by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Teaching”

"Does That Make Sense?"

Posted 28 May 2008 in by Catriona

I have, over the years, developed a tendency to say “Does that make sense?” to my classes when I mean “Have I explained that adequately and clearly, or would you like me to clarify the subject further?”

Partly it’s a form of shorthand; otherwise, I’d be saying “Have I explained that adequately and clearly, or would you like me to clarify the subject further?” every ten minutes, and would run out of time for covering my actual lecture or tutorial material.

But mostly it arose from working at a coaching college many years ago, where I largely taught primary-school children.

“Does that make sense?” was necessary, because eleven-year-old boys—and girls, but especially boys at that age—will not tell you if they don’t understand something; I don’t know if it’s bravura or sheer lack of interest, but they’ll just let a misunderstanding slide until eventually none of the class have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.

“Does that make sense?” was also age appropriate for those teaching situations; it was better not to throw in words such as “clarification” when you were asking if clarification was necessary.

But then it became habitual, and while this habit is unlikely to result in me smacking myself in the head with a hardback French-to-English dictionary, it does cause me some slight concern.

Because while it was appropriate for eleven year olds, I worry that it has started to sound a little patronising since I moved into exclusively teaching at a university. And while a lot of my students are straight out of school—to the extent that some still call me “Miss”—they are moving into a phase of self-directed learning, and shouldn’t be patronised.

So I make a point of stating, after an early use of the term, that it is habitual, that it means I am giving them an opportunity to seek clarification, and that if they find it patronising, they should let me know so that I can find an alternative mode of expression.

This alleviated my concerns somewhat, since no one ever said that they felt patronised.

Then Pierre Bourdieu came along and spoiled everything.

Well, Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron.

Thanks to a colleague, I was made aware of the introduction, by Bourdieu and Passeron, to a book called Academic Discourse (Ed. Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Claude Passeron, and Monique de Saint Martin. Cambridge: Polity, 1994).

The introduction—subtitled “Language and Relationship to Language in the Teaching Situation”—places great emphasis on the question of artificiality, making the point that “[a]cademic language is a dead language [. . .] and is no one’s mother tongue” (8), which is a point I’m certainly not inclined to dispute.

But the point that concerned me was the following:

The chair from which a lecture emanates takes over the tone, the diction, the delivery and the oratorical action of whoever occupies it, whatever his personal wishes. [. . .] So rigorously does the physical situation govern the behaviour of both students and lecturers that attempts to establish dialogue between them quickly degenerate into fiction or farce. Questions to the audience are often mere rhetorical gestures, belonging to the exposition, rather than interrupting it (except for a pause for breath). The lecturer can call on students to get involved or voice objections, but there is really no risk of this ever happening. As one student put it, ‘Lecturers have a way of asking, “Is that clear?”, which actually rules out any question that it might not be clear.’ Destined above all to play the part of the faithful at a church service, students must answer with ritual responses. (11)

This makes my concern that asking “Does that make sense?” might strike my students as patronising seem petty, overshadowed as it now is by the greater concern that the enquiry is meaningless however I phrase it.

I want to establish a dialogue with my students; I want them to be able to query me—in a pedagogical rather than a personal sense—because if they don’t learn to query the material that I am presenting when it makes no sense to them, how will they ever learn to efficiently and incisively query the texts that they study?

But if the problem with the student/lecturer interaction is not how I phrase my question but the fact that the very act of questioning is moribund within the environs of the lecture hall, then how can that dialogue exist as anything but a vestigial habit of speech?

I have no answers to those questions.

But they do suggest that I was right to be concerned about that habitual aspect of my pedagogical practice—but that I might not have been concerned for the right reasons.

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