Reflections on the Idea of Intellectual Hospitality

Reflections on the Idea of Intellectual Hospitality

After I read Kate’s lovely post yesterday, I kept mulling over one image: “PARs are a way to reach out to students and create a bridge into their initial engagement with the material in an informal, low-stakes, no wrong answers sort of way – a gift freely given. It is a form of intellectual hospitality that invites our students to the table…”

Narratives and symbols are important, and I love the image of the shared table. (I love the reality of a shared table, too.) It can serve not only as a guiding metaphor for the way we create the new Readers but for the whole HUM Program, too. Expertise in a course that professes to be broadly interdisciplinary is elusive or intermittent at best, and a pedagogy predicated on the transmission of information or a “banking” model will be just as elusive and intermittent–and yet it is still my natural habit that I tend to revert to. Part of the reason for this is exactly what Kate observes about  the anecdotal reality of classroom discussion. However committed I am to a discussion based class, I will usually default to an instructional monologue if the discussion is digressive or not forthcoming.

The PAR (Primed and Ready) preparation strategies address digression and reticence. They invite the students to focus on one feature of the text before class discussion and think in advance of what they will share with the class. But I like several other potential consequences, some of which Kate notes:

  1. Micro-validations. “I felt more confident” is a significant statement from a student. PARs are an easy way for instructors to say, Yes, or Good, or Interesting, when a student explains their view of myth or the sacred, or what views they found compelling or missing from a text. Or to say, Thank you: the classroom equivalent of responding to someone passing a bowl at the table.
  2. Community building. Often, a few students tend to dominate most discussions. These students may be excellent and observant readers and their contributions may be welcome to the class, but the result of having a few who speak often and a few who never speak is still a type of division, a wall in the classroom between a different version of haves and have nots. PARs are not necessarily predicated on prior knowledge or different levels of motivation or reading ability. They are as open an invitation as possible in a non-graded, non-compulsory form: the classroom as come-as-you-are block party or welcome-table love feast.
  3. Corrective to “the Socratic Method.” With all due reverence to the philosopher I’ve contemplated for years, Socrates was a failure as a teacher, as least in Plato’s representation of him. (Then again, he insists that he was never anybody’s teacher in the Apology 33a.) His method of inquiry by cross-examination is a fundamental challenge to all preconceived notions and received definitions. That’s valuable and constructive in the long run, ideally, because it moves us (in Plato’s words) from opinion to knowledge–but the immediate result, as Socrates encounters again and again, is destructive at worst, cathartic at best. As Socrates shows one interlocutor after another that they do not understand what they claim to understand, their responses include anger (Thrasymachus), shame (Alcibiades), and threats (Anytus). But the less dramatic response is demonstrated by Euthyphro: he remembers that he has another appointment and simply abandons the conversation. That’s what I imagine most students will do if the first response to their contribution is “Socratic.” Or if they are asked to share their ideas first in class, without any type of guided preparation. There is certainly a place for Socratic examination in the classroom, but its efficacy depends on some safe and shared foundation. Maybe it’s significant that we have accounts of Socrates at symposia but not reclining at table for a normal meal.

Kate’s final sentence was clearly an invitation to share: “I hope faculty who already utilize some form of a PAR-like strategy will share your wisdom with your colleagues as we think through the possibilities for supporting students through the revised Readers.” That’s the connection between this project and the entire program. What the PARs can do for the students, the process of creating the Readers can do for the faculty. It’s our shared table narrative, our potluck meal.

–Brian S. Hook

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