Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Do No Harm





It was always my intention and ambition as a teacher to honour the basic tenant of the Hippocratic Oath:  “Do no harm.”  It sounds simple enough, and I assume most teachers feel as I do, but for people with sadistic impulses the classroom must seem like a tempting playground.  Since the oath was intended for doctors much of what it proposes would not apply to teachers, but even some of its tenants like honouring gods and mentors, not using a knife on patients, and not providing abortions seem odd promises even for ancient Greek doctors.  On the other hand, the proscribing of having sex with patients or revealing their confidences could and should also be applied to teachers with their students.  (These proscriptions, in my mind, go hand and in hand, and will be discussed in a future post.)

But I’ve never been able to get passed the basic “Do no harm.”  It is a burden and a challenge for any teacher once you start thinking about it.  Are all your students better off because of the experience of having been taught by you?  Have you ever hurt a student?  As a student in the 60s, I certainly witnessed a great deal of corporal punishment, but those were the days when a sadistic streak was consider a necessary requirement for high-school teachers.  Even the enlightened educator of today is likely to have done some harm or injury to a student without ever being aware.

Under the rubric “do no harm,” I also find myself asking if I have ever wasted my students’ “precious time.”  (Hope you get the Dylan allusion . . . Zimmerman not Thomas.)  If your answer to this question is that if students weren’t in your class, they probably wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile anyway, then you shouldn’t be teaching.  The human instinct is to learn.  No matter what environment you put a human being into, the human reaction is to satisfy curiosity, to try and learn something.  (Have you noticed that when people talk about “drug education” or “sex education,” what they mean is teaching young people not to take drugs and not to have sex, even if this "education" means spreading misinformation?) My biggest preoccupation with educational systems is that so often they seem designed to ensure that students learn less rather than more. The frequency with which I encounter educators who have tacitly surrendered to this conclusion shocks me.  The school is a prison, outside the school is a jungle; the only debate seems to be about which one is worse.

The most typical scenario within which I taught was the three-hour lecture.  It’s a tough question to ask but I did ask myself:  Is my three-hour lecture the best possible way these students could be spending their time?  They could be at home in bed catching up on three hours of much needed sleep.  Making love.  Reading a book.  Browsing the internet.  Making progress on a challenging video game.  Day dreaming about the future.  Taking care of loved ones.  Having a conversation.  Exercising.  Taking a walk.  Watching a blockbuster movie that cost 40 million dollars to produce.  Inevitably they would be learning something, even if it were only about each others’ navels, or how easy it is to waste 40 million dollars.  The 40-million-dollar blockbuster movie-- that was my competition and I always thought I had the advantage because I could use a film in my class, but no Hollywood producer had requested my skills as a lecturer.   Actually, that’s not quite true.  When I requested a 16-dollar budget so that I could show six minutes of Romeo and Juliet in a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from the DVD version of Shakespeare in Love, my request sent shock waves through the department, the faculty, the library and upper echelons of the financial administration.  The department did not have a “pedagogical budget,” but a section of the library agreed to purchase the DVD if I promised not to show it to students (no, I’m not kidding), because group showings would, according to the library, contravene copyright law.  The moral of the story is that if you want to “do no harm” to students, if you want to teach well and insure that they learn something that sticks with them in every class, there is a pretty good chance that you are going to have to break somebody’s rules to do it (the subject of another future post), not to mention forking out the cash to buy your own DVDs.

I remember once having the privilege of teaching a class that was small enough that I could invite students to introduce themselves in the first class.  One of the students explained that he had only recently discovered that he had been an orphan, had been adopted, and that he had met his biological family for the first time over the summer.  It was a striking revelation; one that stuck with me throughout the course.  The student was very upbeat, but it seemed obvious to me that he was still processing his recent discoveries.  The problem for me was to suddenly realize that every second text on the course I was giving seemed to involve an orphan.  The infant Oedipus is left on a mountain top to die, but survives, is adopted, and returns to Thebes unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother in the process.  Earnest Worthing is left in a hand bag at a train station and grows up not knowing his own identity.  And, in the short story, “Who am I this time?” by Kurt Vonnegut, Harry, the central character, is a brilliant actor but is incapable of developing a “real” personality or social life because he was a foundling.  I remember hoping that the texts would prove beneficial to him, that they would give him the opportunity to consider the significance of being an orphan from a distance and from varying perspectives, maybe allow him to laugh about his orphanhood, or consider himself lucky that he was no Oedipus.  In fact this idea, the possibility of a distanced and even disinterested or ironic perspective and the opportunity for calm reflection on the world’s and one’s own personal problems became for me, however unfashionable, a justification for the study of literature.

I live in an area where the second most frequent cause of death for young people is suicide. This fact certainly got me thinking about the number of literary works I have taught which romanticize suicide. Romeo and Juliet is the most obvious and influential example. Actually, our unwitting romanticization of suicide was brought home to me when I was teaching Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's novel tells of a near-future dystopia in which young women were required to become birth mothers for powerfull, infertile couples. In the middle of a classroom discussion of the novel, one student, a bright and always charming young woman, announced very earnestly to the room that she would never accept to live in the circumstances which the Handmaid was enduring. No doubt, in her mind, the student was simply sharing her feelings, but at the same time she was implying that suicide was the right thing to do and criticizing the central character, the Handmaid, for her decision to survive--a decision which Atwood makes explicit in the novel. Since that day, I have found myself repeatedly arguing against the grain of certain literary works, or at least popular interpretations of those works, which present suicide as the logical and even heroic consequence of dramatic events. While I think I have demonstrated sound pedagogy and sound interpretations of the literary works by demonstrating how fictional suicides are to be interpreted as misguided, short sighted and cowardly, I can't help but think of all the years I taught these literary works without stopping to say the obvious.

