The Curse of Knowledge

Having this curse means that a writer or professor often assumes knowledge the reader or student does not have. More important, the writer or teacher usually forgets that the reader or student is struggling to learn the material for the first time, which often was long ago for the teacher.

“It’s hard to know what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know,” Mr. Pinker said. “It’s the chief driver of bad writing and, I would argue, bad teaching.”

This quote is from the CHE’s “Harvard Seeks to Jolt University Teaching.”

But today it rings particularly true for me, not because I don’t remember what it was like not to know things, at least not the particular things we were talking about in our graduate meeting, but because I DO remember them.

The professors were discussing the difficulty the students have with separating their beliefs from their readings. The students seem to expect the readings in literature, particularly, but also in rhetoric, to be light and sunny and bright. Of course literature is not that way by default (timeless = tragic, because what is funny changes and what is sad stays the same). Then there is also the idea that the students don’t see any benefit in looking at criticisms which presuppose as true basic propositions that the students don’t believe either. The profs, who are all good people and genuinely concerned for their students, seemed somewhat at a loss to know how to guide their students to a scholarly critique rather than a personal bias critique.

I listened for 45 minutes and then I needed to go, but I did want to explain, at least a bit, where I see our students coming from. I remember being those students. I remember it very well.

I remember thinking my literature professors must either be sadists or misanthropes, since nothing we read was ever light, cheery, or even relatable. I couldn’t see myself in the readings and, honestly, I didn’t want to because they were so depressing. I know other folks have talked about being alienated because they weren’t seeing themselves in the readings, but I wasn’t feeling alienated. I was feeling depressed.

Undergraduate students particularly are dealing with the emotional tides that aren’t quite as regular as the ocean, but are certainly equally large and overwhelming. When you are in the middle of an emotional tsunami, the last thing you want is one more “Girl was raped. Life sucked. Became a prostitute to support herself. Saw her love. Died.” Hello! I don’t want to hear that is what life is all about. (Ever hear of “art imitates life”? Perish the thought.)

Though I didn’t have this issue, sometimes I think some professors are so focused on getting students to see some point–always relevant–that they don’t understand that by reiterating the point over and over they are isolating the students from the point by making the students feel attacked and resistant. I’m not even in the classes I’m talking about and I have felt that way from the discussions I have heard.

I remember being so frustrated with rhetorical theory because the foundations were beliefs that I totally disagreed with, yet the theories seemed to work out in a way that I thought was reasonably correct. I could not believe that a foundation flaw would not destroy the entire theory because I thought of the first step, as the first idea, just like a building foundation or perhaps as the first step in a math problem. If you mess that up, nothing will go right. Yet, I could clearly see that these theories were foundationally problematic and yet useful.

Now, apparently, I was ahead of some, since they simply refuse to listen to anything they don’t believe in. But I can totally understand how they might think that there is no point in this particularly brand of criticism because it comes from a moralistically faulty place. What they don’t know, what I didn’t know, is that theories don’t have to be right to say things we need to know and think about. Especially not literary theories. Because the things that they say may be reasonable or may not be reasonable, but the fact that they are saying them means they need to be considered. Now, if, after consideration a student says, “This is understandable, but wrong.” That’s okay. I can deal with that. I think the other professors can too. They are seeing students say, “This is wrong so I am not even going to try to understand it.” And the profs don’t get it. But I do. I do. I remember why I said those things. I remember feeling those things. I remember being frustrated and confused, in my own discipline, in the field I thought was most useful and most important, because theories couldn’t say something useful if they were wrong, could they?

So I said that. And I left.

Yeah. At two of the last three meetings I’ve been at, I have not left the impression of a team player. Yet at both of them I was trying to be a team player. At the first, to be inclusive for the new faculty members, who are fewer in number than we are. At the last, to be inclusive for the students, and to remind the professors that, while they might never have thought that way and they might not understand how a thinking person can think that way, I remember.

Perhaps I should not have talked at all during the meeting. Since I didn’t stay because of my class I have no idea what anyone thought and if they got what I was trying to say or if I just made them more defensive.

There wasn’t anyone in the meeting whom I know well enough to go to and say, “This is what I meant. Did that come out?”

Maybe I should schedule a meeting with the chair…

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