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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Liberalpalooza 2006 - A Roundtable Discussion of Bérubé’s Book

Posted by John Holbo on 11/01/06 at 02:39 AM

We’re having a book event for Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? [amazon]. I’ve lined up a great many contributors. So many, in fact, that I’ve decided extension is the better part of valor. Rather than trying to pack it into a few days, and suffer likely comment fatigue, we’ll let it all hang out all November. Contributions should trickle in, on the general topic, and we hope contributors will be able to use the extra time to respond to each other more reflectively. I think it will probably make most sense if Michael’s book is regarded as an occasion for discussion as much as an object of review. (Because there have been several reviews already and at some point we are sure to start repeating ourselves. Don’t want that.) Mostly folks will be contributing by posting at their own blogs, rather than guesting here. If you want to participate, by all means email to tell me you’ve written something. (I don’t have any more free books to give away, I’m afraid. But I’m happy to link to anything that seems appropriate.)

Ophelia Benson has led off with a little something. And Eric Rauchway, who will be contributing more later, wrote this thing for TAP a while back.

I’ll take this opportunity to make a small point that doesn’t connect to much of consequence - probably not, anyway. 

A few reviewers have clearly found Bérubé somewhat high-handed. Tyler Cowen sees the problem as mistaken belief “that he is holding genuine dialogue with alternative political views.” I suspect the tone of Bérubé’s narration of his exchanges with his conservative student, ‘John’ (and his staunch realist student - ‘Stan’, was it? - and a couple other representive specimens) is the root of the problem. There’s an element of, well, kayfabe - to use the professional wrestling term. ("The socially-enforced demand not to reveal the predetermined nature of wrestling matches and the cooperative aspects of the performances.") Debates in classrooms are, to a significant degree, scripted by the instructor - who is a participant but also controls where the discussion goes. Not just explicitly but in unspoken ways - a little rev here, a little choke there, always keeping the audience in mind. Instructors should encourage intellectual exploration, but they should also know in advance, more or less, where you will have ended up when the bell rings. Any instructor who didn’t do this would be a bad teacher. You have material to get through and, presumably, have been put in charge for a reason. (If this isn’t the case, then the problem is you, not the kayfabe.) This ‘first among equals’ role is delicate, no question. But it’s not like there’s less kayfabe on the op-ed page or talk radio. (Life is kayfabe. Only in life, unlike wrestling, people are trying to hurt each other while pretending not to.) Anyway, Bérubé sounds arrogant, if he does, because he sounds like he’s reporting kayfabe victories as real (the young conservative tried to sneak up behind him but then - bodyslam! Oh, that’s got to hurt!) But it’s no more insincere for a teacher to run discussion than it is for a karate instructor to tell you to throw a punch, fully intending to dodge your punch. Bérubé is actually trying to report what the insides of classrooms are like these days. Still, the result is that we end up suspended somewhat indeterminately between narrated pedagogical kayfabe and straight intellectual argument. I thought I’d just take note of why it reads a little weird that way. That’s all from me for now. The rest of you ... Let’s get ready to RUUUUMMMBLE!!

UPDATE: Post in haste, update at leisure. Someone is sure to misunderstand me as a claiming 1) that all instructors herd their charges to preordained conclusions; 2) that Bérubé body-slams conservative students. When really (of course) I’m saying just that instructors manage the range and flow of opinions that actually get expressed in class discussion. (Yes, of course, you can let the discussion go in surprising ways - if you deem them interesting and worthwhile.) It’s possible to mistake a description of classroom management for an unwillingness to engage in debate. Because genuine debate means being prepared to lose. But teachers, as a rule, aren’t actually prepared to let students seize control over the class, in effect. Regarding the body-slam, it’s sort of complicated. By scrupulously not body-slamming his conservative student, since he’s a liberal, Bérubé body-slams conservatives, who expected him, as a liberal, to unscrupulously body-slam his conservative student. (Something like that.) And, come to think of it, quite a bit of this is possibly not so inconsequential as I suggest above. But I leave that to you.


John writes, “Instructors should encourage intellectual exploration, but they should also know in advance, more or less, where you will have ended up when the bell rings. Any instructor who didn’t do this would be a bad teacher. You have material to get through and, presumably, have been put in charge for a reason.”

