My First Concern: What Should a Teacher Do?

This was the first question I asked when I joined the profession and it is the same question I ask now whenever I enter a class or talk to a student. There are no courses which prepare teachers to teach undergraduate students. The idea may have been that undergraduate students do not need school like instruction in which the responsibility of students’ learning is entirely on the teacher. University students are supposed to be self-learners and university teachers are supposed to work as facilitators. This idea of university teaching is based on the assumption that our schools teach and equip students to be self-learners. Anyone who has taught university students will know that this is a false assumption. Yet the basic teaching structure in universities is founded on this assumption. Hence there are no courses which prepare post graduate students to teach university students. (A few practice classes don’t count as training as it only deals with the classroom handling experience and not the intellectual requirement of a university teacher.)

So, the questions remain. What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to talk? What am I supposed to teach? Am I responsible for their learning? What happens if they don’t understand me? Am I saying the right thing? Am I guiding students in the right way? Sometimes I even ask questions like: Is it my duty to guide students? Who has given me the authority to interfere in the personal lives of students? Is it possible to separate a student’s personal life from his/her academic life? What should be my nature of interaction with students? Should I express my personal and political opinions in class? If so how should I do it and what will happen if it clashes with students’ opinions? How should I handle differences of opinions in class? The stream of questions is endless. After thinking about these questions for sometimes and after having taught university students for five years, I’ve realized a few things. In this blog I’ll be sharing my thoughts on teaching and learning.

I’ve titled this blog as ‘The Socratic Method’ because of my fascination with the method that Socrates used to argue with his opponents. This method is very simple but very effective in knowing what we don’t know. If the opponent makes a claim to know something Socrates wouldn’t contradict him by saying that his claim was wrong. Instead he would ask his opponent a series of questions which would make his opponent contradict his original claim and make him realize that his claim was wrong and that he doesn’t know anything about it. Socrates was always suspicious of any claim to knowledge.

At the risk of generalizing I propose several statements. I make these statements with the full knowledge that this is not the case with many universities and many individual teachers. The Socratic Method, if practiced with humility and if it’s a two way process in which the student also gets to use it, can be an effective method in advancing our collective knowledge. This method will also help in puncturing our inflated egos built over our excessive qualifications and our supposed mastery/expertise in the field. Our titles as ‘teacher’, ‘lecturer’ or ‘professor’ don’t entitle us to any kind of expert knowledge or arrogance. This is a hard truth that we teachers need to face. Whenever we are challenged by students, either intellectually or through social behaviour, we hide behind our titles or we ‘enforce discipline’ to shut their mouth. The growing disconnect between students and teachers is partly a result of this arrogance that we display both inside the classroom and outside. There can exist only one kind of discipline inside the university and it is the discipline of the mind. The discipline of the body emanates from the discipline of the mind.

The more we try to ‘enforce discipline’ the more we are alienating our students. The less we understand students the less we understand the society of which they and we are part of. The less we understand the society the less we become good at solving its problems. This is partly the reason as to why the universities are playing very little role in social intervention and formation of public opinions.

Only if we imagine ourselves, including students, as belonging to a community of learners can we bring back humility to this profession. Only if an attempt is made to understand students’ intellectual capabilities and social behaviour can we be of any meaning to their lives. If it’s true that teachers are eternal learners then we ought to learn from the questions the students ask, challenges that students throw and the supposed ‘indiscipline’ they seem to display. We should never forget that the supposed ‘indiscipline’ will have a social, cultural or an economic reason behind it and we seem to have become experts at ignoring it.

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