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
proscription 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.)
"Spare the rod and spoil the child"
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 50s and 60s, I certainly witnessed a great deal of corporal punishment,
but those were the days when a sadistic streak was considered a necessary
requirement for high-school (and even elementary) teachers.
Even the enlightened educator of today is likely to have done some harm
or injury to a student without ever being aware.
"You've just been wasting my precious time"
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 Best way to spend three hours and learn something
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.
Triggering past traumas or helping the healing?
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 orphan-hood, 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.
The Tipping Point
Yes, I know perfectly well, as do you, that no-one is going
to go and commit suicide because they read Romeo
, but I wouldn’t want anything I taught or said to be the straw
that broke the camel’s back.
want to be the butterfly that caused a hurricane (yes, there is a future post
coming on pedagogy and chaos theory).
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).
the way, if you see a sign that someone is contemplating suicide, call
It sounds obvious, but people don’t
do the obvious.
I understand why . . .
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
But 911 will take your call
The police will respond.
When it’s all over, the student will tell you
that it was all a big mistake.
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.
Talking about rape and guilt and trauma
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.
Sometimes "caring" is all we can offer
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. It's 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
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.