Monday, July 11, 2016

An Early Thirsty From Cal.

I am so tired of the divisions in our country. I stay holed up 90% of the time because the endless torrent of news has convinced me that we are in some sort of end times of everything from race to climate.

We can and have to do better. We can't just shut down when someone holds a different point of view. I've been guilty of this for too long, and I'd like to think I was a bit more evolved. The truth is, I have people in my life who think all different kinds of things. I know their hearts and know them to be good people, but what everyone has to say about, oh, just for example, the presidential election, often stymies any forward progress, any discussion, any movement to understanding.

You find out I'm for THIS and you're against THAT, and we're stuck. And it plays out locally, regionally, and globally, and the news breathlessly tells us in a never-ending cycle that it's somebody's fault and that it's like a car careening down a hill with no brakes.

It exhausts me, frightens me, and makes me want to hide out in a cabin in the mountains and let the world go to hell.

And I have to own up to that part of it, and I have to be better.

In my own classes over the past several years, I have grown tired of the uninformed "debate" that goes on between students. I used to work with them, help them critically think, help them form better and more clear positions. Now, I just don't want a fight to break out. I don't want the one student who believes THIS to argue with the one student who thinks THAT, because, honestly, I don't know what I'd do if a fight broke out, or if one of them had a gun, or if one of them was waiting for the other student or me in the parking lot.

I've done this job for more than 30 years and I confess I have at times tried to avoid confrontation. And I regret it. I've failed them in some way.

Because we have to talk, discuss, write, and we have to have confrontations, healthy ones. My putting my head in the sand and pulling my students down with me doesn't solve anything - except maybe make me FEEL safer temporarily.

Q: Help me. What steps do you take to encourage thoughtful debate in your classes where discussion of confrontational ideas come up? How do you keep cool heads? How can I do better?


  1. Best post of the day.
    Bar none.
    Existential angst.
    The misery.
    Well captured.

  2. I have to admit that I mostly sidestep the issue by not having a lot of instructor-assigned readings or discussions thereof, and by discussing form more than content when we do have readings -- because I can, given the skills-focused (writing) classes I teach, and I, too, am not eager to try to moderate debates in the classroom, and because I genuinely believe that some of the ways composition is often taught (with a focus on argument, and "opposing viewpoints" and such) is neither a good way to teach writing nor a good way to teach critical thinking. It *is* a way to make sure that students have an "argument" -- i.e. that they're not just rehearsing a bunch of information with no point or direction -- and it ties in in some ways with classical rhetoric -- or that's the claim; I've never studied classical rhetoric, so I'm not in a good position to judge -- but the kind of argument such an approach produces is a polemical one, not an analytical, or a scholarly one (as I tell my students, a strong analytical argument is going to sound weak to anyone used to debate, or cable news, or pretty much anything that counts as taking a stand in public discourse these days, precisely because a strong/sound analytical argument is nuanced and hedged, and takes into account the fact that most situations are complicated and multi-faceted and not amenable to easy answers or interpretations. Remember that one of the criticisms often leveled at the current President -- probably one of the ones least tied to the color of his skin -- is that he's "professorial" -- i.e. wishy-washy and indecisive.)

    So I guess part of my answer -- the one I actually carry out, to some extent -- is that we need to teach students how knowledge is made, and just how contingent and contextual and likely to change over time it is. In other words, we need to teach them some humility in the face of big, complicated problems. This isn't easy, because many 18-22 year olds are still mostly black and white thinkers (and of course some adults never grow out of that, but I think there are a reasonable number in the middle who can be nudged toward seeing both problems and solutions as complex -- and of course defining/describing the problem is at least 75% of the job, since it often implies the solution).

    So -- maybe we need to give them less popularized, polemical writing, and more actual scholarship that focuses on defining and analyzing issues as much as proposing solutions?

    I'm also inclined to think that any exercise that gives them practice in really trying to understand someone with a very different point of view would be useful. Discussions about literature can help with that (there's pretty good evidence that reading fiction develops empathy), though they, too, can be tricky to moderate (and the instructor needs to be genuinely willing to draw out and test varying interpretations, and not insist that students see every text in the light of hir favorite theory; on the other hand, looking at texts through different theoretical lenses can be useful). I'm pretty sure that careful study of primary historical documents can serve much the same purpose, because to do it well the student needs to put aside hir own preconceptions and try to discover/intuit those of a different time and/or place).

    I'm sure there are parallels in other fields; I am, of course, thinking about the areas of study with which I'm most familiar.

    I'm also sure that multiple-choice testing, with its insistence on the one right, or at least the "best," answer is not helping matters.

    So -- anything we can do to develop humility (but not despair or paralysis) in the face of complex problems, and empathy. I do think we have some tools at our disposal, but they may be hard to deploy in the current higher ed environment.

