Love in the sociological classroom

TASA Award for Outstanding Contributions to Teaching in Australian Sociology Awarded to Andrew Metcalfe, University of New South Wales:

Sociology and love

Sociology was an epiphany for me, as it probably was for everyone at this conference. I loved the scope and depth and sense of wonder that came with a sociological imagination. It changed how I understood social relations and the life that emerges through them. It gave me skills that improved my ability to analyse relations and I think that these have made me a better person. It gave me a discipline to which I could devote myself, which made life fulfilling. It is so much a part of my life that I cannot say where it is and I am. It has changed who I am, what I do, how I read, what I think, how I relate to others.  There is no part of me that doesn’t bear its influence.

Since getting my first academic job, I have developed and taught many different courses. But because sociology is all through my life, every course, no matter what its topic, draws on and changes everything I know. In every course I teach sociology, and not sociology of this or of that: every course is the whole, even though every course is different. The deep responsibility of the Sociology lecturer is not to represent and talk about Sociology. It is to allow Sociology’s unrepresentable and undefinable presence to be directly experienced in the classroom, generated between the students and the teacher and students. Present thus, sociology will be recognised and experienced by students as a calling or vocation or passion, a discipline of their self.

In this paper I want to say that love is my pedagogy. I mean this in two ways. First, love is how I teach. It is the relation that allows me to teach, that teaches me how to teach. Second, love is what I teach, because the meaning and significance of love is the deepest lesson that I have learned from sociology. Unless sociology is based on love, it seems to me ethically and intellectually and methodologically deficient. I don’t think that students can develop a sociological imagination unless it has come from love.

The upshot of this is that my classes try to make present the relation that they also try to analyse. A word like love quickly loses its meaning if used outside loving relations. It is only the presence of love that allows the word ‘love’ to find its depth and richness and scope.

So, although every course has its own curriculum and every class its own topic and assigned reading, in all my classes, I am trying, through my life and relations, to learn and teach how to read and criticise and think and talk and write and interview and question under the guidance of love. It seems to me that every class needs to work simultaneously as a lesson in sociological theory, ethics, methods and methodology.

Every class, then, is the whole discipline, but every class is also the whole life. Every class poses the question that is as vital for the two hours of its duration as for the 80 years of our lifespan: what does sociology have to tell us about how to live well?

Four propositions about love:

Because love is a word often used loosely, I need to clarify my usage, so that my pedagogic points are also clear. I will offer four propositions, which I will support with some favourite quotations:

1) Love is not a feeling or the experience of a subject, but is a form of social relation. Martin Buber calls this form of relation the I–Thou relation, and insists that this relation underpins and logically precedes the subjects and objects of I–It By I–Thou, Buber means the relation that an I has with a familiar You when they are present: when they really meet. This form of being – the form of I that is found in the I–Thou – is not the same I that is the subject opposed to an object in I–It relations. Subjects and objects seem to me to be frequently overrated and misunderstood.

Feelings are ‘entertained’: love comes to pass. Feelings dwell in man; but man dwells in his love. That is no metaphor, but the actual truth. Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its ‘content’, its object; but love is between I and Thou. The man who does not know this, with his very being know this, does not know love… . Love is responsibility of an I for a Thou. (Buber, 1958: 14–15)

2) Subjectivity and objectivity are based on mediation and representation. They always exist in the past, in terms of preconceptions that derive from binary opposition. The beings of the I–Thou relation exist, by contrast, in each other’s presence. They do not talk about or to each other but always with each other. They are real, in the uniqueness of the encounter, but for this very reason they are also unlocatable, unrepresentable, indefinable, incomparable. This leads to my second point: love is misunderstood if seen in terms of unity or oneness or identification. Love is, instead, acceptance of difference, a difference that is not derived from oppositional logic.

If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I–Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.

This human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbour, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light. (Buber, 1958: 8)

[E]mpathy [is not] something one person ‘has for’ another. Instead, empathy is what a person ‘is with’ another (Frank 1997:150).

3) Love is also misunderstood when seen as subjective bias. When we think of people wearing ‘rose-coloured glasses’, we are not talking of love, but of one of its self-centred look-alikes. Love is a vocation and responsibility, an ethical discipline that requires acceptance of reality, including acceptance of any possibility that can be known subjectively or objectively. Where love differs from subjectivity and objectivity, however, is that it refuses to turn any label into a final definition. Love is ethically beholden to the whole potential and being of the other. In this way, love changes the implications of whatever is known subjectively or objectively.