I think that’s completely wrong.  If you think the job of a teacher is to “cover material,” well, there are plenty of videos and interactive computer programs that can cover material far better than most teachers, so we might as well replace the expensive teacher with the cheap materials. 

The goal of the teacher is to create the conditions for meaningful learning to occur.  For example, let’s say you want to “cover” the Harlem Renaissance.  But in the middle of presenting the material—say, Sterling Brown’s “Odyssey of Big Boy”—the class goes off on a discussion of heroic portraiture.  Only a bad teacher would pull the students back in and say, “Well, class, we really must move on to Claude McKay so we can fully cover the Harlem Renaissance.” A good teacher will take advantage of the sudden self-motivation of the class and help them pursue this interest. 

I know some people will object, “A teacher can’t let a class on the Harlem Renaissance turn into a class on The Simpsons.” And sure, I agree.  But a one-week lesson on George Schuyler can certainly turn into a three-week lesson on satire. 

Too many teachers—especially college professors—are afraid of deviating from their syllabus or lecture notes.  But students learn more when the professor (or middle school teacher) presents intellectual problems related to the class and lets the students solve these problems themselves.  If that means some students don’t read every Harlem Renaissance poet on your syllabus but instead read deeply in two or three, then fine.  An hour video about Harlem Renaissance poetry can give them the basic knowledge they need for “coverage.”

A good college class might spend the first three weeks with mini lectures, videos, background reading, factual presentations.  Then the class should collectively set up a research agenda and a set of problems requiring investigation (ex., “Where and when did the Harlem Renaissance begin?  When did it end?  What is its relationship to international modernism?  What is the relationship between folk forms and high art in the Renaissance?  How did black institutions shape the art of the period?").  At this point, the teacher is more a reference librarian than a teacher conventionally perceived.  The students should then persue the research agenda, present their findings, debate and evaluate each other’s work, refine the questions, reach some consensus, and so on.  The more actual freedom the teacher gives the students, the less manufactured freedom of the wrestling variety we see.  Students know when the teacher is only pretending to have an open classroom: just observe to whose face students direct their comments in debates and class discussion.  If every comment bounces first off of the teacher, the teacher is still the locus of authority. 

Finally, I don’t necessarily think it’s the teacher’s job to debate students.  A teacher might need to play devil’s advocate sometimes, but a far more effective strategy would go something like this:

Jimmy: “Japanese Americans should have been imprisoned during WWII.”
Teacher: “OK.  Mary, what do you think of Jimmy’s comment?”
Mary: “Um, well, is there any evidence that Japanese Americans didn’t support America?”
Teacher: “I don’t know.  Jimmy, do you have any evidence like that?”
Jimmy: “Uh no.  But how can you trust them?”
Teacher: “What do you think, class?”

Ideally, the teacher would eventually back out of the debate fully and let the students take care of business.  If Jimmy and the teacher debate, the only student learning is Jimmy.  If Jimmy debates with Mary and Larry and Ismail and Li, then five students are actively learning.  (Sure, you can learn by passively watching a debate, but you aren’t meaningfully learning until you are forced to defend your own ideas in a debate.)

By on 11/01/06 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Luther, I guess I should probably have said - instead of ‘know where the class will be when the bell rings’ - ‘have a plan for where the class will be’. That is, class isn’t just something that happens. You prepare for it. Now I’m willing to admit that there are some brilliantly tolerant anarchist teachers out there - my hat is off to them. But the thing is: anarchy is a plan, too, in its way. You are planning to let everyone figure something out. You are foregoing any set content for the sake of a planned exercise of sorts. (Letting the students do it for themselves - the way you want them to do it for themselves - is different than letting a student seize control of your class by sheer force of his or her intellectual superiority.) I realize this reduces my point to near emptiness, but really I was just trying to emphasize how Berube is telling his readers how he manages his courses, at the same time that he is making arguments about the content that he teaches. So he sort of mixes up - for example - how to manage a class discussion of Lyotard/Habermas with who is right in the Lyotard/Habermas debate. Now since Lyotard/Habermas is about ideal speech conditions and incommensurability of attitudes and so forth the fact that he is mixing these things up is no accident. He’s illustrating - exhibiting a case of - the very problem he is discussing. So the mix is a feature, not a bug. But it may be a buggy feature, for certain purposes. I was just pointing out that the fact that he is clearly not a completely hands-off instructor may produce the impression that he isn’t commpletely open-minded about Lyotard/Habermas. And, well, who is? But the point is: it’s not arrogance or an unwillingness to debate. It’s a fairly standard (although, as you say, optional) pedagogic arrangement. Which Berube doesn’t complacently assume is perfect.

