Why Can't Undergrads Think Like PhDs

January 2006

At 8 a.m., the faces sitting before me are as blank as the dry-erase board in the classroom of my introductory course, “Belief and Unbelief.” To the students’ credit, all are present and accounted for, and not a one is wearing pajama bottoms or slippers.

Not a one is taking either, as I run slowly through the list of opening questions that I had hoped would spark discussion.

I ask how many saw the recent series in The New York Times on intelligent design, the very issue we’re taking up by reading David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.


OK, what about the movies? Has anyone seen Grizzly Man, a film by the German director Werner Herzog about the conflict between seeing nature as harmonious and seeing it as violent? If nature is inherently violent, I tell the class, then the intelligent-design argument buckles in the face of the facts.

Bored eyes blink back at me. Cue the tumbleweed.

I give up on discussion and decide just to lecture the rest of the time. Screw the “student-centered paradigm.” If I keep talking, then I can pretend that the class is quiet because everyone understands my lesson.

After 20 minutes, I come to the point where I’ve scripted a carefully chosen example. In order to illustrate an argument offered in Hume’s book, I tell the class that I had recently read Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, famous for the author’s 2001 disparagement of Oprah Winfrey’s offer to select his work for her book club. I tell the class that when I closed the book, I was astounded by Franzen’s accomplishment and genius, in much the same way as the speaker in Hume’s dialogue is astounded by the book of nature, and the divine author he infers from it.

None of the student has heard of Franzen. When I say that it was the book that roiled Oprah’s book club, no bells ring. I go back to lecturing, pretty sure that I am the person in class most eager for the clock to hit 8:30 a.m.

I have three hours before I have to teach a different section of the same course. That time in my office feels like solitary confinement, but with better coffee: I am alone to think about the morning’s pedagogical sins. Why can’t I get the class to participate in its own learning? Is it me? A rookie mistake in my first semester on the tenure track? Is it them? Is it the hour?

I take a break, treating myself to thinking more about The Corrections. The problem with that morning class begins to dawn on me.

One of Franzen’s characters, Chip, is a hapless, theory-addled, ex-English professor, dismissed from his college because he had an affair with a student, Melissa. Months before Chip and Melissa shed their clothes, however, she dressed him down in the final class session, accusing him of trying to make his students into his clones by getting them to have the same opinions he has, to hate what he hates.

Chip is a walking “don’t” list for college professors. In addition to giving in to his stupidest physical urgings by pursuing a sexual relationship with a student, he also stalks her; his turgid prose is immobilized by his arguments’ theoretical underpinnings; he attempts to write a screenplay; and – as Melissa claimed at the end of his class – he indoctrinates his students.

I don’t think I’m as heavy-handed as Chip is, but I wonder if I’m also subtly trying to get my students to like what I like, and hate what I hate, by drawing all of my cultural references from out-of-town newspapers, contemporary literary fiction, and art-house cinema. I know that I can become visibly exasperated when it becomes clear that my students don’t read The New Yorker, or listen to NPR, or head straight to the documentary section when they go to the video store.

In other words, I get exasperated when it becomes clear that they are not me.

To try to get students to think like we do is powerfully tempting. We realize that we have this power the first time a student parrots back our exact words on an exam. To a large extent, student will believe what we tell them is true. If I, in lecturing on the skeptical tradition of which Hume was a major figure, compare a radical skeptic to a child who continually asks her parents, “because why?” then the child will make an appearance in someone’s final exam essay.

Most of the time, there in nothing wrong with using our power to influence students’ judgments – after all, we need to get student to learn the truth. But we all know that this power gets abused. There is a continuum that runs from cultivating in students a healthy desire to know, through instilling certain cultural and intellectual tastes, to taking advantage of their open-mindedness by feeding them the ideological catch-phrases that rest like foam atop our considered opinions. It’s easy to slide along that continuum, as the line separating education from indoctrination is poorly defined.

But we should learn to recognize indoctrination when we see it. In graduate school, I once overheard one teaching assistant tell another that she wanted to try to make her students into liberals before it was too late. Now, I think that having a few more liberals around, especially if they were strategically placed in swing states, would be a great thing for the republic. So in one sense, I sympathize with that T.A. but I also know that to make students into liberals is an essentially illiberal act.

In his book Why Read?, the literary critic Mark Edmundson argues that humanities professors have a duty to our students – and ultimately, to democracy – to help them to expand the horizons of their thoughts. To do so is to help them live better lives, albeit lives of their, and not our, choosing.

Despite our temptation (it’s our job, after all) to interpret texts, art objects, and past events for our students, to tell them how things stand in the world of ideas so that they can thereby adopt the right ideas and tastes, there is a point in every course where it has to be up to the students to interpret those things. In those moments, we teach best by letting go.

No student in an introductory class ever became a faithful news reader or a literary-fiction hound because a professor browbeat him or her into it. My students might pick up a good book, though, if they have learned to be curious about the world and about themselves, and if they have seen that a reader’s life can be a very good life.

Adhering to the aforementioned student-centered paradigm that is favored at my college should mean that I start off the class with some questions, but the kinds of questions I started that 8 a.m. class with were closed-ended.

If any student had read the Times series, I would have been able to converse about it with that one student, while the others just sat there, not learning.

Such questions are only one step shy of “What am I thinking?” questions. Better questions would have given students the chance to make claims about the book and back up those claims with evidence. Better questions would have led the students to work through their understanding by talking to each other and to me about it. Luckily for me, and for the students in my noon section, I have another chance.