Teaching as a Moral Relationship

[I have been asked to participate in an orientation for new teaching fellows at Brandeis University. As part of the panel, I am supposed to speak for five minutes on the topic, “one piece of advice that you wish you had known before you started teaching.” These are the remarks I intend to give, which are similar to a post I wrote for ProfHacker on a related theme. I will be glad for any critiques.]

Good morning. My name is Lincoln Mullen, and I am a graduate student in the history department. I have been a teaching fellow for five Brandeis history courses, two with David Hackett Fischer and one each with Govind Sreenivasan, David Engerman, and Xing Hang.

I have been asked to give you one piece of advice that I wish I had known before I started teaching, and so I offer you a principle which I learned from the professors I worked with, sometimes by word, sometimes by example.

To state it briefly: You should regard your teaching and all other interactions with students as a moral relationship governed by moral principles.

As new teachers you likely have a dozen questions about how to grade papers, when to hand them back, what to wear, and other details of teaching, all of which we will address in a few minutes. But for now, step back from the minutia, and consider your role as a whole. Let me explain what I mean by saying teaching should be a moral relationship governed by moral principles.

We could show that teaching is primarily a relationship from research into pedagogy, much of which argues that learning depends on whether students and teachers cultivate a relationship. But instead we can prove this empirically, because you will feel and act like you are in a relationship. Over the sixteen weeks of the semester, you will get to know your students, and they you. Some of them you will come to admire and respect; for others … it will be otherwise. But good or bad, you will have a relationship with all your students.

So why do I say that your relationship is moral? We could say that you have a professional relationship with your students. Though that is true, it is insufficient, because professional ethics are only supplemental to moral codes. The professional ethics which are peculiar (in both sense of the term) to the academy govern the cases which are unique to the academy, for example, plagiarism. But there is a danger that you will think that if you have fulfilled the letter of your professional obligations, you have fulfilled the spirit of your moral obligations. In other words, it is not helpful to think of your relationship as just professional, because those obligations are spelled out for you. What you need to think about is how your relationship to your students is full of the same moral complexities as any human relationship.

There is no reason to shy away from calling the teaching relationship moral in the context of the secular academy, since Brandeis is as much a liberal arts college as it is a research university, and part of the tradition of the liberal arts and their colleges is the inculcation of virtue.

If the teacher-student relationship is first of all moral, it follows that you should apply your moral principles to the relationship. For me, the moral principle is “you shall shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I hold to that ethic because it was taught by Jesus in the Gospels, but you might hold it because it is found in the Torah, or in Confucius, or you might hold to some other principle entirely. My point is not which moral principles you should choose, but that you should practice your moral principles in the teaching.

What does it look like in practice to love your students as yourself? Let’s see how that ethic gives helps us answer some questions about the details of teaching.

  • How should I interact with students? You must learn their names, and use them. Permit them to get to know you; get to know them as much as they permit.

  • How should I comment on student papers? Your comments should always be charitable in wording and intent, and should engage seriously with the argument the student intended to make.

  • How should I dress? Whatever you wear should convey seriousness about the subject and respect for the students. For me that is almost always a jacket and tie, but I’m stodgy. You can find a different way to convey the same meaning.

  • How available to the students should I be? You will have to pick office hours and set expectations for communication that fit your needs, but whatever you do, your students should feel that you are available, not unavailable.

  • Which students need my help? You can only help the students who want to be helped, and you’ll spend most of your time helping the students who ask to be helped. But you have an obligation to all of your students, and should go out of your way to try to help all of them.

  • What should I do when students say or do funny things? By all means have a good laugh to yourself when students make amusing mistakes in their papers. But never post those mistakes online, or anywhere else.

  • What should I do in dubious situations? You’ll encounter situations when you doubt that a student is being honest. But always assume and hope that your student has the best motives and intent, because “love … does not envy. … Love hopes all things, endures all things.”

  • How much time should I spend on being a TF? Do not shortchange your own work, but be willing to give—not spend—more time to your students than you expect, because you are putting their needs before your own.

As a teaching fellow I did not always—or even often—succeed at cultivating teaching relationships as moral relationships. After turning in some uncharitable grades, a professor encouraged me to rethink my interactions with students in exactly these moral terms. So the lesson that I learned is that the most important thing you can do as a teacher is subject all your interactions to moral discipline.