“Why are you sitting here?” is the first question I ask to some unfortunate students sitting in the front at the first day of my Introduction to Psychology class.
Most students are quite dumfounded by this sudden approach but they are usually able to quickly muster up some answers, such as “It’s a required course for graduation” or “This course fits in with the rest of the schedule.”
Then I would ask the same students once again.
"Okay, but why are you taking THIS course?"
To this question, one of the students would inevitably and obligingly answer, “I want to know about the minds of people.”
|▲ “The School of Athens” by Sanzio Raffaello
Then, without a moment’s pause, I would address the whole class, “Do you all think that you will be able to know the minds of people after taking this course? Because even I haven’t figured it out yet.” I turn back to the student who now looks even more perplexed and uneasy. “So, do you still want to take this course?”
I don’t blame the students for coming up with the same kinds of responses year after year. After all, most of them have been taught all their lives to come up with the ‘correct’ answer. Being correct means that you don’t have to explain yourself – the answers are obvious and self-explanatory. Only those who come up with the ‘wrong’ answers are asked, “Why and how did you come up with that answer?” – and the person who is asking this question is usually not interested in listening to your reason but in making you realize how wrong you are. And being criticized for being wrong hurts.
So, it’s not surprising that most students fumble with a question that begs for an answer which is not self-explanatory so that they would have to give their own reasons for it. Simply, they are not used to being genuinely asked, “Why do you think so?” Hence, in most in-class presentations, students merely focus on delivering the ‘correct’ facts in a well-organized fashion and avoid talking about their own personal critical views on the topic. This way, their risk of being criticized is effectively minimized, because in most classes students are criticized for being wrong, not passive.
It is unfortunate that this kind of passivity prevails in our universities today, and the humanities courses in social science may be the starting point to change just that. Many students are hesitant to share their own ideas and reasons so they avoid taking classes which include essay writing, in-class discussions, or team projects. They dislike being wrong and different. But little do they know that much of our advances in social sciences is fueled by those who question and challenge the conventional views. Take, for example, the question, “What distinguishes humans from other animals?” Up until the famous chimpanzee studies by Jane Goodall, the prevailing belief was that only humans are able to make and use tools. But she stunned that whole scientific community with her bold report that chimps are quite capable of using a twig from a tree to ‘fish’ for termites by even modifying it by stripping off its leaves. This even led some scientists to vehemently accuse her of fabricating her findings, but the rest soon began to question and modify the conventional definition of what it means to be a man.
So, the humanities courses in social sciences should especially encourage the students to examine what they know and believe to be true about the world, human nature, and self. The courses should teach the students to ask questions and to take their previous knowledge and assumptions with a grain of salt. In my psychology class, I hold in-class experiments where the students come to realize how unreliable their thoughts, emotions, and even sensations can be. For example, the identical picture can look like either a mouse or an old man when presented following very different sets of pictures. A can of soda might not burst open even after shaking it for a while. So, the students eventually come to feel comfortable sharing with the rest of the class their own interpretations of what just happened, each relating to their own personal perceptual experiences. And it is through this exchange of ideas that students come to truly learn about and appreciate the diversity of human experiences and feel that they are contributing to the class as a whole.
Of course, not all humanities courses in social sciences can apply this kind of approach. But a key factor in effective teaching is the willingness by the instructors to place utmost importance on establishing non-contingent communication with the students. One of the ways I communicate with my students is by using a smart-phone application called the Socrative, which allows for the students to ask questions without revealing their names - but passing out a small piece of blank paper will also do the trick.
Another critical factor in effective teaching is establishing a mutual respect between students which is easier said than done. The instructor has to be the first one to demonstrate that having a different viewpoint is acceptable and should be respected. Throughout history, a countless number of people have suffered for being different rather than being wrong. Social science humanities courses should teach the students not to make the same mistake. Instructors can empower their students just by affirming their comments and questions and by drawing connections between them, highlighting the contrasts and similarities in views.
Lastly, the social science humanities courses should remind the students to appreciate who we are despite our fallacies. Some might say that the key difference between the natural science and social science is that the former is hard and overt and the latter is soft and covert. The natural science looks for efficient ways to derived at the ‘correct’ or the most ‘probable’ answers and it has been very successful at it. Machines are becoming faster and more efficient day by day. People, on the other hand, do not operate on the same principles. For example, Alpha-Go, the artificial intelligence computer, has triumphed over Lee Sedol by the score of 4 to 1. At the surface, science has proven superior to human with fast handling of seemingly countless possible algorithms to come up with the best solution for winning. But underneath it all, what Lee said in the interview with the JTBC news elegantly summarizes his human experience: “But besides everything else, [Baduk] must be fun to play. I think that is the key.”
By Samuel Suk-hyun Hwang, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Psychology