Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Only Connect..."

One of my biggest challenges is getting students to overcome a "plug and chug" method for learning that was usually sufficient in high school.  By plug and chug I mean simply plugging in a right answer and chugging through the course without doing any real thinking.

I have an exercise that's been useful for getting them to consider a new way of thinking about the material. I don't recall how I came up with it (or even if I up with it).  It works like this: during the first week of class I project a Power Point of five or six randomly selected images. I ask the students to come up with as many organizational schemes for these images as they can.

A scheme might be organizing the images from big to small, or in categories of living versus non-living, or natural versus human-made.  There is no right or wrong answer and it's permissable to include all, some or none of the images in a framework. The only test is whether the organizing concept can be understood by someone else.

For five minutes I have students students brainstorm.  Some produce lists of 10-15 ideas; others struggle to come up with three or four. Afterwards I have them relate their ideas to one another and we list any interesting or novel conceptual frameworks on the board. The exercise is actually a test of concept differentia. People who perform well at this exercise tend to have high levels of critical ability.  More importantly, everyone can get better with practice.

Indeed, the images are just a data set that can be manipulated into varying patterns. And that's essentially what I want students doing in my classes. The texts and authors we read, the ideas we discuss and the arguments we encounter are just data sets loaded with identifiable patterns, connections and contrasts. They may be more complex data sets than my random images, but we can do the same kind of intellectual work with them.

A few weeks into a course (after we have read multiple authors) I start demanding that all answers include inter-textual connections. It isn't enough that students write about lying and deception in King Lear. I now want them to bring Machiavelli's ideas about deception to bear on the play and, while we're at it, what do we make of the fact that the rational horses in Swift's Gulliver's Travels have no word for lying? That's interesting.      

The first-week exercise with those images becomes a concrete refrence point that I can go to in making requests for a higher level of engagement with the material.  "Remember that exercise we did the first week with the photos?" I'll say.  "Let's do that with these four texts. See any interesting patterns or connections?"

 I also make a big, big deal of it when someone does this during a class discussion.  Last week, for instance, one of the students in my first-year honors seminar made an interesting connection between the character of God in Paradise Lost and King Lear. I melodramatically paused and said, "There, right there!  That's the exactly of thinking I want to see in your papers."  For the first time she had abandoned plugging and chugging.  Something new, interesting and startling had been brought into existence.

Students don't do this work very well at first. Their connections are often a little forced and superficial, but that's okay. They have to start somewhere.  And at least they are moving in my direction . The important thing is that they can see that this kind of thinking is very different from parroting back the "right" answer.

An old professor once told me that students will try to do whatever you ask of them so long as you break it down and tell them as clearly as possible what you want. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pedagogic Rashomon

I often do a "check-in" along about midterm each semester.  I ask the students to divide a single sheet of notepaper into a grid with four boxes and then to label each box with a question: What's working well in this class?  What could work better?  What one change could I make that would help you?  What one thing could you change?  

I just did this little exercise yesterday in the first-year honors seminar, a course that I have been fretting about for weeks. Every year the honors seminar is different.  A lot of it has to do with the particular personalities in the room.  Some groups are chatty and unfocused; others are intense but quiet.  This year's group presents its own set of challenges.  I have been pushing them hard on their writing, and I've sensed they were growing frustrated with me and the class.

Boy was I wrong.   My view of the seminar is not how they see it.  The "check-in" was considerably more positive than I expected.  They like the revision policy and the daily writing tips.  They really like the discussions and in-class writing we do on Tuesdays.  They also appreciated the detailed feedback on papers.  On the other hand, they want broader participation in class discussions and some said they just needed more time to process the material. 

Suggestions for changes included organizing one-on-one conferences outside of class to talk about writing and preparation.  That's probably a good idea.  The section is small enough that I can accommodate this request.  I'll also try to come up with some activities that garner broader participation.  On the whole, they think things are going well. 

So much for my fretting.

I don't always do the "check-in."  It depends on the class.   Even so, it's almost always worthwhile.  It reinforces the idea that you are there to help them.  And, if nothing else, it reminds you that the richest source of teaching tips, advice and best practice is sitting right in front of you.  All you have to do is ask.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dubiety thy name is February

It's the middle of spring semester, which can only mean one thing:  I am now pretending to be teaching, the students are pretending to be learning and we both are pretending not to notice.  This suddenly not-so-new semester has become what it will be.  It's true, of course, that I go through a funk every semester, but somehow it always seems worse in spring.  Looking back at previous Februarys chronicled on this old blog, I find the following sentiments:

Feb. 15, 2011  "Mixed Feelings at Midterms"
It's midterm. The grades had to be turned in by noon today. In my Humanities course about half of the students have figured me out and are now starting to look for that sweet spot where they can get the grade they want for the least amount of effort. Another 25 percent are still getting up to speed, and another is just now figuring it all out.

