What the ignorant know

The Zen masters warn that when the cup is full the student cannot learn. In the same vein, Socrates described himself as wise only in the sense that he knew that he did not know. Ignorance, like the open space in a photograph, has far more constructive and creative power than we generally acknowledge. Predictably, though, universities, and the knowledge factories of popular culture, place far more emphasis on the acquisition and juxtaposition of facts and data than on expanding the gaps between what we confidently feel we know.

Still, most instructors have probably griped about students with overly full cups. We likely recognize a student’s reflexive confidence in her social, religious or political views as limiting and immature. We may even conclude that such rigid certainty correlates well with the student’s limited critical thinking skills. But, of course, it isn’t only, or even primarily, college students who can be parochially solipsistic. It’s a habit pretty much all of us fall into at least some of the time, though we may develop elaborate self-concepts and justificatory schemes that prevent us from noticing such unearned confidence.


In my own case, for example, the fact that I have been professionally and chronically focused on epistemological uncertainty — even my decades-old dissertation explored feminist critiques of objectivity — has not kept me from glomming onto paradigms and opinions with a tenacity they do not deserve. Like most people, I often leap from one apparent rock of certainty to another, reflexively avoiding the roiling water between for long stretches. In my case, though, and I think this is partly because I’m a philosopher in (voluntary) exile, I eventually judge my confident perches to be nearly as unsettling as the chasms below. I’m faced with questions, often from generously (or arrogantly) critical others, sometimes from life itself, that I become unwilling and unable to wave away.

It isn’t that I always abandon a cherished position in light of hard questions, but, rather, that such critiques can remind me of the fragility of ideologies as such, and of the intellectual and spiritual potential of epistemological humility. And in such moments of (wretched or blissful) uncertainty, I recall that, like a too-hot sauna or a deliciously assertive massage, uncertainty too is an experience I can sink into and savor. It’s a liminal zone in which my beliefs can come and go like weather, a place where concepts and opinions do not warrant or require my sycophantic allegiance. And it’s when I’m least certain about what I know that I feel myself to be a true intellectual, teacher, and spiritual traveler. Whenever I feel able to genuinely entertain that I may be wrong — and this does not happen as often as I would like — I know that I am on to something.


Of course, the implications for falling newly and repeatedly in love with ignorance are far reaching, in the classroom, the synagogue, and the cultural milieus of science and politics. It matters if there are gaps in peoples’ attachment to ideas about drugs, immigrants, fiscal policy, or how to interpret that iconic Frost poem. But it also matters in more personal contexts, for example, in relationships with other people. Just as it is a sort of sin against liberal education to stubbornly attach myself to ossified beliefs about reality, so too I am failing if I become addicted to my perceptions, opinions, and judgments about other people.

Once I have committed to an interpretive framework in which someone is stupid, fabulous, deluded, princely, or just plain evil, I will find all the evidence in the world to support my view. Everything that obtuse idiot (or paragon of virtue) says or does will be slotted into the preexisting interpretive boxes I have built. And while it may be a reliable boon to my own ego to have my beliefs about others magically and endlessly confirmed, it also guarantees that I will never truly encounter actual others. Rather, like the narcissist entranced by her own fantasy or nightmare, I will engage primarily with my own mental constructs, repeatedly finding objective proof of another’s sin or saintliness in projections of my own creation.

Professors who aspire to be teachers

Like nursing, teaching implies selfless maternalism. We imagine the underpaid young elementary school teacher, spending her weekends and salary to buy construction paper and flash cards, compelled, like a mother, from sheer devotion to her young charges. “Professor,” by contrast, is a decidedly manly word, and connotes, not service, but authority and expertise. Young people flock to sit at his feet, even if he is quirky and distant, because they admire him and are drawn to his genius. Is it any wonder that many professors balk at being referred to as mere “teachers”?

In a society that has long feminized, denigrated and devalued the teacher and that is now energetically denigrating and devaluing the professor, we have an ever more complicated relationship to these labels. Here on the Virtual Pedagogue, I regularly slip between “teacher,” “instructor,” and “professor,” not from sloppiness (usually), but because I resist solidifying my own self understanding into any one of these labels. I aim to use these terms intentionally, both to call attention to the similarities and differences among all of us who do this sort of work, and to subtly challenge stereotypes that surround them.

