Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pedagogical prankersterism at Smith

Jay Garfield at Smith College got his logic students to convince the campus it was going all-vegetarian:

Smith College students held protests and counter-protests, wrote chalk slogans pro and con on campus walkways, and heaped personal criticism on the manager of dining services over rumors that the school was going vegetarian and would start buying only local produce.

No meat? No coffee?
It turns out it was all a hoax.
Two professors at the prestigious women's college in Northampton cooked up the prank as part of their introductory class in logic.

Nice hoax, of course.

But as reader Matt Pianalto points out, it's not obvious what the pedagogical value of a hoax like this is.

But what does the exercise above prove/teach? How bad the non-logic students at Smith College are at assessing arguments? How to be a sophist? Perhaps what the "lesson" is is one of the things the students are expected to reflect upon?

But what about the climate of campus trust? How long can a prank like this go on before it sets up a situation of reduced trust? What if the school does make a big, controversial change? Who can the students trust? I don't want to overreact, but I also think these are serious questions. If you think lying (and fooling others, etc.) is generally wrong, then can students learn to care about the truth by engaging in an activity where they deprive unwitting others of it? (Would something like this pass IRB? Does that matter?) 

Matt raises legitimate questions, I think. What's the point here — to demonstrate human gullibility? To prove the need for critical thinking? It strikes me as encouraging student snarkiness: the knowing logic students pull one on the campus dupes. Your thoughts and reactions?


  1. A few years ago, some students from Leeds received some money to go on an artistic expedition to Spain. They then announced that they'd spent the money on a holiday, released some photos of themselves having fun on the beach, and stated that the holiday was a work of art. There was a furious reaction from the press. Then they revealed the real truth: they had not been to Spain at all - the whole thing was a hoax. The project earned them a First (equivalent to Summa Cum Laude).

    About a month later, one of the students published an explanation - unfortunately, I've not been able to find a link. It was stated that the work had great philosophical value, because it revealed that 'Things are not what they seem' and 'The press is easily deceived.' I felt that they went to an awful lot of trouble simply to reveal two very banal truths. I have nothing to say one way or the other about the value of what they did as art, but if the justification for the work was found in the philosophical statement, then I find myself asking 'Where's the beef?'

    Northampton may not be going vegetarian after all, but I'd still want to put that question to the pranksters.

  2. I share Matt's sentiments here, as it does seem to undermine trust without enough of a pedagogical benefit to justify that effect, whatever the benefit is supposed to be. There are so many ways to teach critical thinking which do not involve this sort of temporary deception. I can't think of any benefit that this uniquely provides to the students. According the link to the story, it was a way to "liven up the class." Again, there are ways to do this that don't involve deception.

  3. I felt that they went to an awful lot of trouble simply to reveal two very banal truths.

    Right. And I can imagine someone saying that Mike and I sound like a bunch of stuffy moralists--which would, of course, be true--but there does seem to be a "boy who cried wolf" problem in both your example and the Smith case that can't be shrugged aside in the name of "enlivening" (or worse, "fun").

    I'd be interested to hear from the profs a more detailed explanation of the project and the rationale--I don't trust news media to tell the parts of the story that might be important...

  4. Although I take Matt's point about what Matthew called the "'boy who cried wolf' problem," as well as Mike's point about there being other ways to liven up the class, I think there is something to say for the "prank" having pedagogical value. The value, I assume, is not in getting the students to trick people, but in getting the students in the class really engaged in a set of arguments. I imagine that the students would have been extremely excited to think about the arguments that were generated for and against the alleged transition to vegetarian, local food. Does this justify what they did? I don't know. But I would bet that their classroom had more excitement—and more consistent excitement—than most.

  5. I wondered how the professors were utilizing the hoax as well. Why not invite them to explain what role it played in the course (if not the pedogogical value) here?

    [The President had a bag of rutabeggas! lol]


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