There’s a moment (usually) around week four or thereabouts of teaching that I begin to glimpse a teensy glimmer, perhaps even a glint of comprehension. In cartoon lingo one of those little light bulbs, though often it’s kind of dim and dusty like the light at some tacky hotel you didn’t really want to stay at but you missed the train and it’s all you could find at that hour of night. And at least it seemed like it didn’t rent by the hour.

So interesting I can’t stay awake

I can’t take it for granted yet – not least because I’m never sure if it’s a real glimmer (or just gas) – and I have realized that  critical thinking, even though it’s one of those catchy  phrases always used to describe education and  learning, is not the cornerstone of higher education. Heck, it probably isn’t even the balcony railing.

Of course it may never have been, whatever us oldies like to think of our own brilliant youth. Talking to a philosopher friend who taught at undergrads some 25 years ago, I have the sense that his students weren’t much better – in fact he says he once just gave up; the blank, stolid looks unnerved him and he just up and left. Simply told them he was available in his office if anyone wanted to discuss the material.

It’s a great idea, except I don’t really have an office – as a sessional prof I have an ugly desk in a cubicle; one of many in a large, ugly, locked room that would make Dilbert weep. I just use it to store my coat on the days I teach.  And if I actually expected any students to drop by I’d have to lurk by the door to let them in, since they can’t seem me way off in the back and the door is locked. And that would be creepy. I gather it’s really not about the learning anyway, certainly not that undergraduate thing. It’s what Jane Jacobs called ‘credentialing’.

As nearly as I can make out, reductionist thinking, dull and linear, wanders the hall like some ghost of sleepy hollow – and the reverence for expertise and white coats and science and anything that smacks of authority is put up on a pedestal so high it’s bound to fall off and hurt something. Then again, what does one expect when everything from ridiculous commercials for face cream to mattresses professes to have research (clinical trials no less) backing up their claims that their product improved people’s lives 83%?

How one would know such things always fascinates me. Questionnaires? Surveys? PR thingies? You know the ones I mean, the little sheets of paper someone with a clipboard thrusts into your hands as you’re trying not to dislocate a joint finding some leg room in that airplane seat or you’re racing from one thing to another trying to find your keys. Whereupon a painfully cheerful person asks if you’d mind answering some questions about that soggy sandwich you just ate or what you think of a new strip mall they’re thinking of building where your favorite dry cleaner now resides. Er, if I’d I’d known there was going to be a quiz I’d have studied. As it stands I haven’t the foggiest. (And even if I did, would my opinion make a damn bit of difference? Likely story. It never has before. But I’m not bitter.) Numeric reasoning at present seems to take precedence over all else, including common sense.

I blame Powerpoint.

That’s right. The program we all love even if it’s made by that Darth Vader of software, Microsoft. (Apple has a variant as well I’m sure – it’s just that their ads are hipper and their numbers are smaller so it doesn’t face the brunt of our ire.)

Powerpoint’s given form to our function, our enchantment with linear thinking. And as a speaker or teacher you can even print up your cute little bullet points so nobody has to take notes. Or listen for that matter.

What I teach doesn’t lend itself to bullet points or decision trees. When I leave the class my white board looks like a hyperactive monkey was trying to write MacBeth: a mess of words that makes zero sense to anyone who hasn’t been there to hear me talk about the interconnectedness of everything or realize that those arrows actually mean something.

A/V loves me because I leave them alone. Students, well, that remains to be seen. But, sessional or no, I refuse to reduce the complexities of science and medicine into a series of bullet points. Call me crazy, but I still believe that even these texting, smartphone addled students are capable of  – and even glad to be asked to engage in – thinking. Critically. Creatively. Contextually.

They’re capable of rising to the occasion if we’d just raise our expectations of them a jot. After all, they’re our kids. Surely they’re smarter than we’ve been giving them credit for.


* I wish I could take credit for the term but it was a title from the online version of The Economist – so kudos to whomever thought it up.