That's the approximate title of the book I was searching for the other day in my visit to the mega-bookstore. My mistakes were several: I first made a quick detour through the fiction section (where I grabbed Robert Hellenga's new novel Philosophy Made Simple, pristine copies of which had clearly been stacked there by some Higher Power, awaiting my notice), then doubled back past the new paperbacks (where I happened upon Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind, main character an aged Sherlock Holmes; since one of the dozen or so books I'm partway through is Michael Chabon's The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, also featuring an elderly Holmes, it seemed necessary to pick up this one as well), ...
...then (on a search for the bathroom) skimmed past the remainder table (where in short order I scooped up three or four novels I'd considered buying last year), by which time I figured I'd spent my monthly allotment of book money, so had to beat a hasty retreat to the cashier to avoid further temptation.
My background in philosophy is sketchy at best. I did read the whole of Plato's Republic in high school Latin class (quite an ambitious undertaking, I now realize), but took only two philosophy classes in college. From my aesthetics class the only things I now remember are learning about the phenomenon of synesthesia and thinking that there were only two main ideas in this particular branch of philosophy, restated over and over again (unfortunately, of course, I can't now remember what those ideas were). I also took a Philosophy through Literature class (Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, et al.); what stuck with me from that class, which seems with each passing semester a better and better idea, is the professor's requirement of a 2-3 page response paper each week, due before class discussion of the assigned reading. When I was a graduate student, my roommate's electrified, contagious fascination with Ernest Becker's Denial of Death led us to cobble together an independent study class that involved reading Baumer's Modern European Thought and buying many pastel paperbacks that made up Copleston's A History of Philosophy, whose spines uncracked to this day still line a shelf of my bookcase.
My more recent exposure to philosophy has been teaching a section of BW, a few years ago, at a Local Private College, a class that was linked to a Literature-and-Philosophy core class, so that course writing for my class amounted to text-wrestling Plato (an almost comical--if I hadn�t had to teach it--perversion of the thought that student writers should be encouraged to find subjects that they knew or cared about). It�s a source from this class (Christopher Biffle's A Guided Tour of Five Works by Plato) that I have handy for a thumbnail sketch (which, come to think of it, is another one of those interesting metaphor-turned-cliches) for later reference:
(Semi-snide aside. I'm not quite sure, with this last one, how there can be a knower if nothing can be known, or am I just picking a fight?)
The backstory (or where the questions about epistemology come from). In some ways this is a very belated (and very amateur, and very limited) addition to Clancy and Collin's Rhetoric Carnival from last year, in response to Richard Fulkerson's CCC article "Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century." I was interested in the article as an overview, a way to start to gain my bearings after my 20-year detour through motherhood and freelance editing. I made lots of marginal notes (just as I tell my students, though few seem to follow my suggestion) responding to Fulkerson's characterization of these various approaches, though I had no way really of judging how well his descriptions match actual practice. One paragraph that did catch my attention and set me to pondering was the following:
- The axiological question: in general, what makes writing "good"?
- The process question: in general, how do written texts come into existence?
- The pedagogical question; in general, how does one teach college students effectively, especially where procedural rather than propositional knowledge is the goal? And
- The epistemological question: "How do you know that�" which underlies answers to all the others.
Epistemology seems to be much in the air these days. One phrase kept popping up in my admittedly casual reading: the "social construction of meaning,"the notion that knowledge is socially constructed, often presented rather glibly as an assumption (or a postulate, to use math lingo). The more I thought about it the less sure I was I knew (you can start to see how complicated this knowing-business gets) what was meant by the phrase or how it related to writing and teaching.
Initial response (and a disclaimer). I�m pretty sure that all this is exceptionally well-trodden ground I'm covering, that my points and questions are seat-of-the-pants simplifications, reinventions of old debates I'm ignorant of, long-winded ramblings that could be gathered up into catch-all terms I don't know. I probably should hightail it back to that bookstore (or try amazon.com, with its more limited distractions, or better yet crack open the spine of a few of those books already on my bookshelf). I should try to understand the context of these issues, eavesdrop on the conversations, get the lay of the land before opening my own mouth.
