What we Know About Swallows

The first paper in my ENGL110 class is Socratic Dialogue (where students pick an issue and then explore both sides of the issue through arguments in a dialogue form). A worried ENGL110 student sat in my office, knowing that she was not understanding the assignment but not knowing how to express why or how she did not understand.

“What do you think about the assignment?” I asked.

“I mean, it’s okay. I just have a hard time with it,” she said nervously, speaking faster and shifting nervously in her seat. “It’s really hard for me to think about what someone else might say. I really only like to think about facts. You know; things that are actually true.”

This emphasis on facts and truths—of knowing something absolute—is something that I feel like I’ve devoted my teaching life to challenging. One of my favorite things about teaching is getting students to the point with papers when they are nervous and uncertain and have to suddenly think in different ways that they have had to do before. That said, the US education system that Cathy Davidson mentions—one of tests and categories and memorization—hinders this kind of exploration that brings students (and myself) to an uncomfortable place without facts and test questions.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there is one scene when King Arthur and his knights must cross a bridge guarded by a man who will only allow them to cross if they can answer three questions correctly (if you want to see the whole thing, look here). Lancelot goes first and gets some pretty easy questions (“What is your name?” “What is your quest?” “What is your favorite color?”). He is allowed to cross without a problem. The second knight boldly steps up to answer his set of questions and is thrown a loop with a third question: “What is the capital of Assyria?” He cannot answer this question and is thrown off the bridge. The third knight is given the same set of questions as Lancelot, but he cannot answer the last question and it also thrown of the bridge. Then King Arthur steps up:


“How do you know so much about swallows?”
“Well you have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.”

King Arthur obscures in his answer the fact that he learned about different swallows from some French men guarding a castle he wanted to storm. His way of answering the question of how he obtained this knowledge implies that he is naturally intelligent or was trained in the arts of being kingly. Further, his knowledge destroys the question-asker himself and makes the bridge safe for all who would come after him.

I think that school feels to many students like this sort of arbitrary question and answer game. There are right answers and wrong answers and some people just know how to get these answers better than others. Teachers, I think, often come across as the great holders of truths/facts. They have this power of question-answering which they acquired somehow and just memorized better than others.

I’ve been in the same shoes as my question-fearing student. I’ve been afraid to consider the fact that things are not as they seem (and the teacher does not know all of the answers). But the “answers” to questions about the world are complex and multifaceted and are always changing. As Davidson says, “The process of unlearning in order to relearn demands a new concept of knowledge not as a thing but as a process, not as a noun but as a verb, not as a grade-point average or a test score but as a continuum” (19).

And I wonder: How can we teach unlearning and flexibility in our writing classrooms? How can we really show students how to call “facts” and commonly held assumptions about the world into question? How can we do all of this within a very resistant school structure which demands an old-school style of learning measurement? Am I–are you–willing to give up our notions of teacher authority in order to allow for the teaching of unlearning?

9 thoughts on “What we Know About Swallows”

  1. Katie,

    I completely identify with this struggle against facts in my own E110 classrooms, especially when I use specific terms from the *Allyn and Bacon.* In discussions, my students are quick to define them for me, probably because they can read the definition right from the textbook, thereby transforming a complex term like “ethos” into a fact that they can easily recite upon request.

    The issue arises when students then try to use these terms-turned-facts in the analysis essays I construct to build upon them. Oftentimes, what I receive is a verbatim definition of the term in question rather than a genuine engagement with it. Students are quite comfortable defining terms and perhaps even identifying that a particular aspect of an ad contributes to ethos. They are not as comfortable, however, actually explaining why and how that aspect contributes to ethos, let alone how it corresponds to the implicit argument of the ad they may be analyzing.

    So even in a classroom like E110 that usually has no “tests” (in the multiple-choice sense of the term, like Davidson aptly finds fault with), students are still keen on finding facts rather than skills—despite our best efforts to the contrary!

  2. Sometimes I wonder if I should be spending more class time on interacting with and enforcing ambiguity. It’s difficult because it often leaves students frustrated and feeling alienated rather than empowered–they seem to want a right answer, with evidence that you can list into place, way more than they want an opportunity to develop their own persuasive argument in a collection of equally valid persuasive arguments. Making that turn from the oppositions of right/wrong, or correct/incorrect, to a spectrum of persuasion can be a difficult lesson to internalize.

