Monday, September 12, 2016

It's not you, it's me. (Or is it?)

"Don't be afraid to get it wrong," I tell my students all. the. time. "It's how we learn."

I'm usually prompted to tell students this in some private meeting to discuss their sinking grades in discussion (undergraduate) or seminar (graduate) participation. The same students who are so passionate and interested in my office hours, so articulate in their papers, are quiet as mice at a Quaker meeting when it comes time to bring those ideas up in class. Usually what happens is that someone says something in class, and that becomes the consensus for the class as a whole. Now, everyone is afraid to speak an opinion that runs counter to what that first person said. In some cases, they don't want to be disagreeable. But in others, they just don't want to get it wrong in public.

I've often wondered how we get students past this fear of being ignorant in public. That's not "stupid", mind you. It's just publicly exposing yourself as not knowing something. Or maybe as misunderstanding something. In the past, I have likened this to my mistakes while learning my first foreign language. I landed in Frankfurt at age 19 armed with two years of high school German, and decided that I couldn't stay in the hostel forever. I needed go out and fearlessly mangle the language and wait for someone to correct me; only this way, I reasoned, would I learn.

I'm starting to reconsider this, and I'm doing so because of a book review that I'm currently writing.

When I was a graduate student, I wrote cautious book reviews, ones that mostly summarized the book and its arguments, and made some statements as to how it fit in with/contributed to the current literature on the subject. My evaluations were always kept to a bare minimum: Who am I, I thought, to pass judgement on a scholar's work when I haven't even finished my dissertation?

This changed a bit after I had published my first book. I had come to think that I knew enough to judge. I knew how to make connections between a book and its progenitors. I knew the difference between incremental contributions (most books) and the truly pathbreaking (rare), and how to praise both. I knew what was a legitimate criticism, and felt expert enough to level those, though I like to think I did so fairly.

But this book...

This book that I'm currently writing a review for has me out of my depth again. There are many things I understand, in terms of time, place, and context. But the approach is something that I'm wholly unfamiliar with. And frankly, that I find myself confused by. And this has me feeling like one of my undergraduates again: Are other people confused by this? Does the emperor have scanty clothing in some places? Or is this just my inexperience in this area, and everyone else who reads this book will immediately understand these things that I find confusing? Is the author eliding terminology? Or am I just not grasping the distinction?

I already feel myself retreating into that "cautious book reviewer" pose. But I'm going to give myself one more chance to try to understand what is going on here, to figure out who is responsible for the confusion. And then I'll write my book review as bravely as I can. But that may not be very much.


Susan said...

Wise to think about who might be responsible for the confusion. I do think that when someone takes on a different approach, or an unusual method, it's their job to help the reader who doesn't know it. Not to dumb it down, but to make things as clear as possible, remembering the reader.

Indeed, remember the reader is my writing mantra.

Anonymous said...

Odd about the meekness of students today, but all to true. As an undergrad, granted quite a few decades ago, discussion classes were so boring that I found it great fun to take on the "consensus" opinion with whatever alternative idea I could think of. One instructor asked me in private why I was such a contrarian, so I told him it was boring otherwise. He conceded that I made the class more interesting, but was disturbed by how often I "won" the discussions and how poorly the class did at finding the flaws in my arguments. Maybe I should have been a defense attorney.