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.