Also, I think the debate thing is a bit of a red herring. Of course you aren’t meaningfully learning until you are forced to defend your own ideas in a debate. (At least in a humanities type course.) No one will deny that. But the truth is: instructors are typically so much more forceful than students, potentially - I could very easily push my students any number of different ways - that the actual discussion you have, if the teacher so much as participates, are significantly controlled by the teacher. Mostly the scripting of the debate consists in a judicious holding back, so people have room to explore. Rather than just bonking them on the head with the fact that you are probably three moves ahead of them because you know this stuff better. Of course if the teacher really does just sit back and watch, that’s a different case. (Again, not a case discussed in Berube’s book, so I didn’t really have it in mind for the post.)

You’re clearly more of a classroom anarchist than I am. Fair enough.

By John Holbo on 11/01/06 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m currently pondering a kind of vicarious Gary Stu-ification of “John”—the troll as Romantic archetype.  There’s a bit where Bérubé muses about what John would think if he knew that his professor and the rest of his class were all discussing, through Email, what to do about him.  The presumption is something like “John would be shocked and displeased”.  But perhaps it would be something like “John would be conflictedly pleased at the attention, even though it was bad attention”.  After all, the various less-demanding students in the class didn’t get their own chapters of a book devoted to them.

By on 11/01/06 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Servetus, that’s who I’m thinking of.  The argumentative strategy of continuing to argue with Calvin until a reaction is provoked.  Clearly Servetus didn’t really want to be executed, but if he hadn’t been, no one would have heard of him now. 

In academia, you can’t execute students, you can only give them bad grades.  But of course no argumentative student ever gets a bad grade; that’s immediately apparent to anyone of intelligence.  Teachers are generally bored out of their minds and would rather have an arguer than another lump.  So there’s a performative aspect of martyriffic social sanction without the actual martyrdom.

Note that all of the examples that Horowitz chose of students being sanctioned were of legitimately bad students.  The students like “John”, I would guess, never become conservatives who think that they were oppressed by their teachers.

By on 11/01/06 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

At my undergraduate university, the honors college has a program in which, during the freshman year, students are led in discussion by a senior student from the honors college;this is unusual in the States, I must confess that I’m ignorant as to practices in Britian, etc. from which one might reasonably expect a good number of our posters to hail.  Having been priviledged to experience this from both side, I have to say that “kayfabe” seems pretty unnecessary to ensure that the class leader can steer discussion.  At least hereabouts, the secondary schools system seems to instill students with such a reflexive response to authority that I spent half the semester getting some really bright students, no doubt used to being smarter than many of their instructors in the past, to understand that I expected them to disagree with me out loud.  I wasn’t a professor, and they knew this, and yet they were incredibly (to me) hesitant to disagree constructively, despite the fact that I was pretty upfront about the entire point of the exercise being to encourage well-framed debate with someone (me) who wasn’t all that far ahead of them in experience. I suppose I’m something of a classroom anarchist in the making, but it’s harder to stimulate anarchy than one might think; I really don’t think it was my unfettered brilliance that caused this response, either, as much as I’d love to feel myself to be that capable.

I’m not even really sure that it has anything to do with me, as a near-graduate at the time, being that much more forceful… I certainly feel I learned a lot in my undergraduate years about how to think, some of which people really should be learning in secondary schools, but I think the basic education many kids in the States, and for all I know in other Western countries as well, inculcates students with the idea that if you disagree with (or even can’t bring yourself to understand the reasoning presented by) Teacher, you’d better do it on your own time because it won’t be welcome in class.  After more than a decade of this, not many students are really comfortable with the sort of “fade-away” approach I was trying to use, and Luther encourages above.  I can only hope that I managed to do right by those kids in reversing that trend a bit, and hopefully using the stage they were at to give them some worthwhile thoughts at the time.

