Unconditional Teaching

a living manifesto for healthier relationships in education

Tyll on Unconditional Teaching

Tyll Zybura | 24 Jul 2019 |

In this entry, I draw a parallel between the mindset of Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) and our concept of Unconditional Teaching.

I started to think about uncoditionality in teaching during Winter 2018, in connection to the idea of a Universal Basic Income, which had some publicity in the media at the time. The German term for UBI is Bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen – which translates to Unconditional Basic Income.

From Unconditional Basic Income for citizens …

The idea of UBI is to think of a state’s citizens not as debtors, as having an obligation to the state (to pay taxes, to vote, to be good consumers, etc.) in return for the state’s benevolent provision of health care, education, and infastructure.

The idea is to think about citizens as human beings who all have creative energy to contribute, from which the state profits.

The idea is to afford all citizens a minimum living standard – without condition – so that they can develop this creative energy freely, without worrying about unemployment or poverty.

The idea is about giving to the people, not money, but trust: the trust that they will do something cool, something necessary, something which contributes to the economic, intellectual, and emotional well-being of the community (i.e. state) – once they are unshackled from economic stress. 1

… to Unconditional Teaching for students

I think that there are parallels between how the capitalist state thinks about its citizens and how university thinks about students as debtors, how the education system of fixed curricula and graded examinations creates obligations, and how the stress of worrying about failure erodes creativity and freedom of mind in students (and researchers).

University doesn’t see itself as a provider of goods in the service of society. It sees itself as a gatekeeper of privilege, namely the privilege of higher education and the access to prestigious sources of income that is assumed to come with it.

Accordingly, students are seen not as valued scholars who are trusted to bring their education to fruition in self-directed ways. Students are seen as supplicants and competitors for the favour of an institution which righteously guards its own power to grant or deny degrees as a marketable currency.

But even though ‘university’ treats students in this way, I as a member and representative of the institution don’t have to.

Even if I cannot change the entire system of higher education, I can think about my own teaching practice and ask myself what it would mean to see the education that I provide as unconditional, as an Unconditional Basic Education. Like a Universal Basic Income requires the state to change its view on its citizens, unconditional education requires me as a university teachers to change my personal mindset, my inner stance, my Haltung toward the human beings in my classes and office hours.

The state that adopts an Unconditional Basic Income affords itself a mindset of trust in the individual responsibility, autonomy, and accountability of its citizens. It assumes that they know how to use their income in the way that is best for themselves, and that this will bring benefit to their immediate community and to society as a whole in consequence.

Adopting a stance of unconditional teaching, I afford myself trust in the individual responsibility, autonomy, and accountability of my students. I assume that they know how to use the education they can gain in interaction with me in the way that is best for themselves, and that this will bring benefit to me personally, to my classroom, and to society as a whole in consequence.

To me, unconditional teaching is about the free communication of ideas, knowledge, and experience without undue expectations and obligations that are imposed on students. The important bit is that, what students do with what they get from me, is entirely their choice. I celebrate the joy of thought in company and the sharing becomes its own reward – regardless of it being appreciated or reciprocated in specific ways.

This does not mean that the process of communication, the method, the actual didactics, or the classroom setting become unimportant: if the communication doesn’t work, it needs to be changed – I need to change it. But students do not have the obligation to adapt their reception or submit to any kind of sharing. I’m convinced that if teaching is genuinely unconditional, learners will find a way to accept it that is mutually beneficial.

An example

One of the most unconditional aspects of my teaching practice is my supervision of term papers. I have written about my system at length on my personal website, starting with an entry about revision-oriented supervision of student writing.

In short, what I do is that I give a brief scholarly peer review to every paper, together with a preliminary grade and the option to either revise the paper on the grounds of my feedback or have it graded as is.

The unconditional part is not only that revision is optional, it’s the mindset with which I treat students as colleagues who deserve my authentic and appreciative scholarly response and my critically constructive thoughts on their work. I trust that the work they have submitted is the best they are currently able to submit.

I refuse to see students as recipients of corrective feedback, as trainee academics who don’t yet know the tricks of my trade and need to be nudged more or less forcefully to better and better performances. I take students seriously as people with their own ideas and something to say, and more importantly as people with their own legitimate priorities for which I don’t judge them.

This means that I actively prohibit myself from feeling disappointment, annoyance, or anger with student work that does not meet my criteria of good scholarship (which it is my responsibility to represent and defend).

I detach myself from any emotion that is not born out of respect for the human being, and I simply assume that there are good reasons for the quality of their academic work, be it high or low. Reasons which are never self-evident and simple, and – again – not for me to judge.

This mindset allows me to write my responses in an appreciative and constructive way which is not deficiency-oriented, and gift my professional time and thought to another human being without expecting appreciation, thanks, or reciprocration.

Not requiring students to invest time in a revision of their work when they are satisfied with the preliminary grade obviously has as a consequence that I spend a lot of time on my response, which is then not used to improve the paper. In a ‘capitalist’ understanding of education, writing the response is a waste of time and not forcing students to revise is a freebie.

But my experience is that my unconditional gift of a professional response is highly appreciated by students even when I am very critical and give low grades: it is the very unconditionality, the lack of obligation on their part, that sets students free to accept my responses as constructive critique of their actual work, and not as a criticism of how their effort misses my imagined textbook example.

Conclusion

To me, Unconditional Teaching is a mindset that allows me to detach myself from the toxic super-ego of normative, directive education which sees students as supplicants at the gates of university whose academic performance it is for me to tune and perfect so that they can become valuable citizens.

The mindset of Unconditional Teaching allows me to treat students as valuable individuals first and invest them with trust.

I trust students to accept the ‘teachings’ that I give them – my knowledge and learning, my passion for ideas and critical thought – with the grace and curiosity that are innate in all people as human beings.

I trust that what students do with whatever they take from my seminars will be valuable – if not in an economical sense, then in an intellectual or emotional sense. I don’t expect or obligate them to do anything specific with it.

Unconditional Teaching, then, allows me to express myself and listen to students express themselves, without holding either of us accountable to a market-ideology of usefulness, effectivity, or debt.

Unconditional Teaching sets me free to give and to take education which need not and cannot be earned.

Unconditional Teaching affords me the trust that my seminars will contribute – in some way or other – to the economic, intellectual, and emotional well-being of the community.


  1. Note on the state’s mindset behind UBI: It’s important to point out that, in this logic, the state does not invest in its citizens to profit from them. This is not about the neoliberal development of human potential for the creation of better worker drones. No, the state gives its citizens their due for being human beings with economic, intellectual, and emotional needs. Safety is the fundamental need that the state recognizes as its responsibility to meet in order for citizens to florish as human beings. That this will be good for the economy is an assumption, a matter of trust that a lot of people’s creative energy will be put into the development of marketable products to improve their living standard beyond the unconditional basic level – but this is unprovable in advance and not a determining factor in the decision to afford citizens this unconditional basic income. 


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