Teaching and Asking Questions
Bill Long 1/28/11
Had you asked me in 1970, when I turned 18, what I wanted to do or "be" in life, I would have said "a college professor." I saw myself as a teacher and a learner, and I felt I had some skills that would both enliven a discussion and bring peple to deeper levels of understanding. Now, 40+ years later, I can assess that longing to a large extent.
I taught in colleges or law schools for nearly 20 of these years, but I also taught for more than 30 years in churches or for community groups. I develped a style--one that was at once engaging and humorous. Many have mentioned to me that I was their most memorable teacher. I know that other teachers get this all the time, too; indeed, it is one of our chief rewards of life for a teacher. Teaching made for a very satisfying life.
Teaching and 2011
It has now been nearly five years since I have taught--and I have the most mixed feelings about being neither in front of students nor churches/community groups. On the one hand, I love the freedom I have to serve a few clients and then dig deeply into my languages and writing; on the other hand, I feel that now I am a sort of "super-teacher," knowing how to organzie and communicate material in a compelling way. Without an audience I feel sort of "unused." I have so much to say about learning, about particular subject matters, about how to give shape and form to a life...
But if I were to return to teaching at this point, I think I would do things differently. Rather than just give a great and lucid outline of leading points I want to "cover," and then leading people through a process of thinking about these thigns, I would come with four questions to my audience. The audience I would most desire to address are accomplished professionals, whether in the academic, legal, medical or other field. The crucial thing is not so much the field that others are engaged in but, rather, their ambition, accomplishment and desire to improve themselves. So, here are the four questions I would love to ask a group of assembled professionals (between 10 and 50 people):
My first question is: "What are you sure is true or nearly sure is true regarding your field or scope of knowledge?" That is, the first thing I would want to learn from professionals is what they consider to be established knowledge. What is it, the truth of which they would stake their career/reputation on? So much of our life is driven by fast-paced pressures, to meet deadlines, get things off the desk, deal with problems before us, that we often don't reflect on what we know to be true. Of course, there are questions that flow from this ("How do you know?"), but that is my first question.
My second question is: "What do you wish you knew that you currently don't know?" Or, alternatively, "What confuses you now?" I think I would begin with the knowledge question, before probing the ignorance issue, because many professionals might not feel comfortable beginning with their ignorance. But I hope, as time and opportunity allows, also to probe this question first. I want to know what people don't know but wish they knew because that is the stuff of human longing, and it also gives an insight into the workings of the mind. It, too, can open up another host of questions--regarding why you don't know this, or how can you get this knowledge or is there some preliminary knowledge you have to have to get to answer this question, but you get my drift.
The third question comes from reflection on a meeting I just attended in Minneapolis. One of the participants, after it was over, marveled that this was the first professional meeting he ever attended which was free of what he called "judgmentalism." The key in this instance was that almost all the participants around the table were adults on the autism spectrum (mostly Asperger syndrome friends); they simply wanted to try to understand and be helpful. Perceptions of truth and what was right or best to do were paramount for everyone.
So, now you will understand the third question I would like to ask people. "In your field, are there many/considerable number of assholes who are retarding or hurting progress in the field?" "How so?" That is, fields are areas of human ambition and questing and not simply neutral searches for "truth." I am constantly fascinated that whenever I search out a new area of human endeavor I generally learn about the ambitious ones, the movers and shakers and the "assholes." Sometimes people curb what they say because of the power of these folks; other times they can fairly easily be circumvented.
My four question is, simply, would others say that you are one of the assholes retarding progress in a field? This kind of question, though potentially intrusive, has the advantage of encouraging people to be self-reflective and, perhaps, even self-critical. I am interested both in the "progress" of fields but also in the people in those fields and what motivates people to large measures of success as well as limitation/failure.
Though I think I have many things to say in the future, I also believe that I would much rather listen to people. I have the basic point for the rest of my life (the centrality of clarity), even though it will be refined and developed over the years. Thus, tell me what you know; what you wish you knew; about the assholes in your field. We will learn much more from this activity than from your listening to me speak for 30 minutes on a topic...