Yes, I know perfectly well, as do you, that no-one is going to go and commit suicide because they read Romeo and Juliet, but I wouldn’t want anything I taught or said to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I didn’t want to be the butterfly that caused a hurricane (yes, there is a future post coming on pedagogy and chaos theory).  I also believe, as Malcom Gladwell underlines in The Tipping Point, that “the people who die in highly publicized suicides—whose deaths give others ‘permission’ to die–serve as the Tipping Point in suicide epidemics” (224).  By the way, if you see a sign that someone is contemplating suicide, call 911.  It sounds obvious, but people don’t do the obvious.  I understand why . . . perfectly.  The first reaction is that if it were true, someone else would call.  Then you call, and you feel foolish, because of course you really don’t know, in fact, the more you think about it you become convinced that the person really isn’t seriously contemplating suicide.  You will tell yourself that you sound foolish, hysterical.  911 will ask you questions that you can’t answer.  But 911 will take your call seriously.  The police will respond.  When it’s all over, the student will tell you that it was all a big mistake.  You will never be able to say you prevented a suicide, but your student will thank you anyway, and praise you because you were the only person to react.  So call 911.

While I calculated and hoped that the study of literature would have a salutary effect on individual students, I repeatedly found myself stymied and second guessing myself as I tried to anticipate how a particular student might be affected by what I was teaching.  As I write these words, I find myself on the verge of breaking the oath which this post is intended to promote.  I don’t want to tell tales about my students.  But in order for what I write to be useful, meaningful and credible, it must be grounded in lived experience.  I intend to be discreet, and consequently somewhat vague, even though I know perfectly well that the salacious details might make for more interesting and credible reading.  I certainly would not want this blog to “out” any of my former students or reveal personal information that could be traced back to a particular individual.

The instances I am thinking about, for example, would include the student who met me in the corridor outside the classroom to apologize for missing the previous class because she was testifying in a rape case in which she was the victim.  My lecture that day was centered on the rape scene in Streetcar Named Desire.   Over the years students have told me about their breakups, their unwanted pregnancies and abortions, of being battered by spouses, the suicides of friends, their struggles with depression and schizophrenia.  I am still haunted by a young mother’s story of how she was responsible for the death of her child.  A Rwandan student’s accounts of her father and sisters being murdered, her mother hospitalized and her brother in a refugee camp simply left me numb.  Knowing that these students are in my classes didn’t change what I taught, but it made me careful, reflective, and aware of what I was saying and how it might affect or be hurtful to a particular listener—and still I can remember the times when students told me I had not been careful enough.

Of course, there is no solution to the problem I am pointing out (unless you have an answer), except that it prompts the general counsel to be careful.    I have been told that I bring the problem on myself, because students recognize that I am sympathetic and willing to listen.  It has also been suggested that I allow myself to be conned.  I always assumed that students were telling me the truth unless I had proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” to the contrary.  That presumption of innocence, that trust, always served me well in my relationships with students.  Its effect was, in my experience, almost invariably, mutual respect.  The idea that a student might be conning me to gain my sympathy never disturbed me, because it was always my intention to be as understanding and generous with students as possible—no special pleas were necessary.   On the other hand, my conscious generosity was only possible because in every course I taught I would set up a substantial variety of methods of evaluation.  In my experience, if you give students ample opportunity to gain or lose marks, they will over the course of time determine their own grades.  I consistently attempted to set up my evaluation structure so that my sympathy could not overwhelm the outcome. 

Am I saying that I was consistently objective and egalitarian in my treatment and assessment of students?  No.  In fact, I would say that teachers who are convinced of their own objectivity are very likely to be the opposite.  Perfect justice and objectivity are the sorts of things we must constantly strive for, all the while recognizing that they cannot be achieved.  I know it is impossible that I was absolutely fair in equal measure with each of the students I came into contact with, but I also know that I always tried to be.   If we want to “do no harm” then teachers have to be diligent and confident enough to rigorously evaluate their students but, at the same time, self-doubting enough to question themselves and their tools each time that they do.   The student who has been given an inflated impression of his or her achievements and abilities may, in the long run, be as harmed as the student made cynical because the work is too easy or too hard, or the student whose self-esteem suffers because of a low mark or a failure.  There are no magical, “silver bullet” solutions to these kinds of challenges, except to recognize that they exist and to strive against the complacency, cynicism and fatigue that facing these challenges are bound to engender.

2 comments:

  1. I do remember that we systematically had an extra week to hand in our final essay in each and every one of the classes I had with you.

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  2. Your memory serves you well, JT. I have never understood professors who obsess over arbitrary deadlines. At the beginning of each semester, I typically announced a due date for the essay. Then two weeks before the deadline, I offered everyone who wanted it a week or two-week extension. I used this system for years and it seemed to consistently satisfy everyone—at least it never caused a problem or complaint. I promised students who met the original deadline that they would get their essays back with my comments and corrections before the final exam. Students who used the extension would have to give me a stamped self-addressed envelope if they wanted the essays back with my comments. This process not only spread out my correction work, but cut the total amount of time required for correcting by about 30%. I didn’t mind writing more elaborate comments on the essays of students who had supplied an envelope or submitted early because they had shown some indication that they were actually interested in what I had to say about their work. The students who used the extension but didn’t supply an envelope (typically about 40% of each class) got their marks and I didn’t waste my time writing comments for students who weren’t really interested in reading them. I would absolutely recommend this system for college and university teachers dealing with relatively large classes where an end-of-term essay is required.

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