Monday, October 18, 2010

Debate: Power and Information

The last homework I assigned in my intro Econ class included the chapter on 'Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy'.  It was less analytical than most chapters, focusing on the big picture rather than definitions and math.  Normally, class is devoted to students asking me questions, but there would not be much for them to ask about here, aside from 'What is your opinion on X?'

So, for the last three class sessions, I replaced my normal class routine with a student-led debate.  Their assignment was to come in with a statement of what they believe and why, and then to discuss these, guided by the language of Economics that they have been learning in class.  It worked fairly well, but I would not want to do it too often.  Some students really liked it, some did not, and others looked as bored as always.  The good thing was that the students who liked the debate were not always the same ones who normally pay close attention to class, and several of these specifically thanked me for doing class this way.

There was a very clear difference between students who understood the concept of the debate and those who did not.  The good debaters always turned in their seat to address the class, or the person they were responding to.  They actually cared about making their voice heard, and communicating with their classmates.  They basically ignored me, the way I hoped they would.  The bad debaters, by contrast, always looked at me as they spoke, as if seeking approval for their comments.  They did not seem to care about their classmates.  There was a high correlation between people who looked at me as they talked and people who were trying to parrot me or the book.

The main thing I learned from this experiment was not about teaching, but about the nature of power.  Many of the students were obviously saying things simply because they thought it was what I wanted to hear.  I had anticipated this, and took steps to prevent it, but it still happened.  In the assignment instructions, I specifically told them not to say what they thought I believed.  When the class was in session, I sat in a chair rather than standing at a podium, keeping as low a profile as possible.  I moderated the discussion by keeping track of who raised their hand when, and pointing at them to speak in turn.  I tried very hard to keep my face neutral, not giving any sign of agreement or disagreement as students talked.

Despite this, many people seemed to care mainly about pleasing me, the person in the position of power.  It was very hard to extract an honest opinion from them.  This illustrates the massive problems that can come with positions of power and authority.  Even if you want honest information, it can be quite difficult to get it from people you have power over.  If you start to think that you are always right, if you cease to actively seek truth and criticism, then it becomes almost impossible for honest opinions and evaluations to get to you.  I have known this intellectually for some time, but this experience really showed the magnitude of the problem.

The last five semesters of teaching have taught me a lot about the dark art of wielding power.  You have to start by being honest about yourself and the situation.  When you are given power, you have to recognize that you do have a lot of power, and that you have a right and a duty to use that power.  You must recognize that the power must be used purposefully and precisely in order to guarantee a good outcome.  But most importantly, you have to understand the ability of that power to corrupt both you and the people under you, and take steps to guard against both of these types of corruption.

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