Quite some time ago, I mentioned that I was engaged in revising my statement of teaching philosophy. I have had occasion to work on it and review it a bit recently, for reasons that will remain private for now, and I am reminded, as the Fall 2012 term is about to begin at the school where I teach, that it is frequently helpful for me to discuss my own thoughts and understandings as I try to get students to develop their own.*
I remain convinced that if there is no challenge, there is no reason to improve, and the improvement of the self is the reason behind education, formal and informal. Even an online satirist is aware of the latter, although he couches his assertions...indelicately.** Although, as I know and have noted, many of my students are not convinced of the utility of what I teach--mostly rhetoric and composition, despite my academic background being mostly in literature--their lack of conviction does not negate the truth. For we are all engaged in telling stories and in presenting arguments, and it behooves us all to be able to do so convincingly. Too, we are all presented with stories and arguments seeking to compel our beliefs and actions, and it is incumbent upon us to be able to understand and analyze them so as to be able to reject those which are made poorly or are based upon bad ideas.
Thus, while it is perhaps true that my students will not ever have to compose a formal essay after leaving my classes, and they may never be positioned such that they are in direct opposition to another person in a debate, they will have to convince their bosses that they deserve to keep their job--and maybe that they even deserve a raise. They may have the misfortune of being in a position to have to convince a jury of their peers that they are innocent of wrongdoing, or the similar misfortune of having to convince a jury of someone else's that they have themselves been wronged. They may be in a position to be asked to do a thing that they find somewhat questionable, and so they will have to decide if the cost is worth the benefit. Many will find themselves needing to impart lessons to the young without making the overt statement that so often prompts resistance. Some of them will seek to prevail upon another person to give them the time and opportunity to fall in love with them. None of these are insignificant concerns, and all of them are aided and abetted by deploying the skills my assignments teach and of which they foster practice.
Those assignments offer a relatively low-risk laboratory for those skills. The worst that can happen to a student in my class as a result of the assignments is that the student gets a bad grade--and, in many cases, that grade can be brought up. It is a far lesser consequence than erring in the "real-life" applications of those skills outside the classroom, and so it seems to me that students are well-served to be well and truly challenged in the classroom.
*Lad Tobin's Opinion piece, "Self-Disclosure as a Strategic Teaching Tool: What
I Do--and Don't--Tell My Students," from College English 73.2 (November
2010: 196-206) comes to mind as one resource related to discussing one's own personal engagement with the subject matter being taught. Mark Edmundson's "Against Readings" in Profession (2009: 56-65) springs to mind, as well. So, too, does much of the training in teaching I received as an undergraduate and a graduate student. It is not formal citation, I know, but it should suffice in a piece of writing so informal as a blog to account for whence some of my ideas derive.
**I make a point of trying to invoke current and popular media in my teaching and examples, as noted here, here, and occasionally here, among others. Sometimes, my sources use naughty words. Then again, so do major authors such as Shakespeare and Twain...