The Trouble With Belief

I have just finished another semester of VCR repairperson school and because I am an advanced repairman, I actually spent the end of the semester grading student papers rather than writing them. This is by no means my first time grading, but this time for some reason that I have begun to reflect on the ethics of the disciplining task in which I am engaged. You see, like all classes, my VCR class this semester had a particular perspective on how one should approach VRC-repairpersonship. By no means was the class dogmatic, and in some respects this class was open to a great variety of various VCR hermeneutical approaches (a budding field). However, certain approaches are always excluded and it just so happens that these approaches seem to coincide with the kinds of approaches that many people come to the class with.

It is by no means unreasonable that a teacher should expect that the students leave the class with an enhanced perspective than what they entered with, but this is precisely where the ethical dilemma lies. What if people really “believe” in the way that they had previously been taught to repair VCR’s? It was the way that their father taught them or maybe they had taught themselves in high school after a troubled early-adolescence. They maybe read around some different manuals and thought that they had a pretty good idea what it was all about. The point is that they really believe that what they are doing is the right way and refuse to consider the methods we are learning in class. To what degree should these beliefs be respected simply because they are beliefs?

You might wonder why these people are taking the class if they already know so much. The answer to this is complicated. Maybe it is a requirement for their general small-appliances repairperson degree. Maybe it is to give them that stamp of authority that they can brandish even if they totally hated the class. Maybe they expected the class to confirm and expand upon their already knew. Who knows. I suppose that ultimately it is irrelevant. They took the class. They despised what they learned. They will now go back to what they were doing before and maybe even blog one day about how their wacky teachers and XYZ VRC school taught them all sorts of junk.

Of course, I have to give these people a bad grade. Some of them get scared straight after the mid-term and really try to figure out what is going on. Some of them fake it. Some of them simply refuse and take their licks. Discipline isn’t always effective. But aren’t people entitled to their beliefs? What exactly is the problem with this behavior? Isn’t this precisely the modern dilemma, that, as Zizek says, “we ultimately perceive as a threat to culture those who live their culture immediately, those who lack distance toward it.” Is the problem then not that my students believe a certain thing, but that they can’t critically engage their own beliefs according to the standards of contemporary VCR science? But is complete critical distance even possible? Is it really desirable? Isn’t critical distance precisely the loss of culture, the real threat to culture? Does my disciplinary gaze destroy culture? Should some beliefs be protected and others not? On what basis?

What if instead of beliefs about VCRs, I actually had to teach a religion or philosophy class? What if it was Sunday School?

11 Replies to “The Trouble With Belief”

  1. TT, I read this in the morning and have been thinking about it all day.

    A couple reactions I have. Are the students adequately explained to that the class isn’t about the best way to fix a VCR, but it is about the current standards of contemporary VCR science? I think in my courses under this topic, the teachers typically did not take the time to explain this difference and to allow for room for respectful differences in belief. I was fortunate enough to have a very kind TA who spent several hours with me discussing this, and who helped me see that ultimately I was not ready to handle VCR repair at such a distant level at the time, as I could not seperate the VCR of belief from the VCR of academic understanding at that time in my life, and I still even today, having learned more of the “VCR of history” find the VCR of my beliefs much more useful. I think it would be unfair of you to give a poor grade to someone who proved they understood what you were teaching about VCRs, but chose not to hold to that conception of it, and all you have the right to grade is understanding, and not belief.

    As for Sunday School, I think it is more about using stories to teach values and virtues, and so far as I’ve ever seen, sunday school teachers don’t get to grade…

  2. When in similar situations, I’ve tried to explain to students that their grade for the course is based on their ability to utilize a certain tool, a power drill for instance; and not on their overall approach to VCRs. After the course they may decide to trash it, and never use it again, but they may also find that the skills gained in learning to use the drill, as well as employing the drill itself, solve some problems better than their other tools and/or skills–a power drill punctures thicker material significantly faster, for instance. They may disdain the power drill, but only those who know how to use it, can rightfully toss it aside.

