Trade Secret of Teachers

I once had a student who was a prolific (and not proficient) bluffer ask me if I knew when he had no idea what he was talking about. I said, yes, it’s almost always obvious, even when a student is trying to bluff you about something that you yourself don’t know a great deal about. A student who asks honestly searching questions, or who is completely straightforward about not understanding something, is often showing off a better quality of mind than the prolific, habitual bluffer. (The proficient bluffer, a much more rare type, does have a valuable skill and often a good mind as well. In fact, you have to be smart and generally knowledgeable to bluff skillfully.)

I don’t usually dislike a bad bluffer unless that person is also intensely pretentious or strongly opinionated when they try to simulate knowing something. It can get kind of annoying when it’s a habitual response as opposed to an occasional improvisation. Certainly the habitual or persistent bluffer is never going to go on your list of the ten most impressive students you’ve ever taught. Even people who don’t know what you know can often sense, vaguely, that this is a person whom one should not fully trust. Bluffing at knowledge is kind of like a bad pick-up line in a bar: it may be amusing, it’s usually off-putting, and most importantly, it’s almost always ineffective.

Watching Palin’s interview with Katie Couric felt like being in a classroom with a bad bluffer. In fact, a bad bluffer at their worst moment, which is about five minutes before a final examination is about to begin. Simulating knowledge is exclusively conversational. It’s a social hack that relies a bit on the fact that most people have a hard time exposing or calling someone out in a face-to-face encounter. When the protection afforded by everyday politeness is stripped away, either by a skeptical interlocutor or by a concrete test or examination of knowledge, the only way a poor bluffer can keep going is by escalating brazenness and self-absorption. What especially compounds this problem for some students is when they’ve recognized suddenly that a test is coming and they try to cram in all the knowledge that they’ve been feinting at the rest of the time.

Like I said, I actually feel for a bluffer when I see them at it. My first reaction to watching the video wasn’t political, it was much more like how I feel seeing this as a teacher: a sympthetic wince. Whomever is sitting down and trying to cram with Palin is making a bad mistake. She’d be a lot better off if she didn’t to try to seriously talk about how Putin is rearing his head and floating into Alaskan air space and so on. I suspect that her personal instincts about how to answer these kinds of questions are better than the staffers who are trying to infuse her with Stature [tm] at the last minute. She’d be better off she just laughed and said, “No, of course I wasn’t serious that proximity to Russia gives me foreign policy experience. What’s important in foreign policy isn’t prior experience, it’s common sense and a solid confidence in who we are as a people.” If someone threw a gotcha at her, rather than bluff at an answer, she’d be better off just saying, “Tell me a bit about what you mean?” or “I’m not familiar with that term, I have to confess”. Socratic reversals and humorous self-deprecation are stock in trade for the talented bluffer. As is knowing when you’re in over your head: the skilled bluffer knows when to leave some important matters in the hands of those ready to handle them.

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10 Responses to Trade Secret of Teachers

  1. hwc says:

    Why no wince when Senator Obama claimed that living abroad in grammar school was his most meanngful foreign policy experience?

    I wince when the networks chop up these interviews, often leaving out sentences and paragraphs to make interviews seem less coherent. If they are going to spread them out over a half dozen news show, at least show the entire interview. And, then people react to the chopped up soudbytes and the echo chamber is suddenly at full song.

    IMO, the media is the most corrosive force in American politics and has been for sometime. I wince at the false sanctimony they developed during Watergate and never let go. I wince at the New York Times and Judith Miller fraudulently selling the Iraq war to the American people and never accepting responsibility. I wince at the Washtington Post attacking John McCain for ad that relied on false information published in Washington Post, calling him a liar for not assuming it was false information.

  2. ca says:

    I agree– I just watched the two clips from the slate link and am no longer even slightly amused. They hurt.
    Palin’s flippant dismissal of any need for examples, facts, historical knowledge, etc in favor of regurgitating canned responses is nauseating.
    As a person who thinks that politics, policies, states and history all matter, I am flabbergasted by her confidence (apparently shared by a section of the American electorate) that they don’t.
    During the outbreak of the Iraq war, there was a great deal of discussion about the distinctions between “the reality based community” on both left and right versus the president and his enablers. I thought the results (eg. deaths in war, a mangling of the US position in the world, and a crashing economy) of the turn to fantasy and spin in politics might be educational.
    Apparently not.
    Palin’s answers demonstrate that she is the logical result of the press and public’s willingness over the past decade or so to act as though reality doesn’t matter.
    The interviews, though, made plain that Palin lacks the intellectual context and training, or even understanding of logic, that would enable her to understand why I see her as a problem.
    She may, unwittingly, be one of the best arguments yet against the transformation of Universities away from liberal arts curricula and toward practical training.

