On teaching

Professors profess—that is, they use, more or less, the traditional lecture method. But these days, especially in Great Books programs, they also conduct seminars. What they should aim at, as I will argue, is the fruitful combination of the two, even within the same class period, synthesizing top-down, rigidly structured, instructional transmission of knowledge with free-form, student-led conversation and inquiry.

To best acquire the skills of the liberal artist and the wisdom that is their ultimate raison d’etre, I maintain that the tutorial mode of teaching, incorporating both lecture and seminar but realizing their dynamic synthesis through Socratic questioning, is the most effective method of teaching, particularly for undergraduates.

Tutorial connotes either one-on-one instruction or, at least, a smaller than usual class size. Now, liberal arts classes are small in size, but we mean more by the term than mere scale. Tutor, by way of Old French and Middle English, comes from the Latin tueri, “to watch or guard.”

In the tutorial, the professor watches each student, listening carefully to his responses to questions so as to ascertain his mindset, perspective, and temper of thought; and by this receptive listening he guards them against the intellectual pitfalls of unexamined assumptions, facile inferences, unwarranted skepticism, or misplaced dogmatism. This subtle give-and-take dynamic is possible neither in the lecture hall nor the seminar table, regardless of size.

A lecture presents a thesis to students and provides an extended argument in its defense. Students learn how to follow a long train of logic and, if the lecture is sound, they come to know the truth about some aspect of reality. A seminar poses a question with which students are invited to grapple, without much intervention or guidance by the professor. Students learn how to formulate their own opinions, respond sensitively and receptively to alternative viewpoints, question their own unexamined assumptions, and dialectically engage difficult questions. Both of these educational tools are effective for learning, but when they are taken to extremes or employed in isolation from each other, something vital is lost.

Lecture provides contextual and factual information, extended argumentation, and wisdom gleaned from prolonged study and experience. This kind of systematic, definitive discourse must inform and guide dialectical, conversational inquiry if it is to be fruitful. But lecture alone can turn students into passive learners and mere followers of “expert” opinion. Free-flowing seminar discussion, though an indispensable tool to inculcate the habits of listening, speaking, asserting, considering, and receiving, can be disorienting to students and suggestive of relativism. Most questions do have answers, even if only tentative ones open to further questioning.

Open-ended inquiry must ultimately lead to some level of closure else it lead to what Socrates called in the Phaedo “the greatest evil,” misology, the hatred of argument. Interminable dialectic and argument with no definite direction or sense of progress teaches students that truth is not just elusive but perhaps nonexistent. Inquiry should not be preemptively curtailed, of course, but neither should it be prolonged unnaturally.

The tutorial method includes the best of both the other methods in the proper balance. In tutorial, the teacher does often lecture, usually at the beginning of class, to provide important information and context. But the bread and butter of the tutorial is the professor’s modeling of inquiry: how to conduct a careful interpretation of a given text or idea, ask the kinds of questions most relevant to it, and articulate a defensible argument.

Such modeling can include lecture, Socratic questioning, and seminar discussion, but the key is for the professor to perform not just for but with students the kind of informed and rigorous rational inquiry most appropriate for the particular subject matter under investigation, whether literature, mathematics, philosophy, theology, or history. Such interactive modelling combined with cooperative inquiry is difficult and sometimes exhausting—it is easier simply to lay out an extended argument and answer questions, or pose an opening question and sit back—but it is more educationally rewarding for both student and teacher.

Posing carefully considered questions to students enables them to question their unexamined opinions and prejudices, and thus to discover truth for themselves. But it trains them to develop their own carefully considered questions. Answers are not truly answers if they are not preceded and evoked by authentic and heartfelt questions. Only by first mastering the complex art of questioning can a student profitably be led to the correct answers and enabled to recognize inadequate ones. The student transcends uninformed and uncritical opinion, rejects mere assertion, and obtains justified knowledge and truth. In tutorial, students learn how to become close readers of texts and independent thinkers without fear of becoming unmoored “free thinkers”—in other words, habitual skeptics at best, and dogmatic nihilists at worst.

The goal of teacher-modeling is for the students to eventually perform their own independent inquiries. The teacher may still intervene at times to supplement their humble efforts at close reading and analysis with his more proficient textual commentary and dialectical acumen, and to nuance their answers when they are deficient or correct them when they are flat-out wrong.

Finally, tutorial has great benefits not only to students. Often in conversing Socratically with students, the professor himself is awakened to new and more profound questions, insights, and truths. When it comes to Ultimate Reality, mysterious and inexhaustible, we must, professor and student alike, confess with Socrates that all we know is that we don’t know.

THADDEUS KOZINSKI is academic dean and an associate professor of humanities and philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College

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