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

  • From: Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 27 May 2008 16:45:39 -0700

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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