by Lindsay Crawford, Philosophy
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2013
To accept another’s word as the truth is to trust their word, to implicitly take that person as an authority. Perhaps ideally, we accept or question what others say on the basis of the independent merit of what is being said. But in the classroom, students are still getting a feel for the material and developing the critical-thinking skills that enable them to focus on the content of what is being discussed. Often, students’ investments of authority in their peers are overly sensitive to irrelevant framing effects: in particular, confidence-signaling cues. As a GSI, I’ve witnessed certain pernicious trends take hold over the course of discussion: students who assert themselves more confidently are often those who are taken seriously, whose claims set the focal point of discussion, and whose claims are referred back to throughout the discussion. Students who instead tend to preface what they say with cautious or self-deprecating remarks often unwittingly set themselves up to be ignored in the long run. (Though I moderate discussion carefully to ensure fairness, I avoid controlling the flow of conversation. To get students to participate most actively, one must allow students to see themselves as the shapers of discussion.)
To make my students more aware of this phenomenon, I presented my students in a course on epistemology (Philosophy 4: Knowledge and its Limits) with two dialogues about views we had read and discussed in class, pitched as refreshers of the material in preparation for their next papers. In one dialogue, one of the interlocutors framed his sentences with clauses such as, “As is clear to all sides in this debate,” “Of course,” and “clearly,” while the other framed his sentences with conciliatory sentences like “Though I admit that X is a problem for my view,” and phrases like “seems to be” instead of “is.” The other dialogue, on a different topic, was stripped of these sorts of clauses. I had students evaluate each dialogue and indicate which view they found more plausible, and which interlocutor they thought “won” the debate.
When I looked at the results, I found that, for the second dialogue, students’ evaluations of the quality of the positions closely matched their evaluations of which interlocutor “won.” But in the first dialogue, students’ evaluations of the quality of the positions, and of the “winner,” varied: they were far more likely to credit the confidently defended position as having “won” the argument, even though many of them thought the other, less confidently defended position was stronger overall. In our next session I presented the results. We discussed what it might mean to perceive someone as “winning” an argument even if one did not also perceive that argument to be the strongest. Students were surprised by the results and eager to offer different explanations. Some students suggested a difference between finding a view persuasive and finding a view to be likely true, and we discussed what effects persuasiveness might have on the tone and character of section.
In the remaining half of the term, students who had previously been the most assertive were more circumspect in their presentation of arguments, and some of the less confident students, though still somewhat shy about participating in section, were now more inclined to ask questions in front of the group. On my teaching evaluations, some students mentioned that they were relieved by the softened tone of some of the more outspoken members of the section. By making students more conscious of the degree to which modes of presentation shape the seemingly neutral space of discussion, the students who tended to feel intimidated by more assertive students came to realize that many of the factors that encourage and shape their feelings of intimidation are irrelevant to the quality of the positions being evaluated. Training students to recognize themselves as sensitive to cues and consciously separate these cues from the material itself promises to make students more engaged and thoughtful creators of discussion environments.