Good people and evil, wise and foolish, beautiful and ugly, become successively real to him [who takes his stand in love]; that is, set free they step forth in their singleness, and confront him as Thou. (Buber, 1958: 15)

[L]ove, justice and pity are forms of understanding, rather than merely conditions which facilitate understanding…. Real love is hardheaded and unsentimental. When one rids oneself of sentimentality, pathos and similar failings, one allows justice, love and pity to do their cognitive work, their work of disclosing reality. Sometimes the full reality of another human being is visible only to love. (Raimond Gaita, quoted in Metcalfe and Game, 2006: 51)

4) Love is trustworthy, because there is innocence in its presence. Love suspends the mirrorings and the means-to-ends strategies of the subject/object relations. Because of this, the teacher who manifests love allows and also requires innocence of students. It allows teachers and students to address each other openly, vulnerably, as whole people, about what really matters. Many things can only be known and taught when love has disarmed us.

Education worthy of the name is essentially education of character. … If I have to teach algebra I can expect to succeed in giving my pupils an idea of quadratic equations …. But if I am concerned with the education of character, everything becomes problematic. … I try to explain that it is wicked to bully the weak, and at once I see a suppressed smile on the lips of the strong. I try to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightful happens: the worst habitual liar of the class produces a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying. I have made the fatal mistake of giving instruction in ethics, and [nothing of] what I said is … transformed into character-building substance. … Only in his whole being, in all his spontaneity can the educator truly affect the whole being of his pupil. For educating characters you do not need a moral genius, but you do need a man who is wholly alive and able to communicate himself directly to his fellow beings. His aliveness streams out to them and affects them most strongly and purely when he has no thought of affecting them. (Buber, 1965: 104ff)

Teaching as a form of love

To give an example of what a classroom looks like when guided by love, here is an extract from a research interview that Ann Game and I did with a third year primary school teacher, Sharon Cheers (see Metcalfe and Game, 2006). Sharon is not discussing Sociology, but you’ll see that she could easily be:

In term one, you create a unit, you’re organised, but you don’t really know the kids, so you’re constantly shifting things. You’ve got to get it to the stage where they can work together as a whole and accept the difference in each other. There comes a time when I say I’ve got them now, when I feel that I know what they’re going to need. That’s when you can see amazing opportunities. Before that change, you can find you’re giving but you don’t get back. And, if you’ve got kids that are very worried about themselves and not thinking of others, they take, and that drains a teacher’s energy.

Once you’ve got them, you can relax. You can give and you get back and it becomes this sort of reciprocal relationship of knowing and understanding, and it’s meaningful. It’s an openness. If they’re giving, they’re also open to feedback, they’re open to change. They get to a point where they say Oh yeah, I’ve got it. There’s a sense of confidence. It’s when you’re explaining something and they smile or they look at you. It’s those funny moments that keep you going. That’s the giving. That’s when you see something happening in the classroom that’s really exciting. I suppose you just sort of ride this energy and that momentum carries you through. The special moments and the giving you receive have an immense impact, so ultimately they are changing my life and keeping the sense of wonder alive for me – indeed a precious gift.

Sharon highlights the pedagogic importance of the difference between what I have been calling I–It and I–Thou relations.  It isn’t just that I–Thou relations produce a polite, smooth-running and happy classroom. The quality of classroom relations – i.e. the classroom ethics – changes the being of the learner, and the world in which they participate. It changes what can be learned and known. Ethics are associated with truth.

In the identity-based form of relations, everyone is able to track who is doing what to whom. The teacher is drained by her attempt to provide all the energy; relations are self-conscious and defensive; people are guarding their boundaries. They think of others as existing outside them, but they actually don’t see these others as they are: they see them as mirrors in which to see themselves. There is always sameness or identification, but it is always obscured by abstraction, disengagement and disrespect. This is why knowledge based on such states is always a talking about. There are always boundaries that deny connection and implication and difference. And connection and implication and difference are, of course, the bases of learning.

Sharon’s classroom relies on a different relation, one that involves acceptance, connection, implication, difference, openness and presence: i.e. what I have been calling love or the I–Thou relation. When we really ‘show up’ in class, it doesn’t mean that we are juxtaposed: it means, first, that we are available to find our previously unrecognised potential in the other, and it means, second, that we are also finding that we had always been connected, even if we hadn’t known it. As we learn more of the other, whoever it is we are talking with, and with whichever ideas and material we are talking, we find we are learning more of our lives too. Everything is relevant and interesting. There is less timidity and grandstanding; there is more honesty and respect and care. I think this is what Sharon means by ‘amazing opportunities’ and ‘wonder’.

