Teaching Is Reaching

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Marshall S. Harth, Ramapo College

An opportunity to reflect on my pedagogy is truly an invigorating experience.  Where have I been?  Where am I now?  Where am I going?   This series of questions can be quite provocative.  As I reviewed my experiences and the record of my activities and achievements, I had to step back and say, “Well Marshall, it looks like you really enjoy what you do!”  I think that captures the essence of what energizes my success: namely, my enthusiasm.  I have now completed thirty-three years of teaching at Ramapo College and it has been an amazing and satisfying experience.  I detect no inkling of a depreciation of the level of my enthusiasm for my profession.  The connection between me the person and me the pedagogue is fused.

In fact, I consider myself to be a “connected teacher.”  As Mary Belenky suggests in Women’s Ways of Knowing, we attempt, “…to enter into each student’s perspective” (Belenky, et al, 1986).  Above all, teaching is reaching.  Reaching within myself.  Reaching outside myself.  Teaching is about making connections across many boundaries.  Within these connections, resonance occurs between the subject matter, the student, and me.  Such resonance is fundamental for pedagogy to succeed.  Without it there is disarticulated isolation.

In my classroom there is always a desire to encourage an arrival at consensus, at a sense of shared experience.  It is essential to what I do for it allows for the development of “trust.”  With trust the discussion can begin in earnest.  The process of engagement in the dance of learning responds to the rhythm of a diversity of opinions melodiously, and sometimes cacophonously, reverberating in the room.  The encouragement of voicing difference enables the real to be present and in the moment.  This is how learning takes place in my domain.

My mission is an epistemic one.  I see myself as affording students the opportunity to ask, “how do we know?”  In fact, I think I probably encourage students to challenge their assumptions of how they know to the limits of their capabilities and even beyond those limits.  To me, this is an incredibly exhilarating experience, and it has been since the very first time I began teaching at the college level in 1966.  I am still thrilled by the chance to explore the limits of knowledge with students and I view this as part of a liberatory educational experience.

I can also identify a second mission, one which I will call reciprocal outreach.  I have been able to finesse a bi-directional interface between what I do in the classroom and what I do in the outside world, melding theory with practice in two venues.  I have brought my thirty years of professional experience as a psychotherapist into the classroom.  This occurs in the fieldwork component in the Substance Abuse course.  I share directly with students the benefits of my clinical experience.  Secondly, I have been able to take my theoretical/scholarly knowledge of human sexuality and bring it to the community at large by virtue of becoming associated with the Human Sexuality Program at UMDNJ, Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine.  Here I infuse my knowledge into the practical training of medical students.  The reciprocity I refer to involves the counter balance between practice and theory in both venues.  It is very exciting, meaningful, relevant, and satisfying.

I have recently discovered a third mission which has begun to unfold itself and make its presence known to me.  It involves the use of a new pedagogical device that deals with the concept of “voice.”  In my course in Feminist Epistemology I invite the students to explore the voices not heard in traditional psychological theory.  The best examples of this are the voices of the marginalized in society, especially the voices of women and people of color.  We specifically explore such works as Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice which offers an overview of the issue of inclusion/exclusion of “voice” in the dominant paradigm of psychological theory  (Gilligan, 1982).  As part of this exploration I introduce into the classroom experience the use of music, especially contemporary popular music, as examples of the mixed messages of “voice” that are presented in our culture.  This has been well received by the students.  However, I have recently discovered an additional “voice” in this regard.  It is my own voice, in the form of my own music as presented in poetry.  For the past five years I have employed the use of poetry that I have created to stimulate and facilitate the discussions in the course.

