Speak to the Smartest: Bringing out the Best in Students

Teaching is, in many ways, an impossible task. Socrates posed it as an epistemological question, a question of knowing: How is it possible for someone to learn something he doesn’t know? For Socrates, the movement of the mind from Point A to Point B is infinite. He therefore claims that all learning is memory and the duty of the teacher is to make students remember what they already know.

Perhaps. But I don’t agree. I believe it is the job of the professor — not the elementary school teacher who faces even harder, but different, challenges — to radically alter (yes, I split infinitives because grammar is often arbitrary) how students think, to have them look at the world in ways they never even thought possible. After all, I’m not teaching them the names of veins and muscles: I’m teaching them — or trying to teach them — how to think in a multicentered universe. Not every teacher’s job is the same. I assume this is obvious.

Now look at the room: 150 students, 150 lives, 150 different ways of learning, 150 different attention spans, 150 different appetites, vocabularies, experiences. How in the world am I going to reach them all?

The fact is: I’m not. Some students just don’t want to be there (even though college is a choice for which you literally must pay). Some have personal issues distracting them. Some learn incredibly quickly; others take time — lots of time. Some will just never get it no matter what — out of an endless boredom, lack of interest, or lack of cognitive ability.

So what am I, as the professor, to do? I could aim for the most bored, least intellectually curious and capable. But then I’ll waste the time of the bright and curious and ready and attentive.

And even if I aim for the least intellectually capable student, must I simplify the material? Do I dumb it down? Or do I say: I will teach you if it takes all year but I will teach you the full complexity of the book? I will not reduce Nietzsche for you. I will not dumb down Deleuze. You, student, will have to reach towards me just as I reach towards you.

Well, I don’t think it’s right to speak to only that student, that one out of 150. So I aim for the brightest, the most attentive, the students who really want to be there. I don’t simplify the material — ideas and books that are complex and strange. On the contrary, I amplify the oddity, amplify the complexity. Of course, students will get overwhelmed, confused — that is a necessary stage of all learning, by definition.

So I repeat myself, often. I try to make the same point from different perspectives, using different examples. But I never simplify; I never reduce. I continue to teach to the smartest in people. Because I believe by reducing the ideas, dumbing them down, I do no one a service. I just make the world dumber and less interesting.

And when the brightest, most attentive students seem to get it, I’ll linger just a bit longer and then move on. For those who don’t get it but want to get it, well, that’s why there are office hours. But I’m not going to bore the rest of the class just to reach you. The smarties have suffered enough throughout their schooling.

And then, once in a while, I’ll push the material even further. Why? Because I don’t want those smartest, most attentive students to think they’re done. I want them to aspire, always, to thinking more. I want them to know that to master material is to die intellectually. A little confusion, a little wonder, spurs thought and creativity.

To bring out the best — in students, in the world — I believe it best to speak to the smartest in all. TC mark


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  • kwy


  • Not-as-smart

    …and fuck you from all the not-as-smart students that struggled through college. Enjoy your two hours of office time a week to further not-as-smart student learning

    • http://www.facebook.com/Khaligula Khalil Pineda

      I lol'd

  • Sam.S

    I honestly don't know why you're posting this pointless article AGAIN. Intelligent people don't need your special treatment; there's nothing in the intellectual scope you could offer them because you've already confined yourself to limits, to neatly placed categories determining what people are and how things should be. It is extremely elitist and counterproductive to think in this way. I'm one of those brighter students and I wouldn't want you to focus on me (or even talk to me for that matter) because half my education in class is discovering the endless ideas and interpretations that can be generated from different people!

    • http://twitter.com/rislynsey christopher lynsey

      What you're saying here Sam is pretty brilliant.

    • Daniel Coffeen

      I'm so confused. Enlighten me, please, about my limits. My classes were dedicated to proliferating interpretations. I refused to give prescriptive writing assignments. And this would drive some students — the less capable — crazy. They wanted to be told precisely what I wanted from them. But I refused because, well, I wanted the smartest in them — not the part of them capable of regurgitating my instructions.

      So, once again, be so generous as to enlighten me as to my limits. (I wouldn't talk to you, as you request, but you started it.)

