Why I Invited Students To Give Me The Finger This Semester

Full disclosure: The title of this post is clickbait. I haven’t actually invited students to flip me the bird this semester.

What I have done, however, is invite students to give me some kind of silent and subtle indication — we agreed on a flick of their pen or a slighttly-raised finger — whenever I use a word that they don’t know or when I use a word they do know in an unfamiliar way.

Now, when I see one of these signals, I stop and explain the term. I do not call the questioner out. I do not explain the term to him or her directly. I do not resume the lecture or discussion until everyone in the room is crystal clear. This experiment has been unbelievably useful and, only a month into the semester, really surprising in several ways.

First, I don’t think I was fully aware of how often I use vocabulary that is unfamiliar to students in the course of my normal conversations and explanations. Every discipline has its own technical vocabulary, and I’m pretty good about stopping and explaining myself when I employ unusual philosophical terms, or when I employ familiar terms in a technical philosophical way. But, since I’ve begun this Give Me The Finger experiment, I’ve realized that there are on average 3 or 4 times in each class period when, as far as the students are concerned, I might as well be speaking Valyrian. Just this week, for example, I got The Finger(s) for the following terms:

  • idiosyncratic
  • specious
  • complicit
  • ubiquitous
  • affective
  • cursory
  • equivocate

You may be thinking, and I agree, that those words aren’t drawn from the expert-level SAT vocabulary list. Nevertheless, they are terms that most students don’t encounter in their everyday conversations, and they are terms that will most definitely do serious damage to students’ understanding if they don’t know what the terms mean. Try as I might, I can’t always know which words are shibboleths for my students, and so the GMTF experiment has been an incredibly helpful tool for not only my students’ efforts at deciphering me, but also my efforts at deciphering them.

Second, I don’t think I was fully aware of just how coercive the fear of appearing “dumb” is for my students. I mean, I know that’s a thing. It’s always been a thing. The recent attention to imposter syndrome just goes to show that that fear isn’t limited to college students, either. I work very hard in my classes to encourage students to express their views, even if they feel those views are incomplete, unpopular, or unorthodox. (Not if those views are uninformed, though.) Still, students’ sneaking suspicion that they might be the only one in the class who doesn’t “get it” is paralyzing for them, and it frequently interferes with their asking even the simplest of questions — like, what does that word mean? — for fear of revealing themselves as the most basic in the class.

But here’s the thing: so far in my GMTF experiment, there has been not one instance of a single student Giving Me The Finger. Each and every time I’ve gotten one of these indications, it has been the case that a half-dozen or more students flicked their pens or raised their fingers at the same time. You can tell students all day long “if you have a questions, it is almost certainly the case that others in the room have the same question,” but even relentless repetition of that reassurance alone will not convince them to step out of the shadows and be the One Who Asks. Which brings me to…

Third, I am now, more than ever, acutely aware that shame does not motivate students to expand their vocabularies. My GMTF experiment invites students to give me a silent and subtle indication whenever they don’t understand a term that I am using. The “silent and subtle” part is absolutely essential, as is my promise that I will not directly acknowledge the Indicator. There’s just no call for my students to be embarrassed for not understanding a term.

For the record, and I know not everyone will agree with me on this, I do think that there are instances in which shame is a not only an effective, but a justifiable, pedagogical strategy. (See: it’s in the syllabus.) Vocabulary shaming is neither effective nor justifiable, though. There are as many reasons why a student might be unfamiliar with a particular term as there are for why you or I might not be familiar with a particular term, and most of those reasons are not blameworthy. At my institution, for example, we enrol a higher-then-average number of ESL students. As someone who is only fluent in one language, I certainly have no standing to vocabulary-shame. I have a half-decent familiarity with French, German, and Spanish, but I wouldn’t be able to translate any of the words in the list at the top of this post in any of those languages.

It is also the case that, as all philosophers know well, some common terms are frequently used in loosey-goosey, imprecise ways. So, students grow up hearing a term and thinking they know what it means, until whoa hold up a sec they find themselves in the classroom and hearing that familiar term used in a very, very unfamiliar way. Not their fault, of course, but it’s not hard to understand how one might have the experience of feeling like the only person in the room who doesn’t get it. In some cases, it’s like misheard lyrics. In other cases, it’s just an accidentally unfortunate consequence of having never been corrected. (Confession: I thought pepperoni was a vegetable until I was in grad school. In my defense, it does have “pepper” right there in the word.) GMTF assumes “no harm, no foul” as a first premise. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

BONUS: I don’t have any stats on this, but it appears to me that my GMTF experiment is also motivating students to actually look up (or ask me about) terms they don’t understand from the reading assignments. I’d like to think that’s because they’re actually interested in expanding their vocabularies, but I’ll go with a more deflationary account. I think the GMTF combination of (a) removing the shame of not-knowing, (b) demonstrating the benefits of knowing, and © encouraging the habit of asking when one doesn’t know, have together conspired to cultivate a practice among students to which they’re just not, by default and by conditioning, accustomed.

So, I recommend giving it a try, because so far this semester GMTF has me like

[Reposted from Dr. J’s blog ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore.]