Oversimplifiers of the World, Unite!

For years, I’ve made the case that every faculty member plays three roles for their students, even without knowing they’re doing it.

  • There’s the teacher, the person who introduces students to the material of a field and the rigor of its investigation.
  • There’s the supervisor, the person who takes an apprentice worker and guides him or her to participation in a larger project.
  • And there’s the mentor, the person who guides a cultural novice into a greater understanding of the culture s/he’s about to enter.

Nobody is equally good at all three, nor do they care equally about all three. I’ve always been most comfortable with the role of the mentor, at least in part because I’ve never shed the feeling of having been a cultural novice myself, and knowing how badly I needed someone to help me just figure out where the rocks were in the river. The content I could figure out on my own. I’ve always been a feral scholar, I just needed to be protected from the predators while I was foraging.

So I had a great weekend with a good friend who is fundamentally a teacher, someone who loves her material so much that she’s compelled to share it with her students in its fullness. And we were talking about Derrida. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never read a word of Derrida, which I know makes me liable to have my humanist license revoked. It’s like failing a drug test, you just don’t get to keep your job. But my friend was explaining to me that part of Derrida’s argument was that language was so fluid and so unreliable as a reflection of “reality” that even the endeavor of clarity was a cop-out. He made his arguments opaque, she said, as a challenge to his readers to reckon with the opacity of all language at all times.

I get that. I do. But my friend explained that with such patience, with such generosity, that it made me even more impatient with the hostility of the source material itself. I recognize that Derrida was writing for the other handful of political philosophers of his day, not for the great unwashed like you and me. He didn’t take as his mission bringing the youngsters along. But still, it raises important questions of how we introduce complexity for our students.

I often use the metaphor of sandlot baseball when I talk about undergraduate research. If we taught baseball like we taught any academic subject, we’d have a semester of hitting, and a semester of catching balls in the air, and a semester of catching balls on the ground, and a semester of throwing, and a semester of running… and kids would learn to hate baseball just as much as they learn to hate school. There’s no real THING being done. But instead, wisely, we let little kids just play baseball. They play really badly, and we watch them and give them pointers on the things they’re struggling with the most right then (which is different for different kids), but they’re really playing baseball. That’s how you build the love for the game.

I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, a writer unafraid to oversimplify. “You’re of necessity simplifying,” he said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian. “If you’re in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify … If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!” I love oversimplifying, at least in part because I love talking with people who’ve seen something a million times but never noticed it, never put categories on it, never thought about what it meant. My audience can be captivated, can be inspired, by oversimplification. And if it makes them excited, they can go read the source material on their own.

The book project I’m embarking upon now will force me to think about my own values as a teacher and a scholar; aimed as it will be at a general readership, I will absolutely be oversimplifying. And I’m entirely okay with that.