Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

Tread Carefully with the Socratic Method

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Whatever you may think of Neil Gorsuch as a jurist — or of his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court — there is one episode from his confirmation hearing that should give all faculty members a moment's pause.

As readers who followed the hearing may know, one of the people who wrote to the Senate to object to his nomination was one of his former students at the University of Colorado Law School, where Gorsuch — then serving on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals — had taught as an adjunct professor. In her letter, the student accused Gorsuch of demonstrating bias toward women, based on comments he allegedly made in class. If you're unfamiliar with the details, you can find them here.

Other former students, including women and self-described liberals, quickly came to Gorsuch's defense, as did 11 of his former law clerks, all women. Some commentators pointed out that Gorsuch was merely utilizing the Socratic method, a common teaching strategy in law (and other) courses that seeks to draw out a student's underlying assumptions and foster reasoned debate by asking pointed questions and assuming a contrary position. Gorsuch himself explained that in the particular situation raised by the objecting student, he had been using a case study from a popular law textbook.

Whether or not you believe Justice Gorsuch is sexist — personally, I don't — this incident might send a slight chill up your spine. Because many of us also use some version of the Socratic method in our classrooms, in an attempt to stimulate critical thinking. What if a student takes offense to something we said — perhaps while we were playing devil's advocate — and accuses us of some form of discrimination? On today's hypersensitized campuses, where in many cases emotional responses have been privileged over intellectual ones, that has become a very real possibility.

It has actually happened to me on two occasions. Most recently, a student accused me in a private meeting of saying something during a class discussion that I had never said and taking a position I'd never taken. She was offended and, although she hadn't wanted to bring it up in class, she felt she should do so now.

The issue was mainstreaming of students with disabilities in K-12 classrooms, which another student had proposed as a possible essay topic. During the ensuing class discussion, the young woman I was meeting with had asserted that all such students should be mainstreamed. I then asked her in class if she really meant “all,” or if she thought there were some students with disabilities so severe that they couldn't function in a regular class or perhaps needed special attention. Later in our private meeting, she told me that, as a middle-school student, she had been misdiagnosed with a mild learning disability and segregated, even though she was perfectly capable of doing well in mainstream classes. Hence her awareness on this subject.

I appreciated her honesty and discretion but was alarmed that she had so thoroughly misunderstood what was going on in class. I explained that I had merely been playing devil's advocate, asking questions to encourage her and her classmates to think more deeply about their arguments and understand the potential weaknesses of those positions so they could better defend them — and, most important, be better equipped to make a more persuasive case.

The meeting ended amicably enough, and I think she understood. But I was left wondering: Would things have turned out differently if she had gone straight to the dean and accused me of having a bias against students with disabilities?

In my more than 30 years of teaching, I’ve often used a semi-Socratic method in leading class discussions. Up until just a few years ago, students seemed to understand very well what I was doing. To my knowledge, no one got offended or misconstrued my words or intent. In the past few years, however, I have encountered more students who don’t seem to grasp that I am playing devil’s advocate in the classroom.

So, from now on, I intend to spend more time early in the semester explaining the Socratic method and how I use it in class. I may even add a statement about the Socratic method to my syllabus, perhaps in the “disclaimer” section that I already include. I can also see that I need to talk more about critical thinking. I do that quite a bit at the beginning of the semester, as I've written about recently, but perhaps periodic refreshers are in order. Or maybe I just need to stop more often — in the middle of a Socratic discussion — and remind students what I'm doing and why.

What I don't intend to do, though, is stop using the Socratic method — or my own version of it — because it works. It helps students think more deeply about where they stand and why, understand the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, and gain a better appreciation for other points of view. Those are the cornerstones of effective argument. And if the ultimate goal is to seek truth — as I believe it is — then backing away from this highly effective method would be cowardly, not to mention a disservice to my students.

At the same time, I can't help but regard the accusation leveled at Neil Gorsuch — apparently for employing a teaching approach that many of us use — as a cautionary tale. Because I also can't helping thinking about one other thing: what Socrates's enemies did to him in the end.

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