Sunday, September 5, 2010

It's Not About How You Feel: Why Feelings just won't cut it

I got into a discussion on Twitter today about writing, critical thinking, and the new Common Core Standards. I have been wanting to write about this for a while, but wasn't sure how to approach the topic in a blog post. How do I balance my desire to see real change in how writing is practiced in middle and high schools versus my frustration with the sheer number of students who need to take (or perhaps should be taking) remedial writing at the college level. Because it isn't just about writing; it's about what the students write about and how they write about it.

While I've been "forced" to adopt a specific textbook, I'm quite pleased with the book and the collection of essays found therein. The book we're using is Reading the World: Ideas that Matter, edited by Michael Austin. Right now, we're reading some of the entries on "Rhetoric," starting with the "Funeral Oration" by Pericles, contrasted with a dialogue by Plato between Socrates and the sophist Gorgias. The "Funeral Oration" is rife with internal contradictions, faulty logic, and just plain propaganda. But it is a powerful piece of rhetoric, aimed squarely at the heart of the Athenians in order to get them to continue to support the war against the Spartans. Plato, on the other hand, has Socrates continually question Gorgias on his understanding of what a sophist does in order to ensure everyone understands the conclusion (sophists are bad because they don't care about what's right, only that they win) and how he got to that conclusion. Socrates repeatedly says in the dialogue that he could just simply tell Gorgias and all those listening the answer, but he has the best interests of everyone in mind when he continues the dialogue anyway. 

I've chosen my language very carefully in describing what the two authors/orators have done in their respective pieces. Pericles emotionally manipulates his listeners in order to get them to fight, die, and do so willingly, if not gladly. He talks about how grand Athens is because it is a democracy and that the elected officials (Pericles included) serve at the will of the people. How is this so, I ask the students, when Pericles can so readily and easily manipulate through pure emotion, the will of that people?  Emotions, I tell my students, are a dangerous thing to rely on.

My biggest pet-peeve as a teacher is when I hear or read "I feel" when thoughts or ideas are being expressed. It's not just my students, watch cable news; analysis is frequently expressed as "feelings" rather than well-thought out ideas born from serious study of events or facts. We have become a society that puts how we feel above all else. The danger, of course, is from the sophists, of leaders like Pericles, who understand how to appeal to the emotional states of people in order to bend them to his (or her) will.  "I feel" is officially band from my classroom unless what follows is a legitimate emotion. And even then, it needs to be followed immediately with an analysis of why that feeling is there. 

I asked these same students to record all of the ways that they are addressed or engaged primarily on an emotional level throughout the day. The result? 95-99% of what the student is exposed to or they expose themselves to is engaging them on an emotional level: their leisure time, their friends and family, advertisements, media. It's all there for their entertainment or to make them feel something. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But when does the student take time to think? When are they using their heads? Is this why reading for school represents such a challenge, because it doesn't look to provoke their emotions, but instead seeks to engage their brains? Is the reason why Plato's dialogue is such a challenge not in fact because of the content (which is pretty straight forward, at least superficially, lest you philosophers get riled up) but because it is wholly logical and rational in how it presents its arguments? 

How a student feels about the dialogue (frustrated, bored, annoyed) has little to do with the article itself and everything to do with how the student is used to being engaged. And while this is a useful teachable moment, it does very little to help the students gain any sort of insight into what the dialogue is actually saying, what the students will eventually have to write about. Feelings are fine, but in my class, they are far, far from enough. 

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