On being skeptical

I’m often asked what I teach, and when I respond, it is often with “I teach thinking.” Some people nod, without asking what I mean, while others look at me quizzically, and still others engage. “What do you mean by that?” they may ask.

I teach thinking through the exercise of writing and reading. Ok, so officially I teach writing. But when a student walks into my class , I can guarantee that there is far more deep critical thinking going on than there is writing and even reading.

Why do I think this?

First, I’m interested in what students think about issues – and this means any issues. I’ve learned about the best places to buy vinyl (and why they are the best places) in Saint Paul. I’ve discovered that volunteerism means different things to different students and they can give strong arguments for their ideas. And just this week, I had discussions about why Ironman is better than Batman, why the 99% of the US is the 1% of the world, and why Ritalin is not a performance enhancing drug – all instigated by FYW students.

Second, I grew up in a blue collar household where skepticism was encouraged. We we encouraged to think differently than our peers, to think outside the box, and to question everything. While this has led to difficulty in fitting in with peers at times, it has also given my siblings and me the strength to not only believe in what we thought, but to be able to argue it effectively because we would know both sides of an argument and know them in depth. I grew up watching more news programs than anything else, and it showed when I wrote papers or engaged in formalized debate on the various debate teams I was on. What all of this means is that I encourage the same in students I work with. If we watch a documentary, we spend far more time on what we didn’t see than what we did because it’s as important to the story as what was included.

Third, while I am skeptical, I also give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to students exploring their ideas. I want the classroom to be a safe place to explore all kinds of ideas, not just the comfortable ones. While I may not agree with them, I work hard to assist them in thinking through their ideas and their arguments. I throw opposition at them while giving them ideas on how to bolster their own arguments.

All of this sounds so simple and matter of fact when I read it, but I think that anyone who teaches knows that this is often much more difficult than it would appear. And if I wasn’t skeptical when reading back through this, I would be disappointed in myself. The skepticism forces me to think more critically and challenge myself more stringently in each class period. I hope that never ends.

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