    I think something that I’d like to do more of in the future is constantly and consistently locate our discussions on writing in our specific cultural context. Writing style discussions, for instance, are so much easier to have when moved away from the traditional “Academic formal writing is inherently persuasive” assumption toward a “What is it about academic formal writing and its conventions that speaks to the culture of academia? How persuasive is it in a specific context and why?” question.

  3. Katie,

    I wonder how much of the uncomfortableness you discuss is related to the students particular major. Generally, I’ve found that students who major in certain subjects (e.g. engineering and nursing) are more likely to be resistant to the notion of giving up their precious “facts.” And honestly I don’t blame them. At their level in their field, their job really is to just memorize every a set body of knowledge so that they might (hopefully) add to it in the future. Given this situation, it seems to me that we, as humanity instructors, should not change their way of thinking so much as add to it. In other words, we should show them that their are multiple ways to approach problem solving, and these ways are contingent upon their specific current situation.

  4. Katie,
    In a face to face interview with BBC in 1959, Bertrand Russell was asked to send a message to future generations. The 87 year philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian and social critic had two pieces of advice, an intellectual one and a moral one. This is the intellectual message :”When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts.”
    I’m amazed by the challenge of with this apparently simple advice that asks for an almost impossible approach.
    By the way, I like your reference to a brilliant movie that deliberately makes fun of all established rationalities in a post that starts with Socrates; it’s sometimes so pleasurable to remember Monty Python .

    You can see the video of Russell’s message here:

    1. Naghmeh,

      I love the fact that you brought Bertrand Russell to the table. When I was discussing my post here last night with my own philosopher he made a distinction for me here that I think Russell also makes here: When we actually consider truths and facts and ask the question “How do you know that this is true?” then you have to confront the reality that it is very, very hard to get at exactly what facts and truths really are. So a philosopher like Russell can encourage us to always ask what the facts are and how they bear out as truths, and once we start trying to understand the whys and hows of such things then we are confronted with complexities and ambiguities and a future filled with trying to get at *exactly* how and why.

      And I’m glad you appreciated the Monty Python 🙂 I think it’s cool how humorous things can call into question established ideas about the world and, by using humor as a method, catch us completely off guard.

  5. Katie, et al,

    My sense is that the ethos of science rests on a sense of fallibility—on the need to find evidence for what you believe is true, and the corresponding need to acknowledge conflicting evidence—rather than an uncritical celebration of facts.

    My favorite part of your post is the very end—where you juxtapose “the demands of a school structure” with “our notions of teacher authority.” Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that we (teachers, academics) have internalized the demands of school in our desire to claim authority. We may need to unlearn that before we can hope to help students unlearn anything else.


  6. Katie–Building off of the last bit of your post (along with the comments of Chris, Callie, and Joe) I too find students’ resistance to more open-form writing assignments perplexing at times. I am currently experimenting in my ENGL 110 Honors class with not providing rubrics for the first two short (2-3 page) analytical essays, but instead providing a bulleted list of qualities that a strong essay should possess. So far, this has had mixed results. Even though in my mind, I am giving my class the same sort of information, presented in a different form (a checklist of sorts), it seems to frighten or baffle some of my students–it’s like they mistrust that my bullet points are REALLY what I’m looking for. I have to remind myself that I too am someone who likes to know exactly what is expected of me, and that undergraduate-Petra might have also wanted more explicit direction from teacher-Petra, even if that meant relinquishing some freedom of expression. I wonder if my students’ worries that the prompt is “ambiguous” boils down to their being afraid to take chances, or not being as adept at parsing requirements in forms other than those they expect, or a bit of both (or perhaps neither). I suppose I will see when they hand in their papers tomorrow.

  7. Katie,

    I loved your use of Monty Python because it gets at the way that standing in absolute authority (as the man on the bridge does), asking a question that would appear to have a measurable, scientitific fact as its answer, puts the “tester” in a precarious position. It reminds me of Davidson’s ACT exam (9-10), when she wrote out essays on the backs of pages pointing out the problems with some of the questions. “Who pays attention to the reverse side of a test? Not many people, but sometimes the right answers are there.”

    As teachers, if we stand as arbiters of who can cross the bridge by asking a so-called “simple” question that’s easy to grade, we aren’t acknowledging that the knowledge we demand students exhibit is socially constructed and framed by our own biases and educational setting. Then when a student asks a question, instead of going on the quest together, we are forced to acknowledge that we “don’t know,” and we tumble.

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