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Are we lying to each other or (worse) to our students?

October 27, 2009

Many thanks to Stephen Carlson for pointing out Duke Newt’s site which posted an insightful article by Jonathan Z. Smith on honesty in pedagogical method. Smith’s article is entitled, “The Necessary Lie: Duplicity in the Disciplines.” The article examines two pervasive “lies” that occur in the context of teaching. The first is the “white lie” of oversimplifying and/or overgeneralizing. The second is the “disciplinary lie,” where students are led to believe that texts and ideas are self-evident, when in fact a great deal of work has gone into drawing out the ideas now regarded as axiomatic. 

One comment in particular resonated with me in my own pedagogical approach. He writes:

Another way we end up reducing our students to the notion of a subject being all opinion (and we’re very angry when they assert that to us) is the way that introductory courses, whether seminar or lecture, whether of a large field of study or a small field of study, are never introductions. They are always surveys. They may be shorter surveys or longer surveys, quicker surveys or slower surveys, but nothing is allowed to be truly troublesome. It suggests that one might think that a freshman seminar devoted to a single work is probably a far better introduction than our vaunted Core. That is to say, one really ought to be able to work on a limited number of exemplary objects and to answer all the various sorts of questions that one might come up with.

Nearly every semester I teach at least one “intro” course on the Hebrew Bible or New Testament and students (often looking for synthesis) will comment that though my approach has helped them, they realize that I have a tendency to focus on locating “problems” in the texts, history of interpretation of texts, etc., rather than looking to provide a synthesis they can hang their hats on. In light of Smith’s comments on pedagogical lying, I feel justified, and even more compelled to help students see the problems as well as the synthetic elements that create the big picture. Check out Smith’s post. It is good stuff.

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