On Creativity, Politics, and Ignorance: What to Expect from Your College Professors

I consider myself a decent teacher. Students’ evaluation of my courses are overall positive. Here and there, students protest against what they believe is my liberal bias in teaching, lack of respect for religion, or my contempt for conservative ideas and media outlets. Such claims are preposterous (with the exception of my treatment of Fox News, for their mostly false reporting rather than their politics), but they always make me wonder what might have made my students feel uncomfortable. Was it my insistence on discussing slavery, race issues, gay rights, feminism, evolution, or global warming? Perhaps. I certainly agree that one should always strive to present different opinions in class (including ones he/she disapproves of), and that I for sure can do a better job at it. And yet, some of the issues that bothered my students had little to do with my teaching style and more with their coming to class unprepared. By this I mean unprepared mentally, for the type of thinking and learning college requires you to do.

So, for those of you arriving in college within a few weeks, here are some things to consider. This will be most useful for those taking large intro, gen-ed classes like the one I teach (HIST 150):

1. You will need to read every week, and probably more than you have ever done. You will need to understand what you are reading, not just memorize it. You will be expected to comprehend the meaning of a text, to make connections, see the “big picture” of events or ideas, and be able to explain long-term consequences. In my classes, the students who do that (as opposed to memorizing dates and names as high school would have you do) are far more successful.

If you are in a professional major that teaches a narrow set of skills, your core classes are your only chance at developing critical thinking, creativity, and strong writing skills. Come to them with the aim of taking as much as you can from the experience, not as a burden.

2. Politically sensitive issues are fair game in college. collegeclassYou are no longer in high school, and your professors have no reason to steer away from topics that might make you or your parents uncomfortable. That includes discussing religion too. Such issues aren’t presented in class to alter what you think but rather to help you understand why you think it. A professor may say something really provocative or even outright offensive about one of your core values. Don’t be put off by this. Instead, take the challenge and try to think if you have the knowledge and tools to argue with your professor. If you don’t, you may need to do some reading.

3. All religions are treated equally and critically. That’s how we do things in academia. The late eminent historian Patricia Crone explained why we should adopt such an approach:

Historians and social scientists must write as atheists: whether or not they have religious beliefs, they must suspend all convictions of a non-empirical kind when they work, no religious or ideological beliefs being allowed to impinge on scholarly or scientific research. All invocations of the supernatural have to be disallowed. This is one of the ground-rules of modem science, but even without going into the nature of scientific thought, it should be obvious that every religion must be treated as a man-made phenomenon for the simple reason that there are so many of them. Logic dictates that like phenomena be treated alike. It is impossible to treat all religions as true in the sense of given by supernatural authority, because they contradict each other, disagreeing even over the number and nature of the supernatural authorities involved; however, it is perfectly possible to treat them all as products of the human mind evolved in response to problems in the here and now. 

This is not to say that they are necessarily false. It may well be that the human mind has hit upon the truth in supernatural no less than natural matters, so that this religion or that, or this part of one religion and that part of another, is true in the sense of corresponding to a supernatural reality beyond us. But this is not a scientific question because it is not amenable to empirical proof; it is a matter of belief. Nor is it a historical question because it is irrelevant: ideas generate action when they are believed regardless of whether they are true or not in our opinion.

(Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (London: One World Publications, 2003), 141.

This is the approach to religions your professors will likely take, whether you study history, sociology, anthropology, or philosophy. It does not imply that historians (or scholars in general) need to be atheists, only that they need to write and teach as such. This should not intimidate you. Your professor will never tell you what to believe, but would only ask you make that a personal matter, recognizing that without empirical evidence for such events as the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, Jesus’ walking on water, or Muhammad’s communications with the angel Gabriel, we as scholars must treat such stories as fantasies. For us, Abraham probably never existed, King David ruled over a small kingdom and not greater Israel, Jesus was a charismatic leader but not the son of God, and Muhammad was not a prophet. You as a student may believe in what you wish, and no one should ever contest that. I have my beliefs too. But it will be significantly harder for you in college if you do not develop the ability to separate the personal you from the professional, academic you, that is able to criticize all religions, including your own, and does not assume that one truth is universal simply because the texts you believe in tell you so.

