Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Question of Discipline

Lenny Sanchez, one of my students, came by to go over his last paper and plot strategy for his next one. When talking about future iterations of the course, he suggested to me that one way I might work more classroom dialogue into the class is by reducing my coverage of history by as much as half and making students much more accountable for their reading in order to obtain historical knowledge. The need to make more time for discussion is vital. Where we’ve had most of the open discussion is during the prep sessions. But it’s at that point that they’re most able to actually discuss the material, as they begin to argue with a background of knowledge. And the dialogues are superb. We do need more of those moments, though. Two or three a term isn't enough.

Of course this constructive engagement comes to me by way of one of the most methodical undergraduate students I’ve met in my career. I can count on Lenny to read. The same is not true of most undergraduates. But his point is well taken—I do mirror their reading a great deal. The current system is not adding as much value as it could. Lenny asked me what the central message of the course was. I told him that the central message is that while the content of any prejudice is entirely constructed, prejudice itself is endemic to human nature. The content of a particular prejudice is taught, but in the absence of that teaching, we’d simply go ahead and create new prejudices reflexively. The most that we can do is to internalize the discipline of trying to control our bias. This is a lifelong struggle. We will never be beyond the effect of prejudice. Lenny’s response was to say that my core message is getting lost in the history. What could be more disturbing for a teacher?

The multiple choice quiz is undoubtedly unpopular. What I used to do for students in the writing link is make them timeline, which frankly, seems to me to be far more work. Yet I’ve never encountered the resistance to the timeline that I do to the multiple choice quiz. It’s as if the students resent the very fact that they are required to use their memory. That itself I find offensive. One can’t speak coherently about the facts if one doesn’t know them. Yet if it is my goal to better prepare them for the paper, I personally think the timeline is more beneficial. Perhaps I should return to that.

I’ve never really liked the idea, but I might try using the Socratic method and just randomly call on people to present the material and assume they’ve internalized the data on a level necessary to discuss it. I don’t know quite what to do yet. I do know that I can’t teach this the way I teach an intro level class. In order to understand this, they must reach a higher level of discipline. If they don’t attain that discipline needed to understand it, it is definitely better that they not attempt it at all. I actively prefer that they not. The half-baked idiotically loose images that people have of this conflict are a core part of why it is so lethal. I refuse to become part of the problem. But Ellis has always made a point of telling me, “Look, Talal, I understand what you’re saying. But that isn’t going to shut down their curiosity. They’re still going to look for an easy answer. Slapping their hand and telling them to behave isn’t going to solve the problem.”

At the start of term, Glenn Mackin and I were having a conversation. He suggested that the ideas are what make the detail worthwhile. But the difficulty is that one can’t understand these particular ideas well without a strong command of the detail. But I need to find some way of making them want to master the detail. What they want is a fun little pseudo-seminar where they get a smattering of the tastes and colors of the ideas and get to play with them and explore. That’s absolutely out of the question. That said, there is a place for play and exploration, even with ideas as potentially lethal as these. But I’m having trouble finding the boundaries.

How do you make someone want an arsenal of facts at their command?