      • XTG

        What I see here is you rejecting students. Students that need, and know they need some form of help in gaining knowledge are coming to you as their respected teacher for help in concretizing their knowledge, and you're rebuffing them so that you can continue pushing a plodding pedagogy that _you_ think best serves their needs. Mr Coffen, you're not opening your students' minds, you're simply making your material intentionally confusing to alienate the slightly-less-smart.

        Teaching isn't about challenging yourself or surrounding yourself only with adoring genius-servants, it's about helping your students to achieve their potential, be they rich or poor, smart or less so. If this involves being prescriptive and handholding at times, then by golly, I'd do it and I have. It's boring, but the job isn't about me after all.

      • Daniel Coffeen

        Uh, didn't I say that I'm always happy to spend time in office hours — as much as is necessary — if a student is struggling but still wants to learn. I only ever graded on effort — a student who got a B- on a first paper, a B on a second, and an A- on the third may very well get an A for the course.

        But in lecture? When faced with 150 students of varying interests and abilities? Well, I teach
        to the smarties.

        You can call that rejection but, fuck, if I gave any more to my students I'd be dead.

  • IndianGiver

    I wonder if you intended to come off as an asshole…

  • PINA

    i know i'll laugh a lot at the comments, cuz everyone thinks it is about him/her. hey guys, i'm telling you a secret: you arent the smart one.

  • RBH

    I don't think it is ever productive to overwhelm a student. … And if you're confusing them too! Well, that says something about you not them.

  • Daniel Coffeen

    The casual anti-intellectualism of this country will never cease to amaze me. If I write that I cater courses to those who struggle the most, no one would bat an eye. But write about helping the smart kids and I get called an elitist. An elitist! So strange.

    Is it really so far fetched to suggest that we devote time, resources, and teaching time to the smartest? I really, in all sincerity, thought this a distinctly uncontroversial subject.

    I am out of touch, indeed.

    • Meebo

      Dear ex-professor/discriminating rerun viewer Daniel Coffeen:
      It wasn't your writing about catering to the “smarties” that upset people. It was the hostile, condescending tone you took towards the unfortunate “dumbies” that made you sound like an elitist asshole. You sounded like every pompous, sadistic professor every commenter has ever had all rolled into one. You present yourself in a more reasonable light in this article.
      The fact that my fellow teachers summarily lump students into categories “dumbies” and “smarties” is sad and disturbing.

      • Truong An

        virtues are evil

  • Matt

    Having listened to podcasts from two of your classes, I must say that it was kept me coming back. No simplification, no shortcuts. Just your way of seeing and how to get there.

    The photo of the bust of Socrates is the one at the University of Western Australia: my University! <3 you too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carlos-Ortiz/1279921705 Carlos Ortiz

    I as a reasonably smart but inclined to non-involvedness student sometimes feel neglected and non-encouraged, not saying that I am supposed to be noticed and cheered and directed, but it would help me.

  • Joe

    I am pleased that you wrote a follow-up to your previous article, because I was one of the people who thought its was controversial. I think that the tone of the previous article is what really made it seem like elitist rhetoric. It came across as very harsh and haughty, as if you had been having a particularly difficult time trying to explain concepts to students and were at your wit's end.

    I still however, believe you are lumping students into two categories: those who are smart and want to be there, and those who are less intelligent and do not. There seems to be no middle ground here, such as students who struggle, but dearly want to be there anyway. I'm sure there are even students who are very smart, but don't want to be there at all as well, because they are mentally beyond the class! I disagree with Plato, and believe that people can be made to understand things and learn to think in different ways with time and effort. It has happened to me many times before.

    It also seems that for you, it is a matter of principal to not “dumb down” advanced texts for students. However, there is no real correlation between the ability to comprehend the maze-like complexities of the English language (especially the way it was written one hundred years ago and beyond) and the ability to comprehend a complex situation. I speak from experience; the concepts of, say, Nietzsche or even Plato are not outside my ability to understand them, yet the archaic way in which their books are worded makes it extremely difficult for me to know what I am reading without a bottom-up analysis from a professor (in which I will, of course, be participating). Even more anecdotally, I know plenty of foreign-born students who possess what seems to be utter fluency in English, but still struggle with it at its core, and although their mental notions are sound, they cannot express what they wish to convey eloquently, much less understand a book written in such a manner. Although I dearly love both the written and verbal qualities of an advanced English vocabulary, I don't believe such things are necessary to provoke understanding in any case. Some of the most brilliant concepts ever uttered by man are better said in as few words as possible.