  3. Why is the VCR broken in the first place? Why does it need fixing?

    I agree with smallaxe on the point that if we conceive of our responsibility as showing the way to the development of skills that are applicable in a variety of situations (one of the foremost being careful analysis of the evidence and situation), and all our teaching points toward that end, I think belief becomes less problematic. In my experience, those papers that are hamstrung by fundamentalism of various shades don’t exhibit a problem of belief per se, but rather that of the authors’ holding on too rigidly to what they perceive their belief to be. And grading such a paper is not so much a matter of ranking them based on to what degree they’ve absorbed (and agree with) the content they were to learn, but rather on methods and assumptions (and often facts) that can easily be shown to be flawed. But, hopefully, a gifted teacher can provide avenues through which a student can engage the material, acquire tools that can be used in thinking about religion (oops–VCR repair), and be the better for it. This need not involve a breakdown of belief, though I’d be surprised if belief were to remain unchanged thorough the whole process.

  4. I think that these ideas are all very helpful! I really appreciate the very diplomatic way of “protecting” the beliefs of the students, but what if, as jupchild has said, these beliefs are in fact “demonstrably” wrong. What if by no stretch of the imagination can the “Play” button actually “Fast Forward”? Sure, I can tell the students that if they want to believe that, it is fine, they just can’t assume that for the purposes of their exams. But what I believe that they really shouldn’t believe it. Are there limits to the way that I can use my authority to really force the crisis in their faith?

  5. Sorry SmallAxe, I didn’t have the course descriptions in front of me when I asked.

    TT, In answer to #6, I am with you on cases where someone believes something that is demonstrably wrong. Press the “play” button and demonstrate that it does not, in fact, cause the tape to “fast forward.” The only danger here is that some VCR repair instructors overestimate how much they know about VCRs. If you (TT) are teaching the class it is probably safe, but “demonstrably” can be a difficult word to live up to. Does the fact that one view is the widely accepted view of VCR repair mean that others are demonstrably wrong? As long as the demonstration is good, I would go with it, even if it ruffles feathers.

  6. TT (6) Of course, on some models of VCRs if you press play twice, it does go into fast forward (while in others this is pause, and in others this does nothing at all), so even if it is demonstably false in one sutuation, I’d be careful to make a blanket statement. Further, the difference is you are not dealing with a VCR but with a person who has thoughts and feelings as equally valid as your own. Some care should be taken to make sure you are treating them as such, even if you do not agree with them. By acknowledgin their beliefs, you may find you have a better opportunity to reason with them and allow them to acknowledge yours. This is especially important when remembering that all VCR study is being put secondary to the newer more popular DVD courses which are surpassing it in popularity due to their user-friendly approach.

  7. Yes, people are entitled to their beliefs, just as they are entitled to be wrong. It’s all so subjective, right? And in that vein, may I humbly suggest that you are approaching your grading all wrong. You should try the stair method. Gather all the papers, stand at the top of the stairs, and drop them. The papers that land on the higher stairs get the higher grades — the lower stairs the lower grades. It will save you a lot of time.

    But the other question I have is whether or not their father’s (or their father’s father’s) methods actually fixed the VCR? Maybe they are different than what you were teaching, but if they work, they work, and in that case they should at least be dropped close to the middle of the stairs (the papers, not the students).

    Of course it is tricky to compare this to a gospel doctrine class, because most of what comes out there is just plain wrong. At least that’s how it is when I’m contributing.

  8. I love this post. This is actually a fruitful way of thinking about questions of religion and philosophy, with real concrete examples taken from life. I’m reminded of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I love and highly recommend.

    The method I use as an engineer, when I’m trying to get my way of seeing a problem accepted by my colleages so that we can approach and solve the problem together, is definitely a “by the fruits” method. I have a history of successfully commissioning equipment in my past. I am good at figuring out what’s needed to make machines or systems work well. So with each new group of guys who might tend to dismiss my ideas, (either because I’m a woman or just because it’s always a marketplace of ideas and some have to win and some to lose), I simply state plainly over and over if necessary, what I see to be the truth. I follow that truth, and then I point out after the fact when I was right (because people forget and overlook), hopefully not in a rude or partisan way. (Having a chip on one’s shoulder isn’t at all helpful.)

    In the end the answer “well, this way works” is sufficient. There may be other ways that also work. That’s not a problem at all. Generally, what happens when something isn’t working is that we’re all standing around wondering why, and struggling to come up with answers. I’ve found that someone who’s confident they have the answer is often followed gladly, simply for lack of other ideas. Then when those answers actually turn out to be correct, as demonstrated after the fact by well-functioning machines or systems, that translates into respect from that particular group of guys. The next time, my ideas are given more weight.

    Then I start over again with the next group. =) It’s an ongoing process.

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