  3. It's not relevant to my own sciency field, but I heard once of the idea of making the student argue with herself: after a certain number of assignments where she can write of her own opinion, as assignment to sincerely and thoroughly refute one of those previous assignments.

    1. This strikes me as a good one, too -- a whole paper (or prepared debate arguments) on *each* side (or at least two sides). The usual direction to "consider counterarguments" within a single paper doesn't go far enough; it just gives students a chance to briefly rehearse (perhaps mischaracterize) arguments on the other side, then dismiss them.

    2. I'm with Cassandra here; I prefer the explicit assignment to refute your own paper.

      But I have also been known to grade straw men rather harshly.

  4. I handle this in my "Science of Controversial Issue" course by asking students to actually engage with data. I also am pretty harsh about which sources I will accept for short papers: no think tanks or other polemical organizations, from either side of the fence. In practice, that limits one to academies of science or government agencies.

  5. Discussion? Debate? Hahahahaha My students will actually laugh out loud at anything that they don't "believe" in. Everything I teach is just opinion evidently.
    Sexual orientation? Hmmm that's a choice! No one is born *that* way.
    Transgender? Hmmm people change their sex because they're perverted. Spanking? Hmmm I turned out okay and I was spanked. Ya know if you spare the rod....Just give your kid a whoopin' and they'll turn out okay!
    Never mind the decades of evidence. It's just my opinion.

    1. You have students who were spanked? I haven't had one in 10 years or more.

    2. Well, they're probably spoiled rotten! Duh!
      I'm in the red zone.

    3. I only mention it because it often comes up during a reading from one of our textbooks, and everyone is horrified that kids in other decades were spanked. I was stupefied 10 years ago when I first noticed this, but now it seems like it's just absent from my students' lives.

      I was spanked like a champion, for minor and major things. I have mixed thoughts about it. I never spanked my kids, or thought about it, but don't begrudge my folks who did it, or indeed my sister-in-law and brother-in-law who seem like terrific parents with a great kid.

  6. If a fight breaks out, call security. Even the worst college students are old enough to know that fisticuffs are not allowed in the classroom. Have the number on speed-dial on your cell phone.

    If anyone pulls a gun, RUN. My students are much more likely to shoot over grades than over any intellectual argument. Here’s where student apathy works in your favor.

    Those years of giving shows at a major planetarium served me well. It wasn’t uncommon for people to come in for the express purpose of picking a fight about the Big Bang. (One such lady kept calling it “The Great Bang.”) I found the best way was to keep cool and try reasoning. That’s what we’re supposed to being doing as college professors, anyway.

    For anyone casting doubt on climate change, I just used to just point out that Venus is twice as hot as Mercury, despite being twice as far away from the Sun. This is because Venus has a horrible atmosphere so rich in CO2, which lets in the heat from visible light, but doesn’t let out the heat from infrared. I haven’t had occasion to use this for several years now, since very few of my students take issue with climate change anymore. This is because we’re having the worst drought in 800 years, and it’s very easy to find places in the mountains where half the trees are obviously dying. The real kicker is even more obvious for city slickers: do you know how difficult it is to keep a lawn nice and green?

    None of my students have cast doubt on evolution for some time. There was a flurry of it leading up to late 2005, but it ended when Judge Jones decided that Intelligent Design is religion, not science. I should thank a couple young-Earth creationist students who a semester or two before this gave me a rigorous grilling just about every day in class. They helped me make my textbook a whole lot better, with easier to understand arguments on how galaxies can collide in an expanding Universe, etc.

    I’ve had good results with various kinds of conspiracy theorists, too. (“Let’s see, so the government can cover this up, insofar as they can’t?”) Nevertheless, I still do mark off when, in their term papers, they confuse astronomy for astrology. This is entirely justifiable, because it’s an error of fact that should have been checked: also, they really ought to know the difference, by the end of the term.

    In all cases, it helps if you can present evidence in a way that’s short, simple, and snappy. Modern students don’t listen well, and have quite short attention spans.

  7. I just picked up a book called The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (and no, I'm not the author, nor would I begrudge anyone plugging their own book here if it were germane to the discussion.) It's given me a lot to think about along just these lines. The research is on high school classrooms (plenty of analogy to what we do, imo) explicitly teaching government and civics (perhaps less analogous to what many of us do.) But there are interesting examples about how to encourage classroom debate and research on issues like, do you, the instructor, disclose your own position, or no?

    My view has always been that you disclose your own position, since you have one, and that way they can call you on it if they think you're being biased. But the book has inspired me to give that one another think.

    I've not finished it yet but it certainly seems worth a look, Cal et al.

    1. Politics isn't religion, but I find that whenever a student in one of my science classes asks to know my religion (which often takes the form of an aggressive demand of "YOU AN ATHEIST?"), a good reply is, "I'd prefer to keep you guessing." I don't think they have any business asking, anyway: back where I come from, we have this thing called freedom of religion.


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