“Instructor” is perhaps the most generic and seems to apply to anyone habitually engaged in showing another how to do something, be it to fly a plane or solve quadratic equations. It’s a sterile word, without the ethical import of the other two, but can be useful when emphasizing functional commonalities, say, among teaching assistants, tenured professors, and high school coaches. Despite the trend of diminishing respect for higher ed, “professor” is a status word, weighed down by advanced degrees, heady scholarship, and a workload that may actually include no instruction whatsoever. Though “teacher” is, perhaps, the most common word, I also find it to be the most nuanced, rich and attractive.

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When I refer to those who’ve helped me change my life — for example, the passionate, brilliant women with whom I studied yoga in Minnesota — I call them my teachers. It’s one way I (lovingly) highlight that I didn’t primarily learn facts or strategies from them, but, rather, was supported in developing my whole self. So, when at some jagged point in my own pedagogical career I felt called to work more holistically with my students, I experienced a dramatic shift of consciousness and my labor became both more humble and momentous. It was, I determined, my serious and joyful responsibility to support students on their human journey while disguised as a feminist philosophy professor discussing Kant.

I am, then, both despite and partly because of its feminized humility, quite taken with the term “teacher,” though I appreciate the other ones too. When I get my hair cut at a new salon, I answer the “what do you do?” question with “professor.” I am happy to help dispel stereotypes about women’s work by claiming the full measure of my teetering professional status. But in the realest beating heart of my life, I am happiest and proudest being a teacher, sitting alongside my students, trying to find even one small way that our time together might make us all more inquisitive, daring, and demanding of ourselves and one another.

The undefended professor: the power and limits of vulnerability

The recent revival of the “me too” campaign, in which zillions of women came out as survivors of sexual harassment or assault, was a reminder of the power of vulnerability. The cumulative force of victims breaking silence promised to transform vulnerability and shame, at least for a moment, into collective power and pride. Vulnerability as a pedagogical tool, though less dramatic, also has great potential power, though I remind myself to be scrupulously attentive to my motives and expectations while practicing it.

Maturing into my profession has brought me more confidence and a greater sense of belonging. As a young professor, and a white woman in a white man’s field, I was often insecure, and sometimes suffered from imposter syndrome. Perhaps inevitably, my shaky sea legs sometimes led me to be a bit rigid in the classroom and in my scholarly conclusions. To be sure, my insecurity was justified. Like many young women professors, I was often judged both by students and coworkers more harshly than my male colleagues were. Vulnerability, then, comes at a higher price for some of us than for others.


As a mature professor, I more naturally experience myself as working with my students on the same plane, framing us all as “class colleagues.” I can explicitly enact strategies of vulnerability, though not with perfect success. For example, on occasions when I’ve given a grade that could be a point or two higher, I’ve humbly agreed to change it at a student’s reasoned request. Sometimes this has produced a deeper connection, as (I imagine) the student comes to better appreciate our shared humanity and my intellectual flexibility. Other times, though, the student has decided I am gravely fallible, and embarked on a semester-long campaign to nickel and dime me for more points. Even very small displays of vulnerability, then, may open the door to opportunistic encroachments.

Of course, students are not really better off on this score. For example, while some underprepared students try to bluster and bullshit their way through discussions and exams, others openly acknowledge their shortcomings and knowledge gaps. Professors and students may appreciate and respect such displays of vulnerability, of course, but they may also see them as confirming stereotypes of incompetence, especially if the student is from an underrepresented group. We may, in the abstract, wish for a world in which students and professors could more courageously and maturely embody vulnerability, but in the real world — based so often on competition, judgment, and systematic hierarchy — the rewards and risks are mixed.


We all know how it goes. We decide to open ourselves, unprotected and undefensive, to a friend or relative, bravely acknowledging a misstep, hoping they will accept the invitation and become similarly vulnerable with us. Instead, they seize upon whatever mistake we have acknowledged and leverage it as further justification for their own righteously held grievances against us. A display of vulnerability, however sincerely offered, may well be used against us by self-protective others. If I rely on vulnerability instrumentally, then, as a mere tool to get others to treat me more fairly and humanely, I may well find myself dangling from a cross. I’ll probably end up even angrier at them and also feeling like a sap.

