Gimme Shelter: Safe Spaces and F-Bombs in Higher Ed

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.

7 thoughts on “Gimme Shelter: Safe Spaces and F-Bombs in Higher Ed

  1. “That said, you need to build up some rapport before you tell someone to fuck his life.”

    Uhh, yeah. I can be pretty rough with my students (high school students now, remember), but only because I have built up massive rapport with them. There’s also a question of which students — some of my students can handle my being pretty aggressive, and others might even need it, but some of them would wilt and literally cry. There’s also a major question about what you take the point of your interactions with your students to be. I take the point of mine to be encouraging and helping students to think through complicated questions and problems, ideally aiming for truth and genuine understanding but more realistically aiming for (though often not hitting) a nuanced appreciation of questions and problems. I can’t imagine any likely context in which saying “fuck your life” seriously (i.e., not ironically or jokingly) to a student would promote those goals. In fact, I can’t imagine any context in which saying that to anyone, student or not, would promote those goals. Quite generally, but especially in teacher-student relationships, we need to be wary of relying on non-rational means of persuasion to get people to agree with us or be quiet. Very often, the feeling that someone is or will be angry at me for expressing a certain opinion serves as just such a non-rational means of persuasion; perhaps that kind of thing can be appropriate in political life when achieving a goal can override getting people to sincerely agree with it, but it is not, to my mind, usually appropriate in a classroom where the whole point of discussion is supposed to be moving toward deeper understanding of something. The last thing I want is for my students to silence their sincere opinions — or worse, now that I think about it, to change their opinions — simply because they’re afraid of me being angry with them or yelling at them. People who seek to ‘win’ arguments by intimidating others are contemptible enough, but to do it to students is especially contemptible, because students are rarely our equals intellectually or, more importantly, institutionally. That’s not to say that it’s never appropriate to take an aggressive tone with a student, and as I said, some of them seem to need that kind of approach in order to really get serious. But what they never need is hostility and disrespect. I don’t really care if people in this or that culture tend to adopt this sort of approach when talking over the dinner table; unless that behavior does not, in that cultural context, express hostility and disrespect, then it’s never going to be good pedagogy — and even if it doesn’t, it still isn’t likely to be good pedagogy, because it’s one thing to yell at your cousin or your friend at the dinner table and another thing to slam the table and yell at students in your class. It’s not even strategically effective rhetoric for someone wholly unconcerned with their interlocutors’ genuine understanding (not to mention open to the possibility of being wrong — though that’s not something Finkelstein seems open to in the video). Perhaps we should resign ourselves to public political discourse remaining primarily a domain of self-indulgent preaching to the choir, but if that’s how your teachers ‘debate’ you in class, you should find another place to study. If insisting that professors not yell obscenities at me while pounding things amounts to crybaby whining about the need for safe spaces, then count me in.

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    • To be clear, since the video presents no context for this business, it’s entirely possible that Finkelstein was just responding to unwarranted hostility and disrespect from his student(s), in which case it’s less straightforwardly inappropriate for him to act that way. Assuming that he isn’t responding to similar nastiness might be prematurely buying into the interpretation the video is trying to promote. But I’ve seen this type of thing often enough that it seems entirely plausible to me that his students were just being arrogant, insensitive idiots. That happens. Not infrequently. If you can’t respond to arrogant, insensitive idiots without yelling and hitting things, you shouldn’t be a teacher.

      I say this as a teacher who has, in the past nine months, yelled and hit things more than once (though not in response to student opinions, I hasten to add; I’d have been thrilled on those days if I’d been confronted with opinions). It’s not effective at producing anything beyond temporary compliance and it just shows your bad character to your students.

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    • I wouldn’t do what Finkelstein did, but I don’t quite accept your verdict on what he did, either. What he did is understandable, and to a point, justifiable. But he clearly overdid it. And in a different sense, he seems to be underdoing things in his classroom.

