Perspective by Incongruity

Kenneth Burke has this great tool, or method or heuristic device - I’m not sure what to call it. He calls it “perspective by incongruity” and what it does it help you see something in a disturbingly new way. You use the wrong sort of heuristic or perspective in order to understand, or convey understanding about something that if you just did it the normal way you wouldn’t get your idea across.

When you put two perspectives or two terms together that do not match up or do not come from the same narrative, you get at the same time a lot of fog, but you also get a lot of movement - of trying to see through, around, and past it. This movement and the fog (metaphorical of course) gives you the chance to see things a bit differently than you would have normally.

When I teach public speaking I often teach this as a way of providing statistics so they won’t bore the audience. “Tell the audience how many Yankee stadiums on opening day that is,” I’ll say, “Or how many Manhattans.” These are images everyone has in mind and can easily scale and scope the harm or benefit of the idea being conveyed in the speech.

But the other day I had this happen to me in a way that surprised me, it was totally unintentional and it really opened up my thinking about teaching.

I had a student come to office hours to work on a speech. We were trading ideas back and forth and building arguments. It was a great meeting. I happened to notice his laptop was really cool looking, really light, and had a great screen. I asked him about it and he said it was a Macbook Air.

“yea it’s great,” he said, “My sister gave me this to use in college.”

After he said that, I saw him totally differently. He wasn’t a student working on a speech, he was someone’s brother, someone’s son, a friend, a cousin - someone his family was so proud of for attending college. Someone who was very close with his family, who wanted the best for him. The gift of the laptop opened up this new perspective that I was sitting with someone who really meant a lot to other people.

This small moment of contact -where I was forced into imagining my student as someone who was deeply cared about, and a source of pride for a family I’ll never meet - seems like something that can hedge against the common, cynical tales of students that ooze about the halls of academia.

I hate that students are talked about, then become, something in the way of our work, something lazy that we have to deal with, headaches who keep coming back, who won’t listen. Here’s a young person who is just doing his best. He’s trying, and people have invested in him. The gift of a laptop on top of the cynical student discourse is incongruous enough to let in the chance for some new identifications.

I wish there were easier, or even constructed ways to plan to humanize students for their professors. I think even the most caring of us grow a bit calloused after a few semesters on autopilot. But caring, really deep caring, is essential for excellent teaching. I’ve been convinced of that for a while. Caring about more than rules and policies or material and weeks left in the term. These students, who have made their families proud, who have been given special things to carry with them to help them on their journey, deserve an experience in higher education, an experience that will confront who they are and point to who they could choose to be.

The revolutionary educational experience will not come from cynicism, from re-enforcing the norms of the corporate world, from worrying about your students not being able to hold down a job. It will come from the recognition that they are here to get better. Whatever that means, it is not compatible with the idea that they are here to cheat and trick you out of points.

How do we encourage this perspective by incongruity? How do we increase the chances of this sort of encounter?