Guest Post: Asking Questions at Portland State...
Peter Boghossian's experiment on Reverse Q&A and Street Epistemology reveals some interesting attitudes at US universities.
At Critical Mass, I plan from time to time to host guest posts by individuals who have something interesting and relevant to say, including new discussions of modern science, cultural questions, and issues of free inquiry. I am happy that Peter Boghossian has contributed the first such post.
Peter was on the faculty at Portland State University, but resigned last year because of his concerns about academic freedom and free speech at that Institution, has submitted the first such post. (Dislcaimer: In the interests of full disclosure, Peter consulted with me about the content of his proposed letter of resignation several times before he submitted it, and I supported his ultimate decision.)
In any case, after leaving Portland State, Peter has been involved in a number of interesting activities. The other day he sent me a video about his recent experience returning to Portland State to try some ‘Street Epistemology there. I found it fascinating to watch, to see the initial reactions of students and staff, and the subsequent interaction that occurred after Peter encouraged them to express their perceptions, and also asked them questions. On the one hand, I could fully understand the angry reaction to what may have seemed to be a proselytizer on campus with a sign that said “There are only 2 genders”. But what might seem surprising was the reaction that followed even once it was understood that this was a provocative statement that was meant to be the springboard to discussion. There is nuance here, so I don’t want to stereotype the reactions on either side. Instead you should watch for yourself.
I asked Peter to preface the video with a short statement about his program and the purpose of the event. Here is his statement.
Which of these universities is not like the other?:
Answer: C. Dartmouth
Over the last month, my team and I brought an epistemological exercise—or attempted to bring the exercise—to eight colleges and universities. We made it to seven of the eight, with administrators cancelling or attempting to cancel our event at Brown, Yale, and Berkeley. At Dartmouth, however, we suffered no such fate! Our event went on without any trouble.
The purpose of our tour was to engage students in a what I term a “Reverse Q&A.” Unlike a traditional Q&A in which students ask the professor a question, in a reverse question and answer I asked students questions. Here’s how it works: I’d write a statement on a whiteboard, for example, “The Colorado State University Police Department Should Be Abolished,” or “America is a racist,” or “There are only two genders.” I put five lines on the ground, with “Neutral” in the middle and “Strongly Agree” and “Strongly Disagree” on opposite ends. Students began by standing on the neutral line, and I’d then read the statement and ask students to walk to a line that accurately aligns with their confidence in the statement. Then I asked students why they believe what they believe and what it would take them to move one line in either direction. (For more on this epistemological exercise, see The Dartmouth Review’s article about our event.)
This exercise is just one example of “Street Epistemology,” which takes epistemology out of the university and brings it to the streets. (This particular epistemological exercise is more visual and contains physical motion, unlike the way Street Epistemology is usually practiced. For more examples of Street Epistemology, see hereand here and here.) The purpose of the Reverse Q&A is to help participants calibrate their beliefs and figure out if the reasons they have for believing justify their confidence—and the strength of their confidence could be seen by standing on a particular line.
Brown University was scheduled to be our last stop, but as cancellation efforts made it untenable, we switched our final event to Portland State University, where I taught philosophy for a decade before I resigned. The claim on the whiteboard was, “There are only two genders.” While engaging this statement, students from Portland State University’s sociology department began screaming at me from a rooftop. Minutes later, they confronted me. This video shows that confrontation.
I found many things striking about this confrontation. What stood out most to me, however, was how different this exercise was treated at Portland State as opposed to Dartmouth. At Dartmouth, students welcomed what one participant termed, “A fun challenge.” At Portland State, well, I’ll leave it to the viewer to come to her own conclusions.