Teaching and Gongfu

I’m teaching five sections of a General Education Introduction to Philosophy course this semester and I’m grateful for this 功夫 (gongfu/kung fu) practice. I am revisiting Peimin Ni’s writings about Confucius and to him I am grateful and will make liberal references.

Before I decided to go to college I was fortunate to study Shaolin Dao with Master Michael Reid and his teacher, Gary Grooms.  It was in that martial context that I was first told that “kung fu” doesn’t refer to fighting but means something like “time invested.” I credit the training I received from Master Reid and my peers with my future academic successes (such as they are).

Peimin Ni helps us understand the phrase even more:

“Originally used to describe human labor during the third and fourth centuries, the term gongfu was later developed into a locus from which a cluster of meanings emerged, referring to the time and effort spent on something, the ability to accomplish intended results, and the result of such effort and abilities. Consequently it came to be used broadly for all the arts of life that require cultivated abilities and effective skills, be it the arts of cooking, speaking, dancing, dealing with human relationships, or the art of living in general.” (Ni, xii)

“Every Day Is a Good Day,”
Fukushima Keido Roshi, ca 2003.

Given my large teaching load, I have had course design anxieties. I’ve been trying to get my classes more accessible because accessibility is a federal right and I am encountering a large number of students so I am statistically more likely to work with folks who will need accommodations. But, really, everyone benefits from a more intentionally accessible course. My course is primarily concerned with habits, especially habits of citizenship (I bookend the semester with Danielle S. Allen’s book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education).

As I have pursued a more accessible course design I am encountering unforeseen benefits from working with the accommodations that my students request.  Specifically I am having to think more clearly about what is important and how I can best communicate that.

The class I’ve built treats writing as an iterative process, the assignments are repetitive and provide opportunities for the students to practice metacognitive skills (i.e. they’re learning about how they learn, thinking about how they read, writing about how they write).

For example, before each class meeting my students are required to have read primary source material and to have generated at least one well-written question about that material so that we can discuss the reading in class.

To help my students craft their questions I first assign them to read, and subsequently bring to every class meeting, Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ handout “Some Notes On How To Ask A Good Question About Theory That Will Provoke Conversation And Further Discussion From Your Colleagues.”

Writing one question for each class is a low-stakes assignment that encourages my students to critically engage with the assigned readings, rather than riffing on a theme they’ve noticed in their reading and asking questions that might make sense to them but tend to lead class discussion into areas that aren’t necessarily useful for the class as a whole.

I then require that my students submit a reading outline in which I ask them to paraphrase, in one or two sentences, each paragraph of an assigned reading and then write a sentence or two in which they tell me where the author’s argument “clicked” for them.

When I introduce this assignment to my students I tell them that this is an assignment designed to get them thinking about how they read and retain the information they are reading. I tell them that this assignment will benefit them if they practice this kind of note-taking, no matter what the course they are in and regardless of their major (although they should all want to be Philosophy majors). The assignment contributes 10% of their final grade, so it’s not a massive project but it’s also not a trifle.

Like this metacognitive reading outline, I follow-up this assignment with an argument outline wherein my students practice tracing out the premises/evidence/reasons/presuppositions that support the arguments made by the authors in their assigned readings. If philosophy has a method, (of course it does and I juxtapose the methods used in science and religion to clarify the differences) this would be it, I tell them.

If in my teaching I only went up to the lectern and spoke about my opinions and recited my (granted, hard-earned) knowledge, I don’t think I’d be doing my students, my university, my state (I teach at a state university), my profession, or myself any favors. I’d be going through the motions but education can be a transformative process when teaching and learning happen in the appropriate manner. In this way I am thinking about what Cheng Yi (1033-1107) said during the Song dynasty, “Nowadays people no longer know how to read. When they read the Analects, for instance, they are the same kind of people before they read the book and after they read the book. This is no different from not having read the book.”

Zhu Xi resonates with Cheng here when he states:

“In reading the Analects and the Mencius one should not merely aim at understanding the theory and the meanings of the text. One should make careful reflection and put the teachings into practice [….] If a reader can relate the sages’ sayings to his own person and examine them through his own embodied practice, his effort will surely not be spent in vain. Every day will bring him the result (gong 功) of the day. If one only takes the books as collections of sayings, it would be merely the learning of the mouth and the ears.” (Zhu, Du Lunyu Mengzi Fa, 3)

The work I’m asking my students to do means I must do a kind of work that that is really interesting to me and puts me into a relationship with the readings and my office that is often unexpected and rewarding.

I am really grateful to my students for meeting me like this, so that we’re both putting in the effort, we’re practicing a mode of gongfu.