Signal Virtue: Catechizing, with Love

Virtue: Feel others’ emotions

Describe an experience: Please write a short story (approximately 1,000 characters) about a time in your life when this positive trait or virtue contributed to or created a situation that had a positive impact on your life.
I could tell instantly that I had made a mistake.

The class was a small one, discussion-format rather than lecture. He had been one of the students most engaged, always eager to contribute to the discussion. It’s tricky when you get students like that. They find it easy to talk, but the more you call on them when they put their hands up, the less the other students feel compelled--or able--to contribute.

So I called him on it, indirectly, by nudging the others: “Don‘t make John have to be the one to answer!” He fell back in his chair so that I couldn’t see him anymore. And didn’t put his hand up again for days.

Some students are more sensitive than others when I push back in class, but this was a particularly bad moment for me. The whole mood of the room changed now that John (not his--or her--real name) had withdrawn. I knew I needed to fix it because I also needed him (or her).

In truth, I need all the students to be engaged in the discussion, even if the only thing they do is listen. I can feel the energy in the room, their attention, their willingness to take on the argument that I am trying to make.

It is painful--almost physically so--when the energy is low. They’re bored. They don’t understand the reading. The questions make no sense. They are there because they are good students, but that is only because they understand the meta-game: get a degree. They do not understand why it matters that they are in this class now.

It is my job to help them understand. And to do that, I need to help them care. I need to make the texts that we are reading come alive for them. I need to make the questions matter. I need to engage them not just intellectually, but emotionally. I need to help them discover a motivation to learn the material in the course.

I like to think that my ability to feel this emotional engagement--or lack thereof--is one of the things that makes me a good teacher, but it has its costs. If they feel bad, I feel bad. And it is on me if they do.
Alternative outcome: Write a short paragraph about what you might have done differently in that situation, so that it might have turned out even better.
I could relax. Sometimes I care so much about getting them excited, I overreact to what I misperceive as their lack of engagement. Is it their emotion I am feeling or mine? It is easy to get emotions confused.

One of the things I know from my teaching is that my sense of how well a particular discussion has gone often has very little correlation with what the students think. I think it went slow, they found it well-paced. I think it was exciting, a great scaling of intellectual Alps, they leave confused. What I read as boredom is actually fear. What I read as snarkiness is, again, fear. 

John (let’s call him John) was tricky for me. I did not know him well, but I knew from class that he was passionate about the material we were reading. It is not wrong of me to push back--that’s my job! But I cannot teach someone if I do not have his or her trust.

What I did in that situation was, over the next week or so, call on him directly so as to invite him back in. It worked, or so I thought, although I have learned since that the mistrust lingered. Would it have been better if I were not so sensitive? Would it be different if I were a man?

Almost certainly, yes. Authority in the classroom is a delicate thing. Men and women react differently to forceful speech. I tend to respond well to it--it is one of the reasons that I love Professor Peterson’s lecture style. But I know from my course evaluations that I can come on too strong, at least according to some.

It’s the woman in me. I want to be liked. I want to take care of my students, protect them from feeling too scared. I don’t want my classroom to feel frightening, as if it is threatening to talk. But, as Professor Peterson says, it is never safe to talk. Including for me.

I am battling myself now. The agreeable part of me says I should have been kinder, made cooing noises to help ease the rebuff. But the monster in me says, no, it doesn't help the students if I coddle them. After all, they have teeth, too.
Guidelines for general improvement: Now that you've thought about how you might have improved things even more for yourself or others in that particular situation, please think about this virtue in more general terms. How could you work on capitalizing on this positive trait in general, so that you or others that you care about benefit as much as possible?
I have a theory about introverts. It is not necessarily that we dislike social interaction or prefer our own company. It is that we find social interaction stressful because we feel others’ emotions too intensely.

I would have a much easier time in class if I did not feel my students’ responses so viscerally. Just imagine. I could be as boring or authoritarian or doctrinaire as I liked. It might even be good for them, to encounter a woman less concerned with their feelings.

But it’s not going to happen. So I need to work with it.

I know that some of my students have taken exception to my blog posts this past month or so in which I talk about growing teeth. It is hard for me, knowing that they dislike the way I have tried to build my confidence to do my job better. I have disappointed them, they say. They thought I was nicer, they say.

If only I didn’t care. But I do. I care that they have an example of what it means to be passionate about goodness and truth. I care that they have an example of what it means to argue in favor of tradition and beauty. I care that at least one of their professors has the courage to say what they tell me none of their other professors will say: that the Christian roots of our civilization matter.

In my section of “History of European Civilization” the first text we read is Augustine’s “On the instruction of catechumens.” Augustine talks about how hard it is to put into words the flash of understanding that we experience when (as Professor Peterson would put it) we find ourselves balanced on the edge between order and chaos.

We can see instantly, for example, if someone is angry, but to say so in Latin or Greek conveys but little of what we understood when we saw his face. How to overcome this frustration? Augustine replies: with love. It was for this reason that the Word became incarnate, so as to teach us to love.

It is not a weakness to be so affected by my students’ emotion. It is my greatest strength.
Still not sure I am doing these exercises correctly. I tried to focus on a particular incident more in this one, but I am worried about giving more detail. These interactions are not gender-neutral, as I suspect you have guessed.

--From Jordan Peterson’s Self-Authoring: Virtues program.

Image: Summer in the French Alps, www.akvillas.com

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