Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Fishing" and The Art of Misdirection

My oh my! I am seriously impressed with the flurry of activity on my friends' blogs in the week that I've been away from this one. (Especially nice posts by Ideas Man on what's really wrong with Mormonism, and by chet on the death of the author/artist.) As chet rightly pointed out to me, I should extend a general apology to readers of this blog for my absence and for leaving you to stare, day after day, at that pathetic puppy face in the last post. Sorry about that. I don't have any particularly good excuses for my absence... just busy with the beginning of the semester. And, chet, I don't have an animal calendar at home.

I want to post about a probably not-so-uncommon experience I've been having this semester in my classes. (I mean "not-so-uncommon" among people who teach, that is.) At least, I hope it's not uncommon.

I always find it particularly challenging to deal with what I can only describe as students' "fishing." What I mean by "fishing" is this: a student is fishing when he or she asks a question that is ostensibly about the material at hand, only s/he isn't as interested in how your answer may illuminate something about the material as s/he is interested in how your answer may illuminate something about you personally. So, for example, I may be teaching a class on the difference between gender oppression and racial oppression and I get a question from a student about the merits and demerits of affirmative action. Sometimes this is a legitimate question... but sometimes, I can tell, it's meant to "peg" my own personal/political opinion on the matter of affirmative action. Or, to use another example, a student may bring up a contemporary moral or political problem--I don't know, just to randomly pick one out of the hat... let's say "gay marriage"--and it is is only tangentially related to the material (but still related, even if only tangentially). My suspicion is that sometimes students are fishing for information that is not related (even tangentially) to the course material. Sometimes they are fishing for information about their professor.

It isn't hard to figure out why students do this. I know I did it when I was a student. Some of the motivation is just your average run-of-the-mill curiosity about the professor (is she "cool"? can she take a joke? does she know anything about pop culture?). Some of it is more strategic, aimed at figuring out what one needs to do to gain the professor's favor (is she "liberal"? is she "conservative"? what will a person like her consider a "right" answer?). But some of it is just damn nosy (is she married? is she gay? does she have kids? is she religious?). I actually think that students "fish" like this a lot, though I don't think they always do it consciously.

This is particularly challenging, I think, for professors of philosophy. I make it a point in my classes to exert every effort at providing the strongest possible representation of the material we are reading, even (and especially) when it is a position that I don't personally hold. So, if we're reading Rawls--again, just to randomly pick one out of the hat--and it seems to me like the general vibe of the class is to be critical of the material, I think it is my responsibility as a good philosophy teacher to take the position of Rawls and present it as a bona fide Rawlsian would. Ditto on affirmative action and gay marriage. The ability to read an argument generously and reproduce it in its best form is a talent that I should have acquired in my many long years of philosophical training, and it's at least one very significant thing that separates me from my students without-a-PhD-in-philosophy.

Now, I tend to teach most things in the first person. So, when I am teaching Rawls or Aristotle or whomever, I tend to speak as a Rawlsian or Aristotelian or whomever-ian. Of course, since it is logically impossible that I could hold all of these positions as my own, that means that I am often engaged in the art of misdirection. I am, in effect, saying: "Look here at this pretty argument that I am waving in front of you as if it's the end-all-be-all of philosophy! Isn't it just fantastic?! Don't you think you could think this, too?!" When, in fact, I am usually hiding up my sleeve or behind my back the argument that is actually the really pretty and fantastic argument, to be deployed at some later date. This seems to me the only fair way to teach what it is my charge to teach. I'm not an apostle or a proselyte. My job is to teach them how to think, not what to think. But I digress....

The point, I guess, is that I still struggle with the morality of this practice. I mean, why not just make it evident what it is that I think and what it is that I think sucks? Why do I feel compelled to hide as much as possible about "me personally" from my students? (And let me tell you, it ain't always easy. I sometimes want to barf a little bit in my mouth when taking on some of the positions that I take on with such enthusiastic, though feigned, conviction.) Of course, I tell myself it is because I don't want to impede their own philosophical discovery in any way, that I know they are under certain institutional pressures to get good grades and hence please the people who grade them, and that, again, I'm a professor and not a proselyte. But the art of misdirection is a complicated and often exhuasting one. Especially when students "fish."

Sometimes I just want to say things like: "I think the only legitimate explanation for any advocacy of capital punishment is that someone wants his pound of flesh." But I know, of course, that if I were to say that, the discussion would most certainly stop there. Other times, I want to call students out on their fishing. When I answer their questions about abortion or gay marriage or afirmative action or whetever, and I see the obvious look of disappointment on their faces when they haven't gotten the salacious "secret" for which they were fishing, I want to say: "Did you mean to ask if I was gay?" I expect that would be the moment that many of them cut bait.

Anyway, the point here is that it's a struggle to decide what is dishonest or inauthentic or self-indulgently misdirectional, and what is just a part of doing my job in the best way I know how.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I am, of course quite familiar with the practice you're talking about, but really like the term "fishing" which I haven't heard before. Did you coin it? (This is just my way of trying to find out your REAL feelings about neologisms)

When it comes to personal things, I agree with you that it can be really distracting and sometimes irritating, although the well-placed personal story can serve a pedagogical use.

Over my time teaching though, I've become less convinced that it is necessary to do this in class discussions about my own beliefs. It's true that nothing turns off a conversation like students feeling they're being preached to and one always must present the best arguments for both positions --- BUT, sometimes I feel that I've earned the right to be a little preachy (this might only be because I don't believe in democracy and expect my students to learn the law along with the logos from me).

I remember the first semester that I taught ethics and we were doing moral relativism --- Several of the brighter students took the position that the implicit moral relativism of most professors (that is to say, most professors teaching their courses relativistically) turned them off from listening to them --- A similar thing happened with the very first upper-division course I talk where a student took me aside and said that while he appreciated having a chance to field a bunch of positions, he wanted more of my own evaluation. Mind you, these students are not self-selected and not representative, but it has given me pause.

One final note, I'm totally with you about sometimes wondering what in the hell is coming out of my mouth. The only fight I've ever gotten in with another faculty member at a certain notoriously deparment that you and I are both familiar with was with a faculty member who was also a former --- um, let's say member of a religious order. She didn't like the fact that some graduate student's Intro courses were nothing but "Nietzsche Nietzsche Nietzsche." I took this as a personal slight b/c in fact, my intro course has three sections, all of which end with Nietzsche.

What she failed to understand is that, even though Nietzsche is right, I try my best when teaching Augustine to make them think I'm a monk.

bernadette said...

I think this is so hard because as a professor one wants students to know that their critiques are valid. Because students have a hard time thinking their accounts or criticisms work if they are not getting any affirmation from the professor, I often find it just as hard to keep that conversation going by advocating the position against the students as by giving them the "real" critique.

I have found that at some point, maybe in the second or third class period after an account has been introduced, the wall must come down and I must acknowledge that yes, they can make such arguments against the original account. I want them to see that even in light of those critiques the original account has merit. The difficult thing seems to be holding these two things together at once.