Texts [That] Don’t Care

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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I am preparing for a course I teach and that means deciding between a number of books that I could assign. As always, the experience reminds me how much I prefer assigning texts whose meaning is either opaque or whose arguments are incomplete or even objectionable.

Since I teach future teachers, this is generally at odds with how students have learned to read (or at least, how to read texts assigned to them for courses). Mostly, they have taken what we call “methods” courses whose goal is to make a subject that is unfamiliar more familiar. In these kinds of courses, the goal of the assigned texts is to aid in this process; they should inform and judged by how well they inform.

Since I teach in an area we call “foundations of education” (philosophy of… , history of… etc.), texts play a different role in my classes. They can, of course, inform, but their primary job is to provoke and furnish material that inspires reflection. (Of course, texts can do both, by providing information that is provocative in itself.)

To prepare students for this different way of approaching course materials, I have found it useful to give the following explanation:

The great thing about examining a text is that it doesn’t care. It doesn’t care if you throw it against a wall in frustration or nod your head in agreement. It doesn’t care if you put it down because you find it intolerable or if you find it so good that you can’t stop reading. It doesn’t care if you can’t get out of your head or if you hardly bring yourself to think about it. It doesn’t care if you agree or disagree with parts of it or which parts are which. The author doesn’t know you and may not care to know you, which is great in what it allows you to do with what he or she has written.

That said, when you check out this text, I want you to do it with everything I’ve said in mind. I want you to put the text through the proverbial wringer in a way you’d probably never do if you were conversing with the author. Don’t treat the text as an authority to be deferred to, but as a wannabe authority that you have the freedom to challenge, agree with, disagree with, love, hate, or anything in between.”

Okay, this may be a somewhat dramatic rendition of the speech I give them. But the sentiment is there. The text doesn’t care, because it can’t. The words are on the page, and the page can’t respond to the reader. This makes a lot of difference.

If we look at how argumentative texts are constructed, it is largely as monologues. But when we experience those texts, it is as if they are in dialogue with us (and of course, they are monologues that emerge from dialogues with other texts and from which further dialogue will hopefully be produced). But, engaging with argumentative texts is an experience akin to hearing one side of a telephone call. You know there is at least one other person on the call – to whom the text is written in response – but you cannot hear them. The author may tell you what some of the other voices are saying (“A critic might respond that…”), but the author’s voice is the one with the spotlight.

That is where the phone call analogy ends, though, because if you are listening to a phone call, chances are you are in a position to chime in either with a question, a comment, etc. And, as with conversations on social media (or media followed by a comments section), the person whose take you are getting can respond to you. Not so with a written text, recorded video, or other stable text. The voice is there for you to attend to, but what you do with it is on you and will have no effect on the (pre-recorded) message.

This has some drawbacks, to be sure. If authors want to convince a wide array of readers, they have to speak to readers’ objections. In actual truth, the possible objections are many, and anticipating all of them is (a) probably impossible, (b) would significantly lengthen the text, and (c) bore readers. (I think it really is worth mentioning that classroom diversity makes it likely that the objections some will find interesting, others will find trivial, and vice versa). So, authors must anticipate both the objections that (in their judgment) are worth responding to, but also what types of responses are sufficient.

Another related drawback is that authors – like anyone wishing to argue a point – must “rest” their arguments on assumptions that are contestable. They couldn’t possibly articulate every possible assumption that a reader might challenge. They might – and hopefully will – address some, but not all. [2]

A related drawback is that authors must make assumptions about their audience, which may not be entirely accurate. One type of phrase that grates on me goes like this: “It is reasonable to suppose…” or “X is justified on the grounds that…” I always wonder “to whom?” “Reasonable to whom?” “Justified to whom?” To the author, of course, but these are judgments, and the authors using them are presuming how their arguments will affect their readers who may share certain biases/sentiments/standards in common with authors or who may not.

It is precisely these drawbacks, however, that create opportunities for the reader. When I tell my students to put the text through the wringer, I’m asking them to think as often as they can “Do I agree with this? If so, why, and what might I be missing that someone else could find problematic? If not, why not? Does the author fail to make a complete case, make a bad case, or something else?” And because the text is prefabricated and something we read in the author’s absence, talking about the text amounts to talking behind the author’s back, with all the benefits and drawbacks that entails. (If we were in the room with the authors we read, we could ask questions, but we might also be tempted to privilege their voices over ours, relying on them to make sense of their argument rather than sharpening our own analytical skills.)

