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July 05, 2011



I never like to speculate about what other people's experiences like that "mean," because they seem to be more about the person's self-relationship and inner life than anything in the outside world. When I was young(er) and sheltered, I remember being shocked at a poem by Horace (a first-century BCE Roman poet) wherein he described his deep emotional reconversion to classical pagan polytheism. I wondered at the time, how is it that those moments of absolute clarity could lead one to such silly conclusions?

Nine years later, after having landed in the ER after mixing too much alcohol and too much caffeine, staring at the absolute knowledge that I was going to die that night, and (obviously) not actually dying--I realized that certainty in general is not a cognitive experience. I'm convinced that those revelations are still crucial for understanding our own psyches, but just as convinced that shoehorning them into a convenient, already extant linguistic power structure is not the best way to deal with them. That answers the question, "How can I belong to this reference group?" when the more fruitful question is, "What does this say about who and what I am?"

Speaking of questions, the first paragraph is great. My favorite professor when I was an undergrad drilled into his philosophy class, "Reject the parameters of the question." That was the most valuable lesson I learned in college, and it involves just as much un-learning of social conditioning (wherein politeness demands that you answer questions as they are asked) as it does analytical thought.

Greg Horton

The one thing I do that irritates students more than anything else is refuse to answer the question as first stated, unless the question is a good one, of course. We spend several minutes just getting to the bottom of what the question actually means versus what they want to know from me. It's exhausting in a class of 20, and I occasionally have to do it in a class of 50, but I consider it time well spent. I also come home, drink, stare at the television, and fight exhaustion afterwards.


That's a very generous thing to do if you can spare the energy for it. I never had to deal with that when I was teaching, since math and programming are specialized subjects that involve one-way transfers of information. Something my old professor used to do which seemed to drain him less than being the one questioned (though he was a good actor, so I'm not confident of that) was playing the foil and asking obviously ridiculous questions, and forcing students to be the ones to explain exactly why the questions were wrong. But that took a lot of time, so there was a substantial breadth tradeoff for that depth. There's probably no way to do it that won't wind up being a sacrifice of some kind.

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