      I think you’re misinterpreting the “fuck your life” comment. This may arise from my deliberate misinterpretation of it for purposes of humor, but it’s worth doubling back to figure out what Finkelstein really meant.

      The class was having a conversation about sexual harassment. Finkelstein seems to have been taking the mildly leftish stance that women suffer more from it than men. The students seem to be contesting “women suffer more from it than men” by recounting incidents in which men suffer from it. The latter move is obviously fallacious.

      Instead of pointing out that it’s fallacious, Finkelstein decides to lay into the students in a moralistic vein. (Let me come back to the propriety of doing that.) So he asks one particularly assertive student, Lyle, whether he, Lyle, had thought about how his presumably male-privileged comments would be received by others–a veiled way of asking, “How do you think real victims would hear what you’re saying, you myopic fool?”

      But Lyle refuses to answer Finkelstein’s question as asked. What Lyle does is to recount an incident from his own life, i.e., to repeat the very fallacy that started Finkelstein’s moralistic intervention in the first place. (We don’t hear the incident, but I take it that the incident was one in which Lyle was sexually harassed by a woman.) This attempt at diversion by Lyle pisses Finkelstein off because it seems to him an instance of bad faith: it seems a dishonest refusal to confront the fact implicit in the question Finkelstein is asking. Put differently, Finkelstein takes Lyle to be evading the very fact that a genuine receptivity to moral reality would require: Lyle is failing to grasp the reality of specifically female victimization. To “force” his attention back on the salient point, Finkelstein cuts Lyle off and says “Fuck your life!”

      There are two ways of interpreting this comment, “fuck your life.”

      (1) Fuck you Lyle, you little asshole! Fuck your whole life!

      (2) Answer my question, you little asshole! Don’t bring up this incident from your life! Fuck that! Answer my question asked! The incident from your life is irrelevant to my question!

      Finkelstein is asserting (2), not (1). Asserting (2) is a crude and inept way of doing a legitimate thing: a crude and inept way of forcing the student to stay on topic, at least assuming that the topic in question is the right one to be focusing one at that particular time. Hence my half-hearted defense of Finkelstein. What he is doing is not wrong. What’s wrong is how he’s doing it. But though wrong, it’s rather amusing, if you understand what he’s doing.

      I half-jokingly referred to Socrates and Albert Ellis. The serious point in the joke was that what we’re seeing here is a Jersey version of the opening of Plato’s Meno. The question is “Can virtue be taught?” And Finkelstein’s answer is the sort of answer that might be given by an exponent of old-style rational emotive behavioral therapy on the Albert Ellis model. If asked (and if he was not too cranky to answer) I think Finkelstein would reject your conception of the aims of pedagogy out of hand as overly intellectualistic. (I wouldn’t; my point is, he would.) He obviously sees the classroom as a place of quasi-therapeutic personal transformation. Whether he should do that (or anyone should) is another matter, but not, I think, a matter that can be settled by simply asserting yea or nay one way or the other. It’s not a simple matter. There are pros and cons on each side.

      If you see the classroom as a place of personal transformation, you have to get tough with your students in a way that far exceeds what would be required for purely rational persuasion of a purely intellectual sort. You have to get tough with them in a way that resembles court-mandated psychological counseling, or is perhaps a compromise between an intellectualist classroom and court-mandated counseling. On this view, you’re not merely interacting with your students as bearers-of-beliefs, whether true or false, or justified or unjustified. You’re dealing with whole persons whose whole lives demand comprehensive change.

      It’s a truism in therapy that wholesale personality transformation can’t be done by purely intellectual methods. In a Riesbeckian classroom, you can lead the horse to water but you can’t make him drink. In Finkelstein’s classroom, you don’t just lead the horse to water; you induce him to drink. The method of inducement is highly aggressive confrontation. The idea seems to be: if you get the student angry at you, he’ll be forced to confront both the issues you’re raising, and the sources of psychological resistance within him to what you’re saying. And then transformation will take place. But the transformation in question won’t be limited to mere change of belief. It’ll be a more comprehensive sort of transformation, a wholesale re-education of the student’s personality (which is what education really requires).

