Thursday, December 13, 2007

Whack the Powerless, That Will Teach'em

So this post by Rob is getting some attention in the 'sphere.

He blogs about his students, who, while writing about some other issue, mention the Iraqi attack on us on 9/11.

I've had two papers on the virtue of forgiveness that argue that if we had just forgiven Iraq for the 9/11 attacks, we wouldn't be at war right now. I just read a paper on the problem of evil which asked why God allowed "the Iraq's" to attack us on 9/11.

Rob's point is that these students believe, as an absolute fact, like gravity sucking, that Iraq was behind the attack on the Twin Towers. Okay, well, half my students believe America was founded as a Christian nation, and that the war on Christmas is real, and white guys are the real victims in this country.

But what's to be done when students put this sort of thing in their essays?

Plenty of comments, at Rob's site and at Crooked Timber, where I first saw the story, argued (well, ranted) for failing the students. "You did fail the students, right?" "Can't university professors fail students?" and like that.

Here's the issue I have with this solution: yes, clearly these students are wrong. On the other hand, (a) they're wrong because our culture has told them, over and over, that this answer is the right answer. Why would they doubt that this thing is true when everyone around them has insisted this thing is true for as long as they can remember?

And (b) how will failing them help?

This is my problem with failing students. Are we here to harm or to help? Yes, the students are wrong. Well, let's make them right. Smacking them with an F will not help anything. What might, then? Saying, hey, you know, I see many of you have a misapprehension here. Why don't we do some research? Why don't we learn to check assumptions before we turn in a paper?

I do this in my Freshman writing class -- I use mistakes I have made as examples. "Here's what I thought the truth was," I say. "Then I did research, and here's what I found out the truth was. Why do we do research?" I ask.

I say, "What do we know?"

I say, "What do we really know?"

I get them to see how little they actually know: I teach them to think about this before they turn in their first papers. But I never grade that first paper, even so, because it will be filled with idiotic things like Iraq attacked us on 9/11 and Jesus wants us to vote for Bush and children should always do what adults say no matter what, and I will have to say to them, really? You really think that's so? You really think a child should do what an adult says? No matter what? So a guy comes up to her on the playground and says come get in the car with me, you want your little girl to obey him, do you?

I'm saying we're in the university (and the universe) to teach our students.

Doing them harm isn't the best way to teach them.

And the angry attitude toward the students -- who are not the ones who caused the problem, who are not the author of the fucking lie, which I think we should remember -- I have to say I find it disturbing.

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