I’m not, of course, arguing against our being vulnerable in ways that feel right to us, just reminding myself not to do so hoping to achieve some particular outcome. If we bare our naked breasts to the world, we may well be rewarded with authentic connection and newfound respect. But we may also be run through with angry spears. And this is, perhaps, the true power of vulnerability, not that we can reliably use it to get others to behave better or like us more — they may or may not — but as an ethical expression of our own deeply felt connection to other fragile creatures, beings who may never be willing to embrace their own fallibility and imperfections. Happily, few of the spears are real, and so most of the wounds we suffer are merely to our preciously guarded pride.

Self-reflection, self-deception, and the allure of the enlightened self

If there were one quality I could better cultivate in myself and encourage in others, it would be an enriched capacity for self-reflection. Nearly every rash, petty, or otherwise unskillful thing I’ve done, and watched others do, seems to be rooted, at least partly, in poor self-awareness. Given the raging popularity of all things navel gazingly mindful, I am in good company in believing in the life changing power of this kind of attention.

Still, it can be hard to pin down precisely what self-reflection means, partly because of how diluted and trendy the notion has become. As with our ability to drive a car — pretty much all of us think we’re “above average” drivers — we overestimate our skill and commitment to self-reflection. Discussions about greater self-understanding, then, can easily become focused on what other people need to do and not on one’s own deficits. And, paradoxically, it is this relentless blaming of others that most dramatically reveals one’s own blunted capacity for self-reflection.

As I understand it, self-reflectiveness is an aspect of mindfulness that has us gently, intentionally, and repeatedly turning our gaze inward to non-judgmentally acknowledge and explore our motives, assumptions, and expectations. It’s a practice that has us take some responsibility, not just for our internal feelings and beliefs, but also for aspects of the objective world that we shape and distort through the subjective lenses we bring to it. The unreflective person, then, is a consummate victim of circumstances, always blaming others and the world for wherever she finds herself.


And, of course, self-reflection demands not just an inward turn, but scrupulous honesty about what is found there. So, for example, several years after a series of catastrophic personal losses — including the death of my mother — I was able to notice and take responsibility for my own developing romance with suffering. What I saw wasn’t a healthy, cleansing grief, but an incipient attachment to a “poor me” (and “why me?”) identity that gradually threatened to become my way of being in the world. When I look inward, I do not always like what I see, and it takes courage I don’t always have to tell the truth about that. It takes even greater courage to, as one of my teachers urges, “tell the truth about whether or not you are telling the truth.”

Human beings lie all the time, of course. We lie to save money, to feel important and to spare peoples’ feelings. But self-deception is not as well explored. A woman lies because she did not take the time, or perhaps even know how, to locate and inspect her feelings. A man fails to promote social justice because he cannot (and will not) acknowledge the actual power and freedom he could bring to bear. The truly perverse part may well be that we also conspire with others to overlook one another’s self-deceptions. We agree, in the language of one of my teachers, “to support one another’s stories” as a condition of friendship. So, for example, we nod in sympathy at the spendthrift friend who complains constantly about lacking money, and also when an astonishingly rude acquaintance complains about other peoples’ manners. Friendly “politeness” turns out to be an agreement to support the self-deceptions most of us rely on to maintain our fragilely constructed selves.

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We professors complain a lot about students lacking the basic wherewithal to critically reflect on ideas, texts, and their own assumptions. For liberal arts teachers, this failure to recognize one’s own limited positionality, and to take responsibility for the assumptions through which one frames the world, is a tendency in students that we love to hate. We cringe as students storm like bulls through the subtle, humbling philosophical invitations our courses present, choosing trite, automatic reactions rather than authentic response.

But surely it isn’t only, or even primarily, students who skim along the surface this way, half asleep and unable to see the boards that fill their own eyes. Practiced and polished professors can, perhaps, more skillfully enact and maintain a persona of mindful self-reflection, a habit of seeing ourselves as more self reflective than we actually are. It’s a persona that is so seductive and satisfying we may never feel compelled to peek behind it. In the meantime we can join the party, regaling one another with stories about those unenlightened others, including our poor benighted students.

Making students cry: being honest about substandard work

I was speaking with a friend recently, an instructor of Spanish from Argentina, as she bemoaned an American educational culture that she believes makes it difficult to correct students. “We are not supposed to tell them they’re wrong,” she said, “or to call really bad work ‘really bad.’” I shared that I too feel the pressure to “soften” that seems endemic to higher education. Instructors, perhaps people of color and white women in particular, feel they must be hyper vigilant about hurting students’ feelings.

