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Dr. James Michael Nolan Headshot

What IS Teaching Anymore, Really? From a College President

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"Teaching" at Southwestern College, Santa Fe

Most of my colleagues "love teaching"... they proclaim that with great gusto at faculty meetings. I am way behind them. I don't know what "teaching" means anymore, and I am being serious. And that might contribute to why it is very difficult for me to be in front of a class. It is not anxiety, or nervousness or any of that. It is role ambiguity. I do not know what the job is, honestly.

In the old days, it meant "I know something you do not know, and I will tell it to you, so you will know it too." That is how education in my lifetime went. Nowadays, nobody knows much of anything, content-wise, that you can't Google and look up yourself in 30 seconds. So when I "teach" psychopathology, I may have a few experiences and anecdotes that the students do not have, but while very entertaining, perhaps, they are not critical to the course, and they don't exactly constitute "teaching." I can teach you a skill, like how to play "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" in a modal tuning -- but that is different. That is a skill, or a series of patterns I happen to know, rather than "content," or so it seems.

One thing I do, or try to do, is share, out loud, my own process of questioning things. I dissect and analyze language for hidden metaphors, red herrings, and/or hidden agendas, a process (I hope) which demonstrates (?) or teaches (?) one model for improving the quality of how we receive information, and for improving the questions we ask, and for not giving away power to the person with the most compelling metaphors.

For example, for Ronald Reagan to sell us on rallying against the "Evil Empire," he had to first sell us on the notion that "evil" exists, then on the fact that there is an "Evil Empire," and then on his belief that he happens to be the one who knows who they are, and then he has to sell us on the notion that they are against us. It is a whole zoo full of metaphors and linguistic tricks lined up to get us to sign up for his program. He probably didn't even quite know what he was doing in that speech. But most people don't ask all the questions, and the world gets all messed up when that happens.

Much as scientific research is not designed or meant to "prove" anything (you will remember from intro to research that the scientific method only "fails to disprove" a hypothesis), my process of language analysis and questioning does not lead to "answers" or "truth," but allows us to call into question, and subject to scrutiny, the overblown claims to knowledge, or the models, or reified metaphors others put forward as "facts" or "truth." I see this every day-seriously. From people I admire and respect. They just don't know any better.

I never claim to have a clear laser-view on "truth," but I believe I have developed a fair capacity to identify false or un-foundable claims, or bold claims, or biased claims, or unacknowledged/unrecognized metaphorical claims which are launched into the world as truth, when they are indeed no more than thoughts, hypotheses, or favorite models.

That is worth something, in my mind.

Not sure what that is called, but... it is not exactly teaching...

I just hope the "students" get something out of it. It costs me a lot, intra-psychically, energetically, even physically, to do this job. That does not mean it is not meaningful, nor does it mean I do not "like" it, and it DEFINITELY does not mean that I do not enjoy seeing the students come alive, because I do.

Maybe it is just an INFP thing, though I somehow think that is not the whole thing. There is something glib and not exactly honest in the language we use when people come together in a room, and one gets paid, and the others pay, and then there is an interaction, and we call it "teaching" because everybody knows that term, and it justifies the financial exchange. But "teaching" is not what it is. We should get it right, but I do not know that the right word is, yet.

So, anyway, the title "teacher" still makes me kind of cringe, the way the title "guru" makes me cringe.

Can't say I care for it.

Seems like somebody needed to say that out loud -- perhaps, especially, a graduate school president.