      That, at any rate, is my gloss on Finkelstein’s methods. I may be over-theorizing on his behalf, but I don’t think so. The thoughts I’ve put into his mouth (or head) are the kind of thing one hears from both psychologists and sociologists. They’re actually a textbook rendition of Ellis’s theorizing. I’m skeptical of it. I don’t practice it myself. But I see where it’s coming from.

      It isn’t good pedagogy to slam a table in class, I agree. But is it that big a deal? No, it isn’t. The table can’t be hurt by being slammed. There is no sense in which his slamming the table was so frightening that it should have prompted thoughts of criminal charges (which is what “harassment” is). He should be told not do it in the future. But it isn’t the material of a cause celebre, which is what it’s now becoming.

      I do think these students are crybaby whiners. For one thing, as I said before, it is a clear violation to videotape someone’s class without permission, and to upload it to You Tube without permission. Would people worried in good faith about pedagogical norms violate them so egregiously? I don’t think so. These are not people worried in good faith about pedagogical norms; they have other fish to fry. One thing Lyle said was, “I get paid to learn, not to be lectured about my beliefs.” But that touchiness reflects the attitude that his beliefs are somehow sacrosanct and untouchable: no one can “lecture” him about them, which is another way of saying that they’re not to be criticized. Everything is fine as long as you give him “information” to ingest and regurgitate. But anything more critical than that is perceived as a quasi-criminal assault.

      As I said earlier, the underlying dispute between Finkelsteinian classroom methods and Riesbeckian ones really is a version of the question at the start of Plato’s Meno: can virtue be taught? Finkelstein’s view seems to be:

      When it comes to sexual harassment, we all know what virtue is. The question is how to make reactionary Jersey boys virtuous. Riesbeck’s methods have no hope of achieving that. If you try to plumb these students’ “opinions” in the nice-guy purely-discovery-oriented way that Riesbeck recommends, they will simply profess, disingenuously, not to have any opinions. Why? To conceal the ones they actually have, and hide them from scrutiny. How do you get past that psychological defense? You have to use an aggressive therapeutic technique. You flush these students out of hiding by pissing them off, then forcing them to confront their ego-defenses and evasions–by cursing at them and shaming them, but above all, by keeping them emotionally (not merely intellectually) engaged.

      The rationale being: there is no way to induce intellectual engagement in apathetic or evasive people without engaging the passions, but the passions, once engaged, can lead to fruitful intellectual engagement.

      That’s not all right, but it’s not all wrong. If I were his supervisor, I’d say: “Finkelstein, for fuck’s sake. Don’t hit the table. Scale back the F bombs. And think a bit about what exactly you intend to accomplish in the classroom.” But I’d initiate disciplinary proceedings against the student who took the video, not Finkelstein. No better way of making them put the fucking cell phones away while in class.


      • I think most of that is wrong, actually.

        To begin with, I understand ‘fuck your life’ as you do. I also interpret Finkelstein’s point in saying it, and the assessment of the situation that led him to say it, as you do. I also understand the classroom as ideally a place of personal transformation, and my initial reaction to your suggesting otherwise was to be insulted until I remembered that I haven’t exactly explained my ideas about this sort of stuff at length. I remain somewhat puzzled about why you understood me otherwise, but that’s not important. What’s important is that while I may be relatively modest about what I can realistically achieve, what I’d like to achieve is nothing short of personal transformation, and that’s exactly why I think Finkelstein’s whole approach is idiotically self-defeating.

