The other thing I remember about studying A-level English Literature back in school was how smoothly all the lessons went. Perhaps my recall is way too sepia, but I’m sure the outline of almost every lesson was
 You’re working in these groups, so go and sit together.
 In your groups, read out loud the next section of the text.
 Talk about the characters and themes in your groups, and take notes.
 Report back, class discussion, differentiated question & answer session, stretch & challenge, blah-di-blah.
 Fuck off, see you tomorrow. Unless today is Friday, in which case have an exciting weekend. Ha! Only kidding! You fuckers live in Essex, how’s that going to happen? Time to crack out Dungeons & Dragons again, is it?
essex social housing
According to my mind, the twenty of us just went ahead and did it. Yeah, there was tangential chat, amusing use of accents for Hamlet and his friends, and pauses while someone – not me – said something like ‘I don’t get it. What does ‘ocular’ mean?’ But if I tried to pull off the same format in any of my classes, I’d have to expect
 ‘What?’ ‘But I don’t want to work with him!’ ‘Does this mean we have to move?’ ‘Can’t I just stay here?’ ‘Why do you always put us into groups?’ ‘Did we need that book today?’ ‘Do we have to write anything?’ ‘Can I borrow a pen?’ ‘Sorry, I haven’t got my book. Or my folder. Or a pen. Or my bag.’ ‘What? What are we doing?’ ‘Who did you say I was working with?’ ‘Hi, sorry I’m late. We’re not in groups again, are we? I left my book on the train, by the way.’ ‘What?’
 ‘What?’ ‘I hate reading out loud.’ ‘What page was that?’ ‘Have I got the right book?’ ‘Can’t we just read it in our heads?’ ‘I still hate working with him.’ ‘What was the question again?’ ‘We’re just starting!’ ‘This is really hard. Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe who I saw yesterday.’ ‘I’ll just answer this text.’ ‘I think I’ve read the wrong page.’ ‘Sorrysorry, we’re just opening the book now.’ ‘I don’t think we’re going to finish this in time.’ ‘I don’t get any of this.’ ‘None of us have a book.’ ‘I hate group work.’ ‘I just can’t concentrate. It’s impossible.’ ‘I really have tried to understand this, but… well, no. I haven’t read it.’ ‘Stop hassling me! I’ve finished… Oh, do we have to do all those questions? I thought that was for tomorrow.’ ‘Do you enjoy teaching?’ ‘What?’
 Simplistic commentary on the first paragraph, barely concealed out-of-context reading directly from the page in response to any questions which don’t relate to the opening lines.
 Different county, same sentiment.
I once called for a class to cease their non-activity during a groups-based task, and gave the following paraphrase:
‘Yes, sorry everyone, to stop you from not working. I’d like to draw your meta-attention to what my job involves. So I’m over here now next to w’s group, because I’m reminding them for the third time that it’s easier to read the book if they have it open in front of them. If you look, you’ll see their outraged expressions are somewhat justified, because a few of them are indeed holding it open. Yes, thank you. But I know that, again, as soon as I walk away, they’ll put it down again, because they’re just so fucking tired after having read for twenty seconds. Let’s just take a moment to share their tragedy, shall we? I’d love to stay looming over them to make sure they continue reading, because primary school teaching was what I really wanted to do with my life. But I have to leave them now, because on the other side of the room x’s group seem to be having a singing competition of terrible songs out of some fuck-awful musical that I don’t even want to know about, but it’s my professional duty to get them back ‘on task’. That’s a teaching term. Meanwhile, there’s y’s group, who are doing some reading, but I’ve just realized they’ve written nothing down at all, and it looks like they’re in a different chapter to the one that’s written on the board in massive letters. Because of the excitement over here and over here, I’ve been ignoring z’s group, but I just overheard one of them say, at this very late stage in the lesson, ‘What are we doing?’, which is great. Thank you, everyone. Do you ever worry I might feel too fulfilled? I look forward to your uniformed feedback in three minutes time. Fuck, I wish I was back at Sainsbury’s.’
Teacher feedback like this invariably gets the response ‘Why are you always in a mood with us?’ to which I may respond ‘Because of the kind of people you are and the things that you do’, or ‘Do you need a mirror?’
This approach to student encouragement gives an indication of why I don’t teach a younger age group. Not that there’s many Ofsted-delivered documents which recommend that kind of motivational speech for the 16-18 market, but there’s greater opportunity for quirkily alternative and individualized teaching methods within that sector. By which I mean verbal abuse. Once I said ‘Shut up’ to a visiting 14-year-old student, and their appalled face suggested that would have been a step too far in whatever school it was they’d come from.
