Sunday, October 18, 2009

Difficult Students

In both of my classes this semester, I have some difficult students.

One student in my Peace Studies class has taken to lobbing ad hominem attacks at almost all of the authors whose books we are reading, as well as some of the guest speakers I have brought to class (though, thank goodness, not in their presence). Not only do these attacks feel mean-spirited, they also turn out to be replete with factual errors. I need to figure out how to deal with this more effectively when it happens. But also, I need to find out why this student has become so unhappy. I think the course is getting to him. I suspect he took it expecting to find it easy to hold his own against the major premises of the course, and this is turning out more difficult than he expected. It has thrown him into a panic.

In my other class, a class on ethical theories, a group of students argues (badly and incompletely) against literally everything. I finally stopped class the other day to point out that it amazed me to no end that they were arguing against the author we were now discussing since their arguments against earlier authors convinced me that they were naturalists and should therefore like the current author. "Help me understand what's going on here!" I said.

They gave me bewildered looks.

I was not sure whether they were actually understanding any of theories we were studying. I had also detected that they were using the same argument strategy over and over again. No matter what ethical theory we were discussing, they kept coming back over and over again to saying that there are people who seem not to care about morality at all, who do terrible things without remorse; therefore, who is to say that there are any moral absolutes at all?

First, I ask what their evidence is for this. They cite to movies they've seen! I say that doesn't count as evidence -- someone's just making that up. Then they cite dubious statistics they think they remember from psychology classes they've taken, but they are unable to follow that up with actual citations to research, or describe the research that supposedly supported such claims.

Realizing that this is all beside the point anyway, I then shift to trying to point that out. "Even if you are right that there are lots of immoral or amoral people out there who see no problem with doing terrible things, how does that undermine this moral theory that we are studying? Are you assuming that everyone in the world has to agree with something for it to count as true?"

A lively debate ensues that doesn't quite get to where I expected it to go. They keep coming back to "what gives someone the right to tell another person they are wrong?"

So, I try something else: "In real life, no one lets someone off the hook who has done something terrible just because that person sees no problem with what they are doing. We don't, in courts, say, 'oh, well, if you don't see it as wrong, that's okay then -- you are free to go!' So, ethical theories are trying to get at what is wrong about those behaviors that most people do regard as clearly wrong."

The students return to a line of discussion invoking cultural relativism. There are no behaviors that most people regard as clearly wrong, they try to argue. Maybe this is so within a culture, but somewhere, there is some culture in which any given questionable behavior is okay.

Since pointing out that cultural relativism does not imply moral relativism does not seem to get through to my students any more, I try to counter their last claim more directly. I point out that just because cultures may disagree about some moral claims does not mean that there is disagreement about all moral claims. "There is no culture," I point out, "that lets people freely kill whoever they want, whenever they want, for any reason, or even for no reason at all."

I thought that these arguments impressed the students and effectively made the intended points -- but then the next class session, they are at it again. New author, new ethical theory: "this is all a bunch of crap because some people think it's fine to do whatever they want, and so there are no moral absolutes. Who is [insert name of present author] to claim that he knows what is right and wrong -- who gives him the authority to tell everyone what to do?"

I sigh.

Usually in my classes, we don't get so stuck like this. I'm trying to understand why this is happening. My unhappiness with this is similar to my distress at the rhetorical strategies employed in the political arena these days. Maybe they are related. Maybe my students are too influenced by what they see in the news. Maybe they genuinely have trouble distinguishing between actual arguments and other rhetorical strategies that are not actually arguments.

At least in the ethics class, they are trying, to some extent, to construct arguments, but they do not seem to be grasping that they keep arguing against the whole project of ethical theory itself rather than constructing arguments against particular ethical theories. It derails us from discussing the particular details of different ethical theories. I'm almost suspicious that this is an intentional diversionary tactic to avoid serious engagement with the particular theories, but I am not sure about that. The students do show evidence of doing the readings and engaging some details of the readings. I do not think that they are slackers. But I do think they might feel threatened by the prospect of taking ethical theories seriously.

And so the cases in both classes are somewhat similar: students catching glimpses that how you live your life (ethics), and how you engage conflict (peace studies) are questions that really matter. They catch glimpses that there might be something wrong with the standard answers they receive. This shakes them up and so they try to change the subject, by attacking peripheral aspects of the emerging new insights.

I share this because I feel that we are at a crucial stage. I want to handle this well. I worry that if I don't, they will lock into their resistance. But right now, there is still hope that I can help them into more serious examination of points of view that are different from what they have considered before.


  1. Maybe your students are skeptical of the whole project of constructing an ethical theory. Perhaps they think that right and wrong are just imaginary categories. Unlike iron and aluminum which are objective and real. You might try going with this idea for a while. Suppose these ideas are just social constructs with no basis in reality. Can we dispense with them? What would it be like to live without ethical concepts? We could keep legal concepts and still put people in jail, but would we lose anything important if we stopped thinking that some things were just plain wrong?

  2. Perhaps you should invite them to consider the reality and practice of a society that had no ethical theories whatsoever - that had no ethical practice or framework. In the end, it is the practice of ethics that is important, rather than the theories that underlie them, and that may be the way to help them see their relevance. The theories are a useful tool to arrive at particular practices coherently, and to compare one against another. It should be encouraging, on some level, that they are at least interested enough to argue, and not sit like zombies!

  3. Thanks to both of you for your suggestions. Good ideas. I'll keep trying and we'll see what happens!

  4. As i sit in the library grappling with Ethics i am struck by how much i would like an answer but when one is proposed through a theory i waiver and withdraw. At the age of 40 coming back and studying with 18 year-olds i observe how much more "clearly" they believe they are interpreting the subject and the world. I say "clearly" as in a plate-glass window that is highly polished and goes unseen until you walk right into it and it shatters. The young students (yes i'm generalising hugely!) are much more at ease with black-and-white rather than the infinite shades of grey and all the other colours in the spectrum. As we mature we have more questions, fewer answers and from my experience in our seminar group, we are happier to enter into dialogue with the texts and the subjects with a little more grace, charity and appreciation!
    Hold on to the concept of the process of learning, sow the seeds and simply accept that some will take a little longer to start showing above the ground than others.
    Hold me in the Light as i revise for my exam on 16th December.
    Blessings, leti x

  5. Someone posted an ad on an old post of yours. It is the one of being overwhelmed by grading. They are advertising their website which sells term papers to students wanting to plagiarize. I think you will want to delete it.

  6. I really appreciated everyone's comments -- thanks! The next ethics class, the students tried really hard to engage more productively in discussion, and when I noticed this with appreciation, they said, "Thanks!" looking really pleased that I noticed. I was really moved. For some reason, it never occurred to me that they might actually care what I think, and, seeing my own frustration, might actually reflect on what they are doing and try to respond to my concerns!

    For so long, for a variety of reasons, I was feeling profoundly ineffective in many ways and started to get used to thinking that no one is really paying much attention to me or really cares what I think or how I feel except my closest friends. So to have this experience in class -- to realize that my students were more tuned in to me and what I was trying to do through my teaching -- really took me by surprise!

    The class ended up being one of my favorites. These students were real, and honest, and so we had quite a journey and really got somewhere!