The Context Is the Entire Point | Inside Higher Ed

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If I were king of the press, I’d immediately pass an edict banning “gotcha” questions and headlines. I think of “gotchas” as different from pointed questions in that “gotcha” questions aren’t asked in the pursuit of truth; they’re asked in hopes of scoring some sort of political points. “Gotcha” headlines are similar: they ignore context to focus on one thing that only seems inflammatory when abstracted from context.

The example that leaps to mind for me is the interview Barack Obama did a few years ago with Marc Maron on Maron’s podcast. Obama, as is his habit, gave a lengthy, thoughtful and nuanced perspective on the ways that racist frames of reference distort discussions of important public issues. He made a distinction between someone who says “n-word this and n-word that” and someone who uses coded language to set up an argument based on racist assumptions. When the podcast came out, the headlines the next day were “Obama used the n-word!” The headlines weren’t semantically false, but they were pragmatically false. They missed the point entirely and would have led a casual reader astray. Having heard the interview, I was frustrated at the seemingly willful misinterpretation reflected in the headlines. In fact, they reflected the very reductionist thinking that Obama was criticizing.

At its best, academic discourse — whether published or taught — avoids those gotchas and instead tries to dive more deeply into nuance. That’s because it’s supposed to be in the pursuit of truth, as opposed to clicks, ratings or some other agenda. An academic argument against Obama’s perspective might have taken issue with his characterization of certain political positions, for instance; that would have been well within bounds. But it would not have zeroed in exclusively on that word outside the context in which he used it. Whether his use was appropriate would be a fair question, but it would have to be considered in context.

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I was reminded of that in reading Mark James’s piece in Inside Higher Ed on Friday about parents observing Zoom classes and filing “gotcha” reports on faculty.

Academic discussions take time and require some basic level of trust. In the process of meeting students where they are and then taking them someplace new, there’s an element of risk; students are asked to suspend disbelief long enough to take seriously what’s being offered. That doesn’t require uncritical acceptance, of course, but it does require not jumping on the first thing that looks unfamiliar. Building that trust takes time and focus.

Having a third party — whether a parent, a self-appointed political watchdog or whoever else — lurk in the shadows, waiting for a “gotcha” moment to dive-bomb the instructor, makes serious inquiry of controversial subjects impossible.

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When I taught the great works of Western political thought, I’d often role-play someone who agreed with that week’s author. The idea was to help students see how certain ideas worked. So one week I’d be a Hobbesian, fantasizing about a Leviathan that would keep everyone in line, and the next I’d be a Lockean waxing rhapsodic on social contracts. At various times I’d be a Platonist, an Aristotelian, a Machiavellian, a Marxist, a utilitarian, an anarchist and even — the most fun — a Nietzschean. (Villains always get the best lines.) I’d ask students to try on different schools of thought for size. A voyeuristic creep looking to score points could easily isolate a single line from a moment like that and run with it. Out of context, it could look damning. But the context is the entire point.

I know it’s fashionable now to appoint college leaders from everywhere other than academic affairs. But as surveillance becomes ubiquitous and “gotcha” moments proliferate, having leaders who understand the concept of academic freedom and why it matters is becoming much more important. It used to be that we were mostly protected from third-party observers by the sheer logistics of the classroom and the limits of the technology for distributing recordings. But with Zoom, an annoyed parent can hear two minutes out of context and fill in the blanks with whatever their personal fears might be. And there’s no shortage of external actors who are willing and eager to wield those moments to fulfill other agendas. If you make the mistake of rewarding that kind of pressure, there will be no end to it.

Information may be free, but context takes time, work and effort. That’s what academia does, at its best. There’s no shortage of sensationalism, clickbait and disinformation out there; we don’t need to reward it. We need to offer a place where easy and settled answers can be challenged, where ideas can be tried on and discarded, and where students and professors can follow ideas and facts where they lead without fear of running afoul of whichever party is in power that year. Yes, academia is a human endeavor, and not every moment is perfect. But the context is the entire point.

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