I am, myself, from the U.S., from a childhood home that included, um…., direct and unequivocal feedback about my behavior and projects. My parents never soft-pedaled their assessments of my work when they noticed it, be it my performance at a softball game or an article for the school paper. They might have remained utterly silent about it, or cheered it on occasion, but I do not ever recall either my mother or father trying to make me feel better about what they saw as poor or unremarkable work. Due to some combination of nature and nurture, then, I’m deeply habituated to be non effusive and direct with others, a tendency that has served me poorly on many occasions, especially with students.


My directness led to experiences with students that weren’t just memorably unpleasant, but also shocking; I have, on occasion, been unable to fully comprehend a students’s forceful reactions to my acknowledgement of what I have seen as quite obvious facts. For example, years ago I was speaking with an advanced undergraduate student about an essay she submitted that was just barely on the north side of literate. Having learned something about softening over the years, I began cautiously. “To what extent does this essay represent your best work?,” I asked. “Oh, I’m very proud of it,” she said. “Are you able to see that it contains lots of grammatical and proofreading errors?,” I continued. “Well, I guess there are a few,” she replied, and I could hear her flag of defensiveness begin to unfurl.

As our conversation continued, the student shared her plans to apply to a graduate program in English, shortly after which I euphemistically said that this essay did not, from my point of view, “fully qualify as college-level writing.” Before I could proceed to discuss strategies for developing this critical skill, the student erupted with the equivalent of “How dare you!” and, in a flood of tearful rage assured me that she knew damn well she was an excellent writer, that “no other professor has ever had any problem with my work.” I replied gently that if this was the quality of work she had been submitting without receiving critical feedback, she had been poorly served by her previous instructors.


Of course, I didn’t really believe that no other instructor had ever pointed out her writing weakness, but I do believe that none had expressed it to her quite so directly. And looking at her transcript, I could see that she had earned satisfactory grades all along, including in some writing heavy disciplines. In other words, it was probably as reasonable for her to believe that she was talented and skilled as it is for those shriekingly off key talent show singers whose feelings have been spared by “supportive” others.

Obviously we shouldn’t aim to make students cry. Perhaps most of our energy should be put into overtly building the confidence of insecure students with sincere, warranted praise. But we shouldn’t be freaked out by the prospect of tears either. We are pressured to keep students happy, to soft pedal our feedback so that we won’t piss them off or “damage their self-esteem.” And I won’t lie. I kind of wish my parents had been a little gentler and more forthcoming with their praise of my childhood work. Maybe I would have gone on to become a virtuoso trumpet player or a great mathematician. But I’m also glad they didn’t overstate my brilliance. I don’t much enjoy critical feedback, but nor does it send me into a tailspin of denial, self-loathing and self-justification.

“But it’s too hard!”: the challenge of lazy student readers in an age of distraction

In one my favorite young adult books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the main character, Francie, a girl growing up in an Irish tenement in New York City, cuts her reading teeth on Shakespeare. I was forced to read Hamlet in the eight grade and have always been struck by that image of a little girl being first read to from Shakespeare, and then reading and loving it herself. This past year, I’ve often struggled to muster enough attention to read potboilers, let alone Macbeth. And I continue to watch with curiosity and concern as my students struggle, both with reading challenging material, and with the notion of intellectual struggle as such.

Last week, for example, several students reported flat out that a podcast I’d assigned — in which two graduate students discuss the myth of historical progress — had left them utterly at sea. “Too hard,” one stated. Another said, “I have no idea what they’re talking about it. I hope other students have more luck with this than I did.” All who shared thoughts like this presented them matter-of-factly, as though providing a brief product review. Instead of hearing their remarks as mere complaining and being irritated by it, I’m making an effort to look closer.

First, there’s the students’ self-assigned authority with respect to identifying what does and does not count as appropriately difficult material for a class of this level. Second, there’s the lack of any hint of self-reflection suggesting that the quality of their own efforts might be playing a role. Such blithe student confidence is surely not all bad. I recall being knocked into a tailspin of self-criticism when, as an undergraduate, I was required to read a notoriously cryptic work by Wittgenstein. I don’t want my students to be driven to tears of failure, but I also can’t deny that I was pushed to work harder despite the fact that I wanted to stomp on this little treatise for having insulted my intelligence.


