divine Order because it enables us to make sense of things. In a wildly chaotic world, having any sense of understanding of what’s going on makes us feel more powerful. Like we have some power/control over our surroundings and our situation. I think this is what is meant when people say Knowledge is Power. To experience such power, as fundamentally limited beings, feels like we’ve accessed some element of universal order—
In addition, we cannot forget that the modern University in the West originates from the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the middle ages, or the “dark ages,” much of the knowledge of the West was preserved within the Church, and modeled on a sacred relationship between student and master. In respecting this relationship and the process of learning, instructors may truly have a great impact. An article about Plato aptly synthesized the Meno dialogue in saying “knowledge and intelligence without virtue lead to despotism.”[1]
Socrates says
“Unless he can run the gauntlet of all objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion, but to absolute truth, never faltering at any step of the arguments—unless he can do all this, you would say that he knows neither the idea of good nor any other good; he apprehends only a shadow, if anything at all, which is given by opinion and not by science;—dreaming and slumbering in this life, before he is well awake here, he arrives at the world below, and has his final quietus.”

I get it, Plato is a super-dead “white” guy. Although his place and his positions are contentious, I still think he said some good stuff. Instructors can’t be power-tripping on students; it’s a violation of learning and a gesture towards despotism. Now, more than ever, we need to be inviting students to join the conversation and express their ideas.

Last week, a student came to talk to me after class, and in a hushed voice told me he was nervous to talk about the paper he was going to write. His thesis was, “Women in the U.S. should focus more on issues of inequality around the world, rather than just US-specific issues that affect women.” He was so nervous to even approach any issue relating to women.
“Is it because you’re a white guy?” I asked.
His hushed, anxious voice reminded me of that of a Soviet informer, or that of some Orwellian conspirator.
My student was making an interesting point, and an inherently pro-feminist argument, but the carelessly tossed around, dangerously politicized, hot-potato term feminism has become a point of such great anxiety and trauma for society, that people are not even talking about it. An uneasy, somber, penitent silence has fallen over those who need to be part of the conversation the most.

All instructors relate to the baffling silence they’re met with when they pose questions to the class. I think there’s a lot more going on with this silence besides students being tired, distracted, confused,  or oblivious.  I just want my students to know that I have no intention to be a despot. I want everyone to feel free to express their thoughts. I am making a conscious effort to choose compassion over pride by inviting everyone to say what they think and say what they mean. No matter how “ignorant” a comment seems to be, or how counter they are to my personal opinions, we all need to join the conversation so we can learn together.

It’s not time to scramble the academy so that we can devise a newer, better political correctness. It’s time to set down the theory and just practice compassion and respect with one another, regardless of our position in society. Whether you’re a student or an instructor, a boss or an employee, a parent or a child, a policeman or a criminal, we must practice compassion and respect to progress as a society. The heart of patriarchal bullshit is a rigid hierarchy that seeks to exercise intimidation as a means to maintain its own influence, and excluding others.

As I see it, there’s presently a discursive inequality problem in the classroom.