Poke, prod, and rile: Secrets of good teaching

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Dogs tend to look like their owners, and often the same is true about academics and the historical figures they study. The reason could be as predictable as two friends’ becoming drawn to the same tastes after having spent considerable time together—I once heard a lecturer confess that her Southwestern wardrobe was inspired by her intellectual mentor. Or it could be something closer to what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote about his own experience in reading like-minded authors: “But I have been this man myself! And thus I have lived again with Pascal in his own century and place, and I have lived again with Kierkegaard in Copenhagen.”

No doubt a bit of both reasons is involved in my experience reading some of my favorite philosophers, including Socrates, Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Unamuno. These are my gadflies, my models for the classroom.

What strikes me about this group of thinkers is that they resemble one another despite their philosophical and biographical differences. And I resemble them. But I can’t know if that happened before or after spending time with them. Mastering the art of finesse, a mentor in graduate school perceptively labeled me a “healthy contrarian.” At first I was ashamed of the truth of this label, but I have grown to like it, having found myself in good company. A young Kierkegaard likened himself to a fork for its sharp prongs and its ability to precisely pierce its object. Nikos Kazantzakis lovingly called Unamuno “the terrifying old porcupine.” Even Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus fits the bill: He once compared himself to a bush, under which “there is not much shade, and the thorns are sharp.”

I’m not a sadist, but I seem to have masochistic tendencies: The philosophers I love best tell me I am living poorly and need to change immediately. They are the ones who want to sting me, cut me open, who keep me awake at night. In The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho, Unamuno described his attack: “Reader, listen: though I do not know you, I love you so much that if I could hold you in my hands, I would open up your breast and in your heart’s core I would make a wound and into it I would rub vinegar and salt, so that you might never again know peace but would live in continual anguish and endless longing.”

Levinas likewise finds a kind of philosophical insomnia necessary, but not sufficient, for ethics, and Kierkegaard (writing as Climacus) believes that “the most one person can do for another is to unsettle him.” These philosophers have chosen to follow Socrates in becoming gadflies, which in the philosophical world are the equivalent of prophets in the religious one. My gadflies preach a kind of fire-and-brimstone philosophy that I fall for again and again. Like the “the noble horse of Athens,” I am in constant need of being roused, but, unlike most Athenians, I crave it. When I am tempted to fall asleep philosophically, I turn to these gadflies to keep me vigilant.

Then I make it my mission to keep my students vigilant. In The Agony of Christianity, Unamuno wrote: “To awaken the sleeping and rouse the loitering is a work of supreme mercy, and to seek the truth in everything and everywhere, reveal fraud, foolishness and ineptitude is a work of supreme religious piety.” I would call arousal of the loitering also a work of good teaching. “Most of my work,” Unamuno wrote, “has been an effort to stir up others, to disturb the very fabric of their heart, to distress them if I can.” I use gadflies like Socrates, Kierkegaard, and Unamuno to poke, prod, rile, and agitate myself and my students. I share these thinkers’ reluctance to hand out what Unamuno calls “complete” thoughts, and instead encourage my students not to be afraid to think thoughts “all the way through,” as another of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings suggests. I refuse to give my students answers to questions that are more important than answers. I, like Unamuno, seek to “agitate and, even better, to stimulate, rather than to instruct. Neither do I sell bread, nor is it bread, but yeast or ferment.”

I want to be a philosophical gadfly in the classroom. I want Levinas to keep my students up at night. I believe Unamuno when he says that “to agitate is something.” But I don’t want to hurt students, I don’t want to push them too far, and I don’t want to turn them away from philosophy. It takes finesse—like that which my mentor used on me—to discover and keep track of, for a whole semester, the line that separates jolting from electrocuting, the line between getting students to raise their hands and getting myself sentenced to death. Socrates didn’t manage it, but he almost did.

In “To My Readers,” Unamuno wrote: “God, friend, did not send me into the world to be an apostle of peace, or to reap sympathy, but to be a sower of disquietude and irritation and to endure antipathy. Antipathy is the price of my redemption.” Maybe sowing disquietude and irritation is the supreme act of philosophical piety.

Author Bio: Mariana Alessandri is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Texas-Pan American.

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