Mastering the material

One of my pet peeves -- both in social-scientific analysis or debate, and in ordinary conversation -- lies with the rather troubling sort of exchange in which someone denies doing something but then describes a set of practices that point rather unambiguously in that direction. I run into this all the time debating with academic colleagues who simultaneously claim to be in favor of methodological diversity but then articulate a set of standards and criteria for sound knowledge-production that excludes everything but statistical-comparative modes of reasoning, or who claim to be interested in social construction but then retreat into an analysis of non-social factors that ultimately trump and constrain all of the social construction -- and then claim to be "constructivists." And in policy terms, one see this quite a bit in the pious pronouncements of leaders that they are in favor of human rights, coupled with concrete steps to deny those very same rights or to undermine the work of individuals and organizations dedicated to enacting those rights.

What bothers me is more than just the hypocrisy of the situation. Indeed, I'm more than prepared to acknowledge that hypocrisy has its uses sometimes -- and besides which, who among us ever manages to conduct all of her or his actions in a way that accords with her or his professed values? [There's a whole theological riff here about sin and redemption that I could go on here, but I think I'll spare you that at the moment.] No, it's not the inconsistency that bothers me as much as it is the delusional responses proffered by people to whom I try to point these inconsistencies out. "There's a reason for the inconsistency" is a perfectly valid response, and "you misunderstand what I am doing" is pretty good too. But "there's no inconsistency here" is just a flat-out failure of understanding, since I think that the speaker is either a) lying or b) actually convinced that there's no inconsistency, in complete contravention of basic tenets of logic and reasoning.

I can't really wrap my mind around option a), since if that were the case then there would be no point in talking to anyone about anything. [Yes, Habermas says this too, but my assent to the basic proposition does not mean that I am at all happy about the way that Habermas makes this into some kind of transcendental principle governing communication itself in the abstract…but that's a rant for another forum.] So that leaves me with option b), even though this places me in the uncomfortable position of having to point out to people something that is perfectly obvious to me even when it is somehow less than obvious to them -- and which they persist in not seeing even after I have offered them reams of evidence.

Case in point: For a variety of reasons I have had occasion to discuss my teaching style with some of my colleagues recently, particularly my habit of looking for interesting reading materials -- not all of which I have read in much detail myself -- and then assigning them so that my class and I can all read and discuss them together. I do this all the time, both because it gets me to read other things and because it keeps the discussion fresh since we're all experiencing the texts for more or less the first time together -- and because I can't have a worked-out "take" on the material if I'm reading it along with the class, so it's another way to avoid the ever-present temptation to lapse into Imparting My Wisdom To The Assembled Throngs Of Eager Students, a.k.a. the "sage on the stage" model of teaching that I pretty much abhor. The problem is that such a model is more or less programmed into the student-professor relationship from the start, and it takes concrete work to break it down; one has to be ever-vigilant to avoid accidently slipping into professorial pontification. Hence, among other things, my frequent decision to assign material that I haven't really read closely (if at all!) in advance of a course.

[Full disclosure: when I assign something that I have never read at all, I almost always do so at the urging or recommendation of a colleague or former student. Almost always. Okay, once I picked something based on its title and some of the book reviews from amazon.com, but it worked so well that I just kept on assigning it. No, I am not telling you what it was.]

So here's the conversation I keep having: I show someone one of my course syllabi, they look at it thoughtfully, and then they say that they'd love to have to time to "master this material" but they can't figure out how they could have the time to do that before the semester begins, so they're just going to keep on assigning what they've assigned in the past and read long ago. I say something like: but I don't agree that the purpose of education is for us to impart our wisdom to students; it's about producing encounters with interesting material and pressing questions. They usually reply that they agree with me, but that they want to "master the material" before they set out to teach it. I usually just get a perplexed look on my face at this point, realizing that yet again we are in performative-contradiction-plus-ideological-self-deception territory.

Part of my frustration is with the very phrase "mastering the material." If "material" can be "mastered," then why in the heck are we assigning it to students? If there's a lesson that you want to impart, then just tell them the lesson and don't make them slog through some piece of reading to see whether they can "come up with it in their own" (which is a misnomer, because what you're doing at that point is evaluating whether the students can read the text the way that you read the text, which in the end means that you are evaluating the students' ability to read you -- good for the ego, but good for their educations? I'm not convinced). I fail to see the special skill associated with "read this and extract the same main point that I extracted, or that others extracted" (a kind of Family Feud for students -- "guess what other people saw in this text, and win cash and prizes!") is at all worth developing. I'm much more fond of pushing students to develop the ability to produce defensible readings of texts., which means making an argument (supported by evidence) about what the text means or implies. There's no "mastery" here; there are just better and worse interpretive arguments.

From my perspective, "mastering the material" goes hand-in-glove with things like pop quizzes, "identification questions" on exams, and content-based "learning outcomes" that can be best assessed by comparing a student's answer to the "correct" answer written in an answer-key someplace. All are techniques that point in the direction of education as getting facts inside of students' heads, and all strike me as (not to put too fine a point on it) wrong. Not ineffective, not outmoded, but wrong -- intellectually, philosophically, morally. After all, last time I checked students are human beings too, and as such I firmly believe that they should be permitted the maximum allowable space to encounter the material in their own way. Now, simply encountering the material is not in my opinion enough -- they also need to be able to construct defensible interpretations of that material, and to actually defend their interpretations in more or less public settings -- but it's an invaluable start. And if that isn't the place where one is starting one's thinking about course and syllabus design, or about classroom management, or about pedagogy in general, then one is (in my view) doing something wrong.

But to return to the place I started: I'd be perfectly fine with a knock-down, drag-out fight about what the purpose of education is, because that would first of all rest on an agreement that certain techniques point in one direction while other techniques point in other directions. But can we please not get sidetracked into debates about whether pop quizzes test anything other than short-term memory, or whether a "discussion" of a text that invariably leads in the direction that the professor chose beforehand when she or he was "mastering the material" is somehow anything at all fundamentally different than handing out an outline of what the students were supposed to get from the text and then making sure that they memorize it?

If you know where a discussion is going before it gets there, then it isn't a discussion. It's a lecture masquerading as a discussion.

"A melody has an end, but its end is not its goal -- a parable." -- Friedrich Nietzsche

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