Anthony F. LoPresti
Anthony F. LoPresti is Associate Professor of Religious and Theological Studies at Salve Regina University.
In a recent essay titled “Welcome to My First Class Reunion” (Commentary, April 28), Professor Felicia Nimue Ackerman described how she runs her philosophy classes and concluded her column with a beguiling challenge: “All My Politics of courses are in place for critical discussion, as of now. And that? I would like to accept this offer.
When I first read Professor Ackerman’s column, I had just finished teaching “sexual ethics” at Salve Regina, where I am a full-time faculty member. Although my course takes a more interdisciplinary approach, I share Professor Ackerman’s goal of helping students become better thinkers on ethical issues. Where we seem to differ is our ancillary goals and the degree of self-interest we have in our students.
Professor Ackerman says she would be appalled if the graduates of her course went out and robbed a bank, but that it’s not her job to get students to refrain from robbing. I, too, would be appalled if my students left and became bank robbers, but if I saw such a trend, I could adapt my program to cope with such a dismal development. Indeed, I started teaching sexual ethics when I noticed that many students were systematically sexualized and objectified, which is typical of the hookup culture in most colleges today.
While Professor Ackerman does not aim to increase student virtue, I urge students to examine their character virtues and the ways in which their choices may have fallen short of their aspirations. The emerging adults I teach are deeply committed to exploring their identity and choosing the kind of person they want to become. While the decision to adopt particular virtues or values is clearly a student’s choice, I encourage my students to be self-aware, responsible, and righteous.
My difference with Professor Ackerman on course objectives seems to reflect the differences found in the mission statements of our respective institutions. Brown University’s mission is to “educate and prepare students to assume the functions of life with utility and reputation”, while Salve’s mission is to “prepare men and women for responsible living by imparting and by developing knowledge, developing skills and cultivating enduring values. ”
From what I can tell, Professor Ackerman strives to maintain a professional distance between her and her students. She will give the mark “Incomplete” without asking any questions; she waits for no explanation when students are absent or late for class; and his “hard rule” is that “we never talk about our personal life”. While I also respect student privacy, I am open to listening to the vicissitudes of student lives and often their stories focus on struggles with mental health, problematic relationships, and various forms of sexual hardship.
Professor Ackerman explains that allowing students to share examples of past trauma might inspire others to look at what they are saying as the class discusses the ethics of reporting the crime of rape. I would be prepared to regard these cautious comments as a manifestation of sensitivity and compassion, virtues which I am happy to salute. Professor Ackerman’s overarching goal is “unhindered discussions of controversial points of view,” apparently even when this may cause some students to painfully relive previous trauma. For a teacher who doesn’t seem bothered by students missing lessons, his policy of not issuing content warnings seems hard to justify; some might even call it insensitive.
I have found that allowing students to share their life experiences promotes understanding more than it inhibits critical discussion. Certainly, my comfort with privacy probably plays a role in my teaching philosophy. I am also part of a Salve campus culture that prioritizes the virtue of mercy that motivates a person to step into the chaos of other people’s lives. What Professor Ackerman tends to avoid I am inclined to adopt. The question is whether one style of teaching best serves today’s students.