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Friday, June 22, 2012

A world of hypotheses

[E]ncountering divergent opinions strengthens, rather than weakens, our political ideas. In the research methods courses that I teach, I stress to students that personal experience is a terrific way to form hypotheses, and a lousy way to adjudicate whether our hypotheses are true. So at MHP, we generate ideas from our gut, but we build arguments with research, evidence, and anticipation of counter-arguments.
--Melissa Harris-Perry, from the MHP Show Footnote, 6/10/12

Someone asked me once why I thought humanistic inquiry was so worthwhile, and why I'd devoted myself to furthering it through teaching and scholarship. "Why not," this guy asked, "just teach people the content they need to get a job and do something constructive?" I wasn't able to answer the question very well then -- it was relatively early in my graduate career, and I was only just beginning to articulate why I thought being a professor of religious studies might be worth more than just my personal enjoyment of the subject matter. I made some quick reply about having different criteria for "worth" and "constructiveness," but mostly just to get the conversation over with and move on -- this guy was an asshole for other reasons, and I didn't really want to stand at the bar, justifying my existence for the rest of the night. Little did I know that the next 14 years of my life would involve large amounts of time spent standing everywhere from the bar to the bus stop, justifying my existence as an academic, and especially as a scholar and teacher in the humanities. I didn't realize, all those years ago, how many more times I'd have that conversation, how much more time I'd spend thinking about it, and how long it would take me to figure out an answer that seemed adequate.

I still haven't figured out an answer that seems adequate. But, I do have more of an answer now than I did then.

Since 2008, I have spent most of my time teaching first-year students. I have tried to teach them to be better thinkers and writers, better discussants and readers. Now and again, I have explicitly included a little bit of being a better person, but I admit freely that I included it, implicitly and a lot, all of the time. I liked the quote above when I heard it a couple of weeks ago -- I was grading, and it reminded me of countless conversations I've had with students about how to write a better paper, or read a text more responsibly, or be a more productive member of a section discussion. I thought that I would post it here, and say something about careful critical analysis and the difficulty of crafting a thesis statement. But, when I sat down to write that post, it seemed to be missing something. I felt  like there was something else I wanted to say -- some other reason why MHP's statement had stuck with me so strongly -- so I sidelined that post, to give it a bit more thought. As I've sat with the quote for the last couple of weeks, I've realized that I like it so much because it also addresses what, for me, was always the larger picture. MHP was talking about political opinions, and how she and her production team decide what issues are important to discuss on her show. But, with very little tweaking, that quote could just as easily be about what I thought was worthwhile about humanistic inquiry, and especially about teaching in the humanities. Coming into contact with the thoughts of others -- especially concerning the things we consider important -- and being able to deal with those thoughts in an attentive, thoughtful, critically engaged manner is the best way I know of making our own thoughts stronger, and by extension, making our actions make more sense.

We live in a world full of hypotheses, so learning to form, re-form, encounter, and evaluate them is not an elective; it is a basic human skill, relevant personally and professionally, religiously, politically, legally and socially, ethically, emotionally, intellectually and emotionally -- pervasively. It is a basic human skill, but it does not come to most of us naturally or involuntarily. It's difficult. It requires effort. We develop it best when we develop it intentionally, through practice -- whether that practice comes within an academic setting, or somewhere else in the world. It helps to have models to emulate, and interlocutors with whom one can respectfully disagree. And, given all of the areas of our lives in which this type of engagement is crucial, it seems ridiculous to think that developing it in only one arena would be sufficient to the task of sending us out into a world full of hypotheses of so many different kinds.

So those hypotheses -- those thoughts, opinions, beliefs... I think they're really important. And I think they're important to be good at dealing with. As a teacher in the humanities, I think that it was my duty, my pleasure, and my contribution to a teensy corner of the world to help students be better at thinking about important things; to help them encounter some of what others have thought about these important things in more carefully considered ways; and, thereby, to help them strengthen their own hypotheses, not just about the course materials, but about themselves, other people, and the world. Big words, I know. Big claims. But these few years of teaching have offered me plenty of research, engagement with counter-arguments, and evidence to support the hypothesis that what I was doing was worthwhile, in that it had meaning, value, and a positive impact on that teensy corner of the world.

As many of you know, starting this month, I am no longer devoting myself to furthering humanistic inquiry through teaching and scholarship in the humanities. It might seem strange, then, that I'd bother to articulate why I thought it was so important. But, if you've been to this blog before, you know that one of the things I do here is try to work through hypotheses about important things -- especially gender, ethics, and culture. Sometimes I do that by presenting someone else's hypothesis and pointing out what I think is lacking or compelling about it. Sometimes I do that by offering a hypothesis of my own. I won't always be up to such serious business (though my belief that popular culture can be an important place for engaging with big ideas may blur the line a bit) -- there are all sorts of hypotheses to explore, and only some of them are about Very Important Things. But, don't be surprised if you continue to see, side by side, reviews of dubiously valuable entertainment and critical discussions of everything from blog posts to books to film and television shows. You've been warned.

La prof. est mort; vive la prof.!

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