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On The Emotional Landscape of What We Do

Anne Dalke, Laura Rediehs and David Ross
FAHE, at the George School
Friday, June 23, 2006

We'd like to host a conversation about the relationship between emotion and the academic work we do. How do disciplines that rely on models of rational choice (e.g., economics, political science, logic) live with the anomalous irrational behavior we encounter all the time? How do we engage with academic traditions that reinforce (perhaps patriarchal) cultural cues that set up a false dichotomy between emotions and rationality as ways of knowing?

The lack, indeed often the denial, of a public vocabulary for acknowledging our emotions can cause difficult (what Steve Gilbert calls "dangerous") discussions on our campuses to bog down into alienating conflict and ill will as participants find all sorts of clever ways to shut down, escape, or build walls. Peacemaking will founder unless we acknowledge and address the strong emotions affecting all of us involved.

Round One: Some Background

Alchemies of Mind: The Emotional Landscape of Classical 19th C. Texts
(As explained on Day One of the Course)

This session had its beginning in a course I taught @ Bryn Mawr this spring:
The Emotional Landscape of 19th C. American Lit
(taught big books taught many times before: Moby-Dick, UT's C, ScL, HF)
made very deliberate attempt to teach them differently
to invite students' direct unmediated experience w/ the texts,
see what use-value canonical texts might still have for them
(see what use their reactions had for field of Am lit!)

Decision to focus on "emotion" fed by a # of different streams: Wanted, in short, to use my students' direct experience of texts
to highlight a strand of philosophy counter to the one that
treats emotions as a "threat to rationality,"
& uses them instead (as Proust said) as
"intelligent responses to perception of value."

To help in this project, I invited a philosopher from Harvard,
a biologist, psychologist and economist from Bryn Mawr
to give guest talks about how their disciplines thought/feel about emotions--
& David was one of these

David: On Rational Choice and Economic Behavior

My own work in philosophy concerning emotion has been in two inter-related ways. First of all, much feminist epistemology has critiqued the exclusion of serious consideration of emotion from philosophical thinking about knowledge. Knowledge at its best must be rational (grounded in logic), and rationality is often defined explicitly against our emotional natures. We are trained by our culture often to interpret our emotions as going against rationality. But not only the feminists, but also cognitive neurosciences are beginning to recognize the deep interrelations between rationality and emotion. In some of my work, what I'm trying to do is expand the notion of rationality to include careful consideration of its emotional dimensions. I do believe that our emotions are linked to other, less appreciated forms of knowledge, but we must learn to read and interpret them in sophisticated ways. It's not that we should shy away from everything we fear and lunge fearlessly towards everything that attracts us. But we must be aware of our emotions and learn good ways of questioning them and understanding them and then take that into account along with our other "rational" processes of discernment.

The other way I have been exploring the significance of emotions philosophically is in my interest in peace issues. The question that most haunts me about nonviolent action is: how do peacemakers summon the courage to walk straight into conflict unarmed? In watching difficult discussions on our campus, what I see inhibiting these conversations and contributing most to the acceleration of conflict and ill will is when people do not know how to handle the emotional stress associated with difficult topics and issues. You can teach effective communication techniques, but if those techniques do not directly address the emotional difficulties involved in these kinds of conversations, people just won't follow them. People have trouble dealing with their own or other people's strong emotions (because our culture does very little to teach us how to do this well), and so they find all sorts of clever ways to shut down, escape, or build walls. But when you try to teach explicitly about the emotional dimensions and help people prepare for this, so that they learn to stay centered themselves within the strong force-fields of emotions that can develop (instead of yelling at everyone else for getting emotional!), then there is the hope of making some real progress.