By on 11/01/06 at 10:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bérubé muses about what John would think if he knew that his professor and the rest of his class were all discussing, through Email, what to do about him.  The presumption is something like “John would be shocked and displeased”.  But perhaps it would be something like “John would be conflictedly pleased at the attention, even though it was bad attention”.

Don’t think that I don’t know what’s going on, guys.

By John Emerson on 11/01/06 at 11:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m beginning to regret my ‘kayfabe’ analogy, which I plucked from the ether on a lark because it struck me as incongruously amusing - i.e. it came from the same place so many blog posts come from.

Maybe it’s partially a question about how scripted you think professional wrestling is. I assume that the performers have a great deal of improvisational leeway in how they handle it. (I haven’t really given the matter much serious study, I must admit.) I assume they know who’s supposed to win, and maybe they’ve sketched out a couple high points along the way. It may sound as though I was suggesting in the post that debates in class aren’t ‘real’ debates, because they are ‘scripted’. In fact the scripts are typically so open-ended that the debates ARE real. The ‘script’ for the tutorial I just taught ran more or less as follows: try to get them to see how the wax analogy at the end of Descartes’ 2nd meditation is supposed to work, even though it’s pretty clearly an unsound thought-experiment. That’s it. And I’m not averse to modifying a script like that, if things go well in various alternative ways. It’s this element of anticipated story-arc that would be arrogant, if you actually described interactions with, say, colleagues in such terms. (He’ll make superficial points 1 and 2, then I step in and - kindly but firmly - spin him round.)

And ‘knowing who is going to win’ just corresponds to the fact that students who make vigorous challenges to the teacher - as they should - aren’t actually trying to wrest intellectual control of the environment. So both the students and teachers know there is something ‘mock’ about the challenge. I’m starting to repeat myself now.

By John Holbo on 11/01/06 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t think that I don’t know what’s going on, guys.

All right, who tipped Emerson off?

And whose idea was it to start the discussion with “precisely how high-handed is Bérubé, do you think?” Because that sounds kinda like a leading question, regardless of whether we know where we’ll wind up at the end of class. (Though I know what my answer will be!)

Which brings me to the other John:

Debates in classrooms are, to a significant degree, scripted by the instructor - who is a participant but also controls where the discussion goes. Not just explicitly but in unspoken ways - a little rev here, a little choke there, always keeping the audience in mind. Instructors should encourage intellectual exploration, but they should also know in advance, more or less, where you will have ended up when the bell rings.

Like Luther, I disagree—but I didn’t show up here just to disagree.  (Not at all!  The first couple of things I’ve read—here, at Ophelia’s, at Dan Drezner’s—have been great.) I showed up, instead, to assure everyone that the exchanges I narrate in the book were unscripted.  The student who piped up in chapter 5 to ask whether Cather was queering the prairie?  That student redirected class discussion completely, and I was surprised (and glad) he did.  Likewise, the long Lyotard-Habermas discussion in chapter six took the shape it did only because those specific students in that specific semester (fall 2001) took it in that direction (even if I editorialize on that direction throughout the chapter).

And as for Stan the Staunch Realist:  just fyi, I showed chapter six to Stan before it went to press, and he not only assured me my memory of the course was accurate; he also gave me a couple of suggestions about how to reword this or that.  Readers, I took them.

By Michael Bérubé on 11/02/06 at 02:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Michael. And now I feel worse about the kayfabe joke. I realize now that ‘scripted’ is dangerously vague. I actually DON’T think that you come off as arrogant, because it seems to me normal to teach while sort of thinking on two levels: what’s the right thing to say about this subject? How do I keep this discussion going well? In a non-classroom situation the self-conscious presumption of responsiblity for the latter can look like arrogance and an unwillingness to openly debate. But in a classroom it’s not that. I think a few reviewers have been rubbed the wrong way wrongly, then.

By John Holbo on 11/02/06 at 03:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And, just for good measure, I just reread the post once again and noticed yet another thing I said wrong: I say ‘there’s an element of kayfabe’, which may make it sound like I’m saying the element is in the book. That is, it sounds like I’m saying that in the book he is denying that something is ‘scripted’, which, plainly, in the class it was. Actually what I meant to say is that classroom discussions always have a certain performative quality, which then - very properly - ends up in Berube’s descriptions of the classroom. (Oh well, I’m digging deeper here. Don’t mind me.)

