An Educational Attitude

by Darryl Caterine | 5/13/02 5:00am

I have read The Dartmouth's May 10 article,

"Profs. allow classes to set own grades," and must say that the coverage struck me as imbalanced and, in most places, sadly misleading. The title of the article -- together with its subtitle, "Self-grading policy raises issues of abuse" -- would seem designed to alarm or simply titillate its reading audience. However, as the more careful reader might be able to glean between the lines of the reporting, this term's "Religion 12: Religion and Society in America" typifies the kind of class I generally aspire to offer my students. This would be a class that cajoles and challenges students to discover for themselves the relevance of New World (United States and Latin American) religion and culture to contemporary issues. These include the persistence of racial and class inequalities in America, religiocultural justifications for many of our country's foreign and environmental policies and the power of religious discourse in shaping domestic politics.

My primary goal as an educator is to help my students -- many of whom will be among the future leaders of our country -- to think critically about these and other concerns, by equipping them with the appropriate historical and methodological tools to do so. Judging from the feedback of students who have taken my classes, and the recent teaching award bestowed upon me by the Student Assembly, my methods and style of teaching have been largely effective in impressing the importance if not the urgency of these issues in our times. As I expressed earlier to the executive editor of The Dartmouth, I am perplexed as to why your newspaper would not want to write an article exploring the reasons for the overall success of my classes here. Such an article would have invariably led to a more substantial report on the relevance of the humanities, particularly American religion, to our contemporary world. It might also have led to a more substantial analysis of how and why Dartmouth students oftentimes need to be challenged and cajoled to make connections between what they read in books and the real-life decisions they will soon be making. That this term's Religion 12 includes a student self-evaluation as part of the final grading process is, in my professional estimation, an inconsequential footnote to the serious business of what is being taught and discussed in the classroom.

As careful readers of the article might glean between its lines, students of Religion 12 will be evaluated this term for how critically they have applied course material to their own cultural, economic,and/or religious backgrounds. This will necessarily be a joint endeavor, since the students themselves, rather than their professor, are in the best position to articulate the contours of these backgrounds, and how the course has addressed them. The professor will then be in a better position to evaluate from his side how accurately the course material has been processed -- a task in which he is already engaged through periodic reading assignments and countless meetings with students.

Having clarified aspects of my pedagogy and grading policy to the staff of The Dartmouth, I now hope they will reflect on this instance of irresponsible and probably unethical journalism to better clarify for themselves their own motivations and goals as a newspaper. When I came to Dartmouth in 1998, I was forewarned as an educator of another student paper that allegedly presented obstacles to the business of learning here. Hence I was not only alarmed but indeed also surprised to learn last week that a reporter not from this journal, but from The Dartmouth, was interviewing the students of Religion 12 for their impressions of their professor and his class -- without having contacted me directly. Having overlooked this breach of professional conduct, I nevertheless granted an hour-and-a-half interview in which I communicated more extensive reflections on the issue at hand. Unfortunately, the substance of this interview did not appear in the final article, except in the piecemeal form of comments taken out of their original context. From its inception as a journalistic concept to its execution in print, the May 10 article points to a real pedagogical hazard in investing students with authority. The unfamiliar sharing of power can intoxicate, and override such considerations as honesty, humility and respect. While such potential abuses seldom have disrupted my classes, they seem largely and sadly to have driven the current article. Thus I would exhort The Dartmouth staff to the same challenge I give my students: to approach their education and time here not as uncritical voyeurs, but as self-reflexive and ethically motivated persons. I would submit to them that real contributions to any community -- be this the Dartmouth campus or the Middle East -- come not from reactionary and uninformed criticism but pro-active and intelligent vision. This is, I realize, a tall order for undergraduate students, but one which most of them have the capacity to meet.

If my grading of the Dartmouth staff in this endeavor would help to underscore the urgency of my appeal, I would be more than happy to participate. As for the students of Religion 12 and myself , we will continue to utilize the humanities to elevate our perspective and to examine critically our shared and particular histories. I extend my thanks to the staff of The Dartmouth only for providing me with yet another opportunity to teach --which is, after all, my job.