A Game of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

September 1, 2011

Learning, Political Theory


Those of you in the military, aviation, or some other practice that uses the radio alphabet will understand the title of this post. The rest of you will wonder, so let’s be clearer: what on earth is this blog about? Well, you might check the “About This Blog” page. But I can also spell it out a bit in this post.

I love teaching and I love learning. A couple of years ago, I figured out what the Stoic philosopher Seneca had figured about a couple of millennia ago: docendo discimus. By teaching we learn. Damn! Scooped again, by a damned Roman. One obvious way Seneca’s insight is true is that you might understand something (or think you understand something) without being able to explain it to others. But it’s not until you come up with a way to explain it to others that you really understand that it. True enough. But there’s another way yet: if you turn your teaching into crowdsourcing, you’ll learn a lot, too. You’ll learn things you never knew, simply because your students know it, and you didn’t.

“Aha!” you’ll exlaim: “It’s a scam: the University of Michigan is ripping off my parents, only to educate its faculty.” But it’s not that simple. Much as I dislike Socrates, he was onto something in arguing that teaching was about helping the student realize what she already knew. (Socrates wouldn’t have said “she.” He wouldn’t have given a shit about her, whoever the she was. Just consult the histories on his relationship to his wife. So apologies for the historical inaccuracy.) Let’s call it a catalytic relationship: teachers are the catalysts who help draw out (ex ducere, or educere) what’s already there. So, yes, you, students, need us. Thanks for the tuition dollars: you’ll figure something out, we’ll figure something out, you get a degree, we have a job, and it’s all good.

Where this blog plays a role in all that is in getting the students to reflect on what they encounter in this class — weird stuff, take my word for it — and what they know or like. For example, I learned about a seriously messed up drink called Four Loko on the blog. The students related it to John Locke, but it was quite clear Immanuel Kant was the relevant reference point. (And, OK, guys, here’s a bit of moralizing: Four Loko would have appealed to me when I was fourteen. Not when I was eighteen, nineteen, or twenty.)

But I also learned about more thoughtful and interesting things, all thanks to the students in my courses.

So what on earth is this blog for? It’s for students in my introductory course — mainly freshmen and sophomores — to take up odd and weird and hard-to-understand ideas, apply them to something they know or care about, and tell the world about it. Pretty damned cool.

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About Mika LaVaque-Manty

I'm a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. I'm a philosopher by training, and I teach political theory.

View all posts by Mika LaVaque-Manty

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2 Comments on “A Game of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?”

  1. dkap7 Says:

    The author’s point regarding the difference between knowing a concept and actually understanding a concept is extremely important. Concepts that are learned in a classroom setting can only be brought out into the real world if the student understands the concept and can use it in everyday events. By only knowing the concept, the student is limiting themselves to having a chance at being successful only in a classroom setting, but in turn throwing away any chance they have of using what they learn outside of the classroom. It is extremely important to understand concepts and not just learn them based on a definition, but instead try and compare them to everyday life. By using connections and examples to understand certain concepts, an individual has a better chance of ingraining this new found knowledge in their brains for use later on.

    In high school, my AP Psychology class took double sided journal entries. On one side were the class notes and on the other side we were forced to make connections to our lives or connections to lives of those important to us. This not only helped with the memorization of various terms dealing with each topic, but also allowed us to make sense of the relativity of each of these topics and terms. It allowed my class to see the significance between school work and the outside world. This is extremely important if students want to fully understand what they learn instead of just merely learning it for academic purposes.

    Another interesting point that the author brings up is his point on how powerful the collaboration of ideas and thoughts can be between students and their professors. This has a direct correlation to John Stuart Mills argument on freedom of speech. This article’s synopsis discusses the importance of voicing your thoughts because thoughts are more powerful as a whole as opposed to a single opinion. Mill believed that no thoughts should be suppressed because all thoughts may hold certain truths and that collaborating ideas with others is a perfect way to move closer toward the truth.

  2. dkap7 Says:

    The author states, “So, yes, you, students, need us. Thanks for the tuition dollars: you’ll figure something out, we’ll figure something out, you get a degree, we have a job, and it’s all good”. This argument directly correlates to Menand’s theory 2 that suggests, college is a place for learning and figuring out knowledge that does not deal directly with vocation. This article states that grades are not more important than the act of learning in a college setting. Louis Menand theory 2 would directly correlate to this assertion.
    Growing up with the intention of attending a prestigious university, grades always seemed to come before the act of learning because College’s admit students based on their GPA and test scores. However, in college I am beginning to see a change in my thinking. Now that I have been accepted to a fine University, I take more pride in accumulating as much knowledge as I possibly can and putting my grades second among my priorities. According to Louis Menand, my way of thinking throughout High School had its basis on theory one. Theory one states that the grade received by the student is the most essential part of college. My approach to school is slowly transferring from theory one to theory two.
    The author talks about “crowdsourcing”, a term that discusses the mutual learning occurring between students and professors. This is beneficial for professors and students, but more importantly it is easier for students to learn in an environment like this. In a classroom atmosphere that mirrors the aspects of “crowdsourcing”, professors are more personable and easier to approach. In this kind of atmosphere, teachers do not see themselves as “better”, but instead are willing and eager to learn just like the students. At large research universities, like the University of Michigan, there are professors that focus solely on research, ignoring their students enthusiastic attitude to learn. This goes against what the author calls a “catalytic relationship”. Universities with professors that develop this “catalytic relationship” leave their students more prepared for life after college.

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