Exercises in Thought: The Classroom/Discussions

“Exercises in Thought” Columnists Tim Carroll ’25 and Joe Sweeney ’25 hash out the dilemmas that befall students and professors in class discussions.

Joe Sweeney: “It’s Hard To Find A Peer”

I am tired. At 8:32 a.m., pacing in slow powerful strides up the spiral stairs of the Octagon — I am tired. At 10:36 a.m. the same morning, two espressos down, cloistered away in some obscure corner of the Science Center — I am tired. At 2:16 p.m., having now stolen a midday hour power-nap, on the second floor of Chapin Chapel or some comparably godforsaken edifice — still I am tired.

And so for class today I will be inclined to make a singular contribution to our discussion. You all will talk — emphatically, intelligently, lucidly — and I, for my part, will look about.

I implore you to take note of the shades of nuance inherent in my contribution. It is likely that no clear, single image comes to mind when I ask that you imagine me ‘looking about.’ But this is rightly so. For what I intend by the phrase is to allow myself a wide-ranging and mutable faculty. To “look about” might very well mean, in one of my sharper moments, that I stare at you until you become quite disconcerted. At another instance, it might mean I gaze blankly at the whiteboard behind the professor and wonder whether the smudge I observe could be removed, or whether it is indeed some ineradicable feature of the slate. At yet another instance it could mean my volatile reaction to observing you, who, after all this time, turned out to have a mustache beneath that mask you wore (please forgive me, my peer — I simply failed to expect such a thing).

I should clarify that my silence is not for what you, my peer, are saying. The words you speak are incisive, thoughtful, at times even artful. Your eloquence would astound me if I were not already bowled over by how quickly it follows the question asked. Yes, you speak well and wonderfully — and yet all the time I am making a sport of crossing my eyes until you, with your black hair and yellow pullover, resemble to me a dulled pencil.

The fault is mine, then, but do not judge me too harshly. I promise I would listen to your every, every word, if not for the terrible roar which drowns you out.

Surely you know the roar to which I refer? Well, maybe not. I’ll show you, then. Leave off, for the time being, imagining my looking about, and keep instead in your mind some anonymous classmate more or less familiar to you. Dutifully watch as they draw a distinction between originalist and textualist legal interpretation; as they raise a question concerning the feasibility of autarky in post-industrial society; as they point toward some knottiness in Kant which seems to contradict the received wisdom of the text. If they do all three in the same class it makes no difference to me. All I hear, tired as I am, is the sound of my mind as it wonders: How many pets does this guy have? Is it possible that she has a sixth toe? Is she an avid writer of Yelp reviews? (She kind of talks like a Yelp review).

Are they rich? Are they poor? Does he feel as if he lives in the shadow of a brother who got into Brown? Is she excited for but also dreading a visit she’s planning to make to her granddad whose health has been declining for years? Does he feel like he’s disappointing his parents? Did they just decide that they can’t any longer live constantly thinking of whether or not they’re disappointing their parents?

Do you understand? My peer, as we sit in this classroom you speak with perfect sense…and it is this that I cannot make sense of. Every day we file into this octagonal building to expound for eighty minutes our ideas on various subjects, and then we file out, and we never, never, hear a single word as to why; as to what possible life could have led you to say the thing you just said. The roar of that silence — I cannot hear anything over it!

But what do I want in place of the roar? Do I desire that you, in your exegesis on feudal structures in 16th-century France, interpolate how the death of your cat made you especially sympathetic to the plight of emaciated cows on mismanaged estates? Not necessarily. And, of course, there is an even simpler way of quieting this roar of silence — namely, that, after class, I simply ask you why you are here, and why you say the things you say.

Yet this I refuse to do. The roar of silence is bad enough, but I will tolerate it for the rest of my life if it means I never walk up to you, ask about your life, and, hearing you excitedly speak, slowly feel a frozen terror descend upon me as I realize how absolutely, irrevocably boring you are.