We had to have a little "Come to Shakespeare" moment in which I reminded them of the standards I was expecting in response papers, the need to actually read the play (yes, I know it's a difficult text) and not to turn in sloppy, unproofed work. We did practice exercises all morning, making generalizations and summarizing textual evidence for events in Act IV of King Lear. This was all stuff we covered the first two weeks of class, but sometimes you just have to double back.
February 26, 2010  "Five Minutes Later"
[Today] I bombed. No, I mean really bombed, H-bombed. Everything I tried was not working, unconnected, disjointed, forced and lame. It was the worst class of this semester so far. I had planned to show a few minutes of a documentary to make a point, but the class was going so badly I decided to let the video run for an extra ten minutes to kill off the hour. Meanwhile, I stood in the darkness at the rear of the room filled with a sense of hapless ineptitude. How could I go from such heights to such depths? Sheez, this job! It can make you feel like a genius and five minutes later you're a bum.

February 10, 2009: "And then Blossom Deary died..."
It's the middle of the semester. The economy is tanking. People are losing their jobs and I am stinking it up in the classroom. The world is February gray and filthy with sand and melting snow. And then I go on line and see that Blossom Deary died.
Yep, it's February.  I haven't walked out of a classroom with a good teaching high for over two weeks.  I've screwed up any number of things, confused the students and now doubt everything about my teaching.  Enterprises of great pith and moment have indeed turned awry.  In other words, this semester is right on schedule.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"The mind's construction in the face"

One of the hallmarks of Greek drama is that a character's strength is also a great weakness.  Indeed, the very qualities that lead to Oedipus' downfall--rashness, over-confidence, stubborn persistence--allowed him to save Thebes from the Sphinx.  In other words, flaws are actually strengths in different contexts. 

One of my flaws is a complete inability to form accurate first impressions.  I am dead wrong about people every time.  If I met Mother Theresa, I'm sure I would think she was a greedy sneak thief.  I'd be hiding the silverware.  Chuck Manson, on the other hand, would seem like a prince of guy. I'd be loaning him money.  The upshot is that I've learned never to trust my first impression.   I don't even try to second guess myself because I still get it wrong. 

I've noticed, however, that a lot of people pride themselves on their ability to read others.  A casual remark is parsed for seventeen levels of nuance.  I used to envy these people, but more and more I've come to see my obtuseness as an ironic blessing.  I know I am clueless.  Consequently I avoid drawing any conclusions about people until I've known them six months (and even then I hang on to the possibility that I'm wrong). 

Other people form a quick first impression and spend all their time confirming their brilliance.  They are convinced they can accurately read facial expresions or tones of voice.  It doesn't matter that a great deal of research says we're far more likely to be wrong. 

In 2008, for example, Norwegian researchers tested police officers' ability to judge the credibility of rape claims. Sixty-nine investigators watched taped versions of a victim's statement.  The victim was played by an actress. The wording of each statement was the same, but the actress varied her emotions. These trained professionals prided themselves on their objectivity, but the results showed that the objective facts of her statement weighed less in judging credibility than faked emotional cues .  Keep in mind that none of the statements was true.  It was an actress every time.

Nevertheless, people remain stubbornly convinced that they can read others well.  Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin has dubbed this "the illusion of assymetric insight."  Since we are intimately aware of how we feel, we overstestimate our ability to pick up on what others are feeling or thinking.  Knowing that I'm a clueless dolt, I don't even try.  Others, however...

I'm unsure if this makes me a good person or a bad person to have on a new faculty hiring committee.  Even so, that's what I'm doing this semester and I can't tell if my personal flaw is a strength or a weakness.  Heck, everybody looks good to me, but why shouldn't they?  They're all trying to make a good impression.  Of course I think they are wonderful.  That means they may not be, or it likely means nothing at all. 

Don't ask me.  What do I know?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Signals from the Deep

Every now and then you get some honest-to-goodness evidence that all of your efforts aren't like radio waves simply flung endlessly into the cosmos.  Two days ago a student from last semester emailed me that something we discussed in class had recently come in handy.  