Learning needs this open classroom because if you are not open with others, you are not open with your own differences, and you are therefore unable to recognise in your life the difference you are learning about in your lessons. Your sense of having finite and defensible boundaries will block you. This is to say that your past identifications and preconceptions will block you. What you are meant to be learning will no longer resonate but will always seem abstract, outside you, about something else.

Love, Passion and Suffering

So, to repeat, my main point in this talk is that an effective pedagogy relies on love. This point is usually misunderstood, however, because love is usually misunderstood. When love is thought of as a feeling, it can seem that a pedagogy based on love is nice: touchy feely, sweet, affirmative, its intelligence compromised by emotion.

This led to my second main point: love is not that nice and affirmative but is ethically, intellectually and emotionally demanding. In calling you to be open, and responsive, and unattached to your identity, it is requiring you to take your bearings not from the comforting consolations of identity but not the uncontrollable openness of relation.

These two points can be explored by attending to the etymology of two key words associated with a pedagogy based on love. In students’ course evaluations, such teaching is usually talked about as passion. If you asked students what they meant when using this word, they might say that passion was the boundless energy that teachers gave to students in their desire to teach them. But I think that students using this word have also recognised something deeper and darker in their teacher. Etymologically, passion does not refer to the wilfulness or desire of a self. It refers to a form of passivity. It is not what a subject chooses to do; it is what they cannot help but do. Passion is a form of suffering, and suffering is our second key word.

The word suffering takes us back to Sharon Cheers. A fundamental etymological basis of suffering is acceptance. To suffer is to accept. So Sharon is talking of the central pedagogic importance of passion and suffering when she insists ‘You’ve got to get [the classroom] to the stage where they can work together as a whole and accept the difference in each other.’ Passion and suffering occur when we hear and accept the world as it really is, and when respond to its call. What we hear is not what we want to hear.  What we suffer is difference. And difference reveals the truth.

Good teaching, then, always involves suffering. We suffer because we always teach in the dark, despite our expertise and preparation. Because we may not know these students. Because we never know how any class will go or what that class will need. Because we fear we won’t be enough, or know enough. Because we never know what counts as success, in a class, or a course, or a student’s life. Because we must trust our fate to others. Because we know we can never live up to our expectations or ideals. Because we are open and vulnerable in the classroom dialogue, speaking not from acquired knowledge but from the edge of knowing. Because, to honour our love, we must hold our nerve. Because we must be patient. Because we must stay true. Because students see everything we do, every hypocrisy we live. Because we are reliant on their compassion.

If I am right, what students recognise in the passionate teacher is not just a restless desirous exhibitionist energy. What they see is humility, patience, stillness, respect and courage. They see a teacher who has set aside preconceptions and ideals, and who suffers reality. Someone who is open to really be with – to share life with — students in the classroom. Someone who accepts them and addresses them as they are. Someone who does them the honour of not pandering to their vanity or talking down to them. Someone who, through their openness, allows themselves to be changed by the students, so that the class came alive between them, in unexpected ways. Someone whose love for teaching, and the course, and the discipline, and the students, ensures that they stay open and true to the teacher-and-student relation.

This is what I think the students see. When filling in course evaluations, students typically assume these qualities come from the teacher, as an admirable individual, and that is why they praise the teacher’s individual passion. But as Sharon Cheers indicates, teachers don’t see it this way. They know that it is not their virtue coming out. They know that it is the goodness of classroom relation that is changing everyone. It is the loving relation that does the work.

You will also note from what Sharon says that this teacherly suffering is not a martyrdom. We need not feel sorry for ourselves or other teachers, any more than we should feel sorry for the students who are doing sociology courses in order to be challenged and changed. The teacher who works from love wouldn’t have it any other way. This is the relation that makes their life worthwhile, that keeps alive their sense of wonder and gift. It is a blessing, even if it is also a wound.


I want to thank my students, and all my teaching colleagues, especially Ann Game, Ash Barnwell and Melanie White. I would also like to thank TASA, for giving sociologists a forum where we can speak from the heart.


Buber, M., 1958, I and Thou, Scribner’s, New York

Buber, M., 1965, Between Man and Man, Macmillan, New York

Frank, A., 1995, The Wounded Storyteller, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Metcalfe, A.W. and A. Game, 2006, Teachers Who Change Lives, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne

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