Sunday, May 26, 2024

Contested Presuppositions in Classroom Assignments

This is a pedagogy question for my fellow professors.

While not necessarily completely unavoidable, an essay prompt will often encode certain presuppositions into a writing assignment. In a class on the Holocaust, an assignment asking students to "explain how Nazi propaganda dehumanized Jews" builds in an assumption that Nazi propaganda did dehumanize Jews (we take that it did for granted, and ask only for the process to be explained).

That example is, I think reasonably innocuous -- few (I think) would view such an essay prompt to be out-of-bounds even if we could imagine a perhaps still-broader question ("evaluate the degree to which Nazi propaganda dehumanized Jews" -- but query whether that question actually necessarily will yield the same pedagogical results as the original). 

But I've written before on the dangerous power of presuppositions, and we can of course imagine other encoded presuppositions that are considerably more problematic. Consider in an American politics class: "Explain how the election of Donald Trump in 2016 damaged the American political fabric and weakened our constitutional democracy." This, I think, would be an inappropriate essay prompt (even though I happen to agree with the encoded presuppositions: Trump's election did damage our nation's political fabric and did weaken our constitutional democracy). The presuppositions are ones under active political dispute; it feels unfair and biased to structure the assignment so as to prevent (or at least significantly obstruct) a student from contesting the premises. And this isn't necessarily just a problem with individual assignments either -- entire classes can struggle with what they presuppose.

One might think the answer is that teachers should try to avoid contested presuppositions altogether. As it happens, my assignments I think do largely (albeit unintentionally) avoid this problem: my large class exams are issue-spotters based on invented fact patterns, and my seminar writing assignments are extremely open-ended research and reaction papers. Nonetheless, I recognize that for many teachers and classes there is value in being more specific, and stipulating certain presuppositions can be necessary as a means of diving deeper into a given domain. Returning to our Holocaust class, one can absolutely see the value of an assignment like this: 

"Nazi Party propaganda played an important role in dehumanizing Jews in the German imagination. Read the attached Der Sturmer article, identify three dehumanizing tropes it employs, and explain why they may have been effective in successfully dehumanizing German Jews."

Again, this assignment builds in a host of presuppositions -- that Nazi propaganda dehumanized Jews in general, that this particular article did so as well (in at least three different ways) -- and it somewhat demands that students "pick a side" (by making the arguments why the examples were effective as tools of dehumanization). But while I can see the importance of permitting any of these presuppositions to be contested, I also see the pedagogical value of bracketing that contest and asking students to make more specific appraisals.

The question, then, is where one draws the line. What makes this assignment pedagogically valid (which I think it is), whereas the "Trump damaged America" one pedagogically suspect (which I also think it is)? Surely, it is not a valid defense of the Trump assignment to say "sure, I can see the value of contesting whether Trump in fact damaged the republic, but here we're going to bracket that debate and just stipulate that he did so we can dive into the mechanisms in more detail."

My sense is that while even contested presuppositions cannot be taken off the table entirely, as professors we have a professional responsibility to be extremely judicious in how we use them, because they're incredibly tempting vectors to insert our own political judgments under the guise of pedagogical depth. That sort of standard ("be extremely judicious") is one I simultaneously love and hate: I dislike it because it's vague and doesn't provide guidance, but I like it because it emphasizes that there isn't any substitute for actually trying to be virtuous and contain our bad impulses -- the lack of a hard rule means we're the guardrail against a political free-for-all. 

But curious for input from my fellow profs on this. Is this something you've thought about?

(I was inspired to think on this by this story of a DePaul adjunct who was removed from her microbiology teaching position after offering an optional assignment where students were asked, in the context of Israel's attack on Rafah, to "communicate the impacts of genocide on human biology, and the creation of a decolonized future that promotes liberation and resists systemic oppression," including "describ[ing] the specific ways in which institutions are complicit or actively engaged in supporting ethnic cleansing/genocide." The assignment prompt contains a host of contested presuppositions -- and note again that "contested" doesn't mean "false", see my Trump example -- though there arguably were other issues as well involving disciplinary scope. But in any event, I deliberately wrote this post to try and abstract from that particular incident and see if there were more general intuitions we might be able to bring to the table on questions like this.)