Let’s Get Emotional! … ?

This week’s reading caused me to pause quite a bit. When that happens, it means I am learning something that challenges who I am — or who I envision myself as. Palmer’s five “immodest” proposals seem to have persuaded me about something, namely, allowing emotion to (re)enter the academy amidst a false objectivity claimed by academics. Yet where do we draw the line for emotions in our classroom? Every syllabus I have encountered mentions — or should mention — appropriate “ethics” for a classroom: no shouting, civil discourse, and if all else fails, agree to disagree. But to be fair to Palmer, I don’t think this is completely the type of emotion being discussed. It involves allowing teachers and students to come in “as they are” in order for learning to occur. One particularly salient feature of the paper is that new professionals are “in but not of” their respective institutions. Meaning, the power-structures that we find ourselves under institutions do exist, but we inflate the significance of those powers. Instead, each one of us are institutions. “Institutions are us”, Palmers claims. Intriguing, and a good idea, but problematic in real living.

Perhaps more important was the idea of cultivating our sensibility and emotions, as they too have an “intelligence” to them. Martha Nussbaum’s work referenced in Palmer’s article speaks about this at length, and anthropologists have begun to look at emotions and how people respond differently to the same stimuli, and what that says about different bodies in different societies. Lots of interesting research here.

I would like to quote from Edelstein’s piece briefly on how the humanities can teach innovation to the natural sciences. Edelstein says, “the real difference between studies in the humanities and the sciences resides in how their respective canons are assimilated. Students studying the American Revolution, for instance, are not only expected to know the names and dates of all the important players or events. They are also obliged to demonstrate that they can make sense on their own of the material; that they can develop original arguments about reasons, motivations, and outcomes for the past.”

Edelstein goes on to state how the final exam paper must be an original piece innovated by the student — different from, say, a final calculus exam where everywhere who gets the right answer is homogenous. But isn’t arriving at the right answer here a sign of “originality”? To take a statement from an author I recently read, “is there not great creativity required in good imitation?” ; Edelstein further claims that the humanities ask for innovation in thought from their beginner courses, not simply regurgitation of science text books. But here is a problem too; while the humanities do ask for students to pitch in their own unique voice, there can be little advancement past freshman seminars/electives in the humanities unless one takes into account certain vocabularies, authors, arguments and texts central to a canon of thought. Thus, the humanities, like the sciences, require students to engage in a “common language” without which advancement would seem unlikely (Who can enter the humanities in the Euro-American academy without having come across the names Kant, Rawls, and Foucault?). Edelstein acknowledges this point about the humanities; every “discipline” requires a certain “disciplining” of its students. Nevertheless, as a former chemist who left the natural sciences and have now ended up in doctoral program in the humanities, I certainly see — in hindsight — the importance of my chemistry training in how I take notes and think through the humanities. Innovation, it seems, can work both ways.