He had spent the weekend competing in a mathematical modeling contest.  These are university-level competitions in which teams of students are given 48 hours to devise a method for determining an answer to a difficult question.  My former student's task was to devise a model for estimating the weight of the leaves on trees of various sizes.  I assume his team had some information but not all that they needed. 

He wrote that more than once he thought about giving up, but he kept remembering a conversation in our core capstone course.  It concerned the value of understanding works of art beyond the level of "I like it/I don't like it."  We had read an Aaron Copland essay on listening to music in which he argued there are multiple planes of listening: the sensual, the communicative and the sheerly technical.  The latter involves a critical understanding of how a piece of music is constructed.

Like a lot of students he had at first resisted the notion that understanding works of art on a deep, critical level was worthwhile.  He argued that such understanding would interfere with the ability to enjoy a work without the contamination of over-intellectualizing it.  My standard reaction to this Wordsworthian "we murder to dissect" fuzzball response is to snort and call it out for what it is: a lame excuse for remaining an ignorant boob.  The joy of understanding things doesn't subtract from simply enjoying them.  It's just another kind of enjoyment.

Anyway this argument must have made an impression on the guy.  He had never thought it worthwhile to take the time to understand things that lacked any practical application.  Knowledge for knowledge's sake was a completely foreign concept.  But this notion came back to him when he grew frustrated during the math competition.   He decided not to give up and eventually found himself actually enjoying the process of understanding the problem.  It was this enjoyment that surprised him and he wanted to tell me about it.

Contented sigh.

Students have no idea how much we really appreciate these brief, small signals from the void.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How to Ask Smart Questions

I can almost guarantee that at some point in your education a teacher has stood before you and in a self-satisfied tone said, "There are no dumb questions in this class." Well, he or she got it half-right. While there may be no dumb questions, some questions are clearly smarter than others.

So what makes a question smart? To answer this completely would probably take us deep into theories of knowledge, linguistics, rhetoric, logic and maybe even brain chemistry. But I'll give you the short answer: a question is a tool a for generating knowledge, and a good one does this well.

Here is what I mean: suppose you have just gotten off a late overbooked flight to Cleveland, on which you drank too much coffee while waiting for the flight attendants to turn off the sign that prevented you from "roaming about the cabin." They didn't, and now you are just inside the terminal and spot an airport worker. You could ask one of the following questions:

1. Hey, does Cleveland even bother to put restrooms in the airport?
2. Um, restroom?
3. Do you know where a restroom is?
4. Excuse me, where is the nearest restroom?

Given the context, all four of these questions might generate the desired knowledge, but one question is clearly smarter than the others. That is, it will obtain the desired knowledge more efficiently and with fewer chances for confusion. Most people agree that the best question -- and therefore the smartest -- is number four. The others may have worked, but four has the best shot at working.

Number one, of course, may even have gotten you directed to the farthest point from a restroom. Two is imprecise, and three (if answered with strict accuracy) would require still another question. Only number four possesses qualities that typify good questions: clarity of purpose, proper framing, sincerity of intent and respectfulness. Let's take a closer look at these qualities, because whether you are asking about restrooms in Cleveland or subatomic particles, these qualities prove beneficial in the generation of knowledge.

Clarity of Purpose

By clarity I mean that you have a good idea about what you want to know. Hey, wait a minute, you object. How can I know what I want to know before I even ask for it? And I respond that you can know what you want to know because questions are never asked from a state of complete ignorance. As Shakespeare's King Lear said, "Nothing will come of nothing."

Take, for example, the question How does a television work? It could not be asked without some previously held conceptual framework that something called a television exists and that it is designed to perform some specific function or sets of functions. Even if you encountered a completely unfamiliar term-- blork, for instance-- you would not be wholly in the dark because you would know a blork was a something, an idea, a person, perhaps an action of some sort. And you would frame a question about it accordingly.

Indeed, questions only arise because we've bumped into something unfamiliar and we are trying to use what we know to establish a conceptual link to it. You have experienced this if you've ever looked up a word in the dictionary. You may not know what the word means, but you know it's a word; and the only way you can understand this new term is to link it to a term you already know. In short, we always use what we've got to know what we've not.

Good questions aid the linking process by making it more intentional and self-directed. So when I say that to ask a smart question you need to know what you want to know, I'm not saying you already have the answer. I'm just saying that you know what kind of work you want your question to perform.