It’s certainly not that I was smarter or of deeper character than today’s college students — I am sure of this — but, rather, that I had a different relationship to texts than is common today. This shift impacts what we can now expect from student readers and, almost certainly, from one another as well. I notice, for example, that when I need information or insight, whether it’s about communitarianism or cast iron skillets, I search and skim online, not until I find the best source, but until I find one that is good enough, and that also requires little time or effort from me. Exertions of reading and comprehension that used to feel simply normal now feel unreasonable. Like my students, I tend to blame, not myself, for a failure of attention, but the writers of the material.

These challenges of reading in an age of ubiquitous distraction upend our most fundamental notions of reasonable intellectual effort and accountability. Little Francie Nolan read Shakespeare not because she was smarter or more curious than I was, but, in part, because she had few other options. The result was that she developed a particular relationship to these rich texts, and, more importantly, a relationship to the notion of intellectual difficulty itself. How, I wonder, can we work with our students, not just to force feed them complicated texts, but to appreciate this as an opportunity to connect to their own wherewithal? I address the issue with them head on, encouraging humble confidence as they approach work they find daunting, but I am keenly aware that I’m spitting into the wind.


As usual, then, I am focusing on the one intellectually complacent person I can sort of control: myself. I’m making new efforts to notice when, instead of settling into my comfy chair to digest hearty fare, I reach for the equivalent of intellectual potato chips, snarfing them down compulsively and with little real satisfaction. It is certainly not only my students who have been captivated by the lure of the disposable, easy read and, with it, the lazy delight of pat conclusions and facile critique.

This week I will, as I have done so many times during the past decades, return to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, both to discover new insights from this dense, enigmatic treatise and also to reconnect with the panicked, but exhilarated, undergraduate I once was. Back in the late 80s, I stayed up all night wrestling with that little book. I didn’t win that battle, but I did develop a respect for my opponent and for my own intellectual resources that has shaped who I continue to be as a reader and a thinker.

Beyond despair: Being there for students when all we want to do is weep

My students, a disproportionate number of whom are LGBT, are reeling. Each day some new horror is unleashed upon them, people of color, immigrants, and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in front of an angry white man playing Rambo. There is an incipient hollowness in the eyes of my students that I recognize because I have it too. How can I be there for them, I wonder, as we all watch already shaky footholds of tolerance being hacked away by a vengeful, petty tyrant and his many enablers?

I won’t slap pink wallpaper — in the form of positive thinking or dopey optimism — over the sorrow, fear and outrage that’s plain for all of us to see. There is no point in condescending to students by offering platitudes about how it will all be just fine. Such candy-coated bromides and lazy prayers would be especially unpersuasive coming from a professor like me whose work rests on the shifting sands of social justice. I routinely caution against naive historical narratives that assume the triumph of good over evil, so I couldn’t get my students to start believing in an inevitable “arc towards justice” even if I wanted to.


But I don’t tell them my whole truth either, about bleak, sleepless nights or the sopping blanket of disillusionment I’ve carried since the U.S. (sort of) elected this oozing eyesore of a regime. Nor do I share the full measure of my grief at personal relationships drowned in the wake of this newly legitimated racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Like many of my students, I am no more devastated by the overt displays of evil from our “leaders” (i.e., ringleaders) than by friends and acquaintances who stand by, pie-eyed and privileged, as my lovely students, and countless vulnerable others, fear for their lives.

Because, though my students are to be respected as adults, they are also relying on me to help hold back the tide of paralyzing despair. Whatever anyone else says, they are not my clients or my customers, but are in my care as developing intellectuals and citizens. I can see their need. They think I know something. They hear that these are unprecedented times and, because I am an activist professor from the good old days, want some kind of reassurance from me that we can handle it, that it will be all right. They bend toward me like flickering candles to borrow from my flame and it is my job to keep it lit.

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I take it on faith that sometimes the most political act is a refusal to give in to despair. In the wreck and ruin of 2017, I feel a new tug of moral, political and pedagogical duty to resist the sickly sweet anesthesia of bleak pessimism, or whatever blithe indifference my privilege could buy me. I am not merely playacting optimism in order to inspire my students keep a stiff upper lip. Committing to be there for them as an example of pragmatic, energetic hope is also how I connect with my own will to fight. My responsibility to them pushes me to be better than I would otherwise be. Perhaps in these lurching, disjointed, heartbreaking times, the very best place to be is in the classroom, with students who have a right to expect that I rise to the occasion.