WEIRD teaching, WEIRD students*

This article in Pacific Standard, “We Aren’t the World,” by Ethan Watters, is absolutely fascinating. And I’m grateful for the way Watters boils down the VERY complicated science that Joe Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan are engaged in, because their arguments are such powerful challenges to the foundations of cultural psychology that we peons outside the field would be hard-pressed to follow along without some help.

The article is long, but stick with it, because it’s a good read. But I’m sharing it here because of one passage in particular:

That we in the West develop brains that are wired to see ourselves as separate from others may also be connected to differences in how we reason, Heine argues. Unlike the vast majority of the world, Westerners (and Americans in particular) tend to reason analytically as opposed to holistically. That is, the American mind strives to figure out the world by taking it apart and examining its pieces. Show a Japanese and an American the same cartoon of an aquarium, and the American will remember details mostly about the moving fish while the Japanese observer will likely later be able to describe the seaweed, the bubbles, and other objects in the background.

This coming fall, I’m teaching a first-year college composition course. I’ve been teaching this course for, oh, a dozen years or so now, but for that last ten years I’ve been teaching it as a kind of cultural course: I ask students to write a whole series of essays about a community of their choosing (and they get to define the very idea of “community” as one of their first essays). This class, combined with my second-semester research course focusing on popular culture studies, provides students with an opportunity, through the practice of writing, to examine themselves and their relationships with the world they live in.

But in both these classes, I — like probably just about all of my colleagues — place a heavy emphasis on analytical reasoning. I teach my students how to unpack the pieces of a thing, whether it’s an essay we’re reading or a group they’re writing about or a phenomenon they’re researching.

And I still believe in that approach, but this example of the fish tank fascinates me, because I realize that I want my students to see so much more than the fish. I want my students to see the “the seaweed, the bubbles, and other objects in the background.” And I’m wondering if, in all my efforts to get students to focus, to refine, to break down and to analyze, I might be interfering with their ability to see the bigger picture, too.

In other words, in asking students to consider their relationship with the world around them but emphasizing analytical thinking over holistic thinking, am I really just providing them with tools to more closely look at themselves, rather than at the world around them?

Both are important, I think. We need to see the forest AND the trees. Fortunately, I have the summer to play with the concepts outlined in “We Aren’t the World,” to dig into the research of Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan more directly (at least as far as my untrained brain can manage), and to consider how I might adjust my syllabus to better reflect holistic reasoning alongside analytical reasoning.

And I’m really looking forward to bringing that into the classroom!


* The all-caps “WEIRD” in the title is actually an acronym that Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan devised to describe the distinctive American mindset: “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic,” as well as a descriptor for how distinctive — or weird — we Americans are when compared with the rest of the world and even with the Western industrialized world.

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4 thoughts on “WEIRD teaching, WEIRD students*

    1. You know, I keep threatening to make my students blog — openly, online — in place of the response essays and discussion posts (on the internal course management software), but so far I haven’t done it. This might be the year. I’ll keep you posted.

  1. Get them to replay the same written ‘scene’ three times with three different focuses:

    1] an analytical account of the foregrounded action,

    2] an account that ‘notices’ the background, the surround,

    3] a holistic expression.

    Get them to go away and think about what they have written, in particular have they tuned it right, or simply shifted the ‘foreground’ in each account to what they are supposed to focus on.

    The results might be interesting. I’m not a teacher, of course (perhaps that’s a good thing in this context) but I am a writer, and this sounds like the kind of what’s-the-point-of-this exercise I’d set myself to do. 🙂

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