Tuesday, August 26, 2008


"But perhaps these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I, with greater policy, concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination …but disguise of every sort is my abhorrence."
- Pride and Prejudice

Fitzwilliam Darcy’s famously botched attempt at a marriage proposal to Elizabeth Bennett had the seeds of its ruin sown in his unwillingness to engage in certain niceties of conduct that some people mistake for manners. Darcy’s affection for Lizzie was real enough (as she was soon to discover) but he would not condescend to flatter, and especially not to someone whose character and countenance he admired so much, nor could he conceal certain — and by no means unreasonable — misgivings he had. Manners has sometimes been described as the quality of not giving offense unless you intend to. By this standard, admittedly, Darcy failed, but not so badly as Mr. Collins, who seldom opened his mouth except to give offense while trying to ingratiate himself to others. Darcy at the least had the virtue of understanding that false sentiment is far worse than the expression of no sentiment at all.

My argument is not with manners or politeness, of course, but with transparently false sentiment, which is ill-mannered and impolite. Having spent some time on the phone lately with various customer service departments (Bell Canada has crossed me for the last time) it's become obvious to me that the people in charge of such places hate their customers, or else they wouldn't force their hapless employees to close each call by reading from a prepared script telling us how much they like us and appreciate our business. How stupid do they think we are? And, more to the point, what goes on in their tiny, tiny brains that think that we would be moved by such transparently mass-produced sentiment?

I therefore find it distressing that so much of the advice extended to professors by experts in educational pedagogy concerns precisely that - the conveyance of transparently false sentiment. We are at every turn entreated to sooth, stroke, and coddle the allegedly delicate sensibilities of university students who are old enough to drive, vote, drink, marry, and be drafted. Nonetheless, the professor, we are told, must be the mouth of a continual stream of ever-flowing praise, regardless of whether or not it is deserved. I recently read an article that quite seriously advanced the view that praise must either be universal or else not be granted at all. Hence, a professor should never say, "good point" when a student makes a good point, lest those who did not receive similar praise feel slighted. Here the axiom I stated above is inversed: the expression of genuine sentiment is actually held to be worse than the expression of no sentiment at all.

I have a smallish collection of books on teaching (about twenty volumes in all) and subscribe to one teaching-related journal, and the more I read, the more convinced I am that most of what you need to know to be an effective teacher was known to Socrates. But that doesn't stop people from trying. Consider, for instance, Effective College and University Teaching: a Practical Guide (2006), a book that is about as interesting and original as its title. Again and again the claim is that all classroom problems, from student apathy to outright cheating, can be avoided through proper pedagogy. I trust that any students who are reading this are properly affronted, and see this claim for what it is: an extreme form of condescension, for in effect it states that they are not responsible for the consequences of the choices they make. Rather, in this view, their academic success is contingent upon what their professors do. One of the authors of the book writes that she asks her students to shake each other's hands on the last day of class. As a mildly reserved adult, I feel that I should have some choice in who I shake hands with, that any sentiment of recognition and respect should be sincerely given, not part of some half-baked feel-good exercise cooked up by a professor who probably enjoys team-building workshops; such a thing is to the hearty and heartfelt handclasp what kissing your grandmother is to hard-core making out.

Why are professors — who are supposed to be at the vanguard of the cultivation of the skeptical and critical intellect — so often asked to treat their students as if they were children? Allegedly it is to ease the transition of students to full maturity, but in reality the insincerity of praise where directness is required can only impede that process. "Always find something good to say," the leader of a teaching workshop I attended told us (before making us do a "role playing" exercise where we pretended to do just that.) Imagine our skepticism at the end of the workshop, however, when her effusions of commendation spewed forth; by praising uniformly and reflexively — like some sort of cheerleader — she deprived her praise of any value.

Anyone who is paying attention while reading Pride and Prejudice knows that the problem with pride was not Darcy's, but Lizzie's: only belated did she come to the realization that the person worth having was the one who was willing to give it to her straight. Students, too, would be well advised to bypass the teachers who fawn and flatter for the ones who are, when necessary, willing to be cruel to be kind.


Alison Hunter said...

Good one Graham. It's a bit thornier for me, teacher adolescents who are much more concerned with saving face in front of their peers than anything else. In that case, if you don't reward them for merely speaking up, they may never speak up again. However, I also tell them when they are wrong - and yes, that CAN happen when you are analyzing poetry. You can be really, really wrong, and it's important that they get that.

The Peach said...

Would you believe I have not read P&P - well, yes you would, considering I tend to be behind on intellectually stimulating novels, instead focusing on the Harry Potter and Confessions of a Shopaholic series..

Hi Graham :) The summer is over, school is back on, and the peach is off the bench!

Matt said...

If more of my profs thought this way tutorials might be more bearable. Personally I think many of them pander to students not because they think its beneficial their education, but because they want to do well in student reviews at the end of the term.