Didactic teaching v. dogmatism

Didactic teaching needn’t be dogmatic, and interactive teaching doesn’t always encourage critical thinking or independence of mind.

Since I teach the sort of courses Mike criticizes, perhaps I should come to the defense of the “assign readings, lecture and give objective-answer tests” approach. One objection to that approach is that it doesn’t encourage critical thinking. But that seems to me to depend as much on the content of the course as it does on the form.

It’s easy to teach a course that encourages students to think critically but in effect insists that they criticize the same things the instructor criticizes, and in the same way. It’s probably easier to write a paper that tells the instructor what he wants to hear than it is to give the right answers on a test requiring short-form answers and calculations; the difference is that writing the paper requires the student to simulate the appropriate opinions while the exam doesn’t.

(I still remember with loathing being required in high-school literature classes to write essays about novels, poems, and plays which I had read but to which I didn’t respond to at all. It was clear that “Silas Marner wasn’t worth reading, and I only wish the author had suffered as badly as her characters and her readers” &#8212 which was, and is, my reaction to that novel &#8212 simply didn’t count as an appropriately “critical” response.)

On the other hand, it’s completely possible to be didactic without being dogmatic. I try to be careful to say at the beginning of each course something like “This is one way to look at these phenomena; I don’t claim that it’s The Truth about them, but I’m asking that you suspend your criticism of this approach to the topic until you understand what it means to those of us who think it valid.” I also say that my remarks about methods of analysis should be taken as authoritative within context of the discipline of policy analysis, but that my opinions about actual policies are merely my opinions, and that it is no part of the purpose of the course to have the students’ opinions conform to mine.

Moreover, when I teach about matters of controversy such as drug policy and crime control, I’m careful to include a healthy dose of readings from those whose views don’t match mine, and to emphasize, within the lecture format, points of controversy, aspects of the problem that a narrow definition of “policy analysis” might miss, and instances (of which there are plenty) in which some previous view of mine which I regarded as a fairly robust analytic conclusion proved to be wrong descriptively or theoretically or where actions taken on the basis of that conclusion turned out badly.

If student reports are to be believed, my conservative students find me unusually sympathetic to their viewpoints, while my liberal students find me unusually challenging. (The high point of my fall quarter was when a member of the Bruin Democrats, carrying the placard she was about to display as part of an organizing effort, came up to me after my lecture on Schelling’s “Economic Reasoning and the Ethics of Policy” and said, with apparent gratitude, “You really messed with my head!”)

Not that Mike is wrong to say that the current classroom activity mix could be usefully moved in the direction of providing the students with more experience doing things rather than listening to things. He’s certainly right. But it seems to me that most of the gain from that approach would be increased attention and emotional involvement, leading to increased retention of the material, rather than in boosting critical-thinking skills. After all, having people do things simulates the workplace, which is on average noticeably less fostering of critical activity than is the typical classroom.

I’ve been the beneficiary of great lecturers (Mike Walzer, Harvey Mansfield), great seminar teachers (Paul Desjardins, Tom Schelling) and great case-method teachers (Phil Heymann). And I’ve tried all three approaches myself; it turns out that I’m a very effective lecturer, a decent seminar leader, and a rotten case-method teacher. Better, I think, to find your natural strength and play to it than to bend yourself all out of shape trying to fit yourself within a particular pedagogic tradition. The right mix can be accomplished at the level of the program or department rather than at the level of the individual faculty member.


Mark makes an interesting point about the messages we send (it’s OK if you don’t do your own work) when we intend to send another (education is so important, we really want you to get good grades and get into a good college etc.). I had a rather bizarre take on this, extending his insight to the classroom itself:

When we lecture at students and they write down what we say, we are doing their thinking for them. When we give them an exam on which they are expected to repeat what we said, aren’t we sending the message that one is rewarded for reciting the words of others?–indeed, since the best score one can get is 100, that there’s no reward whatever for doing your own thinking? When the exam asks students to replay a recipe (such as plugging values into a formula), is it a lot higher-order thinking than just repeating official truths? Would the lesson be much different if they carefully footnoted the exam to the course lectures and the textbook?

When we spend hour upon hour listening to ourselves talk, therefore can’t really have any clue what the students are thinking or how they think, and demand they respect us for it, are we modeling a kind of behavior we want them to emulate, say, in the workplace? When, and how, do they figure out that while school mostly has them practice being in a room with someone who knows The Truth, no-one will ever pay them for that skill? How much being told truths does it take to make someone good at finding and telling truth on her own?

