I wish the humanities would slap you around a little, you know? Get all Fifty Shades up in this.
Kidding — kind of. But liberal arts as a discipline does desperately need more aggressive teaching in the classroom: teaching that engages students, puts them on the spot and holds them to a particular standard, as opposed to the passive there-are-no-wrong-answers approach. Many of my friends seem to think arts courses are flakier, less rigorous, than their hard-science equivalents. And as much as it pains my ego to admit it, they’re right.
As an English and writing major, I’ve observed the unfortunate truth: most humanities courses mollycoddle their students, especially when it comes to classroom discussion. Outside of essay-marking, English professors rarely turn the critical academic lens upon their own classrooms: in a field so intimately connected with rhetoric and communication, this is unacceptable.
Part of this has to do with the medium, of course. Many answers in the humanities aren't qualifiably right or wrong the way they might be in STEM fields, and they are often coloured with personal philosophy.
But it has a lot more to do with hurt feelings. Precisely because personal philosophy is at play in classroom discussions, any criticism is seen as an ad hominem attack. So when a student puts forth a meandering, directionless response, riddled with inconsistencies or outright misinformation, they’re not even asked to qualify their words.
Instead, they get the dreaded yes-but response from the lecturer. We’ve all seen it: the prof blinks in confusion, trying to digest the sheer stupidity of the answer and then smooths it over with “Yes, but we have to consider…”
This is dangerous. Not only does this validate the response, it signals that inarticulacy is an accepted norm in the arts. I’m not saying to point and laugh and throw fruit at the student in question, but why not ask them what they mean, or explain how they missed the point, or do anything except let them stew in complacency?
In fact, why not hold arts students to the same critical standard as their science-minded peers? If an engineering student proposed the incorrect equation for modelling a bridge, would the teacher say "yes, but"?
Hold students to account for what they say — help them know what they mean, because that's the only way they're going to get better. If nobody’s answering the questions, or if it’s the same three smug asshats reiterating their points over and over again, start picking students at random. The quiet ones often have better points than the outspoken ones, but they’re too shy to talk unprompted.
I understand why teachers rarely do this in university — nobody wants to scare off the students from talking. But I would argue that improving the standard for discussion and fostering some academic rigour would perk up the whole class, getting some real discussion started. At the very least, it would get people off Facebook — it's hard to lose yourself in hurricane memes when you might be asked to speak — which is a baseline for a more involved classroom.
Humanities classes are downright stagnant with apathy, and arts enrolment is dropping. It’s time to revitalize the field. Letting students waffle on with impunity will only increase the stagnancy; challenging them to express their ideas well, on the other hand, could light a fire.
So come on, arts. Grow a backbone. Get the whips and chains out. Punish me.