By John Holbo on 11/02/06 at 04:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I’ve wondered this before (& I’m almost sure I’ve read a remark of yours indicating same) but is the discipline of Philosophy perhaps taught and conducted in a more agonistic way than is literary studies, in general? 

My exposure to formal Philosophy classes is limited to a few undergrad courses in Logic and Ethics but the emphasis on speech act-y debating of propositions seemed to me much greater than most English classes.

By on 11/02/06 at 05:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m quite sure that philosophy courses are more agonistic than a lot of other humanities courses, Laura. I know it to be so. It’s a cultural thing and it leads to amusing problems sometimes. (I have a good John Searle joke about this one, but I have to do it in person. I have to do a whole impression of the man, you see. Well, perhaps someday we’ll meet and I can make it clear to you.)

But you have put your finger on another flaw in my post, in effect. My humoristic emphasis on agon ends up overbalancing and knocking itself unconscious against the post, as it were. The reason to focus on conflict and disagreement is that this sort of case is the problem case. When a group of people are happily chatting together, in a productive way, and there isn’t any conflict, there’s no problem. But I end up sounding as though I think everyone has their secret Mexican wrestling mask on all the time. Which I only about 10% believe, to tell the truth.

By John Holbo on 11/02/06 at 05:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No one is interested in the troll as Romantic archetype?  I was hoping for some help with this concept from someone who actually knew something about Romanticism.  Seriously, isn’t Romanticism in some way about the glorification of the misunderstood, heroic individual?  Couldn’t “John” be seen as acting out a version of this, with the entire class as his society?

Whatever the problems with Romanticism, it’s not conservative (I don’t think).  Isn’t there some way to use this to distinguish why students like “John” aren’t really the same ones who fail their classes and then whine about it?

By on 11/02/06 at 10:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther B’s way of not debating students but instead encouraging debate within the class seems pretty kayfabe to me. I realized afterwards that many of my undergrad seminar courses were dog-and-pony kayfabe events, and I liked it better when the instructor intervened and explained that we were missing the point.

By John Emerson on 11/02/06 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m still suffering chagrin for my ill-written post so I’ll try to talk it out of my system with a passage from the book I actually had in mind, while writing the post:

“Good teaching involves all kinds of ventriloquism. Sometimes I speak in my own voice; sometimes I refer students to a general consensus (Faulkner’s career goes downhill after Go Down Moses) or a generally accepted set of historical facts (there was almost no market for African-American fiction before the era of the Harlem Renaissance); and sometimes I present interpretations I disagree with or actively dislike in order to present lesser-known sides of a ten-sided question or simply to stir things up.” (p. 15)

Then he quotes, with approval, Siva Vaidhyanathan, a passage that concludes, “I tried to turn feelings into thoughts and encouraged them to abandon some opinions and strengthen others. Somebody had to do it.”

This, to me, sounds perfectly appropriate. And it’s really all I had in mind, with my ill-chosen ‘kayfabe’. A kind of regulative roleplay.

But now I notice that Michael specifically denies my general thesis on p. 7: “Gradually, then, another flaw in my approach revealed itself to me: I was increasingly thinking of John as a problem to be managed somehow.”

In a sense the difference is this: I ended up implying (though I really didn’t mean it to come out this way) that Michael ventriloquized his students - drew words out of their mouths. When all he actually says is that he himself role-plays, strategically. But it’s actually sort of a fine line. Which is interesting. Anyway, I tripped over it.

Rich is absolutely right that John can always count on getting a good grade. John Emerson is playing a subtler game. I’m leery of responding to him, lest it turn out he is being ironic.

By John Holbo on 11/02/06 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Seriously, isn’t Romanticism in some way about the glorification of the misunderstood, heroic individual?  Couldn’t “John” be seen as acting out a version of this, with the entire class as his society?

Why was the name “John” chosen anyway? You guys are fucking with me.

It seems to me that pretty much every teacher has trigger points at which they would step in and argue a point of view. Where that is differs. I’d guess that almost every teacher would object to neo-Nazis, and that almost all would abject to Maoists. Perhaps there’s a left bias in the “almost”. (Though of course, many rightist hacks claim that slavery, segregation, and fascism are all left wing, which destroys that point.)

