Keeping Discussions Real: Use Genuine Examples, Not Simulated Ones

Professor Elizabeth Anderson’s explanation of pragmatism’s approach to moral reasoning, in a recent lecture, helped me understand why I occasionally feel dissatisfied with discussions in classes and conferences. People offer counterpoints to my arguments by offering simulated examples that I think are unrealistic but difficult to argue against. After listening to Anderson, I now realize how difficult it is to learn by just using simulations. For her solution, Anderson argued that we need to focus on realistic examples, with people who act like those we’ve encountered in our own experiences. Let me explain.

In debates in moral philosophy, philosophers taking a classical approach argue for the use of abstract a priori universal moral principles, used simulated cases to illustrate points. A well-known example is that of a person faced with the moral dilemma of having to choose between allowing a runaway trolley to kill five people on a railroad track, if they do nothing, versus pushing a very large man onto the track that will kill him but save the five people. Anderson argued that such simulations don’t force people to face the pain and regret involved in making life-altering decisions. Instead, she contended that we need to tackle real cases in which we must make decisions with tangible consequences. In simulated cases, there’s lots of uncertainty because of their “made-up nature” and the many contingencies unknown to us. They don’t capture what we will face in real life situations.

She suggests working on actual cases, concerning real people, where we have an emotional investment in the outcome. Rather than an arm’s-length view of simulated people, we need to have an emotional stake in finding solutions. In such circumstances, we may find that our original intentions were wrong. We may be surprised. We may regret our choices. If we have an investment in the outcome, discussions take on added urgency when we ask questions such as “what did we not foresee?” The “deliberative process” engages us much more deeply because we discover how we would feel about our choices if we were wrong.

Venice 2015 Bieannale Swedish/Norwegian pavilion
Shattered glass, broken dreams?

Let me give a concrete example. In discussing what to do about students who make requests to turn in assignments late, I often hear, “you can’t let people turn in late work, it is unfair to other students.” Rather than work with hypotheticals, I suggest we walk through some actual examples, from my experience, that involve actual people and tangible consequences. First, I ask them if, within their own experience, they’ve ever heard a student raise such an objection. I note that in my fifty years of teaching, no student has ever come up to me complaining of my allowing another student to turn something in late. So, it’s hard to take seriously a simulation in which we posit such objections being raised.

Second, I make the decision concrete by telling them about a student in a recent semester who requested extra time because he’d come down with pneumonia. The pneumonia was caused by bacteria that was circulating within his residence hall’s air conditioning system, undiscovered, for about a week. I asked them, would it be “fair” to apply an a priori principle of “no late assignments” in his case? What would be the consequences of denying him the chance to submit his assignment late? Where was the harm? I bring up other examples of students who have asked for extensions, and in each case, the people who initially objected had to concede that from a fairness point of view, denying the student the chance to receive credit was not the right thing to do.

After several cases, it became clear that the proper way to discuss this principle was to think about real students in real situations. When we considered the real consequences for the choices an instructor makes and the uncertainties surrounding the circumstances of each case, people stopped arguing for a universal a priori “solution” to the question of allowing late work. Instead, they took a more contingent point of view.

A colleague offered another example. In his department of public policy instructors sometimes ask students to develop a budget for a person or a family making minimum wage. Students claim the minimum wage earner would be “just fine” if they’d only eat Ramen noodles 3 times a day/7 days per week and spend zero dollars on entertainment of any sort, or if they shared a small apartment with two other families, etc.  He noted how easy it is for someone to interject a made-up condition that does not reflect reality.

I believe the same argument can be applied to many other of the simulated discussions that frequently arise in classrooms. When we stay at the level of simulation, talking about fanciful and often implausible situations, discussions bog down because someone can always throw one more made-up condition into the mix. That’s why when I design my classes, I spend a lot of time choosing readings about actual cases, using magazines, newspapers, blogposts, and books. The cases must contain enough rich detail to allow extended discussion, while still containing enough ambiguity to leave room for debate. Students who wish to argue with classmates are not allowed to “make things up,” but rather are asked “where did you find that in the reading?” Requiring them to stay within the set of assigned materials not only keeps the discussion real but also avoids the inequities that arise when students come from diverse backgrounds with very different life experiences.

I find this a very pragmatic way to construct and manage classroom discussions.

Suggested Follow-up:

For an excellent overview of the many issues involved in leading classroom discussions & suggestions on strategies for handling problems, see Jay Howard’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.