        Your analogy with court-mandated therapy is bad even if your therapeutic theory is right (I have my doubts about that, none of which would be allayed by being assured that such thoughts are standard among therapists, since I have abundant prima facie evidence that most therapists are bad at their jobs). Our students simply aren’t in the position that anyone in court-mandated therapy is in, and the relationships we have with them aren’t the same, no matter how much we might want them to be. Even if it works in therapy, it won’t work in a classroom except in the unusual circumstances in which the student and teacher involved have highly developed rapport and mutual understanding. The methods you take to involve ‘forcing’ and ‘inducing’ students to confront the issues won’t actually do that. Instead they’ll make them hate and resent you, or at least harden themselves against listening sympathetically to anything you say; you might think it’s working, but that’s only because your students don’t think it’s worth their time and effort to put up with your dogmatic barking at them — and dogmatic barking is exactly what they’ll take it to be. You’re not going to transform anybody’s life by shouting at them and punctuating your beliefs with table slamming; at most you’re going to fool yourself into believing that you’re changing their minds when in fact they’re just tired of listening to you and are doing what they know will make you shut up.

        This all strikes me as obvious, but evidently it isn’t, so I’ll offer as evidence the hundreds of students I’ve talked to who have described feeling this way about teachers who made them feel that they couldn’t openly express their opinions because they’d be mocked, disparaged, yelled at, or not given a good grade. By contrast, I’ve often found myself pretty effortlessly opening these same students’ minds to ideas that they’ve expressed disagreement with, and the way I’ve done that is by first making those students feel that I am accepting, open-minded, tolerant, and benevolent. Once we’re at that point, I’ve often been able to speak to them critically in ways that would otherwise be devastating or rage-inducing, but work just fine because they’re taken in the context of an established relationship. I’ve tried that whole approach where one emotively asserts propositions that the student sees no reason to believe; that has always failed, but the more benevolent, cool-headed approach has usually helped me lead students to recognize more nuance and complexity in subjects that they thought were simple. Maybe your aggression is more transformative, but I doubt it, and in any case, we see how effective Finkelstein’s is: the students he subjects to his therapy are so transformed that they post videos on YouTube complaining that he’s harassing them. Hardly Albert Ellis — and I doubt even Albert Ellis would have transformed students’ lives and minds by screaming nastily at them while hitting things.

        And yes, it does matter that he’s hitting things, though obviously not because he’s harming those things. All those times people raise their voices and shout at each other in argument, what they’re really doing, however unconsciously, is trying to intimidate their interlocutors into agreeing or at least shutting up; the message is, “agree with me or I will at least want to make you feel pain.” When, in addition to yelling, you literally hit things, you’re just unmasking the message; you’re saying, “no, I will literally hit you.” Of course people who act like Finkelstein don’t usually try to hit other people; they’re too cowardly or prudent (or both). But what other purpose does it serve? No doubt one of its effects is to generate the self-satisfaction of moral indignation, but what communicative purpose does it serve if not to intimidate others with the threat of violence? Dismissing that particular part of Finkelstein’s performance overlooks the way in which he’s trying to substitute force for reason.

        But my view of these things isn’t overly rationalistic, either. I certainly don’t imagine that all people need to do is calmly think things through. That’s especially not the case when what they need is to change their deep-seated behavioral tendencies (here is where the true part of your comparison to CBT comes in). But even then, I don’t think “tough love” is going to work on people who aren’t pretty much subject to physical coercion already (maybe in some cases coercive training institutions, and only such institutions, can bring about the change that people need — maybe so, but I’m a teacher, not a drill sergeant). My new life working with kids has given me more anecdotal evidence in support of this judgment: I’ve seen dozens of kids punished and given ‘tough love’ talks by our disciplinary officer (who is both a genuinely benevolent guy and a massively muscular former police officer who can terrify most people just by looking at them) only to go out and do all but same things over again. The kids know how to say what they’re supposed to say to get it all over with, take their punishment, and move on. It’s possible that they’d be worse without the disciplinary actions, but they’re not remotely transformed by them.

