Pedagogical Failures

A dialogue, paraphrased from reality:

Me: Ok, so we agree that this character was in part causally responsible for the death. But should we think that he bears some moral responsibility, too? Isn’t he in part to blame for it?

Student 1: Wait, what do we mean by ‘morally responsible’?

Me: I intended it as equivalent to blameworthy, at least in this context; maybe if he were morally responsible for a good thing, he’d be praiseworthy, so they’re not equivalent, but they come to the same in this case. But maybe we should distinguish them?

Student 2: Well, wait, I don’t think it makes sense to think of ‘responsibility’ as anything other than that. Like, to be responsible is to be morally responsible. It’s weird and confusing to say that someone is responsible when they just helped cause a thing but can’t be blamed for it.

Me: Ok, what if we describe him instead as a ‘causal contributor’? Can we agree that being a causal contributor might or might not be necessary for being morally responsible or blameworthy, but it isn’t sufficient?

Student 2: Yeah, I just think it’s weird to talk about ‘causal responsibility.’

Me: I think I agree with you; it’s a bit odd to call it a kind of responsibility when you aren’t really answerable for the outcome because you can’t be blamed for it.

Student 2: Well then why did you write the term ‘morally responsible’ on the board? Phhbbbbt.

Me: Oh, because that’s the terminology that people often use in philosophical and legal contexts.

Student 2: Hrmp. That’s stupid.

I’m not sure my students understand that part of what I try to do with them is help them understand the language and concepts that educated people actually use. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Student 2 thinks of her participation in class as aimed at learning anything. Nor am I at all sure that she differs wildly from her classmates in this respect.

But hey, at least sometimes we talk seriously about serious things, occasionally even the things I have assigned for them to read.

3 thoughts on “Pedagogical Failures

  1. That’s not failure; it’s screaming success. You don’t know how lucky you are to have students who give the slightest shit about the words that come out of your mouth.

    Student 2 may not see her participation in class as aimed at learning anything, but whether she does or not, she’s learning how to talk and think seriously about serious things, which is more than good enough. Eventually, retrospectively, she may come to conceive of what happened as “learning.” Which is a lot more than good enough. Of course, none of this can be “assessed,” and little of it is likely to count as “learning” in the literature on “transfer of learning.” But it’s what a liberal arts education is.

    Surely we are not driven to theories of this kind, in order to vindicate the value and dignity of Liberal Knowledge. Surely the real grounds on which its pretensions rest are not so very subtle or abstruse, so very strange and or improbable. Surely it is very intelligible to say, and that is what I say here, that Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.

    That’s Newman in The Idea of a University. Talk about a lost cause! And yet it has its attractions. Amazing that I can say that as I’m both grading and fasting…

    Of course, I have a long way to go. On both things.

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    • Oh, I don’t doubt that it could be worse and is actually worse in other places. I bemoan it in part because my past experience teaching in colleges and universities was almost never like this at all, in part because some of the time some of my students actually engage with me in ways that are aimed at understanding something we’re talking about rather than dismissing it and derailing the discussion, and in part because this particular discussion had been one in which that was generally happening until it got derailed. Perhaps the fault lies in my lack of literary talents; I don’t think I brought out well enough how transparently contemptuous the exchange was. It reads almost like an honest attempt to make sense of a confusing equivocal use of ‘responsibility.’ But trust me, what was ‘stupid’ was not the equivocation, but my having put it up on the board.

      But I also get plenty of stage time with apparently nobody giving a shit about what I am saying. Today I tried to interpret the final chapter of The Brothers Karamazov in a way that accounted for why Alyosha is the hero of the novel and for how his life and action respond to the challenge of Ivan’s rejection of God and the world — you know, the way in which the novel addresses its central themes, which also happen to be of immense philosophical and existential importance. Let’s just say that I’d be an awful actor, because my attempt to ignore how many of my kids were acting like I was telling them the most boring and pointless thing they’d ever heard was, well, unsuccessful.

      Luckily, I have a few students who reliably care enough at least to pretend to be interested. So I did not in fact collapse in despair. But some days I get awfully close. If your experiences are regularly as bad as you say, I just wouldn’t be able to do what you do. I still get enough positive response and serious engagement in my classes to leave me hopeful enough to be disappointed.

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      • Yeah, I didn’t read that exchange as transparently contemptuous on Student 2’s part. It seemed a reasonable conversation on both sides, considering that one party was a high school student. I actually read it as an honest attempt to make sense of “responsibility.”

        The Brothers Karamazov doesn’t strike me as the kind of text that can successfully be taught at the high school level. It’s too long, and the maturity level required to appreciate it is well beyond the maturity level of most 16-18 year olds. I don’t remember exactly when I first read it, but I was well into my 20s, maybe close to 30. I was riveted by it, but might not have been in high school. I taught it as a TA at Princeton in a 300 level political theory class. The students had a week to read it, the lecturer gave two 50 minute lectures on it, and I had 50 minutes to discuss it. You’d think I’d remember how it went, but I don’t.

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