“Smart students think they’re dumb, because they know what they don’t know. Dumb students think they’re smart, because they don’t know what they don’t know. So, do you think you’re smart… or dumb?” This was the question one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Julia McQuillian, asked me as an undergraduate.
With a single question Julia opened my eyes to the meta-cognitive level of learning. Until then I hadn’t thought critically about my intellectual blindspots and the assumptions I was making based on them. This question helped me graduate from a dichotomous and concrete worldview, to a worldview that was much more complex and uncertain.
As teachers we must remember that our students are not primed for this type of thinking. By acknowledging the limited scope of a 101 course students can more critically assess the information in your class and their understanding of the world around them.
“A 101 class is a tapas restaurant. You eat a little of this, a little of that. If what you want is more of an intellectual meal, then you should take a semester long course like Race and Ethnicity or Social Inequality.” I tell this to my students on the first day of my 101 class to give them a sense of scope. It’s important to remind your students that they are only being exposed to the 1% of all the research on any of the topics you discuss in a 101 class. Novices are vulnerable to prematurely celebrating their mastery of a subject.
“I’ve forgotten more about the research on this topic than you’ve learned, so what makes you think you know enough to dismiss this research out of hand?” I’ve thought this to myself before when students tell me emphatically, “That can’t be true!” A more appropriate response to an outright rejection of the findings of social research would be a simple question: “Well, what evidence makes you so sure that this can’t be true?” Students will typically response with, “Well, my uncle is….” or “The Hispanic people where I’m from…” or some anecdotal evidence from their life. These “n of 1” counter arguments are an easy opportunity to talk about the perils of common sense and intuitive sociology. Students are prone to uncritically reject social research if it doesn’t jive with the worldview they hold. As a discipline sociology seeks counter-intuitive knowledge, so this type of rejection is neither surprising nor uncommon.
Sometimes students make the opposite mistake. They accept uncritically what the research has to say as though it was describing laws of sociology or decoding the Matrix. I know this is an issue when my students look at me like a magician. Mouth agape, they are dazzled by how, “You seem to know it all!” (Their words not mine). While it sure is easier to teach a class where everyone uncritically accepts what you, the sage on the stage, have to say, it’s just as damaging to your students learning as it’s counterpart. We have to be uncomfortable with uncritical thinking in our classes regardless of it’s orientation to the ideas we are teaching.
A third common reaction actually springs from critical thinking. Students, being good critical consumers of information, pick apart the methodological limitations of the research presented in class. Unlike the previous two reactions, this one is uncommon and should be encouraged to a point. I LOVE when students tell me a finding is weak because it only sampled _____ or it operationalized the variable in a narrow way (note: students rarely use this language, but this is what they mean). You simply cannot shoot down students who do this out of fear that they are attacking either your credibility or the researcher’s. Silence one contrarian and you will be telling the entire class, “I am the expert here. You need only ingest my pearls of wisdom uncritically.”
When students are hypercritical consumers of the information you are presenting in class, thank them for engaging with the material and having the courage to challenge the research openly in class. Then remind them of the confirmation bias and that they have a limited scope with which to judge the situation. I’ll often say something like, “You make some excellent points. This research, like all research, is limited in what it can tell us. However, this research is indicative of a whole collection of similar studies. Before we can say definitively that this study is flawed to the point it is inaccurately describing the social world, we would need to delve into the rest of the research in this field.” Hyper-critical students need to be encouraged to remain critical, but not to become unduly dismissive.
If you are teaching sociology, then you have an “expert’s mind.” You’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a “beginner’s mind.” Your perspective on sociology as a discipline is starkly different from the perspective your students have. It’s too easy to assume that your students would “just know” how limited their breadth of understanding of sociology is. You make this assumption at your own peril. Start the term by defining the scope of the course and ask your students to maintain their perspective on what they do and don’t yet know.
I should acknowledge that it’s possible I am remembering this a little different than how it was said. Dr. Julia McQuillian is an outstanding teacher, scholar, and human being. Please don’t read this quote in any other context. ↩
I love asking my students what intellectual blindspots they think they have. Almost all of them say none. To which I ask, “Would you know if you had a ‘blind spot’? If you could see them, would we call them blindspots?” ↩