[lit-ideas] Re: Silence / The Seamy Side of Semiotics

  • From: wokshevs@xxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx, Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 29 May 2008 17:18:22 -0230

Truly interesting and valuable pedagogical reflections by John W, David R and
RP. Much to think about. I might even try the powerpoint route, so long as I
can find me some black slides. That is a very fine idea that John W has there.
So long as half the class doesn't go for coffee or a smoke thinking you're
experiencing technical difficulties. ("We're supposed to do WHAT during the
black slides???)

In keeping with David R's suggestion, requesting that a student do a bit of
research in pursuit of a question she posed is the route I sometimes take. But
sometimes, the answer isn't something you can just look up but requires some
sustained and systematic reflection. In such a case, I suggest that she do her
term-paper on her question.

The empirical "education scientists" in Canada and The Netherlands concur that
the average wait time after a teacher poses a question in an undergrad
university class is 3 seconds. 

RP's tale of Sir Rex of Aragon below says something very important about the
role of students' own initiative in their own learning and in the procedures of
the seminar. A similar tactic in undergrad classes looks like this:

Instructor: Good afternoon, everyone. My goodness, I'm so tired today, should
have a class or just cancel and come back on Friday?  (The closer the present
to a test or final exam, the more intense the response from students.)

Troy: Cancel! Cancel! We're outta here!

Peter: But we have a test next week.

Susan: That's right and I don't have a clue what chapter 5 is about, and I read
it 3 times!!

Lori: Maybe we could have just an easy and quiet class, and those who want to
leave can go.

Troy: Yeah, but will you take attendance? Participation is 10% here.

Instructor: If we have a class, then I'll take attendance.

Troy: See, I told you! Let's all go home and read chapter 5, I mean, read
chapter 5 again a few times, and then come back on Friday.

Lori: I have a few questions which I'm not clear on and I think if i got
to them I'd be able to understand better for my next reading of the chapter.

Instructor: Shall we hear Lori's questions?


This approach works best with instructors who, for one reason or another, are
not at the mercy of student evaluations. In shifting the responsibility for
learning onto the students, there will be a few students, sometimes more, who
can't shoulder such responsibility, will not be motivated to come see you for
extra help and will end up either failing or receiving a very low grade.
("Walter, I never got a 26% on a test in 4 years of university!! And in Moral

RP mentions the student who can't articulate her point or the question she
to ask. His approach is definitely the correct one in my book. Simply wait ...
make sure nobody interferes with the student's efforts to articulate her claim
or question. Should another student start whispering to a neighbour, glower at
him with your best teacher's look of utter indignation. After awhile, if
nothing materializes from the student, I will make a suggestion, offer a
hypothesis: "Alisha, is it that you're thinking that ....?"

Ah yes, the ritual of the the unlit or no-longer-lit pipe. I have witnessed
profs perform it with consummate artistry. Once, during the days of my brash
and insolent youth - yes, that was last year - I approached the prof at the end
of the class in the hallway and whispered: "You don't know the difference
beytween the highest good and the complete good, do you." To which I received
the reply: "Hey, I'm so confused, I no longer know when it is that I do or
don't know something." Needless to say, I stuck close to the man for the next 2

They took my tobacco and rolling papers away a long time ago, but fortunately I
still have my malt, bottle of springwater and my silver stirring spoon. There's
at least 5 minutes of thinking time for each 1.25 oz dram.

Students addressing each other without mediation by an instructor. Excellent. If
only I could get the principals in my seminars to attempt that.

Detroit in 6.

Walter O.

Quoting Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>:

> The late Rex Aragon, a famous professor of history at Reed, is said to 
> have come into his first year humanities conference meetings, sat down 
> without a word, and begun to open his mail. When some student spoke, the 
> class would begin. I never heard how long it usually took for a student 
> to say something, but knowing Rex, I'm sure he would have been prepared 
> to remain silent the entire hour.
> In the class I just finished teaching I was often lucky to get a word in 
> edgewise. It was a wonderful class, a conversation in which I took part, 
> but did not control or steer (well, maybe a little tiny bit, I did), but 
> the students spoke to one another, without bouncing their ideas off me 
> first. I think that if I'd come in and said, 'I hear that two plus two 
> is four,' there'd have been a lively discussion.
> Walter seems to find silence in a philosophy class unsettling, and so do 
> I, usually, unless it's clear that a student is trying to articulate 
> something and having a hard time getting it right.  Then I have the 
> patience of St Hermaneutica of the Rock.
> One device for stalling for the time while giving the appearance of both 
> careful thought and profundity in the face of a question to which one 
> doesn't know the answer (but should) is now lost us: the tobacco pipe 
> and its grave preparatory rituals. Many students, I'll bet have never 
> seen this performed correctly.
> Robert Paul
> Department of Academic Acoustics
> Mutton College
> > Every once in awhile, a student will ask a question in class the answer to
> which
> > I don't have at the time, or perhaps at any other time, given my ignorance
> in
> > the areas of rationality and moral deliberation. My silence in response to
> the
> > question is often quite uncomfortable for many students in the class. They
> are,
> > after all, accustomed to powerpoint classes. 'Nuff said. 
> > 
> > Why is silence so uncomfortable in a philosophy class? I pace back and
> forth,
> > mulling over the question and my possible answers, while the students
> think:
> > 
> > "Oh my god! He doesn't know the answer!!! Should he be teaching this
> philosophy
> > class? ..... Btw, what IS the right answer anyway?"
> > 
> > How do YOU deal with such silences in YOUR classrooms? 
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