Thursday, March 14, 2013

Old School

I'm openly and unapologetically* nostalgic about academia. I think things were better when fewer people pursued higher education and advanced degrees. And I think things were better when there was a significantly lower "overhead" on research. In that spirit, here are some "old school" rules that I'd like to see considered again.

1. Primary sources. Let students concentrate not on "textbook" summaries of great ideas but on the expression of those ideas in their original contexts. Instead of being told that Feyerabend said "anything goes", let them read the relevant pages in Against Method. The cheerful, confident voice of the textbook has produced a generation of intellectuals that aspire to become the next Malcolm Gladwell (and will risk becoming the next Jonah Lehrer). We don't need "better" textbooks; we need to insist that the primary expression of ideas is the basis of instruction at the university.

2. Chalk and talk. Having read some good books, let students come to class to talk about those books and hear their teachers talk about them. There will always be some use for "illustration", and here the blackboard (or whiteboard) will do just fine. The idea is to transpose the reading experience into a conversation. The idea is not to make a movie out of a book.

3. Communication by "letters". Academics are not very interesting in person except as "characters". Some are remarkably good people. Some are remarkably bad. Most are just, well, ordinary. As an observer of human life, you can of course find them as "interesting" as you like in that moral sense, but you learn what they know from their writing. So we must get back to the writing ... and, perhaps more pressingly, we must get back to the reading of each other's ideas. This process can very fittingly begin in school, where we can focus interaction between students and teachers on the classroom and the supervision and grading of written work.

I think one of the reasons that many people find it so difficult to write these days is that their early training in the "hustle and bustle" of academia didn't impress the importance of writing upon them. They learned very quickly that it was their performance in other "media" that mattered.

I'm not anti-technology, and I'm not some kind of primitivist about face-to-face communication. There are plenty of perfectly good and at least reasonably new media: I think academics can make good use of blogs, for example. And with a little diligence they might also be able to use Wikipedia as force for good in the world. But "chalk and talk" is in any case a very intimate, very interpersonal form of teaching, requiring strong social skills. The point is that those skills are grounded in what the teacher knows, not their mastery of pedagogical techniques or pyrotechnics.

I should admit that I've had a hard time "adjusting" to the new university. I'm young enough (42) that I have to take a good portion of the blame myself. It's not like I couldn't see what was going on, and I could have started adjusting earlier. But I think I came into it with a great deal of baggage or, perhaps more precisely, I came into it with my head in the clouds rather than my feet on the ground, running. So I kept avoiding the important points at which I might have connected myself to the new form of academic life.

And I should admit also that I've avoided a whole series of connections to "modern" life quite generally. I got my first cell phone about a year ago, for example. The truth is that I'm a relic from a past when scholars were still able to pretend that their approach to the world was very different from, say, that of a businessman or an entertainer, that they worked more slowly, and in isolation from immediate practical matters. That's very "old school". We'll see what the future brings.

*When I posted this I'd left off the "un-". I apologize.


Jonathan said...

I'm going to use that "chalk and talk" line. I am old school in the exact why you describe yourself.

Thomas said...

It's nice to know I'm not alone. And nicer still to know there are people "inside" who still think this way.

j. said...

do danish philosophy courses use lots of textbooks?

my view of the field of possibilities is somewhat constrained but the ideology of 'original sources' seems to me pretty strong in my part of the u.s. - even if that may often involve 'reading kant' and 'reading aristotle' and 'reading mill' and 'reading descartes' in extremely superficial and perfunctory ways with student work contrived around pat set-pieces.

'original sources' even finds expression in courses that make heavy use of papers by professional philosophers (or of anthologies consisting of them). not that reading those is really on par with reading 'classics'.

Thomas said...

It's been a long time since I've been in a Danish philosophy classroom, so I don't know. Back in my day, of course, we often did it the old-school way.

It wouldn't surprise me to learn that philosophy is still taught in a traditional way. And you're right of course that "reading" is not any one thing.

j. said...

i think there is a LOT of powerpoint use now (consider the fetish for numbered-premise arguments, a perfect fit for the medium), but it's still joined to the use of original texts in some fashion.

on the other hand, have you ever seen this?