Sunday, February 24, 2008

Leow and Liptoning

Rachel Leow's a historian, not a a philosopher, but she has a short post on teaching that I imagine will resonate with ISW readers anyway. Indeed, there are some challenges in the classroom that seem universal, regardless of the subject matter:

Things I should think about, though, for future teaching experiences: how to ask the right sorts of questions that make it easy for a student to elaborate a thought they’re in the process of having; how to encourage students to speak to one another; how to gently guide a wayward conversation back on track; how to tie threads of discussion into each other. How to speak in a way that helps students take notes; how to lace my opening comments with well-delineated points that can act as handles for the rest of the discussion that our thoughts can keep coming back to. How to give good ‘take-home’ messages: to think specifically about what I want the student to take away from the class. How not to talk too much.

Leow has also coined the verb 'to lipton,' in memory of the late philosopher of science Peter Lipton. It's good to have a name for this, since it's a skill that I wish I had in greater abundance and admire to no end:

To Lipton, I have told people, is to listen to the most garbled, incoherent, muddle-headed drivel that periodically emits from a student or otherwise member of an audience, and to restate it back at them in the most crystal clear terms, so that whatever point hidden in its murky depths is rescued & borne out of the swamps of obfuscation to receive enlightenment from high … seriously. Liptoning also involves clarifying complexity with enviable panache, but always without an iota of hubris — always that incredible modesty and respect for what one does not know — in short, to be an ideal teacher and thinker. What a gift!

A gift indeed.


  1. Liptoning is a great thing to aspire to as a teacher. This helps foster trust between student and teacher, and helps dispel the atmosphere of fear that often lurks in the classroom. I think we often forget that students fear being wrong, ridiculed, or just having the attention of the class on them. Liptoning would do wonders at building a friendly and fruitful dialogue in the philosophy classroom.

  2. Good point Mike, but to what degree does Liptoning contribute to a phenomenon alluded to in an earlier post, i.e. the illusion of comprehension, or, to use my phrase, the qualia of understanding? The happy student may get an unpleasant surprise when she does poorly on an assignment having gotten the impression all along that she was "getting it."

  3. Along with Becko, I too think that Liptoning has its limits. I remember being in many an undergrad class and hearing a fellow classmate say something way off topic, or something full of inaccurate statements, and then sitting in amazement as the professor praised the statement (very interesting Johnny!), and then rephrased it so that it did make sense, was on topic, and was no longer inaccurate. The problem is that Johnny was not listening to the professor anymore, and believed that his statement really was interesting.

    Sometimes students need to know that they are not being clear, or are have said something inaccurate. Sometimes the kid gloves have to come off, especially with the rise in the "self-esteem" movement. (Many students seem to think that being corrected by a professor is extremely rude and out of the question. By always finding the positive in what they say, no matter what, we encourage this).

  4. I think Becko and anonymous both raise important points, because if we do contribute to the illusion of comprehension, we aren't helping our students. I would say that some sort of practical wisdom is needed here. There is a difference between praising a statement and trying to connect it to a more coherent point. Also, there are students who have perhaps never contributed in a class, and I'd be much more inclined to Lipton in such a case. Even in these cases, a good approach might be to make some critical comments at first, but then say "This does relate to an important point, however..."

    For the student who habitually makes incorrect or irrelevant comments, a question is sometimes the best approach, "How does that relate to the issue we're discussin?" or "What reasons are there for thinking that?" And sometimes, we simply have to shut students down.

  5. Becko and Anon: Yes, it's wrongheaded to give credit to students where it's definitely not due, but Liptoning isn't the rewarding of praise for irrelevant or ill-informed remarks. I think Leow was exaggerating a little bit in her definition of Liptoning, but it seems key that when an instructor Liptons well, she pulls the gem of insight out of a student question or comment concealed by some garbled, imprecise, or inchoate thinking.

    Moreover, I think that in philosophy, we underestimate just how hard it is to express one's ideas in ways that satisfy the discipline's expectations regarding relevance and precision. Our discipline can be jargon heavy and the level of exactitude (think of 'it's not the case that P' versus 'it's the case that not-P') is much higher than most students are accustomed to. Add to this that it's easy for students to be awed by us, simply because philosophy tends to attract people with precise verbal minds, and Liptoning looks like an ability that keeps students interested and builds their sense of disciplinary competence. It can be hard for students to feel part of the philosophical conversation: By listening carefully to student remarks and then Liptoning them, we show them that they are part of the conversation, even if they have a way to go to be an expert participant in it.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!