        By contrast, one student I’ve had a long series of struggles with this year illustrates my point. Among the things this child has done to irritate me and others around him is to lie blatantly to my face about things that I saw and heard him do mere minutes before he lied to me about them; upon being accused of lying, he would self-righteously and almost convincingly protest his love of truth. One day after this had happened, I walked outside to overhear him complaining to another student — who had been sitting next to him in class at the time — that I just accused him of lying even when he wasn’t; the other student scoffed that of course he was lying, and I’d had enough of it, so I confronted the kid and yelled at him — pointing my finger in his face and all that dramatic stuff — about how he needed to grow up and take responsibility for himself, about how it was obvious to everyone else around him that he was a habitual liar, and that maybe he was deceiving himself about it too, but that nobody else was fooled, and that if he was ever going to gain anybody’s trust or respect he would have to stop thinking he could be so dishonest and just pretend not to be. Lo and behold, this kid has since then stopped lying blatantly to my face, has come to admit that he has lied a bunch in the past, and has even had some mildly insightful things to say about the psychology of lying and guilt (we’re still working on self-deception). My loud lecture to him can’t be the only thing that brought this change about, and maybe some of it is just for show. But the crucial thing here is that this kid already liked me a lot. If he hadn’t, my little performance would have had no effect on him. I know that because other teachers here have been telling him this stuff for years and it’s made no difference. The aggressive confrontation worked only because we already had a strong positive relationship.

        Even so, I’d never take that approach to changing his mind about something. To put it lightly, this kid believes very few things about the world that I think are reasonable; but if I try to change his mind about religion or politics or sexuality by yelling at him and wagging my finger in his face, it’s not going to work; in fact, it’s likely to compromise the relationship I’ve built up with him.

        I don’t think most of this stuff depends on differences between high school students and college students. I didn’t have the time to build up relationships with college students like the ones I’ve already built up in just under a year of teaching high school (I spend 10-20 hours a week in class with some of these kids, as opposed to 3-5 hours a week), but the principles are all the same. The difference is that I could never have produced any positive effects by yelling at one of my college students like I yelled at my habitual liar. The reason for that is the same reason why your defense of Finkelsteinian shout-and-pound pedagogy is unconvincing: that sort of thing only works when your students love you, and you’re not going to get them to love you by screaming and hitting things.


        • Your comment ignores the fact that I hadn’t set out to defend Finkelstein, but to give a plausible explication of what I took him to be doing. I deliberately distanced myself from his actions a couple of times, and specifically said that I found his approach too confrontational, unless he had the sort of rapport that was consistent with being confrontational. So a huge proportion of your comment is either directed at a strawman, or directed at Finkelstein rather than me. (“That, at any rate, is my gloss on Finkelstein’s methods.”)

          The difference between us is that I evidently don’t have as intense a reaction to what he did as you do. But I wouldn’t adopt them, and wouldn’t wholeheartedly defend them. If I were an administrator at Brookdale College, confronted with the sort of media storm that arose, and demands for “investigations” and “punishment,” I would have no hesitation in telling the advocates of those things to back off, or fuck off, as need be. I’d call Finkelstein into my office, say something on the order of “Howie, Howie, come on now,” and leave it at that. Which is all that it deserves. It simply is not credible to believe that a bunch of Jersey college kids is all that freaked out about someone’s banging on a table and saying, “Fuck your life.” But I wouldn’t neglect to ask the students if they had permission to videotape the class, and take them to task for doing so if they didn’t.

          I don’t see what’s wrong with my analogy with court-mandated therapy. You’ve admitted one element of similarity, and the other strikes me as obvious. First element: both therapy and the conception of pedagogy that we evidently share aim at personal transformation. Second element: court-mandated therapy involves people who aggressively don’t want to be transformed, and act accordingly; so do a lot of classrooms, including, apparently, Finkelstein’s. That strikes me as sufficient to make the point I was making.

          I can assure you that almost none of what you’re saying is obvious, at least to me. Also less-than-obvious is your standing to say any of it. You have, by your own admission, maybe a year’s worth of experience with, let’s call them, behaviorally challenged students. One year’s worth of experience at one institution is a relatively weak basis for generalizing about such students. And that’s allowing for the greater time you spend with students than many college professors do; as it happens, the time I spend with my students isn’t confined to the time I spend in the classroom.