And one more thing. Last year I made a claim in class that modern religions always project an idea back to the founding of the faith to give it credibility. I gave several examples from different traditions (such as ISIS and its depiction of the “original” Islam),Militant Islamist fighters parade on military vehicles along the streets of northern Raqqa province but the one that triggered a lot of anger from the class was the claim that opposition to abortions in the US is a modern phenomenon, that it was never an issue until the 20th century (i.e. people got abortions before but no one talked about it), and that the idea that life begins with conception does not appear in the bible (it doesn’t, at least not explicitly, though some interpret certain passages as such). Now, I understand why such a statement might anger you if you grew up in a certain religious context. But try to take yourselves outside of that context, I told my students. Try to grapple with my actual argument. Some tried, and some did that more successfully than others. And some students were outright offended. If that is you, prepare to be offended for the next four years.

4. Professors are here to help you understand the difference between opinion and fact. Not every statement you make is a valid opinion simply because it is preceded by “in my opinion.” You can be wrong, and you can be ignorant, and you can make claims that are factually incorrect. Our job is to help you take your views and justify them based on facts and solid research. While that at times would lead you to change your mind, that isn’t the main purpose of academic study. Nothing wrong with changing your mind though. I’m 38 years old and I still change my views on all sorts of things all the time. I let credible evidence guide me, instead of manipulating it to fit my views.

1-FeminismPosterSubmission-2For example, if you believe that humans are not responsible for global warming or that there is no such thing (over 95% of scientists believe humans are responsible for global warming); that all living things did not evolve from primordial organisms over billions of years (evolution is a core theory of modern science, which even the Catholic Church now accepts); that the Holocaust never happened (it did, and it was well documented by the Nazis themselves); that vaccinations can cause autism (there’s now conclusive evidence that they don’t); that homosexuality is a choice (it isn’t; a plethora of studies show it to be an outcome of various biological, genetic, and other factors the individual does not control; and attraction to the same sex is found among other animals too); that feminism is women’s radical conspiracy to rule men (it really only means equality); or that African-Americans and Latinos are not disadvantaged in the workforce (there are quite compelling reports on this, see here and here), you are not opinionated or conservative or presenting an alternate point of view. You are outright wrong, and it is perfectly fine for your professors to point that out to you. There’s credible, scientifically or statistically based evidence to refute any of the claims I just listed. You can of course contend that you don’t accept scientific theory (and the alternative is?) and that statistics are biased (they sometimes are, so you need to read credible sources). But making such claims won’t make you any less wrong, and in fact would invoke the question what the hell are you doing in college.

So what can we argue about? Last semester, a student argued that I’m showing a liberal bias Eric-Garner-Killedbecause I claimed that there are racial tensions and inequalities between whites and blacks in America. Again, I’m not sure why stating a fact makes me a biased professor.
We can have different views on what causes racial inequalities, who is to blame for them, and what needs to be done to minimize them (or if there’s a need to do that). All such discussion falls into the realm of opinions. Claiming the issue does not exist is ignorance. Your professor has not only the right, but also the duty, to point out things you don’t know in hope that you would want to look further into them and form your views. Naturally, it isn’t always easy to argue with your teachers, since they have years of schooling and research behind them, and you are just a beginner. But that, my friends, is the essence of the challenge of college.

Come prepared to question everything you know, everything you believe in. Accept the challenge, embrace it, let it take you to wonderful places. Students who manage to do that, who do their research and aren’t afraid to argue with their professors, are ultimately those who have the most rewarding college experience.



1 comment to On Creativity, Politics, and Ignorance: What to Expect from Your College Professors

  • #BlackLivesMatter is still so much less important than Feminism! As long as ALL women are oppressed by patriarchy why do we even worry about a very narrow oppression example – just a single race?

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