Sometimes you just have to teach off script.
Here’s why. I’ve been teaching American literature for over 25 years, and it enables me to raise all kinds of issue of central importance today, including our persistent failure to move beyond the racist attitudes present at the founding of the United States. But sometimes we need to teach some lessons off script. 2020 is definitely one of those times.
In the past decade, I’ve spent more time teaching the importance of focus and taking the sabbath in an age of distraction. But this year I’m developing a new lesson called “how to know if you are living in an echo chamber.” Before I ask the following questions, we dialogue about how echo chambers are created and the dangers they contain. Then I ask:
- When was the last time you changed your mind about a big topic, like gun control, labor unions, or the death penalty? If the answer is more than a year…you might be living in an echo chamber.
- When was the last time you sought out someone who disagrees with you about a big topic, and asked them to help you to understand their position? If the answer is more than a few months ago…you might be living in an echo chamber.
- Do you have one primary source for news? Especially one with a noted political slant? You might be living in an echo chamber.
- When you enter into a conversation with someone with whom you disagree, do you talk more than you listen? You might be living in an echo chamber.
- Do you think that it is possible for anyone to create a “no spin zone” around any big topic? You might be living in an echo chamber.
So, if you think you might be in an echo chamber, what can you do about it? Let me tell you what I have done to challenge myself. I recently read a book way out of my comfort zone called Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past Present and Future of Labor Unions. This is not related to my discipline or my teaching, but it is important to me as a voter and a citizen to understand. Reading this book made me realize that I was still carrying around my 1980s anti-union prejudices. Furthermore, I discovered exactly why I had those prejudices, and how they’ve been exploited in me as a voter. I am now much more open to understanding the worker’s plight. Those challenges will not come to me from inside an echo chamber.
Students, what can you read that will open you to the possibility that you might be wrong about something that is really important?