Below is a list of questions that have been grouped by the kinds of knowledge-generating work they do. Note that this list is arranged in a hierarchy of three levels. Level one questions are the rough tools you use to form a general understanding of a subject. Level two build upon this general understanding and try to fit it into the existing framework of what you already know. Level three questions extend your newly acquired understanding to the world around you and in new directions.

This list is not meant to cover every possible type of question -- just those useful in gaining an understanding of things and their usefulness. It is merely a first stab at organizing my own understanding of question types and their specific functions. I invite other ideas, hierarchies and/or critiques of what I've done here.

Level One: definitions and clarifications

How do you define this (word, term, idea, etc.)?
What does this idea (passage, concept, etc.) mean?
What would be a specific, concrete example of this?

How was this idea (event, text, work, etc.) shaped by its time?
Where did this originate and why?
Who was the originator of this and what was he or she like?


What parts or features make up the whole and what does each part do?
How do the parts contribute to the whole?
How is this organized and why is it organized this way?
What are the most important features of this?

Level Two:  Comparatives

How is this the same as that?
How is this different than that?
How are these more or less similar?
What is the opposite of this?

What factors caused this to happen?
Which of these factors is sufficient? Which contributing? Which probable?
On what grounds can we eliminate possible causes or explanations? 

Why do you like or dislike this (or agree or disagree with this)?
How strong is the case that this is correct?
What criteria are best for judging this?
What is the best order or priority for these things and why?
What is the strongest argument against this?

Level 3: Counterfactuals

How would this change if X happened?
How would things be different if X had not happened?
How would things be different if X happened to a greater (or lesser) degree?

Extenders (Synthesizers)

How can we apply this to this set of circumstances?
What can we predict because of this?
What ideas can be added to this?
What might happen if you added this to that?

Now let's see how these questions might apply to a real situation. Let's say, for instance, that you have just finished reading an extremely difficult chapter of a book for your psychology class (Karl Jung's Aion would make a good example). You read it all, but you haven't got a clue what Jung was talking about. So which of the following would be good questions?
  • Can you give me a real-world example of what Jung means by the terms anima and animus?
  • Who was Jung and what events influenced his ideas?
  • What is the logic for how this chapter is organized?
In this case, all three of these might be good questions. You are looking for a first rough understanding of the material, and that means asking a lot of level one questions. The first question above seeks to define the meaning of key terms and to clarify the terms by relating them to something you already know. The second tries to get some context on how the events in Jung's life informed his ideas. And the third, an analyzer, tries to understand the structure of the material to begin building a basic understanding of its main points.

Once you have some basic understanding, you can start asking level two questions, which help you to better fit your new understanding into what you may already know. Let's say, for instance, that you have been struggling through Plato and Aristotle's ideas on ethics. You have a good general grasp on each of their ideas. There are some similarities, but also some interesting differences. Now you would like to know how important these differences are. Fortunately, you find yourself seated next to a professor of classical philosophy during that long flight to Cleveland. Here is the perfect opportunity to pose your question. So, given what you want to know, which of the following is the best question?
  • So what's the deal with Plato and Aristotle?
  • Who do you like better: Plato or Aristotle? And why?
  • What are the the most important differences in the ethical philosophies of Aristotle and Plato?
  • On what specific grounds does Aristotle reject Plato's theory of ideal forms?
Well? Which of these accomplishes the aim stated above efficiently? First, take a look at the aim: you want to know the most important differences. In essence, you are seeking an expert's evaluation. Given this, question one lacks clarity. Two asks for an opinion, but it lacks a precisely phrased request for an evaluation of important differences. Four has great clarity and precision, but it asks only for summary with no evaluation. That leaves question three. Of all of the questions above, it expresses the kinds of information it wants with clarity of purpose.

Level three questions can be some of the most thought-provoking and fascinating questions of all. Here you try to link (or extend) your newly-gained understanding to the world around you. What are the social implications if Jung was right? Answering these well, of course, assumes the work on levels one and two has been completed.

Proper Question Framing
Most people who browse through a gallery of paintings pay little attention to the picture frames. They are there to see the art, not the things holding the art. But frames are important. They purposefully focus the viewer on an image that an artist has selected out of an infinite world of images. A precisely framed question works in the same way. It focuses the mind on one issue among an infinite number of others.