A danger of liberalism is that the imperatives of neutrality can lead to the avoidance of all controversial topics. I would actually favor the same solution for universities that I have suggested for newspapers: free competition of points of view, rather than neutrality. Conservative parents could send their kids to conservative universities. I think that this would deflate the whole conservative movement, because few students would want to go to conservative Christian tech schools which were dogmatic and mediocre on the whole humanities / liberal arts spectrum, and few good teachers would want to teach there, and frankly few parents (even conservatives) ambitious for their kids would want to send their kids there.

The magnitude of the problem can be seen in Tom Delay’s assertion that Texas A&M and Baylor are pits of liberal iniquity, and that no parent should send their kid there. This isn’t an issue that can be settle with sweet reason.

I should also note that many sly, Machiavellian students agree with the teacher in class, more or less, even if they absolutely hate everything he says. (Greg Palast did that to Milton Friedman, so it’s cool).

The humanities part of the university (and life) is pretty degraded nowadays, and it’s my opinion that it was given to liberals as a sort of booby prize, or as an enticement to keep them distracted while the real politics was going on elsewhere. I don’t think that undergrad teaching will ever be a very good revolutionary base. It was one in fairly recent past times when society was more elitist and humanities education was a prime way of entering the real power structure, but that was then.

By John Emerson on 11/02/06 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think a few reviewers have been rubbed the wrong way wrongly, then.

That’s kind of you, “John” (if that is your real name).  But seriously, it was something I worried about every day I sat down to write (for I write sitting down), and it required a great deal of writin’ and revisin’.  I was also worried about the Allan Bloom Echo Problem, the one in which every single student who appears in a book shows up saying something like, “Professor Bloom, I feel like the American university is draining me of my soul because there is no truly erotic teaching, indeed, no true understanding of eros at all, in our culture—what do you think?”

No one is interested in the troll as Romantic archetype?

Rich, you ask at a bad time.  I’m so troll-weary lately that I can’t even begin to think “troll,” “teaching,” and “Romanticism” in the same sentence.  Though I hope you’ll find it funny that I came this close to calling my obstreperous student “Heathcliff.”

But yes, he was vastly different from the Horowitz fodder—the students who can’t/ won’t do the work and then whine about it.  Like Stan, he was deeply engaged (and often aggravated) by almost everything in the course.  That was good.  His comments on Reed and Pynchon and a couple of our other novelists, though, were full of adolescent sneering, and that was bad.  And not Byronic, either.  (Surely some trolls think of themselves as Byronic.)

John Emerson is playing a subtler game. I’m leery of responding to him, lest it turn out he is being ironic.

Well, does anyone want to comment agonistically on John Emerson’s subtler game?  Laura?  Luther?

OK, I’ll go away for a while now.  But I thought this might be a good time to admit that I rewrote the “John” essay twice—once to de-Chronicle of Higher Ed it and make it a book chapter, and then again after reading a great deal of Internets commentary on the John Situation and Related Matters, some of which was written by people like the folks in this here thread.  And Timothy Burke too.  Thanks for that!

By Michael on 11/02/06 at 12:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther’s comment describes my pedagogy pretty well, but with one exception:

I free the class to pursue interests as they arise, but I’ve always scripted the performance such that they know, beforehand, what we were going to cover and that, in the last few minutes of class, I’ll be pulling the material back to that subject.  So, for instance, if it’s the final day of Moses Man of the Mountain and the first of Native Son, the students knows the general trajectory of that class and aren’t upset when, in the final minutes, I abruptly end the Hurston conversation and start on Wright.  The thing is, after you’ve done this once or twice--especially when you’re working on shorter pieces--the class will start to make these connections themselves.  You’ll have students who try to puzzle out the syllabus, see the connections I intended when I juxtaposed Works X and Y.--or whether I juxtaposed or paired them, &c. 

Now, sometimes those explanations are so keyed into the current conversation that I’ve got my work cut out for me trying to turn the tide, but I like having my work cut out for me in the classroom.  Not just because even outrageous flops can be locally instructive, but because they’re essential to the kind of intellectual work we do: “I think this and that work together, but...

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/02/06 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John (Emerson), what keeps the model of class debate I discussed from becoming scripted is that the teacher is forced to open all comments—even those that are clearly “right” or “agreed upon” by the teacher or common sense—up to debate. 