“Dartmouth Review” vs. “Federalist Society” Conservatives Continued

Todd Zywicki at the Volokh Conspiracy responds here to my posting about “Dartmouth Review” vs. “Federalist Society” conservatives. He isn’t as sure as I am that these are genuinely contradictory approaches, but seems to think that conservatives need a combination of the FS’s “conciliatory” approach and the DR-types confrontational, publicity-attracting stunts. He also, interestingly, suggests another approach, which I’ll call the “Benedictine” or “remnant” conservative strategy, which involves designing completely alternative institutions, rather than trying to either attack or slowly work into dominant institutions (like law schools)–Patrick Henry and Ave Maria Universities are examples of this.

I would suggest that while Todd seems to think that the FS&DR approaches might have affinities with one another, the real links are probably between the DR and remnant types. The FS approach assumes that the dominant institutions are at least sufficiently healthy and valuable to be worth (from a conservative approach) reforming. As a result, FS types would want to be very careful about attacking fundamental standards of civility in those institutions, because they would want them to be healthy places once conservatives have established a beachhead there. DR types, by, as the Marxists used to say, “maximizing the contradictions,” may succeed in stripping those institutions of some of their legitimacy or prestige, but at the price of making them less attractive and workable places. This would tend, at the margin, to mainly strengthen the Benedictines, by diffusing energy away from changing dominant institutions (why try to fix them if they’re rotten?) to investing in alternatives.

I should also note that the “FS” and “DR” categories here are ideal types, and like all ideal types, they don’t necessarily map onto every actual FS and DR member.

DR vs. Federalist Society Conservatives

The almost impossibly dumb “Bruin Alumni Association” naming of the “Dirty Thirty” UCLA profs (accusing them of bring tools of trendy academic leftism) brings into sharp relief one of the more interesting divisions in modern conservatism, between what we can call the “Dartmouth Review” and the “Federalist Society” conservatives. To be a DR conservative, one does not have to actually have served on DR (although, as in the case of Laura Ingraham, it helps): it is enough to adopt its techniques. At the core of those techniques is a combination of harsh ridicule and high-profile events or actions designed to encourage liberal institutions to impose discipline, so as to make visible those institutions’ bias and prove that they are hypocritical (the similarities to the Yippy left of the 60s is no accident). The “Dirty 30” list is a classic example of this sort of strategy, designed not to encourage reform in the institutions they are attacking, but to weaken them and cut away at their public legitimacy.

On the other side of the conservative divide are what I’ll call “Federalist Society” conservatives. In an interview for the book I’m now finishing, one of the organization’s founders noted that, when it was created in the early 80s, the small group of Chicago, Yale and Harvard law students consciously sought NOT to create an organization like DR, which they saw as a group that encouraged conservatives to act like caricatures of themselves. Instead, their strategic judgment was that, while criticizing liberal institutions was important, the more effective strategy for institutional change involved building up a cadre of lawyers steeped in conservative and libertarian ideas, combined with sponsoring debates in which the best conservative legal scholars faced off directly with those on their left. This strategy was based on a very different strategic judgment than that of the DR activists: the Federalist Society founders assumed that there was a group of moderate liberals out there who could be convinced by their ideas, if they were presented in a rigorous, scholarly, and civil way. Rather than mimicking the excesses of the left, the Society’s founders guessed that, if they scrupulously attended to balance and debate, they could force the legal academy to take their ideas seriously. Guess what–for good or for ill, they succeeded.

It strikes me that there’s a similar conservative strategy available where arts and sciences are concerned. This would require, contra the BAA, that conservatives pick out the small number of those on the left who genuinely abuse their responsibility by using their position as teachers to vent their non-relevant political views to their students, or who fail to maintain any reasonable balance in their assignments. The truth is that the probably larger number of moderately liberal faculty would love to have someone do something about the often thuggish behavior of the academic hard left. But by going beyond supporting principles that can get wide assent across the political spectrum, to “exposing” faculty simply for their extra-classroom attitudes (including faculty who are not all that lefty), they succeed only in creating a community of interest among everyone but the hard-core of DR-type conservatives.

In short, not only is this obnoxious, it’s strategically stupid. The guy who thought this up should be fired for incompetence.

Shameless Self-Promotion

Tomorrow night, I’ll be on Fox News’ “Heartland with John Kasich,” at 5 pm and 8 pm (both times PST).

You might very well ask, why in the world is Fox interested in me? Over the last few days, the media has decided that its resources are best focused on a right-wing UCLA group called the “Bruin Alumni Association,” which has targeted several UCLA professors for “radical bias” in the classroom. One of the so-called “Dirty Thirty” is yours truly.

Andrew Jones, a UCLA grad and the founder of the BAA, certainly knows how to attract media attention: page 1 of the Los Angeles Times California section, a lead editorial in that newspaper today, an NPR story yesterday morning, CNN headlines, and now (of course) Fox.