Clarifying your purpose (i.e., specifying precisely what you want defined, illustrated, compared, classified, evaluated, etc.)helps tremendously in framing your question. Even so, it is still possible to make a fundamental error in question framing that will damage the value of the response. Sometimes these errors are unintentional. At other times they are used to intentionally mislead. Below are some common errors in question framing with accompanying examples:
  • Framing a question that sets up a false comparison: Why should we allow women to fight in combat if they can't even stand a little sexual harassment in the workplace? This question assumes that volunteering to place oneself in a dangerous situation is the equivalent of being involuntarily subjected to sexual harassment, a comparison that falls apart with the slightest critical reflection. Pay close attention whenever a comparison appears in a question. Someone could be trying to slip a fast one by you.
  • Framing a question that sets up a false dilemma: Why should we bother to spend money to save the whales when people are starving to death? The underlying assumption of this question is that saving the whales and helping the starving are mutually exclusive propositions, which may not be the case. By assuming a "one or the other" answer, the question narrows the focus to exclude the possibility that both are achievable. As a rule, be wary of either/or questions. They may be justified, but they can also be highly misleading.
  • Framing a question that doesn't necessarily follow from its premise: As the world's last remaining superpower, does America have a special responsibility to spread our values of democracy and freedom to other nations? Whether we have a special responsibility as a nation is a complex moral and political question that may or may not have anything to do with our superpower status. Try to think through the logic of premises in questions. Sometimes they are valid, and sometimes they are not.
  • Framing a question that assumes the answer: Are you still cheating at golf? Here the question is framed in such a way that the respondent cannot answer without affirming an assumption that she has in the past or continues to cheat at golf, which may not be true. Pay attention to the assumptions that are built into questions and try to make certain that they are well established.
  •  Framing a question with undefined words or words whose definition is very loose: Do you love me? Confusion often arises when a question contains an insufficiently defined word, especially one that has many possible meanings. Some words are very generic and may cover entire classes of ideas or things that have quite different meanings. Love is such a word. It comes in many varieties (romantic, paternal, maternal, fraternal, platonic, etc.). Answers to such questions are difficult without a clear definition of the specific usage. Admittedly, this definition doesn't always have to be spelled out; it may be apparent from context. If your romantic partner is asking you the love question over a candlelight dinner, it might be clear which kind is meant. Even so, defining how you are using a word that is subject to many meanings is usually the best way to minimize confusion.
  • Framing a question that contains an ambiguity: Why is it that visiting relatives can be so boring? At first glance this seems a straightforward enough question, but on second glance its wording leads to a problematic ambiguity. Is the question asking why relatives that have come to see you are boring, or why your visiting them is boring? Without greater clarity or some context to help us understand the intended meaning, the question is difficult to answer. Oftentimes we are unaware we have framed a question ambiguously (because we know what we mean), but if two or more understandings of a question are possible, you'll soon get them.
  • Framing a question that asks for an answer the subject is incapable of providing: A special word needs to be said about these kinds of questions, which are quite common in public debate. The problem is this: despite our longing for a definitive answer, not every subject is capable of supplying one with the same level of certainty.
A few subjects like mathematics and geometry allow for absolute certainty. Science offers us a high degree of certainty on many questions (but not absolute certainty), while other subjects like history and sociology can only provide us with probable answers.  On the other hand, the answers to ethical and political questions can vary greatly with circumstances, and answers in matters of aesthetics are often articulations of taste. Lastly, metaphysical questions may only be answerable with deeply personal -- but no less valuable or meaningful -- statements of belief.

