Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Socratic Method

I read an interesting article last week about Socrates and his influence on the modern academic institution. Or perhaps I should say, his lack of influence, at least at the present time. It was a commentary on the news that several professors had been fired or denied tenure based on the fact that they used a Socratic method of teaching.

Perhaps the reason there is push-back against this style of teaching is that there are fewer tangibles, both in preparation and in evaluation. The teacher isn't going to give the student a study guide that has the answers to all the test questions, mostly because the evaluation isn't going to be a multiple choice or short answer test. I know that in high school I felt most comfortable with a test (AP Psych, eg) when there was a sheet that listed everything I had to remember. I felt very uncomfortable with my AP Lit exam, when I would have to write an extemporaneous essay on a text that I might never have read. I had to analyze a passage from The Onion for my exam. I had never even heard of it before that (though I return often, now).

For my high school classes, where most of the evaluations are based on analysis, I give them some questions they might want to ask, and what they might want to answer, but it is up to them to find the answers. I think this is a good method for those who possess the abilities to gather and assess information (the Rhetoric stage, for example).

I try to do the same when analyzing texts as a class. I know what I think the poem or story means, and so I ask questions to lead them to that (or their own) interpretation. I am no longer a postmodernist when it comes to literature, and I believe there is such a thing as authorial intent (and that it deserves consideration), but I'm not such a formalist to think that there is only one right meaning. Everyone has their own schemata or framework through which they understand the things they experience. I try to get the students to come to their own understanding of a poem.

I have a long way to go to get to a good understanding and application of the Socratic method in my teaching. I don't abide long pauses well, for example, and that gets me into trouble, specifically the giving-them-the-answer kind.

But it is heartening that I work in a place, and under an administrator that cherishes the Socratic method. The first time he observed me he advised me to let the pauses sit for even longer.

I tried to come up with an appropriately Socratic question with which to end this post, but could not. Like I say, a long way to go.
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