Oh, believe me when I say I do not want to believe you are boring! But nonetheless the possibility remains — the stumbling block, the skandala. No clearer proof of this possibility exists than in the one sitting just over there. You know the one. The one who talks endlessly; who references reading with which no one else is familiar and who fails to connect it clearly to the discussion; who only ever takes up the ideas of others as a means to expand upon an argument they made forty minutes ago. You know, you know: That guy.

The tragedy of this boring man! And yet his tragedy is universal — for, if I got you talking, really talking, might not you, at your most passionate, be just like him?

And his tragedy is a tragedy, because it would be so easy for him to be interesting. Immediately I would be drawn out from my dullest stupor, immediately he would be the most interesting personage in the world to me (to me!) if, in the heat of his vociferous passion, he would only let rise up within him an equal passion which shouts down his every word — all so that his figure, moments before blustering and spitting, might at once fall hushed and intense in a sudden, inexplicable need for what you, and you, and you and I have to say.

Yes, yes! This is what I want! I want you to need what I say! And if you don’t need what I say, then — then I don’t need you. Oh, how completely I don’t need you…but I want to need you! So be silent, and I will be silent, and only then will we speak with the kind of gratitude by which the presence of another mind is rightly acknowledged; only then, enshrined in this octagonal spire, will the curtain of exhaustion lift so that a word of yours might rush down through my tense, arrested body, plunge into my heart and be gone; only then will we know what it is to —

“Please, Mr. Sweeney,” the professor interrupts gently. “No more today.”

Tim Carroll: “The Professor as Helmsman: A Polemic Against Undergraduate Wisdom”

The rhetoric of the vacuous classroom contributor is frighteningly recognizable. Most students can easily churn out a list of fifty buzzwords to sound like they’re adding something to the discussion, when in reality they are burning time, filling awkward silence, or earning coveted participation credit. “Just to piggyback off that…” “Yes, I totally agree, and just to add on…” “Uh-huh, it’s really all just kind of subjective at the end of the day, isn’t it?” Impressive verbal gymnastics conceal the fact that they did not even skim the reading for that day’s class.

Maybe the professor will press these students to add more substantive thoughts to the discussion, or disagree with them but maintain it’s a matter of perspective, or even, God forbid, say that they are … wrong? I shudder. And these same people walk out of class and, when responding to someone’s GroupMe message frantically asking for “thoughts on professor X?” while the deadline for pre-registration creeps in, will confidently opine that “professor X is kinda intense, rude, and I wouldn’t recommend.”

But the professor who intervenes, who pressures their students to flesh out their ideas, is the one doing the greatest service for our education. They will not let us hide behind empty rhetoric. My contention is that we should accept that we as undergraduates are pitifully wise, both in terms of content knowledge and analytical skills, and we must remember that our professors really are experts in their fields. This is not to say that we should always defer to our professors’ judgment, accepting their words as dogma, but that they should justifiably be the authority in the room, enjoying the rights and privileges that accompany that status, unless somehow proven otherwise.

To make things a little more clear, I propose the metaphor that education is a stormy sea. Waves rip at our ship and the wind is furious; there are countless authors and debates in each field, many viciously attacking each other or threatening to destabilize our worldviews. We need an expert to at least help guide us through these troubled waters, lest with a crew solely composed of landlubbers, we will hardly travel far. In other words, imagine if you dropped twenty Amherst students into a class with no professor and simply told them: “study modern Japanese history.” Or imagine you appointed one of them, say, a twenty-year-old junior, to lead the class. Utter chaos ensues. Thankfully, we have our professor to act as the helmsman, the one who steers the metaphorical ship, occasionally reminding the crew of the general direction we ought to be going. They have studied the science of navigation and they know the currents of the oceans — a doctorate takes a long time, and so they are skilled readers, writers, and researchers who are well situated to welcome newcomers to their field because of it. To make it as a professor at an institution as prestigious as Amherst is no easy task! Sometimes, the crew might get carried away, thinking we know more than we do about nautical navigation, or about an interpretation of a text — and perhaps we get carried away because we have survived the great culling of applications and entered into the hallowed ranks of the single-digit acceptance rate that made it into the college. But regardless of our inflated sense of self-worth, the helmsman has more authority and we should feel comfortable when they suggest that we swashbucklers may be rowing in the wrong direction.

