Mark Antaki: Being self-aware

"Many just try to meet their professors’ ‘expectations,’ rather than learning to judge their own work …"

Mark Antaki teaches and researches Jurisprudence and Social Policy. He is particularly interested in public law, international law, political and legal theory, and the history of ideas. Mark was a student in McGill’s Faculty of Law and eventually became an Associate Professor in the Faculty.

Mark has been an active member of the Advancing Research and Teaching Together Faculty Learning Community in the Faculty of Law and is a Resident Faculty Fellow of McGill’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI).

How does your student experience inform your teaching?

There is one story I tell my students all the time. When I was doing my Ph.D., I handed in my first draft chapter to my supervisor. It was about 50 pages long and I knew that it wasn’t that good, but I had to get the relationship off the ground. He gave it back to me; the first 30 pages were drenched in red ink or pencil and the rest was unmarked. He said "I’ve read the whole thing, Mark, but I stopped correcting it at page 30 because it was just too bad." And he looked me in the eye and said "I don’t mean to psychologize but maybe you don’t love yourself enough.";

Believe it or not, this was one of the best pedagogical moments of my life. While his comments may seem harsh, they served to affirm my own scholarly conscience and encouraged me to ask myself if I had really been "there" when drafting my chapter. Recalling that experience reminds me that many students do not have an internal sense of whether they are producing good work or not. Many just try to meet their professors’ "expectations" rather than learning to judge their own work and to do so for their own sake.

Consequently, I invite my students to get to know themselves – and their reading, writing and speaking habits – better. To help, I have almost all my classes read George Orwell’s "Politics and the English Language." We discuss the importance of being attentive, being present, and not blinding oneself to the world either intellectually or ethically.

As Orwell makes clear, this requires us to be highly aware of how we speak and write. So, I encourage students to observe their own “go-to words” – words they use in a knee-jerk or shorthand way, like "society" or even "subjective." By recalling my experience with my supervisor, I remind both myself and my students that our aim inside and outside the classroom is to learn to be present – to "be there" – in our own work rather than attempt to be smart, original or to please others. This requires that we be honest with ourselves and with one another.