Re: Re[6]: Re-examining our practice

Sun, 11 Feb 1996 13:47:10 -0500

On Sun, 11 Feb 1996, Greg Ritter wrote:

> That's an entirely different issue. I concede to students who
> have greater bodies of knowledge than me in other disciplines all
> the time. What do you do, however, when a student challenges you
> and continues to persist in the challenge *in your area of
> expertise*? When the student interprets an essay in a thoroughly
> wacko way that is outside the academic standards we're supposed
> to be teaching them? When a student is offereing unconstructive
> (even destructive) criticism to peers in workshops?

The interesting thing that happens in our field of expertise, though,
is that we often confuse our "body of knowledge" (rhetoric) with
social truth. This is where arguing with students, defending positions,
etc. gets dangerous.

In regards to what *can be* "banked" in our field of experitse: what's
an ad hominem argument, what's a slippery slope, what's a red herring,
etc., then I would say arguing with a student about whether or not
he/she has the material understanding "right" is appropriate. You
see, I'm not willing to carry the Freirian thing to extremes --
*some* things are best banked. How else, for example, do you learn
your times tables (not through dialogue, persuasion, argument, etc.).

But, when it comes to exercising rhetoric (the field of our
expertise) in a discussion of issues, we cannot lay claim to
the rightness of our particular opinion regarding that issue
as long as we're talking about anything other that pure fact. To
engage a student in a debate of opinion in which you as teacher insist
that your position is "right" and his/her position is "wrong" is
pure folly. The best students (the ones who know how to play the
school game) will figure out how to finesse an agreement with you
in class, but outside of class, in conversation at the bike rack
(as a friend of mine likes to put it) nothing will have changed.
You will have succeeded in bullying your position because you
have the authority to do so. When it comes to these things that
are truly "problem-solving" issues, you have to step out of the
teacher role as much as is possible.

> Sometimes students are wrong. There are times when authority has
> to be exercised to correct students. When we exercise that
> authority through rhetorical competition (argumentation, debate)
> I think we are potentially abusing our position since we are
> "using against them" the very thing that we are supposed to be
> teaching them. That's the dilemma I am pathetically continuing to
> try to express.

Exactly. That's why we have to be clear on our area of expertise.
We can use our authority to correct students on issues of rhetoric
only. We cannot use our authority to correct their ideology, opinion,
or belief. We must insist that they promote their position in
logically sound ways, but we cannot attack the position itself.
> I do have a semi-solution, though. When I catch myself entering a
> debate with a student I immediately try to shift the role of
> "debate opponent" from me, the instructor, to the rest of the
> class.

This seems the best way to proceed. In the traditional classroom
discussion, however, you need to be very careful about the subtle
(and not so subtle) ways that you confer legitimacy on one side
of the opposition while belittling the other. This is one of the things
I like about the electronic classroom compared to the traditional
classroom -- the teacher does tend to be "leveled" as authority
figure and has a hard time conferring approval or directing conversation.

Beth Baldwin