What does this look like in the classroom? For one, I think students should really stop being so quick to claim, upon scanning a couple paragraphs of text, that an author “contradicts themselves.” Do you really think that, in this fantastic piece of writing that has been taught at institutions of higher education for much longer than we’ve been alive, the author contradicts themself so easily that a doughy-faced undergraduate could spot it in a cursory glance one hour before class? Almost always the student in question is mistaken, or they have identified a tension, not a contradiction, in the author’s thought, which may be resolved by a more thorough analysis of their ideas. And so, for moments like these, and in countless others when we ignorant undergrads (myself included) misinterpret a text, we should not be so shocked when our professor tells us that we might be wrong.

Similarly, when discussions become unfocused, the professor must intervene to ensure we don’t veer too far off course(!). Often, this happens when professors invite students to share their personal experiences on a certain subject matter. Ideally, this provides interesting material to use for analysis or establishes a jumping-off point for further relevant discussion. But often it turns the class into a group therapy session, students rambling about anecdotes that are barely tangential to the course material. The professor does not need to be harsh to these contributions, but they must either relate these comments in some way to the course content or ask the students to show how they do. Yes, incorporating student experiences is important to get them personally invested into the material and to demonstrate that the abstract ideas from class have corresponding concrete manifestations. But each course has learning goals, and everyone has broader intellectual goals, which should suggest that these conversations, while having the power to be productive, can also be derailing. At the end of some of these classes, I look at the rich scholarship that we were supposed to read and engage with that week, left utterly neglected in favor of a discussion about something barely related to the course’s title. Our helmsman must ask: How can this information help us navigate the waters? Are we sure it’s not a distraction keeping us from rowing in sync, or maintaining the sails?

One might be troubled by my metaphor and its implication that there is a “correct” way to sail the ship to navigate the sea. My modification might be this: In all classes, we might not be trying to get from point A to point B, using way C, yet we do want to get somewhere, and hopefully land in a favorable port, or learn the ways of the waters on our way! If you believe there isn’t a “correct” way to read or interpret, or a “correct” conclusion to reach, we can at least try to make some quality interpretations and conclusions, which will nonetheless be guided by the expertise of our professors. Yet I would encourage the average (humanities) Amherst student to consider how often they might be rowing in the wrong direction. For STEM students, the matter is obviously different. Good luck arguing to your professor that you think Green's Theorem is “contradictory” and that he was “obviously biased.” This is also clearer in philosophy courses due to their requirements for tight, surgical reasoning — but even then students complain that the professor disagrees with their comments in class! How about you consider that you, as an undergrad, really did just misinterpret an argument, which is something totally possible, especially in humanities courses that invite ambiguity. Even if you intend to ultimately disagree with an author, you must be able to understand them and cogently reiterate their arguments in the best light possible. Doing otherwise is self-serving and intellectually lazy. Sure, sometimes the best innovations come from radical rethinkings of issues, interpretations that professors of old would scoff at. I’m just skeptical that this should be the default operating assumption when those of us who are allegedly providing these truly revolutionary thoughts have, in fact, barely set foot on this earth, and even more barely just begun our studies.

None of this is to say that we should accept callousness from our professors. Like any other human beings, they can be rude and inconsiderate. A classroom is composed of human beings with emotions, not robots that can immediately, flawlessly self-correct when given feedback. But learning to be disagreed with is a valuable skill. Even if awkward and clumsy at first, we should get used to being guided by someone who undoubtedly has more knowledge than us so that we can learn! Some might find my arguments quite disempowering. Maybe they are, but we can find joy in it. Not only does it mean we must immerse ourselves headlong into our studies to develop this wisdom, but it also means that every other student is, give or take, on our level. The difference between class years may be large for some, but we are all undergraduates here. So take this opportunity to (respectfully) bicker with each other! Exchange ideas! Challenge others’ thoughts! When we all know so little, we can only go up from here. But heed the words of the helmsman. Without a science of navigation, we cannot sail in stormy seas. Land ho!