NB – Dungeons & Dragons is often exciting. There was that one time back in ’96 we found ourselves on a boat and had to go off and fight some hill giants for some reason. I had a Staff of Striking and was a ninth level druid that looked like Rosanna Arquette in ‘Nobody’s Fool’, a film seen by almost three people. There was a lot of hand-to-hand, and I was worryingly unarmoured against monsters with a decent THAC0, so I kept running away a lot to leave the ruckus to my better-armed companions, and try to work out when any of my elementally-based spells would ever come in useful. They never did. But how does arguing philosophically happen?
like this, but more druidy
This is definitely not homework. This needs to be done in class, and it takes as long as it takes. All my earlier warnings about the importance of precision of language in philosophy are about to be justified.
I love ‘iff’, with its hardening of the easy-going, fluffy, maybe-but-maybe-not vibe of ‘if’, so I’m pleased to have the opportunity to introduce it this early in the course.
The tip given here (thanks, Avril) can seem restricting and arbitrary, but as we continue classes, it hopefully becomes clear why these subjects are off-limits for examples of giving uncontroversial, all-purpose statements as examples (in exams). I usually justify it at this point by declaring all these topics overcomplicate matters. As we’ll see, there’s enough problems with statements like ‘There is a chair in the room’, so let’s deal with stuff like that before we get on to issues like divinity and aesthetics.
For those of your already philosophy-familiar, my reasons for blocking these subjects are:
- Religious statements: Firstly, positions like logical positivism claim any statement whose truth cannot be verified using our senses is meaningless, which includes statements like ‘God exists’. Now, logical positivism may well be a lot of shit, but in my quest at this stage to be as non-divisive as possible, I decided I have to consider their feelings. Secondly, we don’t study philosophy of religion on this course, and it’s a massive fucking subject. There’s no time to give religious matters the time they deserve, so I elect to not give them any time at all.
- Moral judgments: Whether these can be true or false, meaningful or whatever, is covered in a good deal of depth in A2 Philosophy, when we look at meta-ethics. Like philosophy of religion, this is also a massive fucking subject, so let’s not touch it until the time for touching has truly arrived.
- Aesthetic judgments: Same issue with morality. Sadly, meta-aesthetics is never explicitly raised in the course, but I often found some time to at least raise the problem during The Value of Art at the end of AS, and to highlight the links between the arguments made in meta-ethics and aesthetics e.g. the emotivist claim that moral judgments are simply an expression of emotions, and therefore lacking in truth or falsity, can be applied to aesthetic judgments in the same way.
- Personal preferences and opinions: By definition, these are neither true nor false, so let’s stick to stuff that is. However, when we get to the end of meta-ethics, one of the implications uncovered is that maybe personal preferences and opinions are actually kind of true or false, in a way. Explaining why this might be takes several hours with a class which has already been through AS, so at this stage it’s just me saying, ‘You know these things? Don’t talk about them. NEVER MIND WHY’.
- Colors: There’s disagreement among philosophical schools as to whether statements about color are true or false, or neither, or something else. As with many unpleasant-to-learn things, this is returned to in meta-ethics, so it’s another case of NEVER MIND WHY for now.
I carefully run through the examples here with the class, then get groups to come up with their own, insisting everyone in each group words their points exactly the same. Group work means there’ll be fewer examples to discuss, and it can take a while for everyone to have written stuff that precisely fits the requirements of validity; invalidity is not so hard, as any disconnected load of shit you put down is good enough. Making each one a class discussion point as to whether it fits the criteria can help to clarify how much language matters here. The difference between a valid and invalid argument can often rest on a single word. Usually that word is ‘all’, ‘some’, or ‘every’.
I don’t bring it up in class at this time, but setting up the study of argument and knowledge claims in this way is certainly open to a criticism often placed against analytic philosophy, and sometimes epistemology as a whole (e.g. from some feminist critiques), that a focus on cases of understanding which can be put into words, most often using examples which relate to the sensory recognition of material objects by individual perceivers (e.g. ‘There is a chair in the room’), misrepresents the scope of human knowledge. Much of what we know does defy being laid out in the form of propositional statements, and is not primarily rooted in discrete sensory experiences. In other words, it is wrong to suggest that what we know is delineated by what can be put into words. And this ‘wrongness’ may well include a moral ‘wrong’, as it unjustifiably privileges some types of knowledge (e.g. propositional, sensory, scientific) over others (e.g. experiential, community, skill-based).
Above I was saying how I didn’t want to do stuff in class which wasn’t divisive and controversial. And yet I leave this bit out in the discussion. What kind of undeclared analytic masculinist scientism shit is this? Am I a teacher, or just some ideological arsehole whose token gestures towards inclusion pander to their own shitty prejudices? Or is that just defining what a teacher is? Pow! Take that, me! In your face!
I’ll try and work in more dick jokes next time. Bye.
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