          Anyway, I have more than two decades’ worth of experience with them, and my experiences overlap demographically with Finkelstein’s (not exactly, but fairly closely). Your generalizations don’t stack up against the variety one encounters over two decades at eight or nine institutions. Among the few generalizations that hold true: people (including students) are surprising. Contrary to your confident assertions, some students really do respond to what others might regard as brutal treatment. And some students have it coming, whether it effects the intended characterological or behavioral transformation or not.

          Yes, Finkelstein got things wrong in this case, but yelling and profanity are not always wrong. What would you say about the very anecdote I offered–the TCNJ student I called an “asshole,” and who took it well? Granted, I didn’t yell at him. But it’s an unusual student who will tolerate being called an asshole in class, and then praise you for it. And when you teach two decades, it can be amazing how many “unusual” students you encounter. Your main example of a behaviorally challenged student is a habitual liar. What about the student who habitually smears his shit or piss on the walls of the bathroom? Or the one who habitually and defiantly refers to the black women in class as “bitches” and “niggers”? Or the one who confesses to plagiarizing every paper she’s ever written, then tries to blackmail you by threatening to report you for sexual harassment if you take her up on plagiarism charges? No yelling or profanity allowed in any of these cases?

          Here’s a case discussed in CHE. It doesn’t involve a perfect analogy–Mullen was not a student at the university, and Lawton was not in a classroom. I would agree that Lawton’s behavior is too confrontational for the classroom. But those differences aside, I agree with FIRE’s take on the incident as a whole: Lawton’s behavior was not optimal, but not the basis for a reprimand.

          Mullen is a literal cry baby in this example. I don’t see the need to express any sympathy for her.

          I take the university’s response to the legislators to be an expression of cowardice. I wouldn’t have responded to Mullen as Lawton did, but I also wouldn’t have disciplined Lawton as she was, and wouldn’t assume a priori that the consequences of Lawton’s treatment of Mullen will in the long run necessarily be adverse. Maybe they will be adverse, maybe they won’t. But I wouldn’t be as confident about it as you sound.

          As for this….

          Even if it works in therapy, it won’t work in a classroom except in the unusual circumstances in which the student and teacher involved have highly developed rapport and mutual understanding.

          All I attributed to “working in therapy” was “getting tough,” without specifying how tough or in what form. So the referent of your “it” is vague to the point of obscuring what I said. I don’t see, as a general matter, why methods that do work in therapy couldn’t work in a classroom. But since we don’t really know the circumstances described in the Finkelstein-Lyle case, we don’t know about the relationship that Finkelstein has with his other students. Maybe they have a highly developed rapport and mutual understanding. Maybe he thought he had the same with Lyle, and miscalculated. Maybe he does have the same with Lyle, and it didn’t come out in the press coverage. Naturally, there’s been no press coverage of the incident since April 18 or so, when the story broke. So we don’t even know where Lyle stands on the matter at this point. In short, there are more unknowns here than knowns.

          If no one ever gets transformed by being yelled at in dogmatic fashion, how does basic training work in the military? The Marines are not known for their genteel manners, and yet erstwhile Marines insist that the time they spent in the Marine Corps transformed them: “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” I’m not saying I endorse the methods they adopt, but if the issue is the sheer causal efficacy of transforming someone’s character by brutally harsh means, we have abundant evidence that it’s possible. You admit as much in a parenthetical, but contrary to the way you put it, the admission amounts to a concession: it doesn’t matter that you happen to be a teacher rather than a drill sergeant; the point is that the methods of the drill sergeant work on some people, whether you’re willing to employ them or not.

          Not quite drill sergeant methods, but don’t you remember this scene from “Stand and Deliver”?

          No profanity and no yelling, but he does just come out and insult/threaten his students (“nethead”?! “break your neck like a toothpick, click!”). Are you sure that it wouldn’t work, or that it’s just a case of film-dramatics? I’m not.