Still, my initial reaction to Fulkerson's requirements was a sort of disbelief and outrage. Do I really need to study the whole history of Western thought (and better broaden to a multicultural approach, as well!) in order to figure out and defend how best to teach freshmen to write focused, developed, coherent 750-word essays? Doesn't that smack a little of, well, overkill? Is deep philosophical thought necessary for good teaching, or good writing for that matter? Does a writer need to know how he/she knows? Why, exactly, is that? What about William Carlos Williams's "No ideas but in things"? Read any good omniscient novels lately? (Anyone who�s ever been raised in a family or been in a love affair or worked with not-completely-satisfactory co-workers understands how crucially story depends on whose eyes you're looking through.) Or is nonfiction somehow a class apart, composed by writers of a more careful attention to the actualities of the world and a more discriminating understanding of what they experience? It begins to seem after a while like a parlor game, literally (how do you know something?, how do you know that what you know is correct? and so forth, like an image bounced back and forth between the two huge gilded mirrors at either end of Hollins College's Green Drawing Room).
A few thoughts on what students know and how they know it.
- The knowledge that most 18-year-old students (or anyone actually?) possess with the deepest authority arises from their personal experience. Even if that experience is only minimally digested, or somehow more limited in perspective than it may later become (with the tension here between the vibrancy of immediate experience and the depth of reflected-upon experience). Even if that experience substantively differs from what others would judge the "objective truth" (for those who believe in such things) of the situation.
- In Writing at the Threshold Larry Weinstein describes the process of human inquiry:
- The thinker is confronted with a situation that raises a question.
- The thinker taps memory for relevant ideas or experiences and, on finding some, generates a possible answer to the question.
- The thinker takes that answer and tests it, asking, "Does it, in fact, account for the scene at hand"�
- If the mind's first answer fills the bill, the thinker stops inquiring quite soon. If, however, the mind's initial hypothesis fails to survive this test--or if it survives, but some other plausible hypotheses have yet to be tested--the diligent thinker plunges on, posing and testing hypotheses until one does survive the test or the thinker exhausts available hypotheses and means of testing. (2)
This sort of inquiry, which is at the heart of the much-bandied-about process of critical thinking, involves, then, the testing of hypotheses against something. What else to test against beside one's own experience? (Isn't inquiry necessarily an empirical sort of process?� Yikes, I'm starting to drown in abstractions!� Doesn't active learning require that students bring their own experience to bear on whatever matter they're trying to understand?)
- It seems obvious that most people passively absorb a lot of information about the world, general cultural or familial assumptions that often go unchallenged. Advancing up the rungs of the cognitive ladder requires that one challenge these assumptions, make the metacognitive leap of reflection: how do I know what I know?.
- In order to make that metacognitive leap students need to separate themselves from those "outside" forces. The camp Fulkerson terms CCS (critical/cultural studies) argues, says Fulkerson, that students should "read about systemic cultural injustices inflicted by dominant societal groups and dominant discourses on those with less power" and will thus be led to "recognize the empowering possibilities of rhetoric if students are educated to 'read' carefully and 'resist' the social texts that help keep some groups subordinated" (659). But it seems backward to me to focus attention first on understanding and dismantling this dominant "other" when students could instead be encouraged to focus inward on their own experience, to develop a stronger platform from which to challenge the dominant view (of whatever political/moral/intellectual/aesthetic persuasion). And I'm uncomfortable with the general idea that seems to underlie much of these CCS approaches that this dominant force is necessarily "bad"; city water might be preferable to well water--both would need to be tested in order to come to a determination.
A couple issues related to this idea of "social construction of meaning." At the FYC level this notion seems problematic to me. The idea that students are entering an academic discourse community is, in my view, wildly idealistic when so many of them are still at the stage that they take anything that appears in print (or better yet on their computer screen) as the absolute truth. They are not able to negotiate with a printed text on anything like a level playing field; indeed, it's a worthy goal of the course to get them to start to question the printed word. Perhaps, alternatively, we might want to consider "social meaning making" as occurring among students in the classroom (though I'm not quite sure what this would mean or how it might be accomplished). On a broader (yet more personal) level, I have a hard time buying this notion that Truth exists in the triangulated middle between multiple perspectives; I have a hard time seeing meaning as anything but a personal matter, and my truths are lower-cased plurals.
Epistemology and comp pedagogies. It doesn't make sense to me to suggest that one needs to decide on an epistemology before selecting a matching comp theory (like selecting a matching hat and shoes) nor that one can "defend" a comp theory by citing an epistemological basis for that theory. The two are related as manifestations of the same essential frame-of-mind. I'm not quite sure how one "grows" an epistemology, whether it's a matter of temperament or education, but I'm fairly sure, after several millennia of debate, that there's not one "correct" epsitemology. The ferocious debates about competing comp theories, the notion that "mine is better than yours" seems much like religious intolerance (with just about as much chance of satisfactory resolution), and, similarly the root defenses of one's own position based more on faith than logic.