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Answerability

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Soka University Japan - Transcend Art and Peace
Created: July 23, 2003
Latest Update: July 28, 2003
E-Mail Icon jeannecurran@habermas.org
takata@uwp.edu

Site Teaching Modules Why jeanne says don't just answer the questions.

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, July 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

When you answer the question as it is asked by rephrasing what has been said by your text or in lectures, without any attempt to make it your own by relating it to your learning and your lived experiences, you avoid any aesthetic engagement with me, meaning that you don't tell me anything about you, who you are, what your learning means. You are allowing me, or the text, who asks the question to limit its answerability to a given closed perspective. You are denying the possiblity of your own learning identity. We have therefore not created an interpersonal relationship on which we can now build.

Your answer will be "right" or "wrong" according to the accuracy with which you reflect the given answer. But how can that tell me anything of YOUR learning? My lived experience suggests that of the dozen or so "right" answers, some will be able to recognize the right words to use to make it sound like they studied; some will have memorized the words, Heaven Forfend!; some will understand them if they hear them in a similar context; and some will really get it. How should I tell the difference between each of those sets of students?

If I am to give you feedback as to how well you are learning what we have agreed upon that you will learn, then I need to address whether you have reached a level of recognition, recall, analysis, evaluation, or synthesis. Do you know the words "categorical imperative" when someone mentions them? Do you occasionally use them yourself? Do you know what they mean, and they are part of Kant's philosophy? Do you know whether you accept or reject the categorical imperative? And can you use Kan't categorical imperative in some way to strengthen a new approach to social theory?

I'm not making this stuff up. You'll find it all in Theory 595. Bakhtin rejects Kant's categorical imperative, and modifies the beliefs of a number of other philosophers to put together the aesthetics of answerability, which we use to explain our grading policy. Needless to say, Susan and I are reasonable creatures. We don't expect you to be able to re-interpret the categorical imperative to write a new social or criminological theory. But it does help us to know where you are on that continuum of learning, so we can nudge you along, or help you out if need be.

If you simply answer a question, based on what said, I can't guess where you are on the learning curve. I need more. I need you to tell me that you see the idea as like some other idea, or that it fits somewhere into an example, or that you feel comfortable with being able to use the concept and give a simple definition. I don't need you to write a lot. You can volunteer much of this information in class or in the hallways or in my office. In class, your volunteering something that you think you have down helps others by letting them hear the concept explained in different words. Sometimes that's enough to clear up misunderstandings.

In elite colleges, where libraries are accessible and well stocked, and where students have discretionary time to explore their ideas together, the sort of discourse I'm describing here goes on all the time. The problem in a commuter college is precisely a lack of discretionary time on the campus itself. We are all trying to beat traffic, rush home, get to work, pick up a kid or a mother. Whatever. We don't have the time to sit and think over coffee.

I will never forget the day I came upon Tyron and Dunbar at a crappy little table under the cafeteria stairs with Weber open before them, totally absorbed in their conversation. The text on Weber was a required text for a graduate course they had both dropped in disgust when they were told they would be held to elite university standards (UCLA). And yet, there they sat caught up in what I'm sure Bourdieu would have been pleased to call academic discourse. There's more than just answering questions to learning. There's thinking deeply about what this stuff means in our own lives, if indeed it still has meaning. For me, those are elite university standards. Tyron and Dunbar may not have as many of these moments as I'd like. But those they do snatch away from outrageous pressures on their time are real. When Susan and I ask that you share your learning, it's moments like those we're looking for. Moments when you get to think this stuff over, even if only for fifteen minutes. Because once you have experienced such learning, you will seek it out later, after school is over, and you have discretiionary time again.

What could Dunbar and Tyron have told me that I could have known about that learning. Five minutes in my office or in the hallways, with a quick allusion to whatever they were talking about would have done. I can tell from the tiny details you tell me when you're really thinking. You don't get an A for having the answer. You get an A for asking the questions, and caring about finding the answers. That means I really have to be listening attentively when you catch five minutes with me. The aesthetics of answerability, remember? I have to be open to hearing you, wherever, in the cafeteria, in the parking lot, in the classroom; you have to be open to risking an utterance or an act. But from that exchange comes a trust, and a climate of learning, in which we don't need to challenge each other.

I remember one student who was the quietest student I've ever known. No, not Susan. Susan is loquacious by comparison. She was almost always in class, attentive, polite. She almost never said a word. She showed up in my office, where she listened attentively to others speak. And finally, I just got it. She was too shy to speak, but her presence was speaking for her. Later, another of the graduate students came in to tell me how bright she was, how much she knew. But words had just not been part of our exchange. That's a hard pattern, and you're trusting a great deal to a teacher to get that message.

To that end, see Authentication of Knowledge as Interdependent for some specific suggestions on what to say to let us know what's happening on your learning curve.