A former student, now an adjunct at a local college, sent me this video, asking for my opinion on the pedagogical techniques exhibited therein (ht: Robert Platt). I’m curious what the pedagogical experts out there think of it.
Guilty confession: I mostly enjoyed it. To be clear: I don’t think Finkelstein is the most pedagogically adept guy I’ve ever encountered, but there is a certain charm to his Old School confrontationalism, which strikes me as an interesting blend of Socratic dialectic, Albert Ellis-style rational-emotive-behavioral therapy, 1960s-era leftism, and the idiosyncratic crankiness of a guy who’s spent one too many semesters teaching at a community college in south Jersey.
Second guilty confession: My own teaching style sometimes veers close to this; I just tend to pull back sooner than Finkelstein does, and make sure not to take things quite as far.
I’ll concede that Finkelstein may need to dial it back a bit, and maybe tune it up a bit as well, but there’s no “harassment” there, just a lot of crybaby whining about the need for a safe space for the expression of conventional right-wing attitudes.
I also suspect that there’s a subtle sort of ethno-cultural disconnect here. I hate to trade on ethnic stereotypes, but having spent a decade in a Jewish family (and more than that in a Pakistani one), I happen to find Finkelstein’s brand of argue-bellowing culturally familiar and essentially appropriate. It’s more or less what the Perskys or Khawajas would have done (did) without a second’s thought at the dinner table on an average night. Granted, it’s not how I would act–or did act–if invited to Sunday dinner in a nice Presbyterian household. The question then becomes whether the college classroom ought to be modeled on the Judeo-Pakistani dinner table or the Presbyterian one. Another possibility is that it ought to find the elusive mean between those extremes. Behold the grandeur et misere of multiculturalism.
Anyway, I long for the good old days, when students could take what profs dished out to them, and profs dished it out right good. One of my favorite undergraduate professors was an unapologetic Marxist-Leninist who used to lay into us with his unapologetically partisan leftist rants; he never used profanity or raised his voice, and operated at a higher intellectual level than Finkelstein, but the point is, like Finkelstein, he never held back. I had another professor, a conservative at the same institution, whose cranky-pants combination of cynicism, erudition, and sheer meanness was simply a joy to behold. They’ve both been pedagogical models for me ever since.
Alasdair MacIntyre took a special delight in browbeating his students; I’ll never forget the time Mark Murphy recounted the story of MacIntyre’s reading the first paper Murphy submitted to MacIntyre in grad school. “You are obviously very intelligent,” MacIntyre told him, “but your paper shows evidence of bad character.” That comment evidently reduced Murphy to tears, but there’s no shame in that; at least he didn’t report MacIntyre to some Dean for Safe Spaces. And I once had a student at The College of New Jersey tell me how much he appreciated my calling him an “asshole” in the context of a discussion about abortion (I don’t remember why); “thanks,” he said in sincere appreciation, “for keeping it real.” I like to think it’s what I do best.
And so on. These are the moments that make the job worth doing. That said, you need to build up some rapport before you tell someone to fuck his life. It’s a mistake to be so confrontational and antagonistic that you lose your audience before you ever had it. Which may be where Finkelstein has gone wrong. The guy probably just needs a break. I mean, by April, what academic doesn’t want his students to fuck their lives?
The one thing I don’t like about Finkelstein is that he interrupts his students, and allows interruptions from them. I regard that as a red line in my classroom (and in conversation generally)–won’t cross it, and won’t let others cross it, either.
Incidentally, it’s not clear that the students ever got Finkelstein’s permission to tape him. Not doing so, and putting the video on You Tube, would much more obviously be a violation of the “terms of service” that govern a classroom than anything Finkelstein has done. File under: questions unasked and unanswered. Like so many.