I did not know what happened. Over a decade ago, I became afraid and angry. As a college professor, I was not able to understand why teaching was so difficult. It was the subject matter, it was the students, it was the university... On a regular basis, I lecture on at least three subjects that I am afraid to teach—evolution, climate change, and earth history. I used to think, “I am in Texas, it’s partially context.” There was something much bigger going on that I could not see. I thought it was the religious right, and perhaps to some degree it was. But, trained in anthropology, I could not rest with that conclusion because any group is diverse within. It could not be all members of the religious right, or even just people on the right (religion aside). It must have been preparation; students were not prepared for what I wanted them to do. Many of them had poor study habits, many of them could not take notes; their critical thinking skills seemed weak. But that was not universally true either, and even if it had been, what difference would it make? I was still going to teach. So what was wrong? I was.
It was ten or so years ago in August; I was facing another semester of teaching Archaeological Science. My frustrations stared back when I looked in the mirror. I would cringe at thinking about who might be staring back at me within a crowd of 125 students. I had not done well in my student evaluations the prior semester, being labeled arrogant and pushy by some. Those negative comments stood out. I was angry; I was sick and tired of not being taken seriously. Indeed, I felt discouraged but also spiteful. I was a relatively new PhD, and I wanted to teach and be responded too. I was lucky, however, because something shifted that morning when I looked in the mirror. I decided to soften my approach; I thought, “why not make it about them?” I did. It was an amazing semester because I took the time to slow down, to listen, and to teach from a place of respect and compassion. I simply decided that students deserved a real conversation with me. I remember a young evangelical man thanking me at the end of the semester. He made it very clear that he did not agree with all of the content, but he appreciated the respect. His name was Peter; my son’s name is Peter.
Over the years, however, my fear in the front of the classroom persisted. Was it my job to reach the conservatives in the classroom about climate science, evolution, or another topic? Again, not knowing how many of them were there, I got lucky when I decided, “no, it is not my job.” It’s just subject matter, and I teach it as accurately as I know it. I left belief up to the student. I could not find another way through the teaching process; I could not challenge them to learn unless I gave up the requirement that they hold my world view. Teaching was not a recruiting process. Almost accidently, this became the most compassionate practice of my teaching. They do not have to be like me.
So, we face social strife in the USA today. It’s painful. Fear dominates discourse. Is it the Evangelicals, the Millennials, the Baby Boomers, the Conservatives, the Liberals, others? Definitely. But it is also me. What is the path forward? Soften and listen. That person who is not like me will shrink away in fear if I insist that they share my views. They may shrink away anyway. But each moment is an opportunity; maybe they will lean in if I listen. I have something to learn. Perhaps you and I will share a common moment and an exchange of kindness will be the butterfly that flaps its wings. Maybe expertise is just a myth and we are all in it together.