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Monologic Non-Answerability

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Created: September 7, 2003
Latest Update: September 7, 2003

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Index of Topics on Site "I don't understand" as Monologic Non-Answerability

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

When you say "I don't understand." And offer nothing further. That is monologic non-answerability.

Think about it. "I don't understand. Period." is a statement of frustration. It reflects a normative expectation that it won't matter how frustrated you are, if you don't understand, it must be your fault. When I speak of our schools as teaching learned incompetence, about which Velma asked last Wednesday, this is an example of what I mean.

Think about the affect involved. The statement "I don't understand" is rarely a positive statement. The utterance is usually abrupt and ends as quickly as it started.

Now think about Bolman and Deal (Text for Agencies class in Fall 2003.) referring to "cluelessness" on p. 6: "It's true that psychic flaws have been apparent in such brilliantly self-destructive individuals as Adolph Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. But on the whole, intellectually challenged people have as many psychologoical problems as the best and the brightest. The real source of cluelessness is not personality or IQ. It's in how we think and make sense of the world around us.

"I don't understand" leaves the teacher clueless. It's a little like being handed a big chunk of cotton candy, not knowing where to start, and saying "Well, what am I supposed to do with it?" Start unraveling it somewhere. Find something you can ask about. Can I take a bite out of it just anywhere or do I have to start at the top? Try an example and say "Do you mean . . . ." That gives the teacher a clue as to how you're thinking. And it does something else. It let's the teacher know you're trying to figure it out. That's positive feedback. It's not a sullen challenge of "go ahead teach me, see if you can."

Now granted that the examples I'm giving you occur more in K -12 than in college. But the behavioral patterns stick with you. If you've been saying "I don't understand. Period." for years, and no one's tried to relieve the cluelessness in the classroom, you're likely to say "I don't understand. Period." out of habit. And the teacher who knows that that leaves him clueless is likely to give up and say "Read the third chapter." which is no help to either of you.

Understanding is a process that starts with a frame of mind that wants to understand. I suspect, though I don't have a source for this at the moment, that answerability is essential to that process. In a world where the learner doesn't answer, the teacher makes the unstated assumption that everyone understands, and develops what she considers a normative expectation that concepts she taught last week were understood. Because she develops it as a normative expectation, she will experience considerable affect when she finally realizes that they weren't understood, usually after giving a test. Can you see how this leads to the seemingly objective conclusion that students who understand are "good" and students who don't understand are "bad?" Students who seem to understand on the test aren't denying her normative reality. Students who don't seem to understand on the test are denying her normative reality. And there is little attempt to understand precisely what those who didn't understand missed, and to correct that misunderstanding. Instead, they're "not good students." So much eaiser. And doesn't mess with the teacher's reality.

Can you see that once again I end up at a moral and ethical issue in answerability? If I choose to label students as "good" and "not so good" I can maintain an illusion of answerability and use the labelling to deny my complicity. If I admit that there was nothing not easily intelligible in the concepts I sought to teach, then I have to admit my own part in the non-learning, and go back and attempt to correct it.

Find alternatives to "I don't understand. Period." so that you won't risk labelling instead of teaching.

Let's take answerability as an example. I talked about it in class, and you just didn't get it. What to do?

    Assuming dialogic answerability:

  • You could simply tell me that you didn't get it at the time and ask me to explain it in different words.
  • Why "at the time"? Because if I don't get the message until two days later, when I'm already on several different topics, I don't have the same facility of materials at my fingertips. The day I explained it I had a copy of aglect06.htm, but when you ask a few days later, I don't have that copy of the lecture. Also, you've left me some time in which to draw the normative conclusion that you got it. Affect.
  • Maybe you don't realize until a couple of days later that you didn't get it. Then, find the lectures on answerability by linking on Lectures on the Site Map, and ask about something in the lecture you don't get. Keep at this until you get the whole concept straight. Remember that every tiny clue you give me as to what you're thinking helps me correct the misunderstanding.
  • Don't let the misunderstandings build. They damage the aesthetic process of building a learning committee.

    Assuming monologic non-answerabilitiy:

  • The difference is in affect. The normative expectation for monologic non-answerability is that you will not challenge the academic authority. This means you really don't want to say "I don't understand. Period." That will challenge the normative expectation that the teacher has been understood by all students.
  • If there is a portion of text or an online assignment to which the concept you didn't get corresponds. Read it. Use that to ask short simple questions on the concept, and see if that helps.
    "We discussed dialogic answerability in class last week. "Dialogic answerability" refers to the fact that for every utterance (or act) there is an Other who shares our human qualities and the capability of answering our utterance or act. Nielsen links this to the social theory of Bakhtin and Habermas by reminding us that Habermas' main question is "how shall we live together in such diversity as the world now exhibits?" Habermas' answer is a system of law that respects the right of every citizen to have his/her validity claim heard in good faith. Habermas believes that the recognition of such a system of law will permit us to reach consensus and act in ways that will not harm humans of the present and the future." Dialogic Answerability in Hierarchical Institutions

    According to Nielsen, however, Bakhtin asks a different question, and so finds a different answer. Bakhtin asks "What shall I say, when the Other can answer? and how, then, shall we live?" What a powerful difference! Habermas' approach to difference is that we must reason until we can come to a consensus.

    Recognition and Recall Practice:

    Try these questions:

    1. I'm not quite sure what you mean by utterance?
    2. If you can add to that "Do you mean "whatever you say" by utterance?"
    3. Why is it called "dialogic" answerability?
    4. Why do you say "utterance or act"?
    5. I'm not sure I see the difference between Habermas' and Bakhtin's questions.
    6. What do you mean by a "validity claim"?

    Each of these questions makes it clear that you consulted the textual reading. So you didn't just say "I don't understand," without trying to use the appropriate study materials.

    Now, I bet that if I try to answer all these questions, some of you will discover that you weren't sure of the answers either. Check out my answers at jeanne's answers.