My first principle in politics, philosophy, and human relations generally -- including teaching -- is that none of us (including me) knows the truth so well that s/he can assume that another person, any other person, has nothing to teach us. It may be that they don't, but we can't know that in advance; even after talking to them and gaining nothing, we still might find that their very next statement changes that. It is perfectly o.k. to believe another person wrong and to take action based on that belief when action must be taken, i.e., where the failure to come to a decision becomes itself a decision. But the fact that we sometimes must act doesn't change the fact that we remain uncertain of what is true. This principle can be applied directly to your participation in this class. I can never be so sure of my own understanding of the world that I can rule out the possibility that you will teach me. In fact, I'm sure you can teach me a lot about how the world is different now than it was roughly 38 years ago, when I was in college. (I graduated in 1968.) My daughter (b. 1974) teaches me stuff all the time. You know things that I don't, you've grown up accustomed to things I don't understand, and if we're to talk to each other, I need to have you teach me about these things. Here are some questions off the top of my head: What's a "rave"? Does its culture represent anything new and important? What are you and your peers like? You probably aren't like the folks on MTV and the Mountain Dew ads, but if not that, then what? (People still seem to believe that everyone of my generation was a hippy, which is completely wrong — not to mention that the specific image of a hippy was a media fiction in the first place.) What do you see you and your generation needing to accomplish, given the world your forebears have left you?
There are a lot of things about modern life that seem very strange and even sad to me. Do you share that sense? For that matter, should you share it? Here are some examples of what I'm sad about:
No one knows who's right: everyone has something to teach anyone else and something to learn from everyone else. This principle also applies to you in your relations with me. I may not know the same things you do, but I didn't waste the 38 or so years between our ages. I've seen wars and recessions come and go, seen their causes and thought about their consequences. I've worked for a township Planning Board (Piscataway, New Jersey), for a survey research organization (the New Jersey Poll, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University), for the Congressional Research Service (Library of Congress), for a conservative think tank (the Hudson Institute), for the Educational Testing Service, for a research program in radiation shielding (University of Illinois). At the Hudson Institute I had a secret clearance. I've testified before a congressional committee. I interviewed for the CIA after college — most of my friends would not believe you if you said that —, but fortunately for me (and probably for the CIA too) they had no need for another James Bond. I've learned about many countries and have visited a number: Canada, Mexico, Brazil, England, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. I've lived in thirteen different states and have had more than two dozen separate addresses.
I've been a liberal Democrat and a conservative Democrat, and I've voted for the Green Party and the Socialist Workers Party. In 1964 I (unenthusiastically) helped my roommate campaign for Barry Goldwater, in 1968 I supported Hubert Humphrey, in 1972 I campaigned for George McGovern, and in 2000 I supported Ralph Nader. I've been pro-life, then pro-choice, then pro-life again, then pro-choice again ... and then my thinking progressed beyond that dichotomy. I've been a Lutheran, an atheist, an agnostic, a Methodist, and a Taoist (and I married a Catholic). I've sat on negotiating teams for four union contracts, and have been president of the University Education Association, the NEA- and AFT-affiliated union representing UMD faculty.
I've been in love many times, both good affairs and bad ones. I've been married twice. Unfortunately, I've also been divorced twice. I care for both my former wives, not that we necessarily get along. My first wife and I have a daughter, who I've cared for and watched grow up well. (She should get more of the credit for that than I.) She and her husband are raising two daughters, and doing it well.
I've had at least six different counselors and therapists and have been a member of many different therapy groups. I've counseled people myself and have learned how to do it well. I've been hypnotized once. I've survived the death of my father, my mother, all my grandparents, and three uncles. I've been in the hospital for surgery eight times in my life, plus a six-week stay recovering from spinal meningitis. I've had dialysis and two kidney transplants.
I've taken drugs, both legal and illegal. Sometimes I learned real things about me and my brain from them, sometimes it was a mistake for me to take them, and sometimes both these things were true at the same time. I've been hassled by police simply because I had long hair. I thought tattooing and piercing were great before they were fashionable, but they seem far too permanent to me. (I could always cut my hair, but I'm not certain enough of anything yet to have it printed on my hide.) I've owned three motorcycles and four cars. I rebuilt the engine of my first car three times.
My most recent music purchases have included Chico Science & Nacão Zumbi ("CSNZ"), Enya, Metallica [who actually had something to say, musically, even if they said it too loud], Elton John, Carl Orff, Loreena McKennitt, Jimmy Cliff, Dire Straits, Talking Heads, Huey Lewis & the News, Handel, and a bunch of others I'm forgetting. I saw "Rocky" when it first came out. (With my mother. "It was a ... simple story," she remarked, diplomatically, when we emerged from the theater.) I think Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson both kick butt. (Ha ha, a little "with it" slang to show how "phat", "buff", and "down" I am.) I still think the Beatles rule, but I also think rock has progressed since them.
I wrote a doctoral dissertation and got a Ph.D. from M.I.T. I've written two books, coauthored a third, and am working on a fourth. (This is all in my vita.) My works have been published in Argentina, Brazil, and the UK as well as in the United States. I have been taught a lot of mathematics, and I learned a lot of statistics and research methods on my own. I've intensively studied developmental (Piagetian) psychology, political psychology, counseling psychology, comparative politics, political philosophy, and Continental philosophy. I have been programming computers since 1963, and I constructed this web site all by myself.
I've taught, advised, fought with, and cared for my students since 1981. I've grieved to see some of them crash and burn when they graduated, and I've rejoiced when others found success and happiness in unexpected ways. I've had students write to tell me how much they owe to what I taught them, and I've had students who told me I sucked. (Sometimes they were right.) I've taught students who had dyslexia, hearing & sight problems, quadriplegia, abortions, parents dying of AIDS, convulsive disorders, and language difficulties arising from English not being their first language. (And they and I worked out ways to accommodate them in class and in grading.)
I have a lot of gray hairs—some representing wisdom and others stupidity. So while I'm 38 years behind the times—behind your times—, remember that I didn't waste them all and that I might in fact know something important. If I remember that you might know something, and you remember that I might know something, maybe we'll get something out of our meeting like this.
I find it hard to remember that I'm not always or totally right. For me, the difficulty comes from the academic habit of working to become an expert. It also comes from the general relationship you and I find ourselves in as teacher and student. Every sign, symbol, and stick of furniture in the classroom, the university, and the culture asserts the teacher's superiority: "The teacher is better educated than you." "The teacher has taught for X years, so your feeble experience surely can't contribute anything." "The teacher has better arguments than you do" (or at least they sound better). The teacher is more confident of h/her ideas than you are of yours. And, lest we forget, the teacher always wields the power of the grade. (One of my college teachers failed me on his first exam simply because he didn't like me and looked for mistakes, not knowledge. Even though he had changed his mind by the end of the semester, I still remember that initial injustice.) Even protestations like this web page can't be trusted, because it's too easy to say something in an essay and then behave differently at grading time or when the class doesn't go the teacher's way. It takes a while for students to come to trust the teacher's basic honesty, fairness, and maturity. This is also true for teachers trusting students.
Here's how I think about all this:
I have a description here of the philosophy and practice of my grading.
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