Here are some examples of questions framed to require an answer that the subject cannot supply: 
  • Asking for certainty when probable truth is as good as it gets:What did Columbus really do when he landed in the New World? Barring the invention of a time machine, we can't know the answer for sure. The best we can do is make an educated guess based upon historical evidence. Our guess may be more or less probable given the available evidence, but it can never reach 100 percent certainty. A better formulation of this question might be Given the evidence, what likely happened when Columbus landed in the New World?
  • Asking for a definitive answer when the answer varies with circumstances:Is lying ethical? The question of whether lying is ethical depends on specific circumstances. Indeed, it can't be well considered without reference to circumstances. For the most part lying is probably unethical, but if you owned a gun and a burglar who had taken you and your family hostage asked where it was kept, the ethical response might just be to lie. Thus to ask for a definitive answer is to misunderstand the nature of the inquiry. A better formulation of this question might be what circumstances determine whether lying is ethical?
  • Asking for objective certainty when the answer varies due to taste:What is the most beautiful piece of art in the world? Few questions are as personal and passionate as those concerning our tastes, which are by definition subjective. This is not to say that subjective questions are unanswerable or a waste of time. Indeed, defining what we find beautiful is a highly valuable way to understand ourselves and our relationship to the world more intimately. A better formulation of this question might be what are the qualities that make this piece of art beautiful to you?
  • Asking for certainty when there is no demonstrable way of obtaining an answer: Do we have guardian angels? This is a metaphysical question and unanswerable by the standards of rational inquiry.
You may have noticed that all of the examples I've cited in this last category err by seeking a degree of certainty that is unavailable. It is possible, of course, to err in the other direction (i.e., by seeking a lesser degree of certainty than is available), but it's rare. People don't generally ask for a personal opinion about the temperature at which water freezes; nor do they spend a good deal of time pondering the probability that 4 x 7 doesn't equal 28. For whatever reason, we crave certainty even it is clear that we can't get it.

A few poets, artists, philosophers and theologians have found a value in uncertainty. The British poet John Keats admired what he called negative capability, which he defined as the capacity "to be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Another poet, W. H. Auden, expressed an admiration for writers who exhibited "clear thinking about mixed feelings." And the philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper believed that a fetish for inarguable certainty was one of the root causes of totalitarian societies. On the whole, however, most people continue to desire a certainty that generally eludes them, which means they are susceptible to errors in question framing.

Clarity of purpose and proper framing are vital characteristics of smart questions, but we shouldn't overlook the usefulness of sincerity. When people are sincere it means they say what they mean and mean what they say. It is possible, of course, to ask insincere questions, which can be defined as those that are not interested in knowing the answer. One example of this is a rhetorical question, which can actually impede the search for knowledge. In fact, rhetorical questions are generally more concerned with making a point, often at someone's expense. Here are some examples:

1. Hey, who died and made you king?
2. Tell me, did your mom have any kids that lived?
3. What part of NO don't you understand?

The first is a backhanded way of saying someone has overstepped his or her authority. The second and to some degree the third are assertions that someone is stupid or slow. Moreover, one and two contain unproven assumptions of fact (except in the unlikely event they were actually addressed to a monarch or a ghost). Keep in mind that rhetorical questions are not necessarily useless. They can be highly effective forms of persuasion. One thing is clear, though: the person asking them isn't usually looking for an answer.

Leading questions constitute another class of insincere inquiry. They may be concerned with the answer, but they aren't designed to generate knowledge for the person asking them. Most students are familar with leading questions because professors sometimes teach by posing a series of questions whose inescapable answers lead the student to a given conclusion. As a teaching technique (often called the Socratic method) such questioning can be highly useful, but it is not always concerned with an open-ended generation of knowledge. It may even be used to narrow the knowledge that can be generated.

A lawyer in court, for example, might use leading questions to undermine or minimize evidence or testimony that raises doubts about a desired outcome. Indeed, lawyers are often told in law school never to ask a question in court unless the answer is already known. What we are concerned with here, of course, are questions asked with a genuine interest in acquiring a better understanding, and this requires an openness to hearing the answer whatever it may be.


Learning often (though not always) takes place in a social setting. After all, you could take a semester's worth of textbooks into your bedroom and read for fifteen weeks, but you would probably learn more effectively by discussing what you have read with others. Indeed, the opportunity to share perspectives, to piece together an understanding with other people, and to test interpretations in debate almost always amplifies the effectiveness of learning. When the woman sitting next to you asks a question you hadn't considered, you benefit. When the example you use to back up a point illuminates an issue for people struggling with it across the room, they benefit. Consequently, a part of your success in class depends on those around you, and a part of theirs on you.

Obviously, then, a rude or disrespectful question can undermine the search for knowledge. Why should I share an enlightening answer or idea with a jerk? This is why good questions should always be phrased in ways that respect people's dignity. Asking someone to explain an apparent contradiction in his or her beliefs or behavior need not involve a prosecutorial or "gotcha" approach.

Remember that none of us is immune from self-contradiction or error. Certainly, it's unpleasant to discover our mistakes, but it is far worse to persist in them, right? So some respect for our fellow learners goes a long way toward building an effective, trusting community, one that even allows us to be wrong once in a while.