Round Two: Some Questions, Scenarios and More Questions Anne: David In discussing price discrimination I sometimes (but less often than I would like) get a student to say "that's so unfair!" Now, if I ignore the exclamation point, the discussion moves into a conversation about justice and tradeoffs between justice and efficiency. But, I am particularly ill equipped to help that student (all of us) think about why a sense of injustice has tripped an emotion rather than a line of argument. Laura Scenario A. In a philosophy of science class (this was before 9/11, by the way), we were reading some feminist philosophy of science. One article was written by an anthropologist who went to a nuclear weapons lab to analyze the language of nuclear defense intellectuals. She saw that the language "protected" the intellectuals from the emotional impact of the horrors these weapons would unleash if they were ever actually used (e.g., "collateral damage"). And she criticized this as dangerous, because the more insulated people are from the real effects of their decisions, the more likely they are to make really damaging decisions. A student and I get into a debate about this article. The male student defends the need for such language in order to proceed with planning. We both are having quite a lively debate and both are enjoying it -- it is a debate that, not surprisingly, gets into questions about whether war is ever justified or not. Also, not surprisingly, I am defending pacifism. But the rest of the class is silent. When I pause to notice this and ask why, another student -- also male -- says what is clearly obvious to the rest of the class: "You two are fighting." Question: how would you, as teacher, respond? David Scenario A got me thinking about the academic seminar or colloquium -- a collaborative activity in which exposing ideas to the critical evaluation of others is designed to produce "better" ideas -- truth-seeking through conversation.

Some seminars -- particularly at the graduate level -- are famous for the seeming (or actual) brutality with which new ideas are received -- the cut and thrust of argument. Many of us are trained to receive new ideas with a "Yes, but" -- often without the "Yes." Outsiders looking in will say the participants are fighting. Sometimes participants will deny that (like Laura and her student in scenario A) -- citing the pleasures of the intellectual back and forth, the mutual admiration for arguments well couched. Sometimes participants will say, "yes we are fighting" -- and claim that the adrenaline pumped by the emotions (fear, anger, disappointment) fuels new insights, enhances the achievement of the seminar.

An alternative seminar structure receives new ideas, however flawed, in nurturing ways -- "we appreciate your contribution" -- identifying positives in each person's participation, and seeking paths of inquiry best matching each participants gifts. Outside observers might complain that participants are more concerned with self esteem than the quality of ideas -- that they are undercutting the rigor of their academic fields. But, if feeling safe, connected, loved makes one more willing to share, more open to one's own insights and the insights of others, then the seminar may achieve great things.
Laura Scenario B: In my class that was meeting during the events of 9/11 (we adjourned class to watch the news reports), we had a follow-up discussion a few class sessions later. So immersed had I been in Quaker subculture and the advocacy of nonviolence, that I happened to make a passing remark that I never dreamed would be controversial: that the horror of these events demonstrated the urgency of our learning nonviolent ways of resolving our differences--these events show exactly why violent response is so wrong. To my enormous surprise, a student accused me of being "uncompassionate" for thinking this. A cousin of his had died in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers, and, in his view, it was "uncompassionate" not to want to retaliate against the terrorists who had committed such a horrific act. This scenario raises the question of how to remain centered oneself in the midst of strong emotional fields: the student's enormous grief and distress at the loss of his cousin; my shock and distress at finding my pacifist stance the basis for being regarded as "uncompassionate"! Question: how to stay centered during the emergence of such emotional complexity (the students' emotions; one's own), and where to take the discussion from here. David In this case, does emotion (a) get in the way or (b) need to be incorporated in the discussion/analysis?

What do you make of claims for the virtues of "dispassionate" analysis? A conversation we three might have now about whether Laura was "uncompassionate" would be very different from what happened in that classroom, since it would be devoid of emotional content (except perhaps for Laura's lingering memories of that day). Something is lost by having participants "calm down" before resuming a conversation.

(Isn't calming down -- having the emotion go away -- different from staying centered.)

It often seems that folks in the grip of strong emotion can't hear one another. Mediators often advise that they take a break and then resume the conversation. But, there must be some process for capturing the lessons/implications of the emotion: "When X happened, I felt Y, because of my need for Z." Otherwise, a crucial aspect of the conflict may be lost -- or not (suppose the emotion that was triggered was severe anxiety at being in conflict).

I find it very challenging to implement the lesson that person A's strong emotion doesn't require that I respond with a strong emotion.

When facilitating a class or committee, how does one determine whether strong emotions are integral to processing the task at hand, as in scenario B, or represent a side issue (anxiety at speaking in public or feelings of low self esteem)?
Round Three: Some Alternatives?

Let's imagine together some possible outcomes for one/some of the scenarios above.

Round Four:

|Deepening Our Roots, Spreading Our Branches:
Joint Conference of FCE&FAHE, June 22-25, 2006

|Friends' Association for Higher Education

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