  3. gbruno says:

    Why no wince when Senator Obama claimed that living abroad in grammar school was his most meanngful foreign policy experience?

    Because it might actually have been a good point?

  4. hwc says:

    “She???? be a lot better off if she didn???? to try to seriously talk about how Putin is rearing his head and floating into Alaskan air space and so on.”

    According to the Anchorage Daily News, US fighters have scrambed to intercept Russian bombers approaching US airspace in Alaska 16 times in a six month period while Palin was Governor. That compares to one time in the previous ten years.

    I’m not aware of any other Governor whose state has seen foreign military exercises at the edge of US airspace.

  5. I???? not aware of any other Governor whose state has seen foreign military exercises at the edge of US airspace.

    And that relates to her foreign policy experience how, given that the US military would have done no more than notify her office of the events after the fact (if that)?

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Come on. There is a big difference between what you learn as a human being by living in a new place for some significant period of your life and being the governor of a state where federal military forces over which you have no control or responsibility for are responding to a situation which poses zero policy issues for you as an executive. That’s just a silly, trivializing comparison. I think it would be perfectly legitimate, again, to suggest that experience is overrated in making foreign policy decisions, though the current Administration isn’t exactly a great advertisement for shooting from the hip and going with the gut instincts.

    There are all sorts of complicated problems that the mainstream media’s normal practices raise, but people who allege that it is the root of all evil nevertheless seem to derive tremendous amounts of information and knowledge from it. This is as much a problem for some on the left as it is for some on the right: this is an old critique I have of some of Chomsky’s work–that he derives some knowledge claims from media sources whose capacity for truth production he otherwise systematically discounts. But that’s just as much a problem for anyone of any political inclination who believes that mainstream media are the foundational source of everything that ails us politically. Once you go that far, you suddenly need to be tremendously fastidious about everything you believe to be true, or commonly claim–and few media-demonizers are even mildly so.

  7. ca says:

    Sorry– was agreeing with Tim, not first comment.
    There’s a difference between living near the airspace of Russia and growing up with people who speak different languages, get to school through the streets of a third world country, and have to deal on a regular basis with questions of interpretation and cultural difference.
    If Palin wants to convince me otherwise, she’d better have a decent example to throw out when Couric asks her for an example of some way in which proximity has led to insight. Note that in the interview, she seemed confused about who was the current president of Russia. Instead, the image was sort of Putin as giant cobra, raising his head and casting a shadow across Alaska.
    She couldn’t even say she’d talked with any of the trade missions, worked on a pipeline deal in Canada, or drawn a parallel with international negotiations by explaining negotiations (if any) she’d done with first nations peoples in Alaska.
    This is why I wonder if she understands the concept of providing evidence for her contentions.
    I pity her. Watching her flail about in an interview is painful. But she scares me.

  8. Colin says:

    hwc do you have a source for “most meaningful foreign policy experience”? The claims I’ve seen e.g.,ob111907.article are more nuanced.

    Now, you might still find his argument weak. But it’s coherent, logical, thought out. Sentences are complete. Then we have Governor Palin:

    “PALIN: That??s why I say I, like every American I??m speaking with, we’re ill about this position that we have been put in. Where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy. Um, helping, oh, it??s got to be about job creation, too. Shoring up our economy, and putting it back on the right track. So health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions, and tax relief for Americans, and trade we have got to see trade as opportunity, not as, uh, competitive, um, scary thing, but one in five jobs created in the trade sector today. We??ve got to look at that as more opportunity. All of those things under the umbrella of job creation.”

    This is *not* soundbites. It’s the entire response, and it’s even more painful on video. *This* is what out host is talking about. This is the unprepared student desperately rummaging for any half-remembered point that might possibly be relevant. Logic collapses into a word salad of sentence fragments and non sequiturs.

    In Governor Palin’s partial defense, Couric is zeroing in on areas where the McCain campaign lacks a coherent position. But that gets to the point about bluffing.

  9. scratchy888 says:

    I think that some people do not know they are bluffing, because knowledge itself and its value has been so widely discredited in popular culture that what counts is no longer knowledge per se, but “authority” and something like a guru-like status that can magically ‘fix’ problems.

    When I was tutoring high school students I constantly found this to be the case — that what was expected, and what most parents wanted (except for one, oddly enough, Egyptian Christian parent) was a magic palliative to the problem of learning, which would not at all involve the student themselves having to put in any additional effort beyond what they would normally do. Somehow the presence of the tutor alone, plus the ritual of the parent paying money towards their child’s improvement, was supposed to assure success.

  10. scratchy888 says:

    ps. Palin as palliative?

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