My own personal fear and trembling

I have assigned Fear and Trembling for this semester, and though I considered skipping Problema III, my bias toward “reading the whole thing” led me to include it. Now that I’m rereading it in preparation for class, I realize one reason that I might not have wanted to include it — it… refers to things! Things the student may not have heard of! (Agnes and the merman, the Book of Tobit, etc.)

Shimer students may turn out to be different in this regard, as in so many other regards, but my past experience leads me to believe that when an author is referring to something they’ve never heard of, students tend to shut down mentally. This is the case even if the author provides enough information for you to go on in context. And in those cases where students don’t shut down mentally, the tendency is to be skeptical that, for instance, the person being critiqued is “really” guilty of what they’re being critiqued for, even though they don’t have any particular reason to doubt or any way of assessing the claim without significant further research.

The responses I hope for in such situations have been rare in my experience thus far: either taking the author at his or her word and focusing on what the author is doing with the referred-to text or figure (i.e., whether or not it’s the case that Hegel objectively is a totalizing rationalist with no room for individuality, it is the case that Kierkegaard objects to “that kind of thing”), or else looking up the unknown thing on Wikipedia. In the first case, the student sticks to what they know (i.e., the text at hand), while in the second case, the student seeks out the missing information themselves — meanwhile, in the more frequent responses, they seem ultimately to be doing little more than complaining that no one gave them the necessary information.

I should make it clear, however, that I don’t think the students are individually to blame for the latter response, because the culture of American education very strongly inculcates that kind of learned helplessness and passivity when it comes to learning. And of course, in many educational settings, the instructors themselves display a corollary form of learned helplessness, treating these tendencies in students as brute facts to which the only possible responses fall along a continuum between lamentation and bitter complaint.

The result is a missed encounter, where the students feel aggrieved that the professor didn’t give them what they need and the professor feels aggrieved that the students expect to be given everything. Yet what kind of an example is the professor, who — in a striking parallel with students who complain of the lack of “background,” that mysterious knowledge that always should have been given beforehand and yet somehow cannot be gained through one’s own effort — always expects that some previous educator should have told the students not to expect to be given everything?

9 thoughts on “My own personal fear and trembling

  1. Adam,

    I just spent a week doing Mill’s Utilitarianism; throughout it I pointed out that he gives no quarter to his opponents, e.g., Kant, and misrepresents them. Should we teachers allow a philosopher their own say? I hesitate because a professor’s being critical of a text make them tend to distrust all texts (and anything you say), whereas the scholar in my cannot leave such things unchallenged, especially when relevant to the course.

    I concur with your point about references. In my experience, students just shut down when they see more than a little of that. I expect that few of my students really spent the time with Machiavelli’s The Prince, to give you another example of pervasive references.

    Per learned helplessness, I think that is one of the reasons behind students’ eagerness to think that philosophy is “all made up,” as yet another well-meaning student “confided” in me last week.

  2. I think the first priority has to be to make sure students are able to understand and assess the text on its own terms. If you’re trying to understand Mill, for instance, it seems more relevant to understand what he thinks or portrays philosopher X as saying, rather than what they “really” see. Unless the students have studied philosopher X, I don’t think it’s useful to go beyond something like “some readers of philosopher X would view this as an unfair representation or oversimplification” — but then I personally would redirect back to “what does this tell us about what’s important to Mill.” Anything beyond that is not very “discussable,” again unless the students have seriously engaged with the text in question.

    Right now, I’m in the process of designing this semester’s instantiation of the final course in the Humanities core at Shimer, a course that they’re experimenting with currently. One idea that I had for the course that my colleagues have really liked is that I want to make it explicitly “intertextual” — either reading things that draw on texts from earlier in the curriculum, or else assigning the necessary “background” text as a reading in its own right. So for instance, we’re currently thinking of doing several texts on Antigone (culminating in Butler’s book) and maybe “Plato’s Pharmacy” (since the students have all read the Phaedrus), and we’re probably going to assign Kafka’s The Trial and then do some stuff that Benjamin and Derrida have written on it, etc.

    Even when you can’t count on students all having a particular text in their repertoire, I think the “intertextual” model can be workable within a single course. In fact, one of my consistent fantasies for an upper-level or grad class is to assign a single important text, but then read all the texts that are the most important points of reference, too.

  3. I should clarify: we develop syllabi for core courses as a team and in most cases have to agree on a shared syllabus. So I’m not “designing” it individually, as my previous comment implied.

  4. Interesting. The first time I read Fear and Trembling (a few years ago) I ran into the same problem- I simply didn’t have the background. Now upon rereading, it’s a text I’m quite fond of! Maybe a better example would be with Zizek: even a couple of years ago I tried to make it through Sublime Object…with one intro to philosophy class’s briefing on Hegel as my background! Obviously, I found myself more than frustrated in my unfamiliarity with terminology, etc. However, turning to your book coupled with watching things like Zizek! etc. was really helpful. I think the intertextual model is almost a necessity when you’re working with different literacy backgrounds-even to have a supporting document sometimes is all it takes. Anything to get them to mesh and interact with the text.

  5. As an alternative and/or supplement to your intertextual model (which sounds promising, btw), I’m wondering if this might be an opportunity for brief, useful presentations by students on such things as Hans Christian Andersen, the Book of Tobit, etc. Doesn’t an approach in which the professor gives the students a handout encourage the same sort of passivity that you rail against in your post?

  6. In this case, I think the handout is a good strategy for demonstrating to them that the background required is “not a big deal.” It will be the front and back of one piece of paper, with URLs for where I found the resources after a 30-second Google search.

  7. FWIW, as a Shimer alum, I think you’re on the right track here. I *would* expect most Shimer students to do the necessary research on their own (especially given the school’s newly librarious setting, to say nothing of the wonders of the Internet), but one of the perils of small-group discussion is that it only takes one or two disengaged students to screw up the group dynamics…

    Re Corey’s suggestion, I would put in a good word for protocols — or “Protokolls”, if you must — and summaries, though I don’t think they are commonly assigned in Hum classes.

  8. Adam, per your comments on background and the proposed model, how else could one teach a historically responsible course? Our thoughts on the matter are in alignment, but from my vantage what you discussed should be negotiated in terms of degree rather than yes or no. That is, do not assign a book that does not at least have some textual or lecture-based background. I take this as a given in historically-based instruction.

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