Embracing “The Mind that Doesn’t Know”

unnamed                  What I want to unpack is the anxiety that many young faculty feel about “not knowing the answer” in class. I think a lot of us come to the classroom worrying that we don’t know enough to be fit to teach, and that if some student asks us something that we don’t know, our lack of expertise will be exposed. This is often a legitimate fear, since many of us end up teaching classes outside of our research areas; it can also be a hyperbolic expression of the creeping worry of imposter syndrome. I also think, though, that the fear of not-knowing represents a misrecognition of what it is that we should do as teachers.

During my own first two years teaching, I worried constantly that I hadn’t sufficiently mastered the material I was expected to present. Trained primarily as a South Asianist, I was hired for my current position to teach not just “Religions of India,” but “Religions of East Asia” and “Christianity and Religious Diversity.” My anxiety at teaching beyond my existing comfort zone meant that I would often get up at 4 or 5 AM to look for new readings for myself on Confucianism or the Patristic Period; I would spend lunch breaks grilling senior colleagues on the differences between Luther’s and Calvin’s theology, and email grad school friends to inquire whether or not to teach the Documentary Hypothesis.

This content-building was in fact important work, necessary for me to do the work I was hired for—and I learned a lot in the course of getting myself up to speed. But I also noticed that by the end of my fourth semester teaching, this frantic content-acquisition was starting to take over. The more comfortable I became with the content I had mastered, the more I reverted into a model of pedagogy that implicitly privileged content over process, and set me up as the center of knowledge which I would try to pour into my students’ brains. I found myself using more and more class time to lecture, or to answer questions that students asked. In teaching the same rotation of classes, I found myself planning exactly what should happen in each class meeting. As I came into my third year teaching, it was become less and less common that students would ask something I didn’t know the answer to, but it was also less and less common that they would come up with an insight I hadn’t anticipated, or that the class would unfold in organic, unexpected ways.

There were a few things that shook up my perspective on my teaching. The first was that as I started to work more on my first book, I started to spend less time obsessively prepping my classes—and noticed the counter-intuitive result that my teaching often got better. I was continuing to teach a regular rotation of repeated classes, and I discovered that the more time I spent prepping before a session of a course I had already taught three or four times, the more likely I was to dominate and over-structure the class time. I discovered that on the handful of days that I showed up without explicitly preparing, class actually went fantastically well—because I ended up backing off and providing more room for the students to talk, wrestle with things, and direct the flow of our time.

(This is not a recommendation to never go into the classroom prepared, by the way: it’s a recommendation to see past semesters of teaching as part of your preparation. ALWAYS plan when you’re teaching a new course.)

The second wake-up call turned out to be a semester in which my lower-level class simply dragged. By chance there were just more low-skill and low-engagement students in the mix than usual, and the handful of higher-skilled students were unusually reserved; also, we got assigned an awkward room, in which a wall blocked a third of the students from being able to see the rest. Faced week after week with a roomful of blank stares (instead of the usual thoughtful attention and chattiness I had become accustomed to at my institution), I viscerally felt the inadequacy of standing at the front of the room trying to give my students information. I started trying to figure out how to “flip the classroom” and get my resistant students talking to each other and interested in the material.

It didn’t work terribly well with that particular class; I finished the semester with a roomful of still mostly detached students gritting their teeth to get through their core requirement. But I had spent a lot of time myself reviewing my pedagogy, reaffirming my commitment to class discussion, re-imagining ways to produce active investigation instead of passive note-taking (or staring)—and that had profound impacts on the classes I have taught since. The trick, I had to remind myself, was not for me to know things, but for them to understand, discover, and analyze things.

As it turned out, my difficult semester of lower-level students coincided with a semester when my upper-level course was “Religions of East Asia,” and I was struck anew by a reading that I use when teaching Zen. This essay, entitled “Son Master Man’gong,” includes the enlightenment-biography of a young Korean Zen monk. This monk (Man’gong) keeps becoming over-confident of his spiritual accomplishments, and he keeps declaring himself to be enlightened. Then when examined by his master, the master rejects his claim of enlightenment, and sends Man’gong back to work harder at meditating on his koan.

Man’gong does eventually convince his master that he has achieved true spiritual insight, and is on his way to full, true enlightenment, through an exchange in which pivots from asserting his total knowledge, to instead confess his incomprehension:

Man’gong was stunned. He could find nothing to say. … In great despair, Man’gong bowed and said, “Forgive me.”

“Do you understand your mistake?”

“Yes. What can I do?”

“Long ago, when Zen Master Choju was asked if a dog has the Buddha-nature, he said, ‘No!’ What does this mean?”

“I don’t know.”

Kyongho said, “Always keep this mind that doesn’t know and you will soon attain enlightenment.”[1]

A mind that “always knows” is a stuck mind—a mind that can no longer grow. Only a mind that knows its limitations can still be stretching and developing, and this is critical for crafting oneself as a teacher-scholar. As a scholar, I make sure that I am reading and writing about new things that aren’t just rehashing my dissertation. As a teacher too, I now work to try to maintain a mind that doesn’t know. Confident now that I have enough basic knowledge to be competent, I try to find ways to make sure that each class has some flexibility and room for surprise.

So what does it look like to try to teach with a ‘mind that doesn’t know’? I might try rotating in a reading that had been unfamiliar to me, to make sure that I keep teaching at the edges of my expertise (and am therefore still learning myself). I almost always try to make sure there is room in each class meeting for students to digest material in open-ended ways—usually in small groups, that don’t have to ‘report’ to me or defer to my greater knowledge.

I try to only plan out half to three quarters of class time, and try not to have more than 15 minutes of uninterrupted talking by me. When someone asks me a question to which I don’t know the answer, I celebrate that as an interesting new development: I sometimes give the student a best guess at an answer (advertised as such), or explain to them how I might go about finding out the answer, but I try to model for them that it is an exciting moment when someone shows you a point of ignorance, because that’s the moment when you can grow.

Being the expert in the room does sometimes involve conveying information: students simply don’t know enough about Asian religions to responsibly move straight to reflection time, and it is important to make sure that discussions are grounded in concrete practices, details, or texts that they are newly encountering. But conveying information is the beginning and not the end of preparing yourself to teach, and it is much more important to show them how to approach new things and ask good questions—especially when they don’t already know the answer.

[1] Mu Soeng, “Son Master Man’gong and Cogitations of a Colonized Religion.” In Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism, Jin Y. Park, ed. (NY: SUNY series in Korean Studies, 2010)

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