The title of this essay is "How to Ask a Smart Question" and I have tried to lay out some general guidelines and pitfalls to avoid when you pose questions to gain a greater understanding. I wish I could tell you that asking such questions comes easily; it doesn't. Rather, it's an intellectual habit or a disciplined way of thinking that you can only learn by doing. After all, an expert can give you pointers on shooting a free throw or hitting a golf ball, but you only get good at it with practice.

I also wish I could promise you ample opportunity to learn this skill in life, but it is one of the great ironies of the modern world that we spend a lot of time thinking about Powerpoint presentations, web search engines, electronic databases and no end of splashy technological gimcrack, yet spend almost no time thinking about the nature and structure of questions. I am not sure why this is, but I suspect it may have something to do with the way good questions unsettle the certainty of what we think we know. As I mentioned earlier, human beings (college professors included) don't care much for uncertainty.

I also wonder to what degree society really wants people to ask a lot of questions. Let's face it: questions are dangerous to those who think they have the answer. And when the powerless begin to put questions to the powerful, look out. World's may change, empires may topple. And maybe, friends, this is why many colleges and universities are more likely to offer you free laptops than lessons in how use the single most powerful learning tool that humanity has ever devised: a smart question.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Carpenters, Coffee Makers and Invisibility

In the senior capstone students at my institution are required to assess the meaning, value and significance of their liberal arts education. During the first few weeks we wrestle with one central question: to what degree does horizontal critical thinking (how do we do X?) need to be framed within vertical critical thinking (is X the right thing to do?).

We begin by reading the Apology and Crito. Then we skim a chapter of Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit, in which she argues for the value of Socratic pedagogy, a method of teaching that forces students to think vertically about the moral dimensions of their choices. We also read Stephen Carter's Integrity and I have students apply his model of integrity to several ethical hypotheticals.

One I call the coffee maker hypothetical (or sometimes the coffee maker/honest carpenter hypothetical). It goes something like this:

While shopping at Target you find a $99 espresso maker that has obviously been mispriced at $39.99. You know this because you have carefully researched this particular brand and model. Are you under any ethical obligation to call this error to the store’s attention before you purchase the machine? Why? Why not?

Almost to a person my students will say that the purchaser in this situation is under no obligation to mention a possible pricing error. When I ask them why, they say the company has to honor its prices, mistake or no mistake.

Then I give them a second hypothetical:

You accept several bids to build a new garage. While reviewing them, you notice that one is a thousand dollars less than the others. Clearly, this carpenter has miscalculated his costs and will lose money on the job. Also, he's a deeply religious man and you know he would build the garage at a loss to honor his word. If you don't call the mistake to his attention, are you acting with integrity? Why? Why not?

Again, students almost always argue that it would be wrong to take advantage of the honest carpenter. They vigorously disagree when I point out that the two situations are identical and call for an identical application of any ethical principle.

“They aren’t the same,” the students protest. “One is an honest carpenter who will be substantially hurt; the other is a large corporation that won’t be hurt that much. Besides, Target probably gouges people all the time.”

It takes a while, but I can usually get students to see that the situations are in fact similar from an ethical standpoint. If we hold that it is wrong to exploit someone’s honest mistake for our selfish benefit, then the behavior of the other party and the amount of money involved are irrelevant. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong in both cases.

I was thinking of this exercise over the weekend.  I read a disturbing article in the New Yorker about a Rutgers freshman who had used his computer and web cam to record his gay roommate having sex.  Then he promoted a “viewing party” to his fellow students. The victim discovered he had been recorded and later committed suicide.  Contrary to some press reports, the sex act was not uploaded to You Tube.  Even so, this tragic series of events led to a national outcry about homophobia and the arrest of the perpetrator, who is being prosecuted for invasion of privacy and hate crimes.

What struck me while reading the article was how typical the kid was. The article included transcripts of his IMs, emails, web chats with pals, etc. He came across as a typically crass, insecure, overly self-conscious and technologically savvy 19-year old. I have dozens like him in my courses every semester. Yes, they make some stupid, adolescent male comments, but most would never do so to someone's face. 

More eye-opening to me (an admitted technophobe and Luddite) was how completely at ease the young man was with cyber-stalking his roommate, tracking his Internet usage and even using his technological prowess to spy on him.  At no time did he or any of his college friends ask, “Should we be doing this this?”  The technology made their invisibility possible and that's all it took to flip the moral safety switch.

