After all of the small and large annoyances of the last month I thought it might be worth taking a step back and reading something a little spiritual. The dirty hippie in me remembered that Pema Chödrön has a book called When Things Fall Apart and since it felt like everything in my life was falling apart (my lungs, my car, my computer, my ability to not be over-emotional in public) that seemed like an appropriate and timely title. I’ve been reading it, a chapter a time and then sleeping on it. The chapters are short so they’ve been perfect for that last half hour before bed when you want to wind down.

Last night I read a chapter which talked about maitri or loving-kindness. From what I understand it is (or at least includes) a notion that one should be gentle and forgiving of things. The chapter suggested you start with yourself. That seems reasonable. I can be incredibly harsh and, like most people I feel, I’m ten times more harsh with myself than I am with other people (and, if you know me you know how incredibly harsh with other people so, just be thankful I don’t say everything I’m thinking.)

Anyway, Earlier today I was having a conversation with some other people who have taught class about “dumb answers”.   We all have funny ones (people not knowing what a verb was, people thinking the bible was written by a 18th pioneer in publishing, people not knowing that Africa was a continent, etc) where someone clearly didn’t do the reading, or didn’t attend class, or didn’t understand the reading or didn’t understand the instructions or didn’t read the instructions.  As a consequence. what they’ve handed in to us was either unintelligible or was, from our perspective, stupid and ridiculous. And, I have to say in this situation, I was not very nice about it (I’m honestly still a little floored that someone made it to college without realizing that the bible predates the colonial expansion of European states).

Later in the day, I was studying for a midterm exam in a class where we are doing a lot of formal logic. Now, the nice thing about formal logic is that once you learn all the rules, you just apply them. And, all of the rules only work one way so, unlike in natural language, there are no ambiguities. While studying for this class, I was re-reading the text book and it kept saying things like, “Obviously, X.” I kept thinking, “X is not obvious at all!” But, then I realized this is the same situation. Once you’ve worked out all the rules, X does follow (obviously) from what they say. For our students, it must be the same thing. For us, how things work in our field is obvious.  We’ve done in a million times before, it is done in a certain way and the conclusions obviously follow.  But, if you’re coming to it for the first time, then that might not be the case.

Immediately after realizing this, it occurred to me that this might be a good place for some gentleness and forgiveness and maybe a little flexibility.

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2 Responses to Loving-Kindness

  1. Joe says:

    Gentleness, yes. When I’m tempted to laugh at a student’s answer, I find it helps to remind myself that this was his or her best guess as to the right answer (and that, presumably, the student wants to get every question right).

    But forgiveness and flexibility, maybe not. Our field is (mostly) a science, and science (mostly) has firm answers. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teaching those answers and then requiring them on a test.

  2. Kate says:

    I think I’m thinking more forgiveness in the flexibility in the sense that if you get an answer wrong, one shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that you are an idiot. Not that I do that.

    Also, since when have you read my blog?

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