Saturday, August 09, 2014

Asking hard questions is a way to lose friends. So, ask those questions anyway

With every passing day, I am acutely aware of the very little time that I have left.  No, I am not referring to the death that looms large but to the end of summer and the beginning of a new academic year.  This is when I begin to offer myself deals and negotiate with myself; such as:
"If you at least think about the topics for one class, then you can take a coffee break"
"You can play bridge for thirty minutes if you at least log into the course management system" ...
Turns out that I offer myself lousy deals, and that I am also a horrible negotiator.  Thus, this Panjandrum is unable to break the impasse.

But, it is not that I am always taking coffee breaks (yes, I am) or that I am forever playing bridge (yes, I am.)  My mind is always thinking about classes and the topics and how I might be able to better engage with students.  This constant thinking, even if subconscious, then attracts me to reading articles that are not explicitly about any of the courses that I teach, but contribute a lot to my pedantic pontificating.

One of those articles is about the questions we share, and how to go about engaging with the big and hard questions:
A big part of the problem with public discourse, contends Feigelson, is that we often begin by asking hard questions before we have explored big questions. A “hard question,” he says, is one that requires special knowledge to answer — so only some people feel they can answer it — and it bears fruit only if the participants in the discussion already share a degree of trust or rapport.
A “big question,” by contrast, is one that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big questions have the potential to tap people’s sense of curiosity and to draw out wisdom from the heart.
By now, like my students, perhaps you have already drifted off and are thinking about a coffee break.  I don't blame you.  Am able to type this only because I had a tall mug of coffee before I started blogging this piece.  Tell you what, here is a deal for you: you take that coffee break, and then return to reading this.  Sounds good?

Ah, you are back. Good.

So, hard questions versus big questions.  Examples of big questions, please?
Examples include: For whom are we responsible? What do we choose to ignore? Where do you feel at home? How does technology change us? When do you conform? When do you take a stand?
Hey, this is what most of my pedantic pontificating is all about. I often remind students that the courses I teach, and the courses they take from others, will help them articulate their own answers to some of the big questions of the day.  It is about them, their own selves, I tell students.

So, examples of hard questions then?
“If you start a student discussion with a hard question, like ‘How can we bring peace to the Middle East?,’” Feigelson says, “the two students who think they know the most are going to debate and protest, while everyone else watches and thinks they have nothing to contribute. It doesn’t build trust or capacity for solving problems."
a big question can open a space in which each individual can contribute, speaking from experience, without feeling pressured to win a debate or demonstrate loyalty to a position. Big questions can help build the trust that’s necessary to grapple effectively with hard questions. For instance, one way to build toward a discussion of campus sexual assault is to frame a conversation around the question: “When have you been a witness?”
“When we start with a big question, we’re building empathy among the students,” says Sheila Katz, vice president for social entrepreneurship at Hillel International, who was the director of Ask Big Questions for four years. “The hope is that the students will look at the world differently, in a way that allows them to receive each person as they are, and engage in conversation, instead of just argument, debate or even violence.”
Exactly!  That empathy will certainly make students view the world very differently and begin to have a lot more realistic conversation with others on issues.  And, boy do we have issues all around--those hard questions.

So, how do we then begin to have those conversations?  Certainly not the television-style of yelling matches.
There is, of course, no right way to structure a conversation. But some principles are elaborated in the group’s conversation guides (which have been downloaded 9,000 times).
Sounds good, except this parenthetical note on downloaded 9,000 times.  Seriously?  They think a count of 9,000 downloads is newsworthy?  Why include that in the reporting?  Oh, wait, is that a hard question to ask?

We live in a world where we need to engage in critical conversations if we really want to make this a better place.  The hard questions of climate change and Middle East and Ebola and malnourishment and ... require us to have sincere, reasoned, conversations in which we listen to each other.   Instead, we are increasingly tending to avoid discussing those hard questions.

In the LA Times, this op-ed notes how social media seem to even end friendships when one begins to go after a "hard question" on Israel and Gaza:
I noticed my friend had written "OMG!!" under my post. And then she was gone.
With a couple of cool, obliterating keystrokes and no questions asked (or at least posted), she'd apparently banished me from her online world. Years of friendship ended with a wordless, virtual severing.
That's the way things work in social media.
The television-style yelling and cutting one off has now become a part of our virtual world, too, apparently.
Perhaps it's time to accept that Facebook is a lousy medium for political debate. People seem to be much more interested in making statements rather than asking questions or seeking out diverse opinions. As much as we might like to think we enjoy pluralistic feeds with multiple views, our "friends" tend to be those with whom we agree. The rest, we shed. A recent study from the University of Colorado Denver found that "polarizing posts" are one of the most frequently cited reasons for unfriending someone on Facebook.
Time for a coffee break and thirty minutes of bridge!


Ramesh said...

Random comments in no particular order

- Thanks to this post I learnt what a Panjandrum is !

- I already had a cup of coffee. So I read the post in one go without taking the break you ordered. That is proof that I am way more concentrating than you are :)

- I don't play bridge. At least not nowadays.

- Now that we have disposed off all the big questions, let us come to the hard ones. I am not at all convinced that big questions aid better conversation than hard questions even in classroom settings.

- Big questions might require "special knowledge" , but that is also one of the purposes of universities. So even if I am a passive listener in discussions because I don't have the special knowledge, I gain a lot

The key is listening, being able to engage in a sane conversation, being able to appreciate a point of view even if it does not appeal to you and to disagree without being disagreeable. That is often a rare talent, but one you, my friend, possess in abundant quantities. The day you lose that, I shall "unfriend" you (alright, with a OMG), but I know that it won't happen unless your "favourite affliction" strikes you :)

Sriram Khé said...

We vastly underemphasize the listening part, it seems. We use lots of metaphors for shouting and getting one's message out--the soap box, megaphone, open mic, etc.--but, even in our usages we don't seem to have even a few to highlight the importance of listening.
And, yes, you and I disagree--sometimes even intentionally for the sake of an argument--but we both do listen to the other's point of view, evaluate its worth ... If this continues, that affliction might be the only way out ;)

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