As mentioned, I am a philosopher/historian in a college of education and my experience with students is affected by that. But in such a “practical” academic area, I find that we too often tell students what to think and often fail to let them have the experience of struggling with how to think. This is why I like books that do not meet students where they are, but leave a wide gap that forces them to walk toward the text, even when it doesn’t tell them in what direction to go.

This leaves the reader in a beautiful lurch. Do you have questions? Objections? Confusions? Indecisions? Great, you can talk about them with yourself, with the professor, or with the class, but the author is off-limits. And the text? Well, you can reread it, but if you have a question, don’t expect a response. The text doesn’t care.

Notes

[1] Perhaps the most illustrative example comes from Robert Nozick’s book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, where his first paragraph assumes that humans have inviolable natural rights and that one of these rights is a right to self-ownership. Some reviewers found this troubling, because (a) it seems like a tall assumption to offer without justification, and (b) readers who are not convinced of that assumption will thereby find little in the rest of the book – which builds on that assumption – interesting. In defense of Nozick, he was doing what all authors unavoidably do, and at least had the courtesy to make his starting assumptions explicit. Further, while he could have provided arguments to back his case, those arguments would have relied on other assumptions that reviewers might want justification for, ad infinitum.

34 comments

  1. I like your attitude Dan. Philosophy is all about argument and it dies on the vine if it’s just about consuming what philosophers have to say. It is said that Socrates never wrote anything because he thought the whole point of philosophy was the give and take, the queries, the responses, the counter responses, etc., and writing it down effectively destroyed that give and take.

  2. My own experience has been that the problem with students in this regard is not that they are too likely to accept the author’s authority, but that they are far too unlikely to do so, as they are much too confident in their own understanding and judgments. I cannot count the number of times my students have just dismissed Descartes or Hume, despite it being their first philosophy course. What I find is that they need most to learn to read and listen and understand before they start criticizing. Also that they need to understand and respect expertise and that with regard to the subject at hand, the author has it and they do not. Especially introductory students really shouldn’t engage in too much uninformed, unstructured critiques, but I would say this is true of all undergraduates to some degree. This leaves more than enough space for the sorts of structured critiques that are a part of planned, argumentative assignments. Critique must be practiced before it is of any worth.

    What seems to be missing here is Expertise. The internet and the ubiquitous access to information has given whole generations of young people the false impression that there isn’t any such thing. And this far more hinders their learning today than any inclination to trust authors too much.

    1. On more than one occasion (so, like, three occasions) I have had the experience of a student from China or Japan who feels uncomfortable doing an assignment where she is asked to critique the argument of a historically important philosopher. Each time, the student said something to the effect of, “I’m in no position to criticize this person’s arguments!” I’m under the impression that these students were not one-offs, but in fact reflected the educational upbringing from their cultures.

      I’ve noticed the same thing when I watch episodes of Run BTS!, which is a tv show about the K-pop group, BTS. The oldest member of the group is Jin. Once, Jin did something stupid, and the other members of the group razzed him. He replied, “don’t speak roughly with me!” What this meant, apparently, is that since Jin was older than the other members, they were expected to speak to him in formal language, and they were speaking to him informally.

      The older I get, the more attractive i find this attitude. The idea that people who are older deserve a special deference merely because they’re older will seem to many Americans to be groundless. After all, the only reason older people deserve any deference is that, on average, their greater experience makes them wiser. But, just as there can be people wise beyond their years, so too can there be old fools. And so I suspect that your typical American would find the idea of deference to their elders due *merely* to the fact that they’re older to be insupportable.

      Against this, though, I would point out that if people know that they are owed some level of deference–even something as seemingly insignificant as using a more formal language in address–merely because they’re older, this makes people more relaxed, and more willing to hear younger people out. If the respect you’re due depends merely on how talented or useful people think you are, then you’ll think of the respect you’re likely to get as very precarious. And people who fear that good treatment of them is so up-for-grabs may end up being unduly defensive.

