Thursday, January 10, 2013

Writing Part 4: How *Our* Comprehension of Ourselves Affects Our Comprehension of Others

NOTE:  I promise not to try to change the world in this post.  But if you have patience through the explanation of the problem, you will see be better able to understand the beginning of the solutions I am proposing.

Twelve years ago I finished a class on the underworld in literature and, after writing a required response on it, made the mistake of telling my professor, "I didn't much care for The Wonderfulle Yeare."  I have never forgotten his response.

"I don't give a rat's *ss whether you cared for it or not.  I'm asking why the people of seventeenth century London found it so profound."

This response has epitomized for me the major quandary, predicament, and fallacy underlying both the teaching of comprehension and literature and the way we approach grading our writing in response to it.

The quandary:  Whose intention and interpretation really matters?  The theorists are divided on this matter, and they ride the ocean waves and the tides moving back and forth over generations.  It's the author's intent.  It's the reader's intent.  It's the interpretation that the society at large had.  And then, of course, if it's the interpretation that the society at large had, we must beg the question--which society, when, and where?

The predicament:  What works to teach and how to teach them? Here again, some works are taught based on artistry (as measured in whose eyes?), some on their seminal nature (but seminal in which group?), and some on their influence (but influence in which circle?)

The fallacy:  That any one interpretation in the grand scheme of things is more valid than another. (More arguments on this point later.)

I am not arguing that these are invalid questions, that we should throw up our hands, or that every interpretation is equally valid and therefore we should not teach any interpretation at all.  That's not my point.

My point is this:  The questions we ask that form the basis of our teaching are, and will likely always be, problematic.  

Therefore, recognizing that students may have difficulty with the logic behind our conclusions, we might find ways of
  1. Recognizing our bias; 
  2. Opening our minds to consider other alternatives; 
  3. Validating the views of the students while at the same time teaching them the necessary rhetoric to prove (or at least present) their points to other less-enlightened/less open-minded audiences; 
  4. Presenting and helping students equally value the "accepted" or "canonical" interpretations of the works as they do their own (not more than their own, and this is hugely important.  A student's take matters, and, in fact, most of us authors write because we recognize that there will be generations of readers with different takes on us and that EXCITES us.)
So, briefly, I'm going to outline the first of these four points.

Recognizing our bias

A word of advice:  You can try reading books written by authors
who are "other" than you, as so very many people suggest--from
the professors writing diversified syllabi to cultural experts like
Derald Wing Sue.  It is a very inefficient way of recognizing
your own bias and confronting it.

To give you just a very quick example, about a dozen years ago, I took a class on cultural difference, and the instructors tried very hard to get us to "feel" difference in stories.  And, I have to admit, the whole process was rather like Kathryn Schulz's description of being wrong in her eponymous book (and also discussed in her TED talk here).  I didn't know I was missing anything at all until some ethnically Indian students in the class said, "Well, it's obviously happening during diwali," at which point most of us said, "Huh?" because it totally wasn't obvious to us.  Later the students filled us poor unsophisticated readers in on the clues:  the time of year, the menu, the fireworks.

Then our teachers asked us, "So when did you feel the difference?"  Is this a trick question?  I wondered.  I didn't feel any difference until I heard someone else's interpretation of the piece (now this discord does occasionally happen within books too, but it generally takes the form of a "What the heck?", "Why on earth?", or "What am I missing?" when a character draws a conclusion that we clearly wouldn't make).  And of course, this tendency to fill in gaps with what we expect instead of searching for what is actually missing is actually recorded a number of places.  In reading comprehension specifically, several researchers have described the ways that readers of differing backgrounds fill in holes in stories that fit in with their pre-existing schemas.  In other fields also, this tendency to explain or fill in with a created story or assumed reason--sometimes called confabulation--has been written about extensively.

So how do we recognize our biases?  I have come to find a faster way. 
Flash forward about eight years.  Now I am sitting in a classroom at Kyungpook National University in Daegu, South Korea, watching a Korean English teacher discuss the role of media, particularly movies, in the English-learning classroom.  He is showing us the finale of "The Dead Poet Society."

He concludes (and I am remembering to the best of my ability), "The lesson in this movie is clear.  The teacher fails his students by not teaching them how to think as they are expected as well as to think in new ways.  When his students climb on the desks, they demonstrate the power of a teacher over his students. While he loves his students, he sees his own failure."

And I know both from the murmurs and from discussions after the fact that perhaps every Western English teacher in the audience disagreed with his analysis at that moment.  Clearly, the point of the movie was that one had to think on one's own, to be able to step outside the conventional perspective to look at what is really there.  Mr. Keating's response comes because he realizes that many of his students have learned this lesson at a very painful cost--one that may not need have been paid in order to learn the lesson but which was paid nonetheless.

And yet...  the Korean English teacher's point is well taken.  That perspective is there too, if we choose to look for it.  And we Western English teachers were content to look at him from our desks while he stands on his desk down at us from his other perspective.  Obviously, had Neil just obeyed his father for a few more months, he could have escaped his father's controlling grasp.  Legally (though likely not socially or financially), Neil would have been free of his father in less than a year.  If Mr. Keating had stressed that there is a time for civil disobedience and a time for compliance, perhaps Neil would have lived.  The Korean English teacher is not wrong.  The movie offers us plenty of evidence to support his claims.

But, paraphrasing my professor, it doesn't matter to most of us, who happen to be deciding what matters, what those outside of our group or our area of study think.  We merely want the reiteration of the implications in our minds, not anyone else's.

The fastest way to recognize our bias is this:  to listen to someone else's opinion and have a very strong and immediate feeling that they are wrong.  You may say that this feeling is validated, that you are able to find reasons for it.  I will tell you with 99% certainty that you are in denial--and there's quite a bit of evidence to support this claim.  Our quick gut reactions are based on automatisms (automatic thinking from ingrained thinking patterns), not a rational look at the evidence.  Jonathan Haidt spends a fair amount of time discussing the research behind this evidence in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.

When you have the feeling that something is *just* some way, chances are that you are *just* biased.  And this is not BAD!  We are all biased.  The important thing is to recognize our bias (and the biases of others if we can) and use what we know to counteract and harness it.

So you're biased.  Now what?

Well, actually, the next step is to determine how others, particularly your students, feel.  And if you are in the majority and share the bias of the grading/scoring/evaluating culture but your students don't, then your next step is to teach them to recognize this bias and find ways to articulate it without making them feel that their voice is any less valid BUT while not overtly telling the majority culture that they're wrong either (because most of us just quit listening once we've been called wrong).  Like it or not, most of us cannot quickly overcome our biases to do our supposedly objective jobs--like grading.  Repeated studies on bias and overcoming are discussed by Jonathan Haidt, among others.  Teaching our "other" students to recognize and play to the majority bias when they need to and to give them the tools to challenge that bias in places that actually have a chance of making a difference is a crucial function of a teacher.  But there are steps to accomplishing that goal.  And we need to move one step at a time.

So how do we do introduce our students to the majority opinion without their feeling that their own view is invalid or undervalued?  Well, we open our students' minds to other alternatives by opening our own minds to other alternatives, particularly their alternatives, through empathy and active listening.  And that is the subject of my next post.

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