BAA certainly has a right to say what it wants, and professors should not be immune from criticism. But this isn’t criticism; it’s a smear job in the service of right-wing politics.

On my profile, for example, the major criticism is that I have given money to Democratic candidates, and that I have signed several petitions opposing Bush’s judicial nominees. My friend and colleague Steve Bainbridge, one of a dwindling number of principled conservatives, notes that there isn’t a single shred of evidence that I have imported my political beliefs into classroom instruction. The same goes for all of my law school colleagues.

This isn’t McCarthyism; it’s Rovism. Essentially, the BAA says that something is radical or unbalanced if they disagree with the BAA. It’s a very small scale repeat of the constant Republican attempts to paint Al Gore as a lunatic because he points out that the Bush Administration is breaking the law.

Three more points are in order:

1. BAA plays fast and loose with the facts to serve its agenda, a practice that should be unsurprising given that it includes well-known academic charlatan John Lott on its advisory board. In a “report” several months ago, it accused my colleague Cheryl Harris of indoctrinating her students by feeding them only left-wing material — conveniently neglecting to mention that Harris also assigns Dinesh D’Souza’s “The End of Racism” as well as articles by David Horowitz and Clarence Thomas.

2. BAA isn’t just one nutcase’s personal website: the organization has an advisory board of very heavy political hitters, including a state senator, the former chairman of the California Republican Party, the current leader of the California Club for Growth, the chairman of the right-wing California Republican Assembly, and Linda Chavez, Bush’s original nominee for Labor Secretary. Their plan is to enact David Horowitz’ “Academic Bill of Rights”, which in and of itself is innocuous enough, but no law is worth its salt if it isn’t enforced. So how do they plan to enforce it? Could I be sued if Andrew Jones thinks I’m not being fair and balanced? Could a massive state bureaucracy investigate me for violating the act? The BAA website is an opening salvo in the attempt to delegitimize contrary viewpoints and then bring them under close state scrutiny and harassment. Again, they have a right to criticize, but no one should be fooled as to their agenda: they are precisely what they claim to be arguing against.

3. The entire notion of classroom “balance,” while important, is a lot less significant than it’s cracked up to be. Students aren’t fools, and they won’t tolerate being indoctrinated: the BAA evinces profound contempt for students by insisting that they are being brainwashed (unless, of course, they protest these professors, in which case they are free thinkers). In any event, the job of a university teacher isn’t to just parrot “on the one hand, on the other hand,” but rather establish a classroom environment in which students are free to express their opinions without fear of reprisal or ridicule, and other students feel the responsibility to listen. Many of my best teachers did this while at the same time expressing their viewpoints vehemently.

In short, the BAA criticism is inaccurate, misleading, incoherent, dangerous, and ignorant about the nature of education. Other than that, it’s terrific.

And by the way, just the other night, I signed another petition, to have the University divest from the genocidal regime in Sudan. So there.

I am Spartacus!

I was omitted from the “Bruin Alumni Association” list of radical leftist professors at UCLA, while Jonathan Zasloff made the team. How I plan to get even.

My feelings are hurt.

The “Bruin Alumni Association (which consists, as far as I can tell, of one self-promoting wingnut too slimy and too crazy even for the taste of David Horowitz) has posted a list of thirty-one radical leftist professors at UCLA and I’m not on it! What am I, chopped liver?

Now, a carping critic might point out that I’m not actually a radical leftist. Technically, I suppose that’s true. But neither is Jonathan Zasloff, and he made the list. I’ll stack my radical leftist credentials up against Jonathan’s any day of the week. It’s rank discrimination, that’s what it is!

[Why, Walter Williams himself, a member of the BAA Advisory Board, once called me “a friend of tyranny” on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. (Williams disagreed with something I’d written on tobacco policy; naturally, as a believer in free discourse, Williams refused to allow me on the air to defend myself.)]

It’s true that I try to keep my political partisanship out of the classroom; but, as Steve Bainbridge points out, the BAA doesn’t seem to distinguish in-class from out-of-class activity. Any inclination toward liberalism by someone who also teaches at UCLA seems to be enough to put someone on BAA’s “dirty thirty” list.

My first reaction to the whole BAA nonsense was to ignore it, and urge my colleagues to do likewise, in order to starve BAA’s promoter of the publicity he so craves. I was happy leaving the task of criticizing pseudo-conservative nonsense to real conservatives like Bainbridge and Eugene Volokh (twice) and Steven Thernstrom, and the task of promoting it to other pseudo-conservatives: Glenn Reynolds, for example. I have even refused a couple of interview requests. But that strategy clearly didn’t work.

Anyway, if spying on your “radical leftist” professor is worth $100, why should my students be left out? I need to remain competitive in the marketplace, after all.