As implied above, I love teaching.  I have said this many times to many people over the years. The remarkable thing is my conviction gets stronger as the years accumulate.  I often tell my students that I wish they would have careers that would give them such a feeling of contentment.  My exuberance for interacting with students still amazes me.  My dream of an ideal experience with my students would be called  “Pedagogic Ecstasy”:

A critically thinking learning community
Affords us the ecstasy of opportunity
Beyond convention
Lies all invention
The spirit liberated
Expression tolerated
Pushed beyond the portal of the cave
To learn, to think, to no longer be a slave
The pedagogy of engagement
Moves beyond fears of estrangement
Cross the boundaries, time to transgress
The practice of freedom should create a mess
Political activism
Counters student atavism
Make the class a location of possibility
For the exchange of ideas and vulnerability

Teaching is being authentic.  When I am in the classroom it is the real me.  In this way, I am able to present as Parker Palmer would say in The Courage to Teach, an authentic me with integrity and identity (Palmer, 1998).  I can engage the teaching experience with authority rather than power.  I avail myself of the “exquisite vulnerability” that Carol Gilligan has written so well about in The Birth of Pleasure (Gilligan, 2002), that is of placing myself in the position to be able to share the love of inquiry with my students.  Here too, I attempt to establish an atmosphere of trust that allows us all to explore together.

There is another side of trust and this is responsibility to the standards of my profession.  When a student told me last summer that I had given her the lowest grade she had ever received, that she was disappointed in the grade, but that, in the end she felt I was fair and, moreover, was as fine a teacher as she had ever had, I became aware of a particular personal ethic of responsibility that I cannot imagine myself ever violating.  I never pander to a student in an effort to be popular.  Like a true friend my love and respect for them would not allow that.  I know that it serves no one to be given false praise or unearned reward.  It misleads them and dulls their academic edge if they are rewarded beyond their accomplishments.  This is the other context of trust I have in honoring my responsibility to being pure and true to my personal philosophy that will benefit students forever even if, in the short run, they may not see or feel it.  I know that I make classes lively and, often, fun but not to be “popular” as a cool guy, but in an effort to use that fun as a gambit to make learning as stimulating as possible.  This I feel is a genuine gift of love; the unwavering conviction that my students deserve to be challenged “relentlessly” and only then will they be able to reach their highest potential.

Teaching is being transparent.  In allowing the student to see the actual person I am; a mirror of themselves.  I am there in the classroom with knowledge and experience, and with critical insight and evaluation.  I am there with wit and humor, insecurities and questions, hopes and dreams, and with heart and soul.  Teaching is being enthusiastic.  Paul Elovitz and other colleagues have noted my infectious enthusiasm about my teaching.  I take the class on a ride of their lives.  Sometimes I even warn them to strap themselves in.  Sometimes, I don’t.  I tell a story.

For example, I tell the story of how Otto Loewi won the Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1936 for his demonstration that communication between nerve cells is chemical and not electrical.  The story relates to dreams as the basis for creative problem solving and the significance of practicality in science, such as writing down the contents of the dream in a legible handwriting.  Otherwise the dreamer has to wait for the dream to return in order to be able to actually perform the experiment portrayed in the dream.  Of course I act out the entire story including the depression of Loewi when he could not decipher his own handwriting the next morning and his ultimate exhilaration upon the reoccurrence of the dream and his leaping out of bed and dashing directly off to the laboratory in the middle of the night to finally begin the experiment.

These stories are usually an adventure that goes down unexplored passageways.  Often times I spin webs of interlacing connections between seemingly disparate insular items of information, only to eventually bring it all back together into a Gestalt of comprehension.  Then invariably I begin the process of deconstruction.  How does this story make, or not make sense?  What assumptions, what blind spots, what errors of logic, what exclusions have been committed?  This often involves improvisation reminiscent of riffing in a jazz mode.  The music is wonderful.

So we come to the shore of the distant wide sea
A body of water seems to separate you from me
But that depends on your point of view
The water touches you and me too
We can splash and we can swim
We can give in to our inner whim
To follow our heart and not social dictates
We’ve paid the price of discriminating hates
Our horizon is inclusive of all we see
Whatever color, orientation or gender we be
So come with me and be my friend
We will swim together till the end.

This is my philosophy of teaching, my guiding principle.  I am an individual who tries to value each and every human being I meet and treat each one as a person and never as a category.  It truly has allowed me to function as a role model for my students and as a maker of ripples in the ocean of our increasingly interdependent world.

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