Tuesday Teaching Talk: Teaching “Disinterestedness”

Last Tuesday, CAST hosted a seminar discussion ostensibly centered around a short and light essay titled, “The Uncoolness of Good Teachers,” by Mark Edmunton. We had six participants and a lively discussion that ranged over a number of interesting pedagogical issues. The conversation gave me a lot of ideas for a TTT topic, so we’ll work through a few of them in the coming weeks. For starters, we’ll take one inspired from our esteemed colleagues Judd Renken, who teaches rhetoric, speech, and philosophy, and Carrie Nepstad, who teaches childhood development and chairs our illustrious Assessment Committee.

Without further ado, here is our TTT question:

What is the importance of teaching “disinterestedness” in the classroom? Disinterestedness is a stance that is often touted as essential in being a careful and objective thinker and scholar. Many of our own professors may have criticized our undergrad paper if we demonstrated too much bias or enthusiasm for one position or another.

But to what extent is this actually possible? If it is not possible, is the requirement for disinterestedness in our students’ assignments a harmful deception? Is it a miseducation? If a graduate walks out into the world and believes they are capable of taking a disinterested stance when in fact they cannot, is it harmful for them as a thinker?

Even if disinterestedness is impossible to achieve, is it perhaps an important stance to strive to obtain in our own thinking and writing? As democratic citizens, for which willful advocacy of a particular stance is important, is it possible that too much disinterestedness is harmful?

3 thoughts on “Tuesday Teaching Talk: Teaching “Disinterestedness”

  1. What a great question, I think–thanks, Kamran and Judd and Carrie and others. I’ve been thinking about it on and off all week (albeit without writing, which is maybe good). I find the challenge related to this concept, which I think I’d prefer to call “distance” over “disinterestedness” for reasons to come, to be different as the semester goes on.

    Early on, the students I worry most about are those who come in with what Literacy experts call an “efferent” stance toward the material, meaning they conceive of their learning task as something like being a mover: they figure they are supposed to walk in, pick up some stuff, carry it somewhere (as instructed by others, whose stuff it is), put it where they want, and go home with their “pay.” They have a sort of disinterest in the content that I have to work against. I know that’s not the disinterest you discussed at the meeting, but if I told these students at the beginning of the semester that I would teach them to be disinterested, they’d likely think to themselves, “Got it covered.”

    Anyway, those who are or GET interested, then have a different challenge, which is mastery of that academic convention discussed in “Clueless in Academe” and “They Say, I Say” of creating a context for one’s own opinions BEFORE offering them. So, for example, I give my 100 level students a bunch of readings by philosophers about what Philosophy is and what philosophers do in the early weeks of the class, and then ask them to answer the question, “What Is Philosophy?” with instructions to engage substantively with one or more of the texts they’ve read. Inevitably, I get primarily personal responses that begin with a sentence like, “Philosophy, to me, is…” and then make some tangential reference to one of the texts somewhere toward the end. This is to be expected. Just this semester, I thought ask them to contrast their approach to my writing assignment with how they would approach answering a question like, “What is a carbohydrate?” in science class. The difference was illuminating, I think. In their approach to my material I want them to take have that effort to understand an idea that they find out there in the world–and the ability to express it with a kind of disinterested or neutrality (a distance, if you will), AND the personal response to the ideas of others. I want them to be able to create conversational distance from their own beliefs to allow room for others, if that makes sense.

    One of my students has a quote as an electronic signature on her emails from Sydney J. Harris, a former columnist at the Sun-Times (one of my Mom’s favorites), that reads, “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” I think that’s right, and I think that requires a kind of distance, a kind of temporary disinterestedness in what oneself thinks of things in the form of a willingness to listen to others for more than a chance to state one’s own sense of things.

    And love the return of these…

    • I really like what you say about “allow[ing] room for others” in making the effort to understand an idea. It reminds me of something one of my mentors, Alex Nemerov, said at the end of one of the semesters teaching the art history survey. He reflected back on reading a particular passage in James Joyce’s “The Dead” and how he remembers “sitting up and feeling that the world had been changed for me at that moment. I ask myself now, ‘Why was that?’ The best answer I can come up with is that at that moment I was discovering not who I was, who I am, and not what the world is. I was discovering the otherness of the world. And I was making that otherness a part of myself, all that which I cannot see, cannot know,and yet which becomes as of that moment a part of me. And so, thinking about us now, I say that the purpose of studying art or making art is not about individual fulfillment, it’s not about learning who you are, it’s not about learning what the world is, it’s about accepting and making a part of oneself the otherness of the world. And so may it be for all of you.”

  2. Also related to this idea of disinterestedness is how important it is for students to recognize that the people they’re learning about (in my case through their writing and other artistic creations) were absolutely interested and invested in what they were saying/creating; it wasn’t just their way of saying, “This is my opinion. Take it or leave it.” It can be difficult and frustrating to break through the common student misconception that the legitimate value we place on respecting diverse people and perspectives is the same as not thoroughly investigating questions and their implications for ourselves, society, etc.
    It’s very challenging to try to break down the wall some students have up that looks something like this: “that’s just his opinion. I have my opinion. I don’t have to offer real analysis about why his opinion is faulty/great/whatever because it’s just his opinion and everyone’s is different.”
    So in regards to getting students to achieve that critical distance that Dave mentions above and how important it is to develop that in lieu of just prioritizing what everything is “to me” or “in my opinion,” I think it’s also difficult to balance that with the important task of helping students understand that these questions (and I guess I’m specifically highlighting questions that come up in HUM courses like Philosophy or Art History here) had very real stakes to the people who raised them and addressed them in the particular way we’re learning about. So it’s not enough to just say they’re different and then consider our job as students done because we allowed those thinkers/creators to maintain their opinion without forcing ours down their throat.

    What strategies have you all found helpful in pushing back against this tendency for students to stop their analysis prematurely? Is this something instructors outside of the Humanities encounter too?

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