According to Webster’s…

This semester the students in my freshman seminar had to do very, very difficult papers in which they had to take a case-study book on ethics (equal respect, community, relationship, character growth, greater good); collate it with class discussion on morals, conventions, tastes and habits; and use these conceptual tools to understand something about two or more of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, The Kite Runner, and Padre Padrone.

This is a test; this is only a test. It’s a project that can’t be done well without some degree of reflection and integrative thinking. Reflection because the first practical / conceptual hurdle is a triple code-shift among formal concepts and at least two cultural complexes unfamiliar to all of the students. Integration because these codes can’t just be described, they have to be understood well enough to figure out something based on them.

So far the students have been doing fairly well, all in all, in figuring out something about the locality of lifeworlds. But it’s interesting to see how they struggle their way toward the necessary orientation. One favorite move, and of course I’ve seen this many times before, is the “According to Webster’s, ethics is defined as … blahblahblah” opening. Formally this is an immediate fail, because one of the textbooks and a big chunk of the class have been devoted to moving their understanding of ethics and associated conduct codes beyond the mere dictionary definitions. In this vein I’ll sometimes trot out the metaphor of the shovel and the hole. If I hand you a shovel and tell you to go dig a hole, does knowing that according to Webster’s a shovel is a flat-bladed tool designed for digging get the hole dug?

The metaphor is designed to get them thinking in terms of a more fundamental one, that concepts are tools to be used, not objects to be described. But at least for some folks, concepts can’t be used like tools until their objectivity is properly embedded in a schema. Belonging to the Emperor, looking like flies from a long way off. So in terms of the learning dynamics, the ‘according to Webster’s’ strategy is often something like taking a running start at a tough wall to climb – not the task yet, but perhaps an essential part of its preparation, a way of gathering momentum toward the task and getting it going in roughly the right direction.

Again formally, in the paper the definition is in no way authoritative and is taking up precious space that should be on task instead. So over time I try to be friendly about their gathering work, while encouraging them to move more and more of it offstage. These are freshmen after all; but then again I’m still trying to figure out the whole frontstage / backstage thing myself.


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