Socrates frowns on you, Emerson

by Beacon Staff • March 18, 2009

For the true academic, there is nothing more mouth-watering than a true colloquium. Sharing ideas, developing new thoughts-analyzing, questioning, discovering. These are the experiences that should crease our foreheads with inquiry and prickle our forearms with goosebumps.

Yet somewhere along the way, our beloved school of "communication and the arts" lost touch with the art of communication.

Intellectual dialogue is an ancient tradition, one that we should revere and honor as students. Think of Plato's Symposium, an 84-page conversation about the meaning of love. Sure, a bunch of drunk Greek guys lounging around and philosophizing is hardly a practical example to follow, but the spirit of a symposium should be alive and well on a college campus. At Emerson, it is not.

At least Socrates and friends were conversing in a circle, enabling important aspects of communication, like eye contact. At Emerson we have only a handful of classes with this luxury. In fact, many classrooms' desks are bolted to the floor in forward facing rows. Who cares if class sizes are small? If all I can tell you about my classmates is that some girl's haircut is way cute-from the back, at least-then there may as well be 300 of us in there. Those chairs should be bolted to the floor in a circle just to make a point about the importance of class interaction.

Beyond the poorly thought out seating arrangement, however, is a more troubling predicament: In terms of academic discourse, Emersonians are being poorly trained. While large universities around the country may choose not to cultivate high-quality class interaction, Emerson, with its small class sizes and emphasis on communication, should not be one of them. Socrates would shake his sorry, ugly head at the state of our classroom discussion.

Good discussion demands more than coming to class with your thinking cap on: It takes a certain level of preparedness. It takes listening. It takes constructive critical thought. It takes teamwork. A classroom atmosphere founded in disparaging put-downs is not fertile ground for compelling thought. Intimidating "post-modern" non sequiturs might sound smart in the moment, but do they help the class? Probably not.

How many times have we been in a class discussing something like the gay rights movement, and before you know it, the class is sitting sleepy eyed listening to somebody rant about the prices of unpasteurized milk in Northern Pennsylvania? (This actually happened.) Kind of a kill-joy for the people who actually did want to discuss an important historical movement, no?

It's not hard to distinguish who should be held responsible here: professors and students, the parties in charge of classroom discussion. Our professors need to do a better job holding students accountable for high quality work, demanding respectful expression of thought and facilitating the spirit of an academic institution that is meant to foster scholarly development.

On the other hand, students need to show we care by doing our work, asking critical questions and listening to our peers with humility and sincerity. Falling short of this is, frankly, sheer laziness.

Picture this: A classroom in which the professor facilitates an interesting conversation, relevant to the class, and the students in return converse, building upon the idea, in search of common ground-and the truth, not Stephen Colbert's blowhard substitute, "truthiness." A classroom environment like that is not some far off utopian fantasy; it's exactly what we are here for.

We all have moments where we brag about bullshiting our way through a class. Sometimes it feels good to know you're clever enough to sidetrack your professors or get away with not doing your work. The problem is that this kind of verbal masturbation obstructs academic dialogue and ruins the learning experience for all those suckers who actually did do their homework.

So instead of playing with yourself, hold out for the real deal. Indulge in brain sex; after all, you're paying for it. It's scary that at 3,544 bucks a class, we can get a better intellectual orgasm from Oprah's Book Club than we can from most Emerson classes. We should walk out of class breathless and impassioned by one another-as drunk as Socrates, if you will. Imagine how different Emerson life would be if we were all standing outside of the Little Building smoking a post-coital cigarette because of really good scholarly interchange, rather than puffing away in our academic disenchantment.

iTaylor Gearhart is a sophomore writing, literature and publishing and political communication double major and assistant lifestyle editor of /iThe Beacon/i.