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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 266-273
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Jeffrey Wallen articulates the reservation that I suspect keeps many readers of my work unpersuaded that it is a good idea to bring our academic debates to our students: Jeffrey argues that "before we bring our academic conflicts into the classroom, we need to make them much worthier of pedagogical scrutiny." In other words, as he sees it, academic debate is often bad debate.
Jeffrey rightly identifies some of the reasons that our debates are bad: we are so nervous about confrontation that we pull our punches, dance around our disagreements, and replace real engagement with academic pseudopoliteness. Like many of our students, we feel safer with the pluralistic, peaceful coexistence that Jeffrey sums up in the maxim "OK, you have your ideas . . . and I have my own." Jane Tompkins adds a further reason: we are often so angry, defensive about our egos, or eager to win debates that we talk past each other instead of listening. Others complain that too much public debate outside as well as inside academe is transacted through reductive caricatures of opposing views, if not through outright name-calling, and fails to do justice to the complexity of the subject at hand.
I agree that the quality of academic debate leaves a lot to be desired. [End Page 266] But I do not agree with Jeffrey that we first have "to transform our professorial discussions and debates before carrying out any plans to put them at the center of the graduate, undergraduate, and high school curriculum" (my emphasis). The problem is, if we cannot open our faculty debates to our students until those debates become "worthier of pedagogical scrutiny" (my emphasis), as Jeffrey puts it, then that moment of exposure is likely to be indefinitely postponed. After all, at what point will we know that our debates have reached the point of worthiness, and who will get to decide? Do faculties figure to be any more likely to agree on when they have reached that point than on any of the other questions they so notoriously disagree about? I don't think so.
For such practical reasons, then, I have always been a believer in the pedagogical value of bad debate. As teachers, we have no choice but to start from where we are, with a flawed culture of debate that will always leave a lot of room for improvement. But starting out with a crude debate, even with polarized binary oppositions, does not mean that we have to end up where we begin. As Steve Benton argued at our Modern Language Association (MLA) session, structuring a course syllabus around debates that are initially far from what we want them to become is itself a way to improve the quality of our classroom debates, maybe the only way. As Steve put it in his informal response to the roundtable discussion: "I agree with Jeffrey that we need to make our disagreements worthy of scrutiny. But I don't think we can wait to get our house in order before trying to teach our students how to disagree with each other in healthier ways. 'Teaching the conflicts,' bringing colleagues who disagree with you into your classroom or your reading list, seems an excellent way to move toward that goal" (29 December 2001). In other words, we are likely to get better at airing and engaging our differences by just doing it, learning from our mistakes, and trying again.
One of the worst aspects of how academic culture is organized at most schools is the lack of opportunity for sustained negotiation of differences. Debates flare up suddenly at faculty meetings or demonstrations, burst into shouting matches, and then break off as abruptly as they began, without the chance for follow-up engagements that would let us come back with cooler heads, learn from our mistakes, and hear each other out more patiently than we could do in the heat of battle. (Administration tends to respond by trying to put out fires rather than nourishing what might be productive in them...