Taking comfort in discomfort

Hegel’s a problem.  Seriously—what kind of person writes like that??  So, when you’re about to help a roomful of kids work through the Philosophy of World History, what do you do?  It’s tempting to walk them through the arguments and concepts: philosophical history, Idea, world-spirit, reason… (Of course, it’s also tempting to tell them to look at the index, already.)  It’s tempting to feed them concepts and arguments, to draw the connections for them, because, come on—Hegel is hard.  The students don’t necessarily have the tools to cope with his arguments, to grasp the synthesis of ideal and real, subject and object, particular and universal. So what do you do?


Teaching “Power, Identity and Resistance” is like reconnecting with old friends—I can eagerly say hello to Hobbes, shake Locke’s hand, even be polite to Burke.  I have notes about these texts, I have some patter down, I have relevant passages marked: I’m set.  But at the same time, as soon as I began teaching this quarter, it became clear to me that there is a fine line between familiarity and complacency.  And the thing is, I’m not convinced that my questions, my preparations for class, my skills at discussion leading are worthy of complacency (not that any class is ever worthy of complacency).  So how can I walk that line between familiarity and complacency, to take comfort in the familiar texts while continuing to work on my pedagogical techniques?

Answer: get uncomfortable.  If I’m reasonably good at leading the class through the work with my questions and outline, topic by topic, can I learn to lead it by manipulating their questions, by giving them more agency in the direction that the conversation takes?  Am I capable of teaching so much in the moment that I mold their conversation, while keeping my own contributions to a minimum, keeping myself to the role of a helper, a clarifier, maybe a gadfly?  Molding the conversation according to their direction, instead of my own, requires me to cede a certain degree of control, and that most certainly makes me uncomfortable.  After all, how will I know if they understood the works, if I don’t help break it down into apprehensible chunks, help them to see how the pieces fit together in the logic puzzle?

The only way that I can learn the answers to these questions is to try, and to learn to take comfort in my discomfort.  I’ve written before about peer instruction, about how when students teach each other, they begin to more thoroughly understand the concepts and arguments at hand.  Isn’t letting them talk to one another, to argue with one another, to agree and also to disagree with each other, just another way to allow for peer instruction?  And if I can only learn to be a very good teacher by jumping in and trying, it stands to reason that they will only learn to be excellent discussants if they actually discuss.

For example, when we read Rousseau’s Social Contract, instead of asking pithy questions about the text to spark the conversation and get them working through it, I sat down, looked at them, and told them to create a civil society and enact a law.  Work together, coalesce into a society, and get some legislating down.  My role was to direct them back to the text if they began to go astray, not to lead them to an understanding of how a civil society is formed: they were in charge of that task, while I listened and guided.  (Full disclosure: I borrowed the exercise from a fellow instructor.)  The task was hard—I don’t mean the students’; I mean mine.  I was so uncomfortable with ceding that much control!

But what I realized was that not only was I pushing myself to be comfortable with my own discomfort, to realize it is ok to be uncomfortable in order to learn how to improve my teaching, but really, I was also teaching myself to be comfortable with the students’ discomfort, too.  Who hasn’t seen confused looks, heard complaints, watched students struggle, and wanted to fix it all?  Aren’t I supposed to be clearing up those confusions, fielding those complaints, assisting with the resolution of the struggle?  In my opinion, in this social sciences discussion class, the answer is—yes.  But there are ways, and there are ways, of clearing, fielding, assisting, and some of them are more beneficial to the students’ knowledge of a text, and some of them are more beneficial to the students’ knowledge of achieving understanding.  I’d rather help them figure out how to find answers themselves, than to give them the answers.

But even this emphasis on skills over content requires ceding control:  I have to remember that they won’t apprehend the authors’ entire arguments—there just isn’t time.  Again, I have to learn to be comfortable with their discomfort.


But—Hegel.  Oh, Hegel. Do I have the wherewithal to withstand the fantastically powerful waves of discomfort that roll off the students who ask each other, no, seriously, what is spirit?  What on earth was Hegel trying to do?

Well, I compromised.  The Philosophy of World History lacks an explicit description of Hegel’s dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), so I fed them the dialectic in the hope that they would be able to apply it to the text and better understand his arguments on their own.  On our first day, I did a lot of talking, a lot of teaching, a lot of demonstrating of the dialectic.  But on the second day, I was very, very quiet.  “Hegel thinks we can learn from history, avoid the problems of the past, right?” asks a student eager for reassurance. My response: “What do you think, guys?  What’s the point of looking at history?  Is this a guidebook?”  My calm exterior hid my impulse to forcibly wrestle the students away from the idea of a rulebook, and we spent a good twenty minutes coming to the conclusion that no, the Philosophy of History is not a guidebook.  Wow, those were an uncomfortable twenty minutes.

My suspicion is that the students do not like my—or their—discomfort.  My sense is that they want answers, they want to know right now: what is Hegel trying to do?  What is the world spirit?  How does religion relate to the Idea?  My suspicion is that the students are not going to like my class as much this quarter, as they might have done, if I had tried to fix all their discomfort.  I’m comfortable with that.


One thought on “Taking comfort in discomfort

  1. Molly Lutz

    Soooo, “teaching” sounds a bit like parenting, you can’t flap their wings for the baby birds (even tho you may want to) but you can provide food to develop the muscles they need to fly. You have to anxiously watch their attempts to leave the nest and tweet them on with love at each success!

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