    2. > The internet and the ubiquitous access to information has given whole generations of young people the false impression that there isn’t any such thing

      It’s given them far more than that. The ubiquitous professional-level content creation tools, either free or at low cost, means that everyone can have at his disposal the ability ‘to create’ music or movies. But mere access to tools, doesn’t an artist make.The greats of jazz — for example Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, — would practice 14+ hours a day. I doubt many young people of today are willing to put in that kind of effort.

  3. I have a lot of sympathy for Kevin’s position but feel this is more appropriate for senior students who have acquired the necessary skills and background knowlege. Where junior students are concerned, I think Dan’s position is correct.

  4. I think the disagreement here is fundamental. Respect for philosophy and philosophers grows with age and experience. Better to dive in right away and get involved in the arguments. One is bound to misunderstand and make bad arguments due to the complexities of the material, but that’s how you learn. And it’s motivating to get involved in the process right away, rather than regarding these philosophers as great figures that one must approach at a distance with the proper respect. Plato’s doctrine of the “forms” really is ridiculous, once you shine a light on it, and Descartes is pulling our collective leg with his systematic doubt, since he never once doubts Christian orthodoxy. They’re still great philosophers, but you have to be motivated to put in the time and effort to study their works. And you won’t do that anyways if you are too inhibited to get involved in the first place. I am not impressed with the way that initiative and creativity are systematically crushed out of philosophy graduate students – it shows in the sterility and vapidness of contemporary philosophy.

    1. I’m curious, have you taught students? I’ve been teaching university since 1993.

      As for your drive-by on Plato and Descartes, I’m afraid I can’t take it seriously. (It’s also quite ignorant, in the case of Descartes.)

      1. I’m curious, have you taught students? I’ve been teaching university since 1993.

        We have all been taught and we have all been exposed to multiple teachers with multiple teaching styles. Being on the sharp end of teaching makes one a surprisingly competent judge of teachers and their styles. This is something they should remember while handing down judgements from on high..

        1. I’ve taught over 10,000 students from New York to Missouri.

          Are you suggesting that experience confers no significant expertise? Or that such experience is somehow adequately countered by a single experience?

          1. Dan,
            Are you suggesting that experience confers no significant expertise?
            I don’t see any such suggestion in my words.

            This is what I said.
            We have all been taught and we have all been exposed to multiple teachers with multiple teaching styles. Being on the sharp end of teaching makes one a surprisingly competent judge of teachers and their styles. This is something they should remember while handing down judgements from on high..

            You might disagree with some part of it. Fair enough. But then please quote the words you disagree with and motivate your disagreement.

          2. The second sentence is false. It makes you as competent a judge as a single instance makes you of anything.

            I don’t want to argue about this. I agree with Robert G. That student demographics are highly significant with regard to teaching strategies. And I was careful to say I was speaking of *my* experience. My point here is just that this experience is extensive and varied: from the streets of the Bronx to the farms of rural Missouri over three decades.

          3. Dan,
            The second sentence is false. It makes you as competent a judge as a single instance makes you of anything.

            I disagree. This is what I said:
            Being on the sharp end of teaching makes one a surprisingly competent judge of teachers and their styles.

            Being exposed to multiple teachers in multiple courses over multiple years is a pretty good grounding in different teaching styles and the competences of their practitioners. This does make them a good judge, unless of course they slept through all the courses.

          4. Dan,
            I was careful to say I was speaking of *my* experience. My point here is just that this experience is extensive and varied: from the streets of the Bronx to the farms of rural Missouri over three decades.

            I never mentioned your experience. I never questioned your experience. This is a non sequitur

      2. I have not taught students. As for Descartes, he seems to me to be performing a sleight of hand – giving the appearance of systematic doubt, without actually going all the way – which we know would be unfeasible, and would have gotten him in trouble with the church.

          1. You’re right. I have a stack of books on and by Descartes which I intend to read soon. By the way, what do you think of Harry Frankfurt’s book on Descartes: “Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen”?

    2. Plato’s theory of forms isn’t very convincing, but I could spend the rest of my life wondering about the ring of Gyges.
      Socrates’s answer to the dilemma of the ring of Gyges doesn’t satisfy me at all and I often speculate on why I should be moral if I could get away with being immoral and obtain things that I desire. Certainly, that’s a topic that a class could spend a semester talking about.

