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Teaching Dialogue(s): A Digital Engagement with Plato, Socrates and Chris Long

At HASTAC2015 at Michigan State in May, then-soon-to-be-new Dean of College of Arts and Letters at MSU, Chris Long, and I hatched a plan to have my students engage his book, Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy (Cambridge 2014).  Students would read the book online and engage the digital platform Cambridge set up to encourage a living relationship to the text. As a follow up and to enhance the dialogical engagement, Long agreed to videoconference into class.  This week, we did it.  

After a week and a half discussing Plato’s Apology, I divided my students into four groups.  Each group had to come up with one question to post.  In advance, I posted two questions to Chris’ book so that students could have examples of how to move beyond questioning for clarification to questioning from their own understanding and interpretation.  Chris responded to that question, which students could see when we discussed the process on Monday.  They liked that because they could see there was a voice at the other end of the line.  Each group had to set up a login on the Cambridge Ebooks website (when Wabash’s Lilly Library purchased the book, we also received online access, but each user sets up an individual account), and then from the Cambridge Notes function, they had to click the Share function which led them to the LiveFyre site through which users could publish comments and questions.  Long told us today that Cambridge is working on modifying the interactive element, and we agreed that it could be easier.

9781139628891iWhen I presented the assignment, I was also returning the papers students had written on Hesiod and the Pre-Socratics, so it was a good time for me to connect my feedback about learning to develop questions to the work they needed to do to engage Long’s book.  For that paper, many students did a good job of following an insight or a problem that provoked them to a deeper question or problem that they wanted to better understand.  But some of them wanted to move quickly to an answer that they could manage.  In discussing the first paper, then, we spent time talking about how questioning motivates thinking.  And I told them that questioning-thinking, akin to Socrates’ method, was required to develop the question for Chris.

Their assignment was to develop a question with three elements: the question, the context or set-up that made the question a question in their eyes, and the import of the question.  They quote Chris’ text and offer their interpretation of what it means and then present questions that appear to follow from their interpretation–exactly the kind of work I want them to do in writing a paper.  Knowing that there was a person on the other end of the medium who was going to see the question and who they couldn’t assume would know their context and assumptions behind the question motivated them to develop more robust questions than they had previously.  The students aren’t Plato scholars, but they were able to point to apparent paradoxes or tensions between Chris’ reading and their own and even to recognize that they had their own reading!

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Chris offered this response above in time for the class discussion on Wednesday.  We talked about what it meant and what possible understanding of Plato’s Apology might follow from this response.  I also asked students to consider what follow-up questions the response prompted them to consider.  First, let me say this is Homecoming Weekend at Wabash (turns out, it’s homecoming at Michigan State too), and I was concerned with turnout.  But it turns out that having someone else to talk to and listen to in class besides their professor is a big draw for students.  There was a buzz in the air when students walked in with a virtual visitor on the screen.  Long spoke for the  first ten minutes about the book project and how it became the digital project that it is.  He connected the work he is doing with the work of questioning that I’m asking students to do and Socratic questioning.  And then students asked questions.  About a third of the twenty-five students in the class raised questions or offered comments.

I have found two of the most difficult things in teaching the history of philosophy are getting students to recognize that reading itself is thinking and that there is something at stake in one reading over another.  I was pleased with the way this project made both of these things explicit for students.  On the one hand, having Long in class virtually today helped them think about an author as another person who has an insight and ways of supporting his insight just like they should.  On the other, I wondered if they thought the author was a shortcut to understand the text and was glad when this was explicitly addressed.  One student commented that it was nice to have Chris there because they could ask him what he really meant.  Emulating Plato, Chris decentered his authority as author by commenting on how the text is always overdetermined and that he too had something to learn from the reader.  Moreover, readers play a role in bringing a text to life.  Especially in the context of Chris’ argument that there is a distinction between a Socratic and a Platonic politics, reading practices prove to be different from oral dialogical engagements.  The written word purports to be solid in contrast to the fluid.  Having a conversation with an author about the written word can both call the author to account and at the same time show that even the written word is less solid than it might lead us to think.   If Socrates engages in oral dialogue because he wants to press his interlocutor to account for themselves, the written word can be a witness against us, a witness that we can never be sure will come to our defense as well as we had hoped.  Chris asked students if they thought they could believe Socrates that he didn’t know the answer to his question, and I commented that a very different politics follows if you ask because you know in advance or if you ask questions that you don’t know the answer to in advance.  I wonder if that politics can be mapped onto whether you think the author can tell you what the text means and if you think the reader is an equal partner in the process of meaning-making.  We’ll have to talk about that in class on Monday!

Digital liberal arts pedagogy is always a risk.  You never know in advance how it will go.  Wednesday morning I had to have this Twitter conversation:

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Fortunately, the website was back up in plenty of time for me to prep for class and to look at the book and questions online in class.  But the risk goes beyond whether the technology will work.  There’s also the risk that the technology will get in the way of the learning and thinking.  I think we surmounted that risk in this project because what we were doing was directly addressing the themes of the text: how dialogue can promote better thinking, how dialogue creates community, how personal investment and engagement can motivate us to think better.  After class today, some students told me the questions they want to write about in response to their engagement with Chris. For example: if Socratic politics involves instituting pariah-dom, then he wouldn’t seem to be a pariah anymore.  What’s the force or need for the pariah if no one minds if the pariah is set up in the city square being the pariah?  That question, in my view, gets to the heart of the logic of Long’s project. Another student told me he had more questions for Chris.  I told him, you know, you’re free to go post those questions to Chris’ blog, you don’t need it to be an assignment to do it.  He looked at me surprised, as if he had just realized that the life of the mind could go on even if you aren’t getting credit for it.  Be careful, we saw how that went for Socrates.

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