Derrida and Pedagogy

I am teaching philosophy of religion this quarter, my first attempt at a philosophy course. In my courses on contemporary theology, I have tended to emphasize dialectical thought as a pedagogical key, using Cornell West’s summary, “negate, preserve, transform.” What is emerging in my teaching of philosophy is the pedagogical usefulness of Derrida’s idea of “binary oppositions.”

Already in a couple different texts, I’ve brainstormed with the students what the main categories and contrasts are, and repeatedly it turns out that they line up pretty well into two columns, governed by some overarching opposition. In book one of Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem, for instance, the opposition between “perfect and imperfect rights” (essentially “coersion vs. persuasion”) governs all other oppositions, causing them to come out in unexpected and even counterintuitive ways — most notably the claim that religion belongs entirely to the sphere of imperfect rights or persuasion. And that opposition then gives me a structure to help guide their reading, telling them to watch for the opposition between speech and writing and how that falls into the established governing opposition.

Derrida is often regarded as “obscure” (or “abstruse”), and certainly his project of overturning received oppositions is “advanced” when you’re dealing with students who are coming to philosophy for the first time — but for me at least, it’s clear that the notion of “binary oppositions” has an immediate pedagogical appeal.

9 thoughts on “Derrida and Pedagogy

  1. Where does West discuss dialectic as negate, preserve, transform? That is such a perfect way to put it I am amazed it is not in common usage like thesis, antithesis and synthesis. I googled up but it just gave me more links to this blog.

    Regarding the course reading Derrida is tough but getting his general vibe across is often easier.

  2. It’s from Prophesy Deliverance. My first time trying to get dialectics across (in my Liberation Theology course), it was hopeless until we got to the West text, at which point it all came together for everyone.

  3. Adam,
    Glad to have read your post on Derrida today, as I have also been using various texts of Derrida to teach undergrad philosophy courses. As you mentioned, at first I thought the texts would be too “obscure” or “difficult” for the students, but I was happily surprised to see their interest in his work. Your point on “binary oppositions” for pedagogy, I believe is quite valuable, as it concerns philosophy from the Pre-Socratics to Plato to Hegel to Nietzsche, etc. To then read Derrida after this trajectory of thinkers is of utmost importance, for then one can sense a thinking which begins to dismantle or “deconstruct” these oppositional structures. So thanks for the blog post, as it helps in my “justification” in teaching Derrida to undergrad philosophy students.
    Michael Anker

  4. Based on my own and other old fogies’ experiences and on Some More Links’s link, it might be that the context in which Derrida appears to be “for advanced students only” is a student-ish one. If one approaches Derrida honestly as one bad student to another, as I’d’ve approached another bad student in a bar that doesn’t card, there’s little difficulty for the sort of person who’d approach; if forced from a cold deck from a house dealer, there’s opacity. Similarly, I’ve heard from several teachers that much of what’s considered “difficult” experimental poetry is accepted more easily than the “accessible” junk in the New Yorker so long as the readers haven’t been graded on learning the rules of the New Yorker.

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