When someone volunteers an answer to a question, the first reply from the teacher should be, “Are you sure?  Prove it.” Or, even better, someone else in the class should adopt that role.  A student who says 2 plus 2 is 4 but backs down when asked “Are you sure?” hasn’t learned the material.  (Or as one teacher I know said to me, “Why call on a student who knows the answer?  You only do that when you’re trying to get from A to B and are pretending to have a student-centered classroom.  You should always call on those students who probably don’t know the answers.  Once they accept they don’t know, then you might start giving them some resources for figuring out the answers.")

I think many of you are confusing ritual with Broadway.  The roots of drama are in ritual, but the forms are very different.  In a ritual, there are prescribed roles into which anyone can step, and those roles get played out according to the built in conflicts and hurdles.  Broadway is where everything—even the magic!—was planned in advance.  The courtroom is a ritual space.  But just because there are prescripted roles—prosecutor, defendant, plantiff, defense attornoy, judge, jury, etc.—doesn’t mean the outcome is predetermined. 

A good classroom doesn’t turn into the dog and pony show John Emerson describes.  A good teacher doesn’t encourage her class to debate only those positions she disagrees with or only those ideas that don’t fit into the script.  (Again, if there’s a script, and if you think learning means “memorizing the script,” just give the students the script and have them memorize it for Christ’s sake.  Don’t waste everyone’s time.  Give em the Eugen Weber lecture VHS tapes and be done with it.) At most, a teacher presents an area of inquiry and provides access to materials that open up that area of inquiry.  Everything else should be left up to the learners.  (At the same time, I don’t think basic skills should be left up to discovery learning or inquiry-based learning.  You don’t give a class a bunch of microscopes and say, “Discover away!” No, you walk them through a carefully scripted session on how to use microscopes.  But once they’ve mastered the basic skills, then you need to let them go learn and get the hell out of their way.)

By on 11/02/06 at 09:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that we should just stop using the term ‘script’ here, because people are using it in different ways. It’s sort of interesting how easy it is to be misunderstood at this point: Berube talks about ‘all kinds of ventriloquism’ and that’s only a couple strings away from saying his students mouths move, but it’s his words coming out - which isn’t what he means at all. I said ‘script’ and all I meant was ‘you go in with a plan’, not ‘you enforce gradgrindian rote learning’, as Luther’s VHS tape proposal seems to suggest. I do agree with Scott that one of the main points at which gentle pedagogic pressure gets applied is the end of the period. Often there is a sort of letting go in the middle, that gives way to a pulling-together, with an eye to whatever is going to happen next week. Often it doesn’t happen because the teacher says ‘ok, now is the time when I pull it together and get us somewhere appropriate’. Rather, the teacher is able to roleplay and make little nudges, such that some result the teacher can approve of (this may allow a wide range) arrives with an appearance of naturalness. The students get there themselves. This sounds cynical but it really isn’t. It’s not as though the students would be shocked: you mean that teacher has been RUNNING this discussion the whole time. There isn’t any deception about this.

Yesterday I was teaching Heidegger to honors students. Three hours on “What Is Metaphysics?” and “The Question of Technology” and I was sort of trying to monitor myself, monitoring the discussion, with an eye to this thread. How much am I controlling this discussion - er, destining it; that is, regulating not what gets said, exactly, but the set of things that show up as, er, unconcealed things that are candidates for getting noticed and talked about. I think the discussion was unusually open - by my standards - because I in fact had no particular place to go. I have no need for any particular view of Heidegger to dominate, given what I want to do next week. I could take a sort of ‘let’s mess about and whatever we see, we see’ attitude. Which I did. But I still think I’m sort of controlling as I go. Because it bothers me if the conversation stagnates or lies fallow. I’m constantly wanting to seed and fertilize and trim and weed a bit around the edges. So maybe I actually am a bit of a controller. But I sort of suspect that even teachers who think they aren’t controlling, to a similar degree, probably actually are.

By John Holbo on 11/02/06 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The discerning spectator will, of course, appreciate the higher, Kierkegaardian-Heideggerian irony of Holbo making sure to fill the silences - in his garrulous, anxious way - lest Nothing happen.

By John Holbo on 11/02/06 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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