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Satan, Heresy, and Dallas Cowboys, Oh My!

Role-playing by an instructor in class discussion is a pedagogy that probably dates back to Socrates. However, in these days of YouTube and cellphone video recordings, it can get you into trouble, as reported by Matt Reed, in Inside Higher Ed. A college lecturer was recorded purportedly praising Hitler. The teacher says the statements were out of context. You can get details from the article.

The term Devil’s Advocate perhaps goes back to when we burned heretics, which hasn’t happened in Texas lately, so we probably shouldn’t freak out too much over an incident involving an instructor compelled to explain a situation. On the other hand, most community college classes are taught by non-tenured “at will” adjunct faculty, who can be jettisoned for almost “any reason, or no reason at all,” as one lawyer put it. Even full-timers feel pressure to conform.

The Supreme Court once referred to a “chilling effect” in cases involving freedom of expression. The term still shows up in court opinions, and it’s concise, even elegant. If teachers get a whiff of disapproval by the authorities for certain pedagogical strategies, they might switch to something more orthodox—and perhaps less interesting. If you wonder why public school teachers use those infernal mass-produced worksheets so much—hello!

We used to talk a lot about Academic Freedom, but we don’t even hear much about it anymore, except in pronouncements by tenured professors. That’s too bad, because all students need the experience of intellectual stimulation from the contest of opposing views. One could argue that democracy depends upon it. We’ll see how Dallas Cowboys fans handle it.

If you employ role-playing in class and it works, please continue, and may your tribe increase. It might be a good idea to explain at the beginning of the semester what you intend to do. For all the technical savvy of today’s young people, they are often breathtakingly clueless in social relations. Plus, you may have noticed conservative organizations that encourage students to record faculty lectures, to expose a modern form of heresy.

Okay, technically speaking, Socrates did not play Devil’s Advocate, but simply asked questions. “What is justice?” is the key query in Plato’s The Republic. Ultimately, Socrates was … well, you know. Be careful out there.

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