Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ambiguity Across the Curriculum

(cross posted at A Ku Indeed)

After a Twitter tip (from Michael Cholbi), I read through “Teaching Ambiguity” – a piece over at Inside Higher Education. The subject of the piece is clear enough: penned by a Dean at the Savannah College of Arts and Sciences, it implores instructors to “teach ambiguity” (as opposed to simply facts and figures) as a way to impart critical thinking skills to students. As Eisinger puts it:

This request is not an arbitrary one. To the contrary, it germinates from a belief that the liberal arts and sciences, and the students who take such courses, often thrive by appreciating complex questions that do not have easy answers. Precisely because students can retrieve facts instantaneously at their finger tips, I am asking faculty to revise their syllabuses to discuss and, yes, teach, ambiguity.

On the face of it, this sounds all well and good. But at the same time, it strikes me as a whole lot of meaningless Dean-speak and, frankly, insulting to the disciplines that actually do “teach ambiguity” as an essential part of what they do every day.

Why is it Dean-speak? Because it takes the appearance of a noble sounding clarion call for meaningful changes in pedagogy — “Let’s all teach about how complicated things are! Let’s teach about the challenging of basic assumptions! Ratchet up critical thinking!” — while asking for nothing substantive in order to assure that this gets done. How many instructors out there do you think, if you asked them, would say “I don’t teach critical thinking in my courses”? Zero. So the call to “Teach ambiguity! Add it to your syllabi!” is in practice meaningless when it is stated in this milquetoast driven way. Everyone will say “I already do that”. It sounds good, though – good enough to get Higher Ed to publish it.

Why is it insulting? When it comes to certain key foundational learning outcomes — critical thinking comes to mind as the most obvious — there is often the assumption (which I alluded to in the above) that everyone does that. After all, everyone teaching at the university has a PhD, and how can you get a PhD if you don’t have critical thinking skills? So, the implicit argument will go, everyone can — and does — teach it. Maybe they need to tweak what they do a bit to make it more apparent, but it’s already there.

But is it true? No. Of course, as Academically Adrift points out, the empirical data does not bear this out with respect to the different disciplines. Many disciplines simply do a poor job of “teaching ambiguity.” Now clearly I’m not saying that people in all disciplines don’t use critical thinking. Of course they do. But that doesn’t mean that (a) they can teach it well and/or (b) that it plays a prominent role in what they do in the classroom.

Some disciplines — philosophy for instance — have critical thinking as a foundation. That’s what philosophers do. They challenge assumptions and tear things apart. That doesn’t mean we’re smarter than everyone else, but it does mean that we concentrate as a discipline on the techniques of critical thinking and on the pedagogical methods through which you can effectively teach it. Essentially, saying that everyone can and should do it in their classrooms, and that this will be effective, is really just saying that everyone should teach philosophically in their classes when they are not all prepared to do so.

Let’s face it: it’s difficult to teach philosophically when you’re not trained in philosophy. Hell, it’s difficult to teach philosophically even when you are trained in philosophy. This reminds me, in a way, of the belief that any teacher can “inject ethics in the classroom”. Apparently, there’s a belief that since we’re all good people (reasonably speaking), we can all teach students ethics. I know lots of people who seem to believe that. Nice words, but it just ain’t true, at least not true on the level at which it would need to be true for it to be seen as the basis for making good educational policy decisions (where "learning ethics" is a sought out educational outcome). Some people are simply trained to do it, some are not. That's a fact.

So how about a “radical” thought here: instead of assuming that we can just legislate “ambiguity across the curriculum” into existence by asking everyone to tweak their syllabi, how about we actually make riskier speeches about the need to make the Humanities more central to what we expect students to master and then get our curricula or our hiring decisions to match those goals?


  1. Go Chris go!

    My sense is that Eisinger's piece is well-intentioned but ignorant. Granted, his own institution doesn't have a college of liberal arts in the usual sense, with departments of history, philosophy, etc. But I've noticed that even deans of such colleges don't have a clue about the disciplines within their colleges. Perhaps deans of liberal arts are often not liberally educated themselves?!

    You're dead right that not everyone can or should teach ethics or critical thinking - and I'm hearing a call to arms about philosophers staking a claim to what they do, and do best!

  2. Hi Chris,

    All too often, when I have the chance to slyly ask someone who teaches in higher education, but does not teach philosophy, what the main components of an argument are, I get stammering and stuttering in response.

    Suppose the humanities continue being beat up on, as they have been; suppose it gets worse.

    What should we do, what can we do, on a day to day level?

    I've been running faculty development workshops here and there for our Professional Development department; when faculty *do* attend (I know it's hard to find the time, they're crazy busy, just like I am), they seem to like the informal logic aspects just as much as, if not more than, anything else.


    What do you think? I mean, I know this is small scale, but hey, we've gotta start somewhere.

    Nice post, thanks. Karla

  3. Karla -

    This is a tough subject for me, because normally I'm very opposed, with respect to how we should conduct ourselves in academia, to disciplinary entrenchment. And partly that's what I'm calling for here, so that creates a tension for me.

    However, it is my view that, unfortunately, the push (generally) towards pre-professional programs at the undergraduate level forces that very disciplinary focus. Once the pre-professional programs retrench, so must the others -- simply to fight for whatever resources are left over after the pre-professional programs get their share.

    I think that when we allow, unopposed, talk like "sure, anyone can teach critical thinking/ethics equally well" we contribute to the "What is the Humanities worth, anyway?" problem. After all, if our basic skills can be taught by anyone, what do we contribute, other than our very specific content (which will be seen as not relevant in a fight for resources).

    Unfortunately, I think this dismal academic reality will get worse, which means that we'll simply have to oppose that language when it is proposed. No, everyone doesn't teach critical thinking/ethics equally well, so if it is truly important to the college mission, deans/administrators should hire more philosophers and dedicate more of the curriculum to philosophy.

    Clearly, though, this will mean upsetting our colleagues, many of whom are fully convinced that they can teach the basic skills of philosophy just as well as philosophers can. After all, we are all convinced that we are critical thinkers and good people, right?

  4. Chris,

    Here's a relevant podcast I came across, just a couple minutes ago. I'm listening to it now...


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