I have been preparing for my first semester of teaching over the past few weeks, tackling the large topic of an “Introduction to Moral Theology” for about thirty undergraduates. Though I am excited to finally be teaching, I am also intimidated. College campuses have been in the news quite a lot over the past year — though, if we are honest, we ought to recognize that the university classroom has long been a place of politics and notoriety. Yet, it’s easy to forget that fact when you stand in front of thirty-some-odd undergraduates, all obligated to take your course with varying levels of interest. So I find myself struggling to parse out what politics do or do not belong in my classroom.
By politics, I don’t just mean the upcoming election (though that can hardly be ignored), but the various social forces that have been shaping universities on a large scale. I can remember when I started undergraduate studies, well over a decade ago, hearing fragments and snippets of professors and editorial writers bemoaning the loss of value for a liberal arts education, fearful that universities were catering to pressure from donors, government overseers, and tuition-paying parents that saw universities as little more than a means to a high-paying job. These fears have only grown stronger in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis and the growing concerns about student debt. Catholic universities have a special kind of identity crisis amid these larger cultural issues.
Recently, the controversies over trigger warnings, safe spaces, and student protests have renewed focus on the expectations of a college education. Donna Zuckerberg’s excellent, reflective piece about her classroom experiences makes an important contribution to a discussion on trigger warnings that seems to only ever go in circles: the fraught student-professor relationship has been generated by some of the problematic (to put it lightly) policies that schools have been increasingly adopting. She writes:
So, imagine that you are a student about to leave a blistering evaluation, perhaps because the classroom felt either too political or not political enough. You likely have no idea that contingent faculty tend to be women, while tenured positions tend to be men, or that academia has a way of turning pregnancy into a career-ending disability, of forcing women into taking on more service-related duties, of punishing them for speaking their minds. You are likely unaware that student evaluations are heavily biased against women, as well as against people of color, and old people, and unattractive people, too. You probably don’t know that white people make up 80 percent of the contingent faculty workforce—and that even if your instructor is a white male, chances are high that he’s part of an extremely exploitative labor system.
All this and more plays in the background when I stand at the head of my class. And yet for those fifty minutes, what is foregrounded is my relationship with the students. I don’t know how much of these larger, structural politics they are aware of. Even if they are well-versed in them, it seems unlikely that the bigger social issues shaping the classroom space will be what they focus on — in fact, I hope they aren’t. Frankly, I rather hope they’re focused on the lecture and activities I’m constructing for them.
But nonetheless, these political forces are real, and so are the ethical commitments I make in response to them. How much of myself do I make transparent to my students, especially in teaching a topic like moral theology?
It helps to think of answers to this question as existing along a spectrum (here I find William Mattison’s examination of this issue in an essay here helpful). On the one hand, some professors take up the position of disinterested philosopher when standing at the head of a classroom. Our job is to train people to think, to make good arguments with logical consistency. Serve in this position well, and you can transcend the micro-political dynamics of a classroom, overcome the social imbalances of race, class, gender, and ability that inevitably permeate the space — even of being Catholic vs non-Catholic, given my particular institutional setting. I admit to being skeptical of this position. I have far too much of Paulo Feire’s pedagogy and liberation theology in me to believe there is really such a thing as “neutral” education.
On the other hand, some profess the opposite — we are forming the characters of our students, and that means we want them to develop a moral sensitivity that is not always well served by pure, objective, analytical assessment. Is teaching theological ethics an exercise in intellect, or in discipleship? Education, or evangelization? While I would hardly argue that the two are mutually exclusive, they can antagonize one another. But I cannot fully embrace this position either. What I hold back, I hold back for self-preservation; it is not a bad thing to desire healthy boundaries between my personal life (and faith, and politics) and my public life as a professor.
I’m not the first to mull these questions over, and there is an abundance of thoughtful reflections by teachers of theology in various settings: high school, college, and parish catechesis. None of these writers pretend to have final answers; these are questions we must continue to ask. But as we continue to parse the tension between intellectual and character formation in the classroom, I think it is important to remember that either choice is itself a political act. Either choice makes a statement about how you conceive the relationship of your classroom to the world, of yourself to your students.
In that sense, there is no avoiding politics in the classroom. Politics is not something imported from “outside;” even the “disinterested philosopher” is making a statement about the importance of the bigger issues that surround the college classroom. Indeed, politics plays a role all the way through our class preparations. I know I have already made choices that speak to my ethical commitments: the decision to teach a class like “Introduction to Moral Theology,” what I included on my syllabus, my pedagogical approach to the class.
It’s true that I may be able to hide how I’m voting in 2016, how I feel about ongoing student protests, and even what my own vision for a Catholic liberal arts education ought to be. The question of transparency in the classroom may not have a definitive answer — it’s something I’m sure I’ll continue testing and exploring throughout this semester. But whether I make the decision to keep my proverbial cards close at hand, or lay them out for all to see, I am not excused from the inevitable, unavoidable politics that remain.
Lorraine Cuddeback is a PhD candidate in moral theology at the University of Notre Dame. Her research is in social ethics, particularly disability and theology, Catholic social teaching, and feminist ethics. Her dissertation is about ethics, practices, and theologies of inclusion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.