I like the vocation of teaching. As a teacher, I celebrated its wonders and possibilities. I taught at a research university for over thirty-one years. And now, I do not hesitate to say that this act of teaching has transformed me: from a simple specialist in the subject to a fiery wanderer. It also allowed me to question and eventually transcend the research vs. teaching dichotomy. Good research is impossible without committed pedagogy and meaningful teaching/learning; and life-affirming teaching is not a formal task defined by bureaucracy: to “cover” the curriculum, test and grade your students; instead, teaching is a nuanced art that needs to be cultivated every morning when you come to class and connect with your students. A teacher is not a tape recorder — repeating what the “texts” have said; instead, a teacher should be a thinker, a wanderer, a creator. In a way, teaching is a daily quest – continually exploring and expanding one’s mental horizon and psychic/cultural landscape, rethinking pedagogy and ways to build a bridge between ‘self’ and ‘world‘. Turning a book into a real lived experience is a delicate task.
The art of loving listening
It is in this context that I wish to reflect on three fundamental lessons that I have learned as a teacher. To begin with, I must emphasize the the art of compassionate listening. It’s like recognizing that every student has a story to tell; every student is a possibility; and no learning/unlearning is possible without creating a non-judgmental environment that encourages every student – ‘smart’ or ‘poor’, ‘privileged’ or ‘marginalised’, ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ – to feel free and relaxed , to express their voice and take an active part in the circulation of ideas and knowledge. Quite often, a teacher – and that too in a university like ours where I taught – could silence his students because of the weight of the “image” that she carries with her – publications, research projects, notoriety and will have. The practice of this power is very subtle. A student may be reluctant to articulate their voice and experience because of fear that saying something in front of the “know-it-all” teacher might sound silly or ridiculous. Moreover, even the teacher may not be very interested in learning from the students. Therefore, it is not impossible to see your classrooms where you see the “learned” monologue of a professor in the midst of the passivity and silence of the students. But then, when you as a teacher converse with your students, listen to them very carefully and, as co-travelers, start learning new ideas, concepts and theories, a miracle happens. The classroom becomes alive and vibrant; a culture of debate and dialogue is established; a “Marxist” listens to a “Gandhan”; a metropolitan “feminist” who has only read Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler learns to converse with a Bhojpuri-speaking young girl from Bihar who seeks to overcome the shackles of patriarchy and caste hierarchy and make her own choices.
Yes, in these thirty-one years, I have learned the value of this the art of compassion listen. I learned and unlearned. I evolved as a human being. Maybe I became more open, receptive and dialogical. And I realized the futility of power – the power that allows the teacher to silence her students and turn them into mere passive recipients of the “texts” she considers “sacred”. Instead, I felt the power of listening and talking; and I have come to realize that your student understands Marx and Foucault better when you assure them that they matter too, and that they must scrutinize these thinkers through their eyes, their struggles and their experiences. Yes, with this art of listening, I began to appreciate the value of live in the classroom. It’s like perpetually questioning the coldness of academia, the fetish of abstraction.
art of communication
Second, I realized the importance of art of communication. Neither your attractive CV nor your position as dean/president matters when you teach. What matters is just your living presence: your enthusiasm, your joy and your ability to share your ideas with young minds in such a way that they are filled with an abundance of creative life energy and invited into the realm of ideas. Therefore, meaningful teaching is different from the act of writing articles in professional journals. As a researcher, you write research papers primarily to communicate with your peers and colleagues. However, the same language, the same style, the same jargon may not be very beneficial when teaching a young student who has just started her university life. As teachers, we must be freed from the narcissism of “intellect”; we must see ourselves as communicators who can bring the beauty of metaphor, poetry and lived experiences to the classroom, and encourage students to see, feel, experience and understand deeply and passionately the nuanced meanings of concepts and theories. Using jargon, repeatedly taking refuge in book language, and even reducing sociology or philosophy to a kind of differential calculus: these are by no means the virtues of a teacher. The joy of sharing ideas, or the joy of seeing the shining light in the eyes of a young learner: this is what makes the culture of learning a celebration. And it is no less difficult than the act of writing research papers. You can’t prioritize: I am “serious” when I write research papers; and I am ‘casual’ when I teach! And during these thirty-one years, I have tried time and time again to master this art of communicating. No wonder, even though I taught different branches of sociology, I never forgot to invite Walt Whitman and Rabindranath Tagore, Charlie Chaplin and Satyajit Ray, Munshi Premchand and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a flowing river and a peak of mountain, and the stories of a train journey or the smell of the fish market to enter my classrooms. The more you share your ideas, the more you learn and grow. The more you see the everyday world as a book, the more you succeed in transforming printed words – be it Marxian “alienation”, Weberian “disenchantment” or Foucaudian “surveillance” – into lived experiences. Somehow, with the the art of communication, we are moving towards awakened intelligence. For me, this is the real rigor; and it is only through the enchanting power of a committed pedagogy that deep and serious thought begins to flow like a rhythmic river; it makes the “impossible” possible—theory becomes poetry, and poetry becomes theory. And we start dancing with Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx!
The art of deconditioning
And finally, I sought to learn the the art of deconditioning. Very often, I feel that as scholars, many of us like to carry around a huge baggage of knowledge – concepts, categories, methodologies and theories; and this selfish pride (you have mastered the vocabulary of Foucault, Derrida and Deluze; and therefore, you naturally know the world) acts as a barrier; we lose the freshness, the spirit of wonder or the innocence needed to ask new questions and see the world beyond the categories to which we are so attached. This conditioning, I do not hesitate to say, determines and limits our thinking (never forget that the construction worker you are conversing with is not just an abstract concept – “lower/working class/ migrant labour’; it’s something more – the way the flower you’re touching isn’t just the word called ‘rose’). For example, a sociology student those who have been well conditioned or educated are tempted to see the discourse of power only through the eyes of Weber and Foucault; or caste through categories borrowed from Louis Dumont and MN Srinivas. I am not saying that these thinkers and their scholarship are unimportant; Nor am I saying that our students shouldn’t engage with them. What I’m advocating is freshness, or innocence, or some kind of open space in our consciousness so that our students can raise new questions, or make new observations, and see beyond tyranny concepts and book categories. It is important to be “foolish” in order to be wise. And we can’t feed that creative surplus unless we celebrate the the art of deconditioning, even unlearning what the profession of university priest considers “sacred”. In fact, I have often encouraged my students to laugh at themselves, to laugh at their essays, footnotes, and bibliographies, and to laugh at all kinds of “performances” that we often see in our seminars and conferences. And I also learned to laugh at myself. We need that laughter in our classrooms. We need the lightness of being. And no new thought can emanate from our universities without this lightness, or this emptiness.
Avijit Pathak taught sociology at JNU for over thirty-one years. He writes extensively on pedagogy, culture and politics.