A Respect for Intellectual Messiness

intellectual messiness
Intellectual messiness is one of those perfect descriptors. I’m not sure where it originated, but I do like it, probably because messiness abounds in my mind. I have been frustrated lately by how old I am and how little I’ve figured out, especially about teaching and learning. Someone asks me a straightforward question, why is teaching so hard to improve, and all I have are the simple answers about competing demands, big classes, inadequate institutional support, and the complexity of teaching.

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]ntellectual messiness is one of those perfect descriptors. I’m not sure where it originated, but I do like it, probably because messiness abounds in my mind. I have been frustrated lately by how old I am and how little I’ve figured out, especially about teaching and learning. Someone asks me a straightforward question, why is teaching so hard to improve, and all I have are the simple answers about competing demands, big classes, inadequate institutional support, and the complexity of teaching.  For Those Who TeachI know those reasons matter but there are other, deeper, more internal reasons that grow out of our allegiance to content, how we intellectualize teaching and ignore its affective dimensions, and how vested we become in the way we teach. I’m pretty convinced those reasons influence individual efforts to improve more than the pat answers we usually exchange. So, I try to elaborate those reasons, sort them out, understand how they affect each other—and I do this by writing. It’s definitely a writing-to-learn approach because I haven’t got things clearly defined or organized. It’s tortuous, time consuming writing, and the end product may be better than what I started with but it’s still a mess. Why do these intellectual conundrums merit respect? In the academic world they motivate further thinking, conversations with colleagues, more reading, more writing, and best of all more learning. They are part of the hard, messy work of learning, and as frustrating as dealing with the mess may be, most of us understand it’s essential. Besides, on a good day, the challenge looks attractive. Am I up to the task? Can I figure it out, get it right, or at least get it moving in the right direction? Those of us with good minds like to keep our intellectual motors fine-tuned and running well. We like the idea of untangling a mess. But do our students understand the need for and value of facing what’s tough to figure out? Or, do they melt down over the potential loss of points, quickly concluding they can’t possibly figure it out, angry that the teacher had the nerve to ask? Or, is it that we retreat, afraid to confront fragile learners with messy problems, questions we can’t answer, knowledge gaps, or solutions that don’t work? Sometimes I think education isn’t too answer-oriented. We ask questions, but we don’t usually ask without expecting an answer. Sooner rather than later, we want good answers, right ones. If no answer comes, we call on students and force an answer. When students ask us questions, they want answers and we deliver—right answers, clearly stated, supported with evidence, and illustrated with examples. We’ve lost sight of that contradictory conclusion: a good education reveals what isn’t known. Most students can’t tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing, so we give them detailed instructions, clear directions, and tell them exactly what we want in an assignment. That’s what they expect and if we provide detailed explanations we’re more likely to get what we want. Learning happens in a clean house. Everything is picked up, put away, and scrubbed down with no messes anywhere in sight. We sometimes err on the other side. What we pose to students is too challenging or what we ask of them is too vague, which makes us partly responsible for their confused, disorganized, superficial responses. But sometimes their feeble answers come as a result of having no or little experience trying figure things out. When do we equip them with the skills and strategies that enable us to find our way through and out of messes? Do we talk about the value of being challenged? Do we share examples of what was confusing, unknown, or misunderstood for years in our field? Do we tell the stories of those who figured it out and how this provides us with memorable models, often showing that good ideas come from surprising sources and unexpected directions? Sometimes, in spite of our determination and great effort, the intellectual mess remains. We have to walk away, to leave it for another day. We can do so and feel less like a failure if we respect the messiness of intellectual work. And sometimes we do figure things out and the thrill that brings has been known to make people fall in love with learning. There’s a better chance we can make that happen for students if our teaching focuses equally on the answer and the often-convoluted process of getting there.