          But you seem to insist on knowledge whose basis is obscure, even when it adds nothing to your argument, and even when it responds in advance to a claim no one has made:

          Your analogy with court-mandated therapy is bad even if your therapeutic theory is right (I have my doubts about that, none of which would be allayed by being assured that such thoughts are standard among therapists, since I have abundant prima facie evidence that most therapists are bad at their jobs).

          I’m referring to the last clause of the parenthetical, which inspires the obvious question: like what? Many therapists are bad at their jobs, but many therapists do a job that no one but a therapist could do. I don’t know many philosophers or classicists who could handle a psychotic episode that was taking place in front of them and demanded immediate action.

          When, in addition to yelling, you literally hit things, you’re just unmasking the message; you’re saying, “no, I will literally hit you.”

          That’s bad psychoanalysis. The more economical explanation: Finkelstein hit the table because he was momentarily frustrated; he was momentarily frustrated because his student was evading his question, which in his view demanded an immediate and affirmative answer. There’s no “message” there to “unmask” beyond “Boy, am I having a shit day!” Or: “I don’t get paid enough for this shit! I really don’t!”

          Maybe your aggression is more transformative, but I doubt it, and in any case, we see how effective Finkelstein’s is: the students he subjects to his therapy are so transformed that they post videos on YouTube complaining that he’s harassing them. Hardly Albert Ellis — and I doubt even Albert Ellis would have transformed students’ lives and minds by screaming nastily at them while hitting things.

          My aggression is several notches below Finkelstein in that video. You’d have to do a longitudinal study on my students to know what it does to them.

          To belabor the obvious: We don’t actually know how effective Finkelstein is, and a bunch of half-assed newspaper articles in the Jersey press is not going to tell us. Yes, some of his students were upset with him a few weeks ago. But those aren’t the only students he has, or has had, right? And we don’t even know where those students stand as of May 7. Student attitudes can be pretty mercurial (or evanescent).

          As for Ellis, I was very far from defending him. This video below is Ellis-in-action when no one is around to contradict him. I’d say: even in cases where his claims happen to be true–cases where he’s confronting an all-out whiner–this is not the way to convey them. But the fact remains that people found themselves transformed for the better by Ellis’s ridiculous methods, and trust me, he got a lot more obstreperous when contradicted by a real-live interlocutor:

          I honestly don’t know how he made it through his career without getting his ass kicked. He’s got to be one of the shittiest major therapists in the history of the field. I don’t know if he ever hit things, but he did his fair share of yelling. The Gestalt therapists did some of the same sorts of thing, and the Janovs (pioneers of Primal Scream therapy) went beyond that.

          My point isn’t that such methods are the gold standard in therapy, but that their transformative power was mixed rather than nugatory. I myself wouldn’t practice them, but if I were supervising someone who did (whether in the therapeutic context or the pedagogical one), I’d call their methods into question without putting an end to their use of them. If someone really believes that Ellis-like methods work, I’m sure he can point to some cases where it does–because there probably are cases where it does. If you go back and re-read your comment, you’ll see that you yourself oscillate between ruling out the very possibility that harsh methods could work, and taking the more moderate line that they are unlikely to work. I take the more moderate line. Because I do, I make allowances for people at either extreme–I get where they’re coming from–without actually adopting either.

          In any case, the employment of Ellis/Finkelstein-type methods is hardly the stuff of a major controversy. You don’t see news cameras descending on the offices of inept Ellis-oriented therapists demanding apologies for the slights suffered by the victims of inept therapeutic techniques. Somehow, though, when it happens in a classroom, it become natural to turn every trifle into a controversy.

          The difference is that I could never have produced any positive effects by yelling at one of my college students like I yelled at my habitual liar. The reason for that is the same reason why your defense of Finkelsteinian shout-and-pound pedagogy is unconvincing: that sort of thing only works when your students love you, and you’re not going to get them to love you by screaming and hitting things.

