Embracing Contraries

In 1983, Peter Elbow, a professor at Stony Brook University, wrote a profound article about teaching. It was titled “Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process” and was published in College English, Volume 45, Number 4.

The article was very important for me. It helped me clarify my thinking about education — even though Elbow is a teacher of English and I teach math. I will not attempt to summarize his whole argument: I encourage you to read it on line here. (This site requires registration, but it is free. Just don’t download thousands of articles from there, if you want to avoid being prosecuted like Aaron Swartz.) A lower-quality copy of the article is available here (no registration needed.)

Near the opening of the article, Elbow writes:

… the two conflicting mentalities needed for good teaching stem from the two conflicting obligations inherent in the job: we have an obligation to students but we also have an obligation to knowledge and society. Surely we are incomplete as teachers if we are committed only to what we are teaching but not to our students, or only to our students but not to what we are teaching, or halfhearted in our commitment to both.

To fully grasp the significance of this, you have to see that these two obligations are often in direct opposition to each other. For example: my commitment to mathematics requires me to read a student-written proof with a relentlessly critical eye, making sure the logic is tight and the writing clear. But my commitment to the student requires me to be encouraging and supportive, to look for whatever germs of good thinking are there even if the proof is flawed, and to find ways to build on those. These are nearly opposite, and yet I need to be totally committed to both.

Choosing only one of these “contraries” is terribly limiting. So-called “soft” teachers prioritize their commitment to the students. So-called “hard” teachers prioritize their commitment to the discipline. Good teaching requires not a compromise between the two, but an ability to do both at different times. Elbow suggests that at the start of a course you should be “hard” and make clear your criteria for grading. After that, you should be “soft” and be 100% on the student’s side to help them achieve the goals you laid out. And finally, at the end of the course, you should be “hard” again, and give them the grade they deserve. Of course, this is oversimplified, and you’ll need to constantly navigate along this axis — sometimes emphasizing one commitment, sometimes the other.

Elbow is right: grading is in large part about commitment to the discipline (though this is sometimes tempered by an attempt to make the grades reward student obedience, which is perhaps what Elbow is getting at by mentioning “society”.) I just retired after 32 years in the Math Department at the Urban School of San Francisco. The school’s grading policy to some extent embodies Elbow’s advice: students get abundant feedback during the course, but not grades. They do get one grade for the course, which they only find out at the end. This profoundly counter-cultural policy allows the focus of the teacher-student relationship to be student learning, and helps teacher resist the alas common debasing of the educational enterprise to a crass negotiation over points.

Of course grades are the currency in most schools, but that does not invalidate Elbow’s point: you become most effective if you learn to embrace contraries and navigate between them. This is key to almost every facet of teaching. See the worksheet I developed for teachers to reflect upon their practice. In it, I listed as many opposites as I could think of. Let me know if you can think of more!


Read a sequel to this post here.

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