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On The Emotional Landscape of What We Do

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

We hosted 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 and account of where our interests lie.

This session had its beginning in a course I taught @ Bryn Mawr this spring:
Alchemies of Mind: The Emotional Landscape of Classical 19th C. Texts
(taught big books taught many times before:
Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn).
I made a 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 American literature).

My decision to focus on "emotion" was fed by a # of different streams:
I 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.

In contrast, emotions enter my courses in an undirected way.
Curricularly, economics resembles the hard sciences:
effective economic analysis requires coverage of "non-emotional" material,
& social scientists like me are not well positioned to cope with the emotions that
need to be brought into focus in the course of the discussion.

For example, in discussing price discrimination I sometimes
(but less often than I would like) get a student to say
"that's so unfair!" 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 (and the rest of the class) think about why
a sense of injustice has tripped an emotion rather than a line of argument.
When facilitating a class, how does one determine whether
strong emotions are integral to processing the task at hand,
or represent a side issue?
I work in philosophy, w/ a focus on philosophy of science,
which straddles the sciences and the humanities.
On the one hand, scientific "rationality" is expected to be
reasonable and logical, detached from emotions;
my discipline has constructed "rationality" in opposition to emotion.
On the other hand, students come to philosophy classes thinking they
have been invited to "say what I think" (that is, "what I feel"!)
I studied philosophy of science largely in order to critique it,
and have a particular interest in feminist critiques,
in explorations of "relational" accounts of knowing the natural world,
in learning to expand our sense of what the "rational" is
(drawing, for instance, on new researches in neuroscience,
including studies of the consequences of brain injuries for rational thinking).
I'd like to re-incorporate the original sense of "e-motion"
as "putting into motion/that which "moves" us.

I am also interested in peace studies, and the emotional dimensions of conflicts.
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: breaking into three small groups,
to discuss three questions in light of three scenarios.

The Questions:

The Scenarios

How do manage those questions about "lack of fairness,"
when the need for coverage of the curriculum is driving me on?
Anne:When "The Brokeback Mountain" forum on Serendip filled up w/ anti-gay diatribes,
the webmistress tried to "take it back to the text," calling attention to the use of flashbacks & omniscient point of view
I thought the focus on technique disassociated the way the film is put together
from what it is about, how it affects us, how we might USE it;
"we attend to the shape, sinew, texture of hand,
not whether it offers us peace or a sword" (Paul Lauter)

this marked the end of a comfortable (public) community of shared values--
it marked the end of several people's participation (both gays and anti-gays)

was there any other way to make that conversation useful?
to attend to the emotions underlying the angry expressions?
Laura: 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. Round Three: Reporting back, in a "round,"
what we have we learned about the relation between emotion and academic work,
and how each of us might work towards changing it.

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

|Friends' Association for Higher Education

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