I want to post about a probably not-so-uncommon experience I've been having this semester in my classes. (I mean "not-so-uncommon" among people who teach, that is.) At least, I hope it's not uncommon.
I always find it particularly challenging to deal with what I can only describe as students' "fishing." What I mean by "fishing" is this: a student is fishing when he or she asks a question that is ostensibly about the material at hand, only s/he isn't as interested in how your answer may illuminate something about the material as s/he is interested in how your answer may illuminate something about you personally. So, for example, I may be teaching a class on the difference between gender oppression and racial oppression and I get a question from a student about the merits and demerits of affirmative action. Sometimes this is a legitimate question... but sometimes, I can tell, it's meant to "peg" my own personal/political opinion on the matter of affirmative action. Or, to use another example, a student may bring up a contemporary moral or political problem--I don't know, just to randomly pick one out of the hat... let's say "gay marriage"--and it is is only tangentially related to the material (but still related, even if only tangentially). My suspicion is that sometimes students are fishing for information that is not related (even tangentially) to the course material. Sometimes they are fishing for information about their professor.
It isn't hard to figure out why students do this. I know I did it when I was a student. Some of the motivation is just your average run-of-the-mill curiosity about the professor (is she "cool"? can she take a joke? does she know anything about pop culture?). Some of it is more strategic, aimed at figuring out what one needs to do to gain the professor's favor (is she "liberal"? is she "conservative"? what will a person like her consider a "right" answer?). But some of it is just damn nosy (is she married? is she gay? does she have kids? is she religious?). I actually think that students "fish" like this a lot, though I don't think they always do it consciously.
This is particularly challenging, I think, for professors of philosophy. I make it a point in my classes to exert every effort at providing the strongest possible representation of the material we are reading, even (and especially) when it is a position that I don't personally hold. So, if we're reading Rawls--again, just to randomly pick one out of the hat--and it seems to me like the general vibe of the class is to be critical of the material, I think it is my responsibility as a good philosophy teacher to take the position of Rawls and present it as a bona fide Rawlsian would. Ditto on affirmative action and gay marriage. The ability to read an argument generously and reproduce it in its best form is a talent that I should have acquired in my many long years of philosophical training, and it's at least one very significant thing that separates me from my students without-a-PhD-in-philosophy.
Now, I tend to teach most things in the first person. So, when I am teaching Rawls or Aristotle or whomever, I tend to speak as a Rawlsian or Aristotelian or whomever-ian. Of course, since it is logically impossible that I could hold all of these positions as my own, that means that I am often engaged in the art of misdirection. I am, in effect, saying: "Look here at this pretty argument that I am waving in front of you as if it's the end-all-be-all of philosophy! Isn't it just fantastic?! Don't you think you could think this, too?!" When, in fact, I am usually hiding up my sleeve or behind my back the argument that is actually the really pretty and fantastic argument, to be deployed at some later date. This seems to me the only fair way to teach what it is my charge to teach. I'm not an apostle or a proselyte. My job is to teach them how to think, not what to think. But I digress....
The point, I guess, is that I still struggle with the morality of this practice. I mean, why not just make it evident what it is that I think and what it is that I think sucks? Why do I feel compelled to hide as much as possible about "me personally" from my students? (And let me tell you, it ain't always easy. I sometimes want to barf a little bit in my mouth when taking on some of the positions that I take on with such enthusiastic, though feigned, conviction.) Of course, I tell myself it is because I don't want to impede their own philosophical discovery in any way, that I know they are under certain institutional pressures to get good grades and hence please the people who grade them, and that, again, I'm a professor and not a proselyte. But the art of misdirection is a complicated and often exhuasting one. Especially when students "fish."
Sometimes I just want to say things like: "I think the only legitimate explanation for any advocacy of capital punishment is that someone wants his pound of flesh." But I know, of course, that if I were to say that, the discussion would most certainly stop there. Other times, I want to call students out on their fishing. When I answer their questions about abortion or gay marriage or afirmative action or whetever, and I see the obvious look of disappointment on their faces when they haven't gotten the salacious "secret" for which they were fishing, I want to say: "Did you mean to ask if I was gay?" I expect that would be the moment that many of them cut bait.
Anyway, the point here is that it's a struggle to decide what is dishonest or inauthentic or self-indulgently misdirectional, and what is just a part of doing my job in the best way I know how.