    I fully respect your position as a professor, and have no doubt you produce lively thought among your students, and contribute positively to their education. I never really doubted this even after your first essay, despite what it may have conveyed about your intentions. As someone who aspires to become a teacher in the near future (mainly because I am remarkably good at explaining things to others), I still believe that people can be made to understand anything if the right pressures are exerted on them.

    • Joe

      Just read your comment responses on the earlier article. Your attitude of relishing the confusion of comprehension until you reach understanding is a distinct quality of esteemed academics, particularly those at the PhD level. After all, research is immersion into the unknown, and is supposed to wrench your mind out of its comfort zone. However, it is almost pointless to try to convey this belief upon students in other fields or levels of learning, as they sometimes have no idea of the enormous amount of work you have done to reach the point you are at today, and how that immersion has shaped your very being in and around it.

      Also, just curious, do you think your comment that “y'all are so serious” is in some part due to your time spent on the west coast? I've been there enough to note the difference between thought processes; here in New York, things are definitely a little more tense sometimes. I don't always want it that way, but it becomes unavoidable.

      • Daniel Coffeen

        It's funny you should ask that. I find San Francisco folk to be so serious, bereft of irony or play in serious matters. I grew up in NY and my world there relishes a bit of whimsy in their screeds.

        And I agree with you about language: simplifying language and simplifying ideas are two different things. As a teacher, of course I had to translate dense, strange texts. But that didn't mean I had to simplify the ideas or reduce the complexity.

  • Steph

    To the claims that this article's attitude is elitist: Surely universities/colleges are created and maintained specifically to educate people who are already able students? Those who found high school a bore and want something a bit more challenging?And sure, maybe educating the smartest among us is a luxury – but this is why we pay our own fees. I came to university because I wanted it to be difficult for me; I wouldn't waste my own money on classes that were easy.
    State-funded primary and secondary schooling is a different matter, and Coffeen specifically acknowledges that the job of an elementary school teacher is different to that of a professor

  • Matt L.

    Give this a listen folks:

    Coffeen ain't teaching your chemistry class, okay? This isn't accounting. Or fancy math.

    Dude teaches rhetoric. And I'll tell you (I'm going to use capital letters now): RHETORIC HAS NO “ANSWERS”

    So, for those reductive thinkers out there, those who want to know THE ANSWER… Coffeen isn't teaching that class. No answers: just interpretations and possibilities. He isn't feed the smarties “the answers” and then moving on. I assume (probably incorrectly) that much of the hate-spew comes from that mistake.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Khaligula Khalil Pineda

    I was bothered by this article but I realize that there's nothing wrong with it. Why? He offers unlimited office hours, apparently, this guy is willing to take forever teaching the dumbies one by one, ultimately offering them even more than he offers the smarties. Yes, he's not necessarily a bad teacher, he just believes he should make the coursework itself challenging in order to engage those that are there paying attention. Again, there's plenty to criticize about this but it isn't that bad, he's not telling the stupid students to fuck off and get out of the class and only offering his knowledge to the smart ones. Sure, those that aren't inspired, those that lack motivation, those that might have some hidden potential might just drop the course, we can criticize that, but it isn't really that bad. He's not obligated to slow down for those.

    Here's what's really bothering about this article and can be seen in the comments: Every suck up who spent his entire college education kissing a teacher's ass feels by the elitist tone of the article that this article was written for him. This article validates the existence of people who stay after class thinking that a professor cares about his interpretation of Plato. Every kid who spent hours and hours studying to raise his hand in class every two seconds and develop some God complex around the fact that he read some bullshit a million times feels like someone, somewhere, values his ramblings, his opinion, and his inflated ego as worthwhile. This article is much like Nietzsche. Yeah, a lot of the points might be perfectly valid, but that doesn't justify that there's enough douchebaggery in the world and I don't need your writing to further fuel it.

  • http://kumquatparadise.tumblr.com aaron nicholas

    i don't know anything, but i enjoyed this idea being shared a second time. good stuff.

  • Jamaka

    Oh, my, I was searching google to see if someone like me who just got 14/20 for a 3rd year Psychology test has any hope when the lecturer let us know the average was 17. I was disappointed with my result and was looking for a bit of a lift. Now I just feel that lecturer has already decided from my first test in week two that I am a no hoper and not worthy of teaching. Thanks so much for that.

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