While Speaking On the Record

I have mentioned that I spent a great deal of 2018 building an “on-line” course. This means that I was, in effect, building the robot that will take my job. (Incidentally, “on-line” education was first sold as “distance education,” the pretense being that the automated format would allow some cowboy at a rancho on the banks of the Dirty Devil River to pursue his dream of a college education. Now it is assumed that the automated format is simply a convenience for resident students who like flexible schedules and the pause button).

This no doubt sounds negative, but I am not altogether opposed to the on-line format. It has some distinct pedagogic advantages. It permits a much more effective use of images, for instance, and it encourages a much more conscientious use of language. Writing a script for a seventy-five minute video is laborious, but the result can be much better than an extemporaneous lecture (and also, I am sure, much worse). If there is a name or term that students should remember, for instance, a script reminds me to use the proper name and to avoid pronouns. It I want them to remember the name of the Dirty Devil River, for instance, I do not refer to the Dirty Devil as “it.” The same goes for most uses of “he,” “she,” and “they.”

Along the same lines, scripting helps me to stick to a uniform terminology. Even technical jargon has synonyms (or virtual synonyms, so far as an undergraduate is concerned), and your average nineteen-year-old is simply confused by a lecture that is peppered with half a dozen words, all new to him, that effectively mean the same thing.

Writing scripts has made me think about how I communicate, but it has also made me think about what I communicate. Even in an age of cell phones, the stand-up lecture has a comfortable cushion of deniability. Don’t get me wrong. I try to get things right in my stand-up lectures, and I am not given to offensive political harangues, but unrecorded speech is always more carefree (and careless) than speech that is “going to tape.” But in an on-line course, the cushion of deniability is removed and the onus of defensibility is affixed.

This bore on me yesterday as I metaphorically chewed my pencil and puzzled over the best way to express what is meant by cultural difference. My problem was that we live in an age when cultural identity is said to be supremely important and absolutely inconsequential at the same time. A person from another culture can insist that, owing to cultural difference, there are things about him that I cannot understand. And when he does this, all right-thinking people will nod in agreement. But I would be thought a wicked person if I complain that, owing to cultural difference, there are things that I cannot understand about him.

You see the problem. He can insist that he is in some respects incomprehensible to me, but I cannot complain (or even remark) that he is in some respects incomprehensible to me.

Dealing with this problem is part of the everyday ju-jitsu of life in a multicultural society, wherein cultural difference is, simultaneously, supremely important and absolutely inconsequential. But my problem as I chewed that metaphorical pencil was how to explain cultural difference in this setting and while speaking on the record.

11 thoughts on “While Speaking On the Record

  1. Pingback: While Speaking On the Record | Reaction Times

    • I think it a mistake to teach “both sides of the question” without an ultimate decision, since this encourages sophomoric relativism in the students. Even with an ultimate decision, this approach tends to bog down in discussion of philosophical and political presuppositions, when there is an urgent need to get on with the actual subject of the course. I remember college courses like this. The syllabus said we were studying the poems of John Milton, but classes were mostly speculations on the nature (or even existence) of reality. But the issue implied by my post is, of course, how to avoid “triggering” a “snowflake” student with a statement that could be used against me, especially when that statement is recorded. This problem is not as large as many people imagine, but neither is it nonexistent. In a large introductory lecture, a professor should express what he believes to be the truth, while being fair to his adversaries (i.e. not lying about them); but given the nature of his audience (mildly bored and mostly ignorant), he must also simplify and use some dramatic flourishes. The qualifications and sobriety that would keep one out of trouble also confuse students and put them to sleep.

      • I understand all that. My point was this might be an opportunity to teach a snowflake to think beyond his or her liberal mindset. This is your opportunity to turn the tide or at least to display loyalty to a lost cause.

  2. I look forward to seeing the headline ‘racist professor tapes culturally insensitive tirade, forces students to watch’. I’m inking up my ‘offended snowflake’ stamp as we speak!

    If you enjoy shocking your students, and you happen to know a foreign language, you can start your lecture in a foreign tongue and give them a taste of that uncomfortable incomprehensibility of being a stranger in a strange land. Then if you ask them to describe their reaction, they’ll explain cultural difference for you.

    • I try to avoid needless provocation. My command of a foreign language is so uncertain that even native speakers of that language would feel themselves strangers in a strange land.


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