Tuesday, May 29, 2018

I Get Tired Of Having Opinions

For me, one of the most exhausting things about being a humanities scholar is the constant having of opinions. As regular readers know, I used to study math, and then I switched to philosophy. One of the first things I noticed when I made this switch was the fantastical number of opinions I was suddenly expected to have. "What did you think about that article"? "What do you think about framing the issue that way?" " What do you think about the curriculum being this rather than that?" And of course, the omnipresent "What do you think of that philosopher? Are they smart or what"?

In case it's not obvious, "I don't know what I think about that" is not an escape from having an opinion. It is, in its own way, an expression of a point of view. If your interlocutor is like "Isn't X completely outrageous"? and you say "I don't know what I think about that," you're not going to be heard as expressing "no opinion."

By comparison, math is a haven of rest for the mind. Most of what you do in advanced theoretical mathematics is find and write out proofs of things. While there are debates at the margins, there is vast agreement about how you do it, and what there is to be done. The difficult part is the doing it, because, as Barbie knows, Math Is Hard. But you don't have to have a million opinions about it. You just have to do it. I remember I would spend hours in mental effort and frustration working on math problems, and I would come away refreshed: my mind would be pleasantly tired and worn out, and would have escaped thinking about things like global injustice or whatever for a few hours.

In my experience, there are a few strong opinions in math, but they tend to focus around a few math-y issues, like "How should we teach math to non-math people" and the all-important "Is that branch of math difficult and important or easy and stupid?"

By contrast, in philosophy, opinions infuse everything, and they're often opinions about huge topics that many people have strong feelings about. Obviously you're having opinions when you draw philosophical conclusions. But it goes way beyond that. There are opinions about what you choose to talk about or not talk about, what you choose to draw on in making your argument, what you think is "persuasive" or "relevant."

I sometimes encounter the idea that there should be fewer opinions in university teaching, and that one problem with the humanities is the way professors rely on or convey their own opinions in teaching. In some ways it is a complicated issue, because I agree that opinions are constantly flying in all directions, and it matters which opinions are where. But I'd say the issue with opinions in humanities teaching is never "if," but always "how."

In choosing to assign some readings rather than others, you're expressing an opinion. In responding to student questions, even if it's just to draw connections between their comment and the readings or other comments, you're expressing opinions -- about what is significant, interesting, similar or different.

I actually go out of my way to de-opinionize, especially with controversial topics, asking students questions like "From the point of view of author X's theory, what conclusion would we draw about this example?" We can explore that question together, regardless of what opinion we have about author X's theory. I also try to assign readings that express a range of views. I am often cagey about my own opinion, not because I am under the delusion that I can be "objective," but just because when the professor says "I think X," that makes it easier or harder for some students to express an opinion of X or not-X or something else like Y. It's a tricky dynamic.

But there are limits to de-opinionization. What is "a range of views"? Over what topics should views range? If we're studying medical aid in dying, and I assign one text saying that it's immoral because of the sacredness of life, and another saying it should not be legalized because of the way its use discriminates against people with disabilities, is that a "range of views"? Any way of framing the issue makes assumptions about what the main question is and what is, and is not, up for debate.

A million choices about how to respond in classroom interactions also convey opinions. In my teaching evaluations not that long ago, a student expressed strong satisfaction that the classroom interaction was one in which they felt comfortable asking or saying whatever they wanted, without fear of being attacked or shut down. In the same batch, another student expressed the feeling that because of the open dialogue, the contributions of the other students verged on being misogynistic or problematic in other ways.

What this shows is partly that what is a good class atmosphere for one person is not necessarily a good class atmosphere for everyone in the same way. What atmosphere you want in class is, like everything else, not a matter of objective matter of fact, but always reflects a set of opinions. You can't get away from opinions. You can only try to use the ones you think best in the most constructive way. Exhaustingly, even that project is often difficult.

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