Explanation Addiction

Wow. It's nice to have access to blogger again. For some reason most of the past two weeks had me suspicious that my University had blocked blogger for some reason. I even sent an email to IT about it, but since it's summer and they only work from 3:00 to 3:15PM on Tuesdays instead of their normal semester schedule of 2:00PM to 3:ooPM Monday through Wednesday, I figured it was just sitting in some email inbox somewhere waiting to be deleted.

So I've been working away most days but since I have a deadline looming, there's no better time to blog. I don't understand why when I have to write, I don't really feel like it, and write in order to procrastinate.

But today I have excuses that are really good. I have a very sore shoulder and can't move around that easily without pain. So it's slowed the progression of the day. It's ok because once my shoulder recovers, tomorrow I'll make up everything that I didn't get done today. Yea, right. Anyway. . .

I've been enjoying teaching this summer as I decided to scrap my now 4 year old public speaking teaching "cow path" (as Burke might call it) and venture out into the fields without a guide. I handed out a syllabus that was almost one page and have been playing it by ear. Here's what I've picked up so far from this experiment:

1. Students give much better speeches if they are given an area of exploration from which to write the speech.

2. 4-5 pages of reading seems to get more participation than a whole chapter or article.

3. Addressing concepts, or realms of thought with formal speeches as tools (say, protists and microscopes) communicates to them concepts and ideas for effective speaking that I would not have been able to do with a traditional approach.

4. Students behave strangely when given no explanations. Often the way people who are smokers behave when they go cold turkey.

This June I gave a few lectures in Japan about debating and arguing. Most of these were about assumptions people who are uninitiated have about it. One of the things I referenced a ton was the fantastic Ranciere book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, using it as the exception that proves the rule when teaching debate. Often times it's just you and a student trying to come to a satisfying critical conclusion about the quality of a text.

In this book, Ranciere details the idea that explanation is self-serving, keeping students at a perpetual distance from learning, making them dependent on teachers for all information and thought. The argument goes that ignorance is the best point of departure for teaching because it focuses on verifying the thought instead of comparing it to what it's "supposed to be." Evaluation centers on thinking - the quality of thought that goes into a work by a student - instead of lining up something that might be the tracing of the instructor's explanation.

So after returning to the U.S. I tried to embrace this idea in Public Speaking with some pretty good results. I have the class broken into modules/themes: First on the role of language, second on propaganda, and the upcoming last week will be about intellectualism. The texts are speeches, book segments, academic articles, and whatever else I think might be good to look at. In the end, the speeches have been much better than any other class, except for the addiction part. You have to be careful not to give them what they want. And they try to trick you the way good recovering addicts should attempt to trick their caretakers.

Everyone's class discussion contributions end with a question, or questioning tone. This cannot be acknowledged. I try to rephrase people's contributions after they say them and ask them if this is what they meant. They wait for me to tell them whether this is correct or not. It takes some struggling to get them to realize I am just clarifying what they said.

It's tough to enter the conversation with your own opinions as an equal. This is not what they think it is - they think it is the "real answer." One's rhetoric has to be shaped to show that it is not the answer but perhaps a poorly thought out reaction to the text. The purpose of entering the conversation as an equal is to stimulate more contributions from the students, not to shape or extract particular responses from them. This is really hard to do, and I miss it nearly every day. More study of technique is required. Ranciere's schoolmaster had the benefit of being able to teach subjects that he knew nothing about or could not explain (teaching French to people with whom you have no common language is the first example in the book). How does the expert teacher rhetorically figure ignorance?

Is that figuration enough or does one really have to be ignorant?

This experience has made me want to teach an online class as I feel that the decentered nature of such a course might make these explorations more insightful.