By now some of you might have heard of this strange story. An instructor of introductory writing classes at Dartmouth threatened for a while to sue Dartmouth and several of her students because they resisted her ideas, or something like that. The story looks complicated, and based on her own statements and those of students it seemed the instructor had a number of problems that had nothing to do with unruly students. (Follow the various links in the story.) Some have interpreted this controversy as the typical result of the relativist absurdity run amok in the humanities. While there is plenty of absurdity in the humanities these days, a more mundane interpretation might be that this instructor just wasn’t a very good teacher. Specifically, it seems to me she failed in at least three ways: she tried to base her authority on her degree rather than her abilities (based on student comments); she treated her students with disrespect; and she mistakenly thought her job was to teach French theory and something called “science studies” when in fact her job was to teach them college writing. Generally, though, she was unable to establish a proper ethos in the classroom, in part because of a failure of logos. All teachers can learn lessons from this.
Ethos and logos are two of the three standard appeals in classical rhetoric, the third being pathos. Logos is the appeal to reason. Ethos is the appeal based upon the character of the speaker. Both of these are crucial for establishing authority in classrooms, at least in classrooms of intelligent college students. Both our intellectual abilities and our characters affect how students view us.
Our writing instructor blamed the students for being resistant to French theory, among other things. If she was a product of the same sort of English department I toiled in, she had probably been surrounded for years by people who were unable or unwilling to challenge the theories propounded by their professors. Once one leaves the intellectual hothouse of graduate school, one necessarily meets people for whom the phrases “Foucault says” or “according to Lacan” carry no argumentative weight whatsoever, and some graduate students aren’t prepared to respond to the normal reaction to such a statement, which is “So?” Lacan may be like a god to radical psychoanalysts, but nothing he says is likely to be accepted by critical people without a lot of argumentation. Unfortunately too many academics take a hagiographic approach to too much French theory. French theory is so alien to Anglo-American intellectual traditions that to use if effectively, one needs to start at the beginning and build the necessary base upon which one can later erect the extravagant superstructure. One cannot rely upon the claim that one’s graduate training proves one is correct. One has to be able to make arguments and overcome objections. The problem is that these so-called “theories” are hardly self-evident and rarely subject to verification or falsification, which makes them difficult to prove. Nevertheless, regardless of their validity or lack thereof, or even whether they would implicitly deny their own validity and render moot why anyone would accept them, it is still necessary and possible to provide arguments for why anyone would even find these thinkers compelling.
This is logos in the classroom. At eighteen college students may be immature in various ways, but they’re rarely stupid, at least ones at places like Dartmouth or Princeton. The students I teach are usually very intelligent and also very critical. To treat them as babes who should sit at the feet of their French masters and accept everything told to them without argument is disrespectful both of them and of the common activity of learning in which we should all be engaged. Nothing I read made it sound like the students were just rowdies, at least until their criticisms had been ignored. The students were critical and challenged ideas. That’s what college students should do, though never in a belligerent way. If teachers cannot respond effectively to legitimate criticism of their ideas, then it’s clear that either their ideas are faulty or that they have insufficient grasp of them. Either way, the fault is in the teacher.
I had little sympathy for the teacher in this situation because she seemed to place an inordinate amount of importance on her degree rather than her abilities, as if this is enough to establish intellectual authority. We’ve probably all known plenty of people with PhDs who were nevertheless intellectual lightweights. I’ve taught several writing seminars at Princeton similar to the one at Dartmouth. I didn’t go to an Ivy League university and I don’t have a PhD, but I’ve never had any trouble establishing my intellectual authority with students or responding to their criticisms. I’ve also not had any trouble with students resisting my readings, whether those readings are liberal, socialist, feminist, or conservative. Almost any reasonable arguments can be made compelling if taught properly.
I think the main reason students don’t challenge me belligerently is because I deliberately try to cultivate an ethos based both on logos and on mutual respect. First, logos. I assume that every reading in my class is up for argument, and indeed choose sources that argue with each other. They might all be wrong, but they can’t all be right. Logos in a class such as this requires taking both sides with equal rigor. The best way to appreciate any argumentative text is to read it three times. First, as sympathetically as possible, trying to get into the mindset of the writer and understand why such an argument would be appealing and making the best possible case for the reading at hand, whatever it may be. Second, as contrarily as possible, subjecting every statement to as rigorous and hostile critique as possible. Only after these two approaches is it possible to approach an argument open-mindedly, understanding both its merits and faults. The assumption is always that people make their arguments in good faith and have justifiable reasons to believe as they do, even if I think they’re absolutely mistaken. But what I think doesn’t matter. Learning to write academic essays shouldn’t be about learning to regurgitate what the instructor thinks about an issue or to parrot the party line, but instead learning to enter critically into a scholarly conversation on a particular issue.
This technique is shunned by zealots who think they’re absolutely right and everyone else is absolutely wrong. The zealots rarely engage counterarguments and surround themselves with the like-minded. Unfortunately this unwillingness to engage counterarguments makes them intellectually slack until they reach the point they cannot defend their ideas against criticism and instead try to dismiss their critics without bothering to reason with them. Hence, assumptions such as that people who don’t agree with you are just evil or stupid or ignorant or intellectually resistant whatever. That might be the case for some people, but pretty much any theoretical point of view has articulate defenders somewhere. If you can’t understand why someone would believe other than you do about an issue, then you just don’t understand the issue. For example, if you can’t understand the appeals of liberalism, conservatism, socialism, feminism, libertarianism, republicanism, communitarianism, communism or whatever ism has attracted articulate followers in the past century or so, then that usually shows an lack of knowledge and imagination on your part.
Despite the neglect of the zealots, it’s remarkable how effective this approach is in the classroom, both for teaching students how to think critically and challenge their own dull and often unsupported ideas and for teaching an ethic of respect that should carry on into classroom discussion. Such a discussion makes it clear to students that we are all fallible human beings who argue and disagree but that it’s possible to come together in an intellectual endeavor, even if just for the brief period of the seminar. While avoiding the easy relativism of saying there’s no right and no wrong and I’m okay and you’re okay, I still try to convey the undeniable fact that when discussing politics and rhetoric there is room for healthy and considerate disagreement. Such is the case with French theory as well. The way to handle objections from students isn’t to assert your alleged intellectual authority, but to establish that authority in their minds by meeting their objections with better counterarguments while still showing you respect them as interlocutors. Classroom discussion is a rhetorical activity. In the humanities, at least, teachers have to persuade, not just dictate, if they want to be taken seriously by serious students. It’s not that hard if you know what you’re talking about.