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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 250-252

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Jerry's Blind Spot

Jane Tompkins

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For the past several years Gerald Graff and I have been carrying on a conversation—he might say an argument—about whether or not conflict is good for academic talk and classroom teaching. He says it is and I say, now Jerry, what we need is to get out of the thrust-and-parry mode and into small groups, where people don't feel threatened and conversation can become a cooperative rather than a combative venture. Jerry says conflict creates community by getting people who hold opposing views or come from different disciplines together to talk. And I say conflict is injurious because people's egos get battered and this either shuts them up or makes them even more aggressive and defensive than they already are. People need to feel safe before they can speak from their hearts and have a real conversation. Hogwash, says Jerry. And so it goes.

Meanwhile, I've appeared in Jerry's classes, he's appeared in mine, we've both appeared in the same class, upholding our different views—and once we even went on the road together and did our dialogue as a live act. You'd think that people so far apart would have trouble working together. Not so.

When I mentioned to a colleague that next semester Jerry and I planned to coteach freshman English, she did a double take. She implied that our collaboration would be a freak, a yak's head on a donkey's body; she couldn't imagine it. Little did she know. Fooled by mere disagreement, hoodwinked by divergent styles, our colleague failed to take into account Jerry's blind spot.

Back in the days when deconstruction was new and sexy, people in the profession talked a lot about the blind spot. The blind spot was that set of assumptions that founded one's perspective on the world—that indeed made the world intelligible—assumptions necessarily invisible, because to be aware of them would mean that one was operating from still another set of assumptions, which made the first set visible, and so on.

Well, I'm not talking here so much about the founding assumptions of an intellectual position, or worldview, or cognitive structure as I am about feelings and behavior. It's at the level of emotion and relationship that I locate Jerry's blind spot. For this is my experience of Jerry: You and he have been talking for a while about something you disagree about. The conversation has been genial and pleasant, like a June day, when, for no apparent reason, Jerry [End Page 250] rears back: his metaphors become bolder; his tone acquires an edge; he becomes almost truculent. Uh oh, you think, I'm in for it. You go a few rounds at this new level of friction and fractiousness, and just when you're sure you're about to get clobbered, a glint comes into Jerry's eye. A sly little smile spreads across his face; for a moment he looks absolutely beatific, and then he remembers something you said before that he actually does agree with. Or, he recalls something someone else said that he likes, that goes along with your position. Or, he introduces a third term that moves the discussion out of the either-or mode you've been in and on to new terrain. Now, all at once, there's air to breathe and room to maneuver; the next thing you know, you're both on the same side.

What happened? What happened was Jerry's blind spot: his disposition. Jerry has a heart big enough to do conflict without hurting people. He can jump into the ring with a thousand-pound gorilla and keep his decency intact. Jerry imagines the university as an updated version of the groves of academe where Socrates and Glaucon and their friends discoursed about justice, the only difference being that Jerry is much nicer than Socrates.

He is free to imagine a curriculum where we all argue with each other constantly...


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