THE VALUE OF MISDIRECTION
Part of teaching is an effort to keep the students’ attention. This may be because some students are negatively disposed to the topic or discipline (as is often the case with professionals who are required to undertake ethics training or students from other disciplines who must take an ethics module), or because some courses are long and can become tiring for everyone involved. The value of misdirection is initial surprise, as the tutor is doing something unexpected, interest in what might happen next and pleasure at seeing how all this seemingly unrelated stuff comes together and makes a relevant point. There is another fringe benefit: when the tutor is being odd and seemingly taking the students on a weird detour some students may express disapproval, take this opportunity to ask the students to trust you – you know what you are doing and they will soon come to see. When they do come to see, you’ll be able to tell! Note of caution: if you use this exercise make sure your initial approach, which appears irrelevant, clearly illustrates its relevance as the seminar progresses, otherwise the whole thing can fall apart!
What is it in a nut-shell?
Do something other than what the students expect you to do, especially if it appears irrelevant to the seminar (appearances can be deceiving!).
This one can work really well in a large lecture theatre with a ‘hostile’ audience (i.e. an audience that is skeptical about the value of philosophy) – keep the ‘Jerry Springer talk show’ feel while you do it!
Start by saying something like this: “First I will need a volunteer” Your students will panic – nobody wants to stand out on the first day of a new course. “Don’t worry, I just want to chat with the volunteer. We won’t discuss anything embarrassing or upsetting” Now, they will panic even more, WHAT do you need the volunteer for?? “The volunteer needs to fulfill one condition…I need one person who will admit to having had one friend…it doesn’t need to be a current friend, someone from the past will do, you don’t need more than one, just one friend will do!” Hopefully this will come across as mildly humorous, and by now someone will pluck up the courage to volunteer.
Chat to the volunteer about their friend. What is the friend’s name? Why are they friends? Is he a good friend, why? Has the friend ever done anything to make you doubt the friendship? Can you imagine the friend ever doing anything that would mean the end of the friendship? Are all your friendships like this one, why did you pick X as the friend to focus on? Thank the volunteer for coming forward.
Now is a good time to explain to the students why you need them all to come forward and talk to you and each other which is a good introduction to the purpose of tutorials. Now what does all this have to do with ethics? Well, in many ways we are all ethicists already. Part of ethics has to do with personal relationships, how we interact with each other, why we value certain people, what we expect from each other, etc. But we are all engaged in relationships with others already and have our own ideas of how to conduct these relationships. Philosophers are not always concerned with obscure, abstract issues, very often they deal with commonplace topics such as friendship. Philosophy really is about thinking.
Now ask the students to put their hands up if they have ever had a thought – hopefully everyone will do so, at which point you can point out that they all qualify as philosophers. What they can do now is learn to think better. You can stop the exercise here or move it on to consider what we mean by friendship and what philosophers have to say on the topic.
This is a wonderful example of the value of misdirection I observed while teaching with Daniel Sokol. Daniel is a semi-professional magician, which make the whole thing easier!
Daniel started off the first session by talking about himself, explaining he is a semi-professional magician, explaining how he sometimes tries out tricks on patients at the hospital where he volunteers and asking if he could try out a magic trick on the students. The students, a group of professionals who had paid very good money for the training day, were polite enough to go along but obviously thought this young man was wasting their time. So Daniel went ahead and did a magic trip which played on the idea that the audience thought they could pick the envelope with the £50 note in it, only to find out that somehow the magician had moved it to another envelope. There was a minor amount of disappointment when no one picked the £50 note, but the audience were even more perplexed. Then Daniel explained how when he first came across this trick he wanted to do some research to see if it worked. He asked patients at the hospital where he volunteered if he could try out the trick on them. One lady became extremely distressed when she failed to with the money. She had terminal stage cancer and somehow the disappointment of the trick brought out all sorts of psychological issues with her disease and prognosis. Now the audience were beginning to get this…without further prompting they started discussing the definition of research and whether this counted, the validity of the consent to participate, the appropriateness of the group from which Daniel had selected subjects, the researcher’s responsibility for the well-being of his subjects, actual, expected and foreseeable calculations of risk of harm, etc. Since this was a day’s training for Research Ethics Committees the magic trick now revealed itself to be not just relevant but indispensable. The tutors had little to do, other than stand back and watch the students identify all the major issues to be discussed later on that day.