So I think I’m going to help the Bruin Alumni Association continue its good work, and spend whatever wingnut money it raises from its current publicity burst. As it happens, all of my lectures are already taped, and posted on my course websites. So I’m going to encourage all my students to nark me out to the junior brownshirts. And I’m such a nice guy that I won’t even ask for a cut of the take.

Science and Faith

Today’s S.F Chronicle, reporting on new research about insect aerodynamics from Cal Tech and UNLV, unintentionally raises an issue that goes to the heart of American science and technical education woes, and perhaps larger discontents.

Most people would think that when someone announces a belief that contradicts the patent evidence of everyday life, he is operating in the regime of religion, not science, and if it’s offered as a scientific explanation, that he simply doesn’t understand what science is about. Among my ‘favorite’ examples of this confusion is the story most educated people offer to explain how an airplane flies; it usually begins by drawing an airfoil that is fatter on the top than the bottom, a phrase like “the air has to go faster over the top than the bottom to keep up” and some invocation of the Bernoulli relationship between pressure and velocity.

Of course this theory, especially the centrality of the airfoil shape, is wrong but what’s interesting is that the story can be confidently recited by people who have seen a kite (which is round on the bottom, not the top) or an airplane flying upside down, or a paper airplane.

In the Chronicle piece, Prof. Michael Dickinson is quoted explaining (correctly) that insect flight mechanisms are special, but does so by mischaracterizing “…conventional (airplane) aerodynamics, where the shape of the wing is everything.” Dickinson certainly knows how an airfoil works, probably that aerobatic aircraft have wings that are symmetrical top and bottom, and has met the Navier-Stokes equations needed to properly describe lift forces, so it’s notable that in talking to a reporter, he would fall into offering a piece of ‘science’ that is not only wrong but obviously, patently, wrong on the basis of everyday experience. (Of course lots of everyday experience is misleading; any fool can plainly see the earth is flat just by looking around. But the phenomenon of a kite is not misleading; the kite is really up there, rounded on the bottom, flying happily. Obvious phenomena need to be investigated to see if they are deceptive or incorrectly perceived, but that’s not the problem here.)

I must emphasize that my point here is not that people know a lot of wrong science. It’s that people know a lot of science wrong: that science education has taught people to recite recipes and ‘facts’ provided to them by what is at bottom a sort of priestly activity of lecturing and textbook memorization and to do so as though that stuff is completely disconnected with the real world. True, many important phenomena are invisible to ordinary experience; without a microscope you just can’t see bacteria. But Jenner was able to discover vaccination against a virus, which is invisible even with an optical microscope, by attending seriously to what he could see and respecting reality. The relationship between phenomena and inference in science is what should be central to science education, but we have undermined it by widely substituting recitable content–exactly what Galileo showed us to suspect and test–for learning habits of mind.

The result of substituting obedience and recitation for real scientific thinking has practical consequences of modest importance, such as the common habit of turning a thermostat extra high to make a house warm up faster. But it has more damaging and more widespread costs in social science and public policymaking, where (for example) my colleague Robert Frank has argued, economic thinking is made so discouraging by assertive and didactic pedagogy that people just throw up their hands and [say they] believe arrant nonsense that offers the illusion of comfort.

And by the way, I don’t think theology is properly an exercise in recitation and obedience either. I don’t mean by this that science should trump faith; I mean that theology should be carried on by using, not jettisoning, rationality. The fundamental rule applies here as well: at least one of two things that can’t both be true isn’t, even if considerable authorities are putting them forward; contradictions deserve to be examined and resolved. Indeed, it’s impious, possibly blasphemous, to treat knowledge of God as though it doesn’t deserve the application of the highest human rational capacities.

Sentence Outlines (updated)

This post officially opens a thread on pedagogy, especially higher education pedagogy.

Mark and I exchanged emails about the level of interest in this (“…are you kidding? how many readers are profs and teachers, and of them, how many care anything about technique? Very truly yours, M”). If and when we can discern whether it gets any readership, I will decide which side I took in that debate and announce it.

Here is a memo about the Sentence Outline, my favorite device to help people (including me) write, especially in a professional context. In my introductory course for undergraduates I require the first draft of term papers to be a sentence outline with a section or two developed into prose; in other courses I browbeat and wheedle my students to try it, and about two-thirds do. I wish I could claim to have invented this wonderful form, but I didn’t and I have forgotten where I came upon it. If you know, send me a citation so I can add it to future versions.

Update: Andrew Sabl has been plowing the same field: “I don’t know who

invented them either, but I was taught them in high school (OK, prep

school), and my students and I have found them invaluable ever

since. Not all of my students can be brought to use them, but those

who do say that it changed the way they draft papers forever.”

Here’s his memo.