          Your UT and Dartmouth students weren’t Finkelstein’s Brookdale students. “Never” is an overstatement. I wasn’t defending Finkelstein–was mostly just explicating and excusing him. We don’t know how his other students regard him. We don’t even know where Lyle stands on the matter. I also think that the use of the gerund “screaming” involves a bit of an exaggeration.

          But I’m now curious enough to want to ask Finkelstein himself to weigh in on the issue. Assuming he’s still reachable at his Brookdale College email address. And assuming he doesn’t tell us to fuck our lives.


          • I don’t think asking Finkelstein would offer much especially valuable evidence, since part of the problem here is that students routinely try to tell their teachers what they want to hear, so it’s quite possible that he thinks he’s effective but isn’t. The really valuable evidence would be hearing what Finkelstein’s students think about how his teaching affected them, and hearing from them in contexts where they would feel minimal pressure to say anything other than what they honestly think. Of course what they think might be pretty ridiculous, but even so I don’t think even ridiculous student opinions are irrelevant to determining how ‘transformative’ a teacher is.

            As for my standing to talk about what is and isn’t effective in teaching, I think teaching for 11 years, assistant teaching for two more, and having been a serious university student for 5 years before that, during all of which time I have been interested in and reflected on what does and doesn’t make for effective teaching, is sufficient. Of course you can dismiss me as less experienced than you if you want; that’s up to you.

            I don’t disagree with much of what you wrote above, but I also don’t see it as undermining my opposition to adversarial teaching, whether in the bashing-and-shouting mode or not. First of all, I’m not sure how much you and I disagree given that we both acknowledge the importance of building rapport and a generally positive relationship before being ‘tough’ on students. With some students, I say things that, taken out of context, could be presented on on-line videos to make me look like a complete asshole, but the context of the relationship makes a world of difference, and I suspect that it makes a big difference with you as well. Second, it seems to me that the difference between behavioral and intellectual contexts makes the tough therapist a poor model for teaching, even if it’s a good model for therapy (my evidence for many therapists being ineffective is the large number of people I’ve known who have sought therapy who have found little or nothing of lasting value in it or had to go through a series of therapists before they did; that’s not a blanket denunciation of therapists, and I benefited from therapy especially as a teenager, but if we judge by transformative outcomes, I think I have good prima facie reason to believe that most therapists are not regularly producing it). Changing someone’s behavior is in many ways easier than changing someone’s view of the world; I suspect that’s one reason why many therapists do not see it as part of their goal to bring about any dramatic changes in their patients’ worldviews. Even if military training does regularly produce that kind of change — and I’m not sure it does except in fairly circumscribed ways; otherwise I’d expect vets to have more uniform views than the vets I’ve encountered do, although with vets, as opposed to students and people who have experienced therapy, I have rather less first-hand experience — surely it isn’t incidental that military training tends to be totalizing in a way that classrooms rarely are. I mean, sure, maybe if we had the kind of authority over our students that drill sergeants do over recruits, we could turn them into thoughtful, wisdom-loving liberals by mostly giving them commands to do things and barking authoritatively at them, but we don’t, and would you really want to even if you could? What is called for in dealing with shit smearing, plagiarism, overt expressions of racism, and blackmail is not what is called for in leading students to think, learn, understand, and appreciate truths opposed to their entrenched intuitions, or even to behave themselves long enough to stand a chance to learn and understand. Even in strictly behavioral cases, you’re not likely to get more than coerced compliance out of aggressive demands without a context of rapport and affection.

            But you don’t need to take my word for it. Psychological work like Haidt’s supports the point that people are more likely to entrench themselves in their beliefs than to change their minds when confronted with what they take to be hostile opponents, and pedagogical research and practice like Jim Fay and Foster Cline’s points in the same direction not only for getting students to think, but even for just getting them to behave.

            I note that the first review of you on says “more teachers need to respect their students as he does and talk to us like adults.” Easily the most common thing I hear about my teaching from students is that they like how I respect them and talk to them like adults. Sounds like you and I share similar practices whether or not we disagree in theory.


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