Thursday, July 15, 2004

Questions or Pretensions?

One of the great things about my Semantics class is the high level of student participation (i.e. questions and comments) in the lectures. Though some see it differently. A linguistics student I know complained to a mutual friend about the "pretentious philosophy prats" in the double-coded course. That got me thinking.

I sometimes find other students' questions/comments annoying. But only if they are bad questions. There are, after all, some people who make utterly random or irrelevant comments, and that can be quite frustrating. Fortunately, our lecturer (Kate Kearns) is very skilled at handling them, managing to treat the student respectfully yet quickly steering the lecture back on track.

Other times, however, student participation can really add a lot to a lecture. For example, in our last lecture Kearns suggested that the 'sense' of a word limits the appropriate uses of it - we can't just use words however we please - to which one girl pointed out the dynamic aspects of language, especially in slang and idioms. After all, if a particular 'inappropriate' use of a word becomes widespread, then the meaning of the word is expanded, and such use becomes 'appropriate' after all. This helpful interjection led the lecturer to discuss the issue in a bit more detail, clarifying matters and treating the rest of us to a very interesting discussion. I, for one, greatly appreciated it.

I'm interested in the difference between good and bad questions because I often ask questions in lectures myself. Of course, I always think they're fairly interesting and relevant, or I wouldn't ask them. But I'm not sure how they come across to others. I get particularly worried when I find myself inwardly cringing at someone else's pointless interjection, since I'm faced with the niggling doubt, what if others react similarly to mine?

I think student comments can be categorised as belonging to one of three broad groups. These are, in increasing order of intelligence displayed:
  • Missing the point entirely - These are always annoying, though the severity of idiocy displayed varies. It's worst when the stubborn speaker is unable to realise that he's barking up the wrong tree.

  • Requests for clarification - Though mildly tedious for those who understood it all the first time through, these are probably good questions to ask. Chances are others will benefit from having a tricky concept clarified.

  • Making a point/suggestion/objection - Here I intend to exclude those who aim for this group, but instead fall under group one.

  • That last one is the group I'm interested in - and, I assume, the target of the "pretentious prats" remark. I guess when someone raises a technical issue, it may seem rather pedantic, appearing to serve no point but to say 'look how smart I am!'. Being a question-asker myself, I'm generally more sympathetic here, but even I sometimes reach this uncharitable conclusion about a speaker.

    Sometimes it may be justified. But I think it is far too easy for people to conflate intellectual curiosity with arrogance. If I ask a question, it's because I'm interested in what the answer is. Seemingly 'pedantic' technicalities can decide the viability of a theory or explanation. If it has some potential flaw in it, this is worth exploring. Delving into such details requires a narrower focus than the broad sweep of generalisations we undergrads are used to. But it would be a mistake to think that breadth is always preferable to depth, or to conclude from this that such questions are not worth asking. And it would certainly be a mistake to think that the only motivation for asking them is egotism.

    P.S. On a semi-related topic, Leiter has a couple of great posts on scientists being called "arrogant" for having specialized knowledge.


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