I don’t suppose vertical critical thinking is needed more today than it was in Socrates’ day. I do know my students spend a lot more time behind technologically-enabled cloaks of invisibility. Theirs is a coolly-removed spectator generation. Morally they are no better or worse than young people have ever been, but they are at ease with their perceived invisibility.  I also know that they don’t need any more training about how to do this stuff. They already know. We've got some really bright, technologically-adept, horizontal critical thinkers in our classroom.

But about that other form of critical thinking… Well, we’ve got some work to do. Always have, I guess.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Up on the rooftops of the world

I've said it before, but one of my biggest gripes about teaching is that there is usually no one around to high five when you finally lurch unaccountably onto a good idea.  You are dying to tell someone about it, but--really--no one cares.  Indeed, sharing successes with colleagues (not to mention your spouse) makes you seem like those people who can't wait to tell you about their latest genealogy research. 

Anyway, with that warning right up front, I now relate the following:

I was so frustrated last semester with my students' lack of preparation in Humanities 101.  They were not even embarrassed about it.  So  this term I decided to make some structural changes.  In order to get into class, they must complete preparatory writing that they discuss in small groups.  Don't do the work and you'll be asked to leave.  No exceptions, no free riders.  Get the work done or get out.  Two students dropped the course after the first day.  I suspect the new policy may have been the reason. 

Those who remained, however, have been doing the work.  Now we've come to the end of the first unit and they have to compose a unit exam essay on Renaissance humanism and autonomy.  Here are the prompts they could choose from:
In-Class Essay Prompt for Renaissance Texts (select one)
The Renaissance that was born in Italy and spread throughout Western Europe in the 14th and 15th century involved a cultural movement away from the static, hierarchical nature of medieval society. Referencing a minimum of three of the six texts in this unit, discuss how artists, thinkers, theologians and scholars began to express humanist values and outlooks on the world. To what extent do humanistic values born in the Renaissance remain a part of our contemporary society?
The medieval worldview was strictly governed by an ideal hierarchy. Each person and object had a place in the well-ordered chain of being. To what degree did painters, thinkers and theologians during the Renaissance emphasize a new autonomy for individuals to define their own life paths, faith commitments and even self-image? Citing a minimum of three of the texts in this unit, discuss how the individual had greater autonomy from traditional definitions of identity. To what extent does society still celebrate and value individualism today?
The Great Chain of Being represented an ideal natural and moral order in the world. The Renaissance, however, saw a renewed interest in the humanist goal to see the world more realistically from a human perspective. To what extent do the techniques of Renaissance artists, the political views of Machiavelli and even perhaps the criticisms of Erasmus and Luther on the pre-reformation church reflect a greater realism about this world and worldly affairs? To what extent does that same realism inform our art and politics today?
So Tuesday I spent an entire class period giving them strategies for writing the unit essay.  I had them fitting evidence into a basic five-paragraph format.  Yesterday (Thursday), they brought in all of their material and wrote for 45 minutes.  Then they paired, shared their drafts and made plans for revising over the weekend.  Next Tuesday they will turn in an entire portfolio: prep assignments, research, first draft and polished draft. 

In effect, I forced them to use a process approach to learning and writing.  Had I simply said here's a take-home essay exam and it's due next Tuesday, they would have begun on Monday evening, typed for half an hour, despaired at their effort, run spell-check and hoped for the best.  By moving almost the entire writing process inside the classroom, I could assure that they actually engaged with the texts and material in a focused way.  It was actually kind of moving to watch them reading the texts and composing for 45 minutes.  It's what we professors hope is happening outside of class but almost never does.

After my students had finished writing and discussing their drafts, I explained my reasons for moving so much of the work inside the classroom.  I asked how many of them would likely have put off the essay until it was almost due.  A majority ruefully admitted that's probably what they would have done.

Then I asked how many thought they had just completed the best response to an essay exam they had ever written?   Several hands went up.  How many, I asked, feel pretty good about what you've done? Again, several hands went up.  Later, one student told me that she was trying to make a point about humanism and Renaissance architecture but couldn't find support for it in any of the texts we read.  I responded, "Why not do a little extra research over the weekend?" 

"I can do that?" she asked.

"Sure," I said.  "Why not knock a pretty good response right out of the ball park?" 

She just grinned back at me.

Another student asked if he could insert some images of Renaissance artworks into his response to illustrate his points about realism.  "Why not?" I said.  "Seems like a good idea." 

And the best part was that they could see the value of what we were doing.  They saw the qualitative difference. 

Hot damn! I wish there were someone around to high five.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...