      1. And you’re not the only one. This whole problem of trying to derive morality from the individual’s interest, rather than the interest of the group, has haunted modern moral philosophy.

  5. It’s important to try to explain the experience of (and the pleasures of) reading difficult texts to those who haven’t really encountered such things in their education. So you’re doing a service in trying to get your students ready for such a distinctive kind of reading. Thanks for sharing your approach. I have a different view.

    I’ve found that students are largely used to reading textbooks, which they treat as sources of facts they need to memorize only long enough to regurgitate for a test. So they simply don’t know how to interact with, for example, a difficult piece of philosophy. They expect the author to tell them things, to fill their minds for them. This “outside-in” picture of learning-from-reading is, of course, deeply misleading, even if true in some respect.

    I think first-time students should think of the experience of reading a difficult piece of philosophy (just to stick with the example, which is my own field) as embarking on an imaginative apprenticeship under the author. The idea is that the right way to begin is to submit yourself to the “master,” who, you should trust, has something to teach you. As a new reader, especially of a difficult work, you won’t fully understand what’s going on. (Of course, this is an ideal educative scenario.) You will get more out of reading by first trying to think along with the voice in those pages, by working yourself into the perspective of the author, to the point at which you see what the author is trying to get at. Only then will any disagreements with the author or objections to his view come to anything.

    “But,” one will say, “objecting and disagreeing are ways of coming to understand the author!” And my response is that, while sometimes true, what appears to the student to be his disagreement or objection is most often a symptom of misunderstanding, and that if the misunderstanding were dispelled, the disagreement would vanish or the objection would fall into irrelevance. “Ah, but,” one will respond, “these merely apparent disagreements and objections turned out to be opportunities for deepening the student’s understanding!” And my response is that there’s a reason I used the subjunctive in this paragraph’s second sentence: they’re opportunities only if the student is already in the frame of mind to acknowledge his own misunderstanding and be willing to correct it. But this frame of mind is increasingly less natural to adopt if the student hasn’t already been willing to see himself as an apprentice to the author.

    Besides, by thinking along with a “master,” the student picks up certain ways of conceptualizing, certain dialectical moves, certain strategies that will inform actually relevant objections and disagreements. And by thinking along with a “master,” the student witnesses intellectual virtues deployed in concreto. It’s old fashioned to say, but we learn by imitation, and it’s only by first imitating — i.e., submitting ourselves — that we find our own voice.

    1. AS,
      …embarking on an imaginative apprenticeship under the author

      I love this metaphor. It captures the process nicely.

      And by thinking along with a “master,” the student witnesses intellectual virtues deployed in concreto

      In other words teaching a subject can also(should) convey intellectual virtues. Wow, this is such an important point.

  6. Animal Symbolicum somewhat touches on the problems I find with this article. Literacy develops along a continuum. This is often studied along lines of chronologically socialized stratification – age-levels, grade-levels, even levels of social-status and educational opportunities. But these stratifications are of course artificial to some extent and imposed on the development of reading skills from without. the epistemic skills required for reading are developed by the reader in the process of reading, and owe much to the effort of the reader himself or herself. The development of highly developed reading strategies – those necessary to read and engage complex texts – come after many years of practice with texts of various sorts, of varying degrees of complexity, and with varying and often conflictive ideational conflict; i.e., the more difficult the text requiring more deeply engaged interpretive strategies, the more likely it is either already part of a contentious dialogue with other texts, and the more likely it includes internal dissonance of competing ideas the author has struggled to bring into harmony. Consequently, by the time a reader has developed skills needed for very difficult texts, he or she has already developed, as among those skills, abilities to engage in dialogue with the text, skills of analysis and even of critique, the ability to weigh and judge both any internal contradictions, as well as weigh in balance the text’s arguments in dialogue with other texts.

    Teaching towards the development of reading skills thus ought to be a matter of opening the text to more careful scrutiny, based on the teacher’s greater experience and history of thoughtfulness concerning the text and its subject matter, I suppose one might say that the OP is in a way asking the student to do the teacher’s job. This is fine if the students are already at a level of reading where they appreciate that the burden of learning really rests with them. The ultimate goal of any reading (at least any done for reasons other than pleasure) ought to be ‘what can I learn from this,’ which allows one to deal with very difficult texts from other eras and other points of view, as well as with badly written texts with bad ideas that one must struggle through for reasons of study or greater political or historical awareness (etc.).

