What’s Missing?

There’s a certain logical puzzle I’ve presented to classes in the past. Nothing is better than world peace (it begins). A cheese sandwich is better than nothing (it continues), and therefore (it concludes), a cheese sandwich is better than world peace.

It’s good for a chuckle in that it’s obviously false — but it also proves to be a source of student frustration if you ask them to articulate precisely why that is. That’s because what’s wrong is what’s missing: [having] a cheese sandwich is better than [having] nothing, but [there exists] nothing [that] is better than world peace. In any given “text,” the mechanics of even the most obvious elements can be hidden, taken for granted, or otherwise left out.

I believe “what’s missing?” is one of the most important questions a teacher can ask, especially in an English classroom. Whether students are interrogating a work of literature, a news item, a Super Bowl advertisement, or an interpersonal situation, the things not said define the way we understand the things that are. But while teaching a student to see what’s present in a text can be challenging, it is nonetheless straightforward compared with teaching one to see what’s absent.

There’s no simple trick to teaching students anything — let alone teaching them to see the invisible — but there are different ways to go about the problem. Rarely do all methods work in all situations or for all students, so in my experience I’ve found it’s best to teach a number of ways to solve any one problem. In place of the cheese sandwich/world peace example, we can substitute instead the problem of identifying implicit bias in a news story. Without the ability to recognize the unstated bias in a given text, students may go on to misunderstand it, or worse, to compound the error by using it as a faulty lens through which to view another situation.

Imagine three approaches to finding implicit bias in a text: one is to work together as a class, to gain different perspectives from which to interrogate the text. This approach asks the class what they wish they knew about the story but aren’t being told, and asks them to use each other as a resource. Another is to research the source of the news article, to find out the kinds of biases they’ve exhibited in the past and then to ask if those same biases might be present in the current story. A third is to find coverage of the same story from other sources, and to compare how differently-biased sources handle the same material. There are others, but by presenting at least three different approaches to answering the same question (in this case), I aim to prepare all of my students to find the way that works best for them in any given situation. A major part of the job of any teacher is to provide her or his students with a metaphorical toolkit to perform work both inside and outside the classroom.

It is also worth noting that the first option of the three I mentioned above is special, in that it relies heavily on student participation as a group. Standing in the way of that participation is the fear of being wrong or seeming unintelligent among their peers. In the classes I have taught, I have found this to be unfortunately common, and therefore I always make a point to stress the importance of what I call “being wrong in public.” Too often in public discourse people are derided as “flip-flopping” if they have the audacity to change their minds. But as I explain, changing one’s mind to line up with the evidence at hand is a virtue. A classroom where everyone is free to change their minds is one in which everyone is free to be wrong just long enough to learn — and therefore free to be right.

More than anything else, teaching English is about giving students the power to teach themselves. Just as the old saying goes about teaching a man to fish, teaching students to find meaning for themselves is a much richer gift than teaching them to understand any one text. While at first you may need to hand over the occasional metaphorical fish so that the students don’t go hungry, asking questions like “what’s missing?” helps students to learn to feed themselves.