    Of course if students have no interest in learning, they’re unlikely to make the effort to develop complex reading skills, and it is a mistake to assume that there must be some rhetorical strategy a teacher can use to entice all students to the same effort.

    Which leads me to another small problem I have with the OP. The understanding of rhetoric, its uses and expectations, is not very sophisticated here. “One type of phrase that grates on me goes like this: “It is reasonable to suppose…” or “X is justified on the grounds that…” I always wonder “to whom?” “Reasonable to whom?” “Justified to whom?” To the author, of course, but these are judgments, and the authors using them are presuming how their arguments will affect their readers who may share certain biases/sentiments/standards in common with authors or who may not.” – Uh, yeah; that’s why people write arguments, that’s how arguments get written; not as lock-step mechanisms like, say, pure syllogisms or conditionals, but by acknowledging readers and either triggering or cutting off ideas the author can assume they bring to the text. Some of this can be clever, even manipulative, but some of it is just being polite. Because texts do care; or, to put it less metaphorically, the authors of texts care, they are trying to engage and persuade readers, that’s why they write.

    So to use science fictiony language, I would reverse the polarity of the neutron flow here. I haven’t taught in a long while, but when I did, I taught to those I hoped wish to learn. These chose to read, and their reading improved with practice. The rest, well, good luck to them, I’m not responsible for every young person coming through the door.

  7. Of course the five main teaching styles are

    1) Teacher as authority
    2) Teach as demonstrator or coach
    3) Teacher as facilitator
    4) Teacher as delegator
    5) Teacher as conductor

    There is no one answer. The teaching style depends on:

    1) personality of the teacher
    2) course material
    3) stage of learning
    4) the ‘personality’ of the class
    5) the stage of social development of the class.

    A good teacher fluidly varies his teaching style accordingly. But that happens rarely. Certain people have embedded teaching styles(mostly of the authoritarian type) and are constitutionally unable to vary their teaching style according to the course material, stage of learning, the ‘personality’ of the class and the stage of social development of the class.

    Having read Animal’s comment I would add a sixth style

    6) Teacher as master craftsman with apprentices. This neatly encapsulates all the above approaches according to the progress that the imaginative apprentice makes.

    1. Oops, I left something out. The middle paragraph should be:

      There is no one answer. The teaching style depends on:

      1) personality of the teacher
      2) course material
      3) stage of learning
      4) the ‘personality’ of the class
      5) the stage intellectual development of the class
      6) the stage of social development of the class.

  8. This was a very engaging and well-argued piece. What springs to mind, based on my own experience in undergrad, of approaching a text from an “argumentative” standpoint, is to question if that is truly the best way to approach a text. What about, rather, an approach of open-mindedness to what the text might teach one?

    Specifically, I recall an early paper in my Political Philosophy course (required for the Major) in which I argued very fiercely against Hobbes. My professor offered some critical remarks about whether I was being charitable in my interpretation and also deflated my arrogant sense of rightness on the matter under discussion. I found approaching texts as a possible font of wisdom to be very congenial, as I went forward with my education.

    (Perhaps somewhat ironically, my views are now much more Hobbesian as I near 40, than they were in my undergrad days.)

  9. Continuing what I have said above. There is a further dimension that I have observed. Teachers naturally age into the first category, that of teacher as authority. They seem to lose flexibility, tolerance and nimbleness of point of view. I think it is likely the combined result of natural ageing, growing cynicism as a result of a difficult teaching environment and increasing intolerance of dissenting points of view. This could be summed up as – seen it all, heard it all, know it all.

    We see exactly the same thing in the corporate world and deal with it by imposing frequent re-deployments(the 3-5-7 rule), which is how I ended up banished to a corporate outpost in China. This forces one to continually re-invent oneself. Those that can’t fall by the wayside!

    I am not sure how this could work in the academic world where things seem to migrate towards stasis, where tenure is the holy grail. Massimo, on the other hand, seems to have done a great job of re-inventing himself a few times over, which is really admirable.

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