We all know what THAT means…whatever THAT is. Actually, many times we use words and DO NOT mean the same thing that our auditor or reader are thinking. I borrowed part of this cool exercise from a text called Writing Arguments and I do it with my students when I talk about definitional papers and, even more specifically, when I have them work on in-text definitions. There are lots of words we use whose meaning is actually vague, or whose meaning is clear to us but someone else has a different idea about what it means. Consider the following: myth, anarchy, friendship, fascist, leadership, and love. These are just a few words that are open to lots of meanings. To set this exercise up, print the following and have students answer each of the 8 following YES or NO (there are two parts to “g”). They do this in silence. In the mean time, put up on the board two columns Y and N (or COURAGEOUS and NOT COURAGEOUS) and 8 spaces. Again, WITHOUT discussion take votes on the answers for each. I’ll give you a chance to vote and then come back at the bottom with some follow-up on what to do once the vote totals are on the board.
a. A neighbor rushes into a burning house to save a child from certain death and emerges, coughing and choking, with the child in his arms. Is the neighbor courageous?
b. A firefighter rushes into a burning house to rescue a child from certain death and emerges with the child in his arms. The firefighter is wearing protective clothing and a gas mask. When a newspaper reporter calls him courageous, he says, “Hey, this is my job, it’s what I’m trained to do.” Is the firefighter courageous?
c. A teenager rushes into a burning house to recover a memento give to him by his girlfriend, the first love of his life. Is the teenager courageous?
d. A parent rushes into a burning house to save a trapped child. The fire marshal tell the parent to wait because there is no chance the child can be reached from the first floor. The fire marshal wants to try cutting hole in the roof to reach the child. The parent rushes into the house anyway and is burned to death. Is the parent courageous?
e. A mountain climbers, parachutists, and thrill seekers courageous in scaling rock precipices or jumping out of airplanes during their leisure time?
f. Is a robber courageous for performing a daring bank robbery? What if someone gets hurt or killer?
g. Tom and Pat are standing on a cliff high above a lake. Tom dares Pat to dive into the water. Pat refuses, saying it is too dangerous. Tom double-dares Pat who still refuses. Tom dives into the water and, after he surfaces, yells up to Pat and calls him a coward and taunts him to provoke him to dive. Pat starts to dive but then backs off and walks down the trail to the lake; he feels ashamed and silly. Was Tom courageous? Was Pat courageous?
About half the time I have everyone agree that the neighbor (a) is courageous–though there are those who will argue that the neighbor is “stupid.” In fact, though this exercise ALWAYS works, I know it will be a killer class if I can get someone to argue the neighbor is not courageous. After (a) though, I get remarkable splits. Once we have votes for each of the 8 questions I ask someone from the minority vote–whichever that was–to voice reasons and then I ask if anyone wants to add to that. I then ask for the same from the majority vote position. I am able to proffer suggestions and questions–does courage have a moral dimension? (so are thrill-seekers and robbers out? how do you discover the moral dimension?) Is physical danger a part of courage (so Pat cannot be courageous)? Is a “worthy” goal necessary? (And how would we decide worthy?–so the teenager saving movie tickets or whatever is out?) Is success necessary–suppose the neighbor dies? or the parent who disregards the fire marshal survives? Does it matter if the parent has other children and dies essentially abandons them and bankrupts the surviving spouse? What if you gain from the act? or if you are trained for the act? (The robber gains from the act; the firefighter gets paid; but could it be courageous just to do the job of firefighter? What if what you gain is fame?–so, Does motive matter? How would you know what the motive is?) It is fascinating to watch the discussion turn to ethics and psychology through this definitional exercise.
I have often thought it would be good to generate a few more of these (possibly using some of the words above); or maybe I should engage the students in creating scenarios that give range to the definitions possible in words like leadership and myth, etc.
This terrific little exercise helps us learn that we don’t all have to agree to the meaning of a word but we have to know how the person using it means it. Consider the following paragraph from my essay on horror movie monsters being derived from teaching styles. I have bolded/italicized the in-text definition of a “slasher” movie as opposed to a “horror” movie.
“Still, horror movies are not only about conservatism. They push out the boundaries of what is acceptable–they are doubtless ‘liberal’ in this fashion, each succeeding movie having to out-do the previous one in technical genius, the daring (or revolting) presentation of more naked bodies, more dismembered limbs, or more spurting blood. We have seen this trend intensifying in contemporary versions of the movies just mentioned while still preserving their conservative heritage. It is this preservation of society at the conclusion of the movie that often distinguishes the horror movie from the slasher movie. Slasher movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Saw or Chucky franchises, and Friday 13th do not cage the monster. The audience accepts this and knows that the evil or sick or demented monster is indestructible and will come back. This is a far more cynical view than that of traditional horror movies. In Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein (1994) the society is preserved at the end when the Creature immolates himself after witnessing Frankenstein’s death. This may not be the same ending as the 1931 version but it nonetheless eliminates both monsters—Frankenstein and the Creature—as effectively as the death of the Creature and the marriage of Frankenstein eliminate both those monsters in the earlier movie. In Francis Coppola’s Dracula we are shown the grisly death of the count by beheading and so here, as in Branagh’s film, we are given us the desired conservative restoration at the end. But, the elaborate and detailed scene-setting and the amount of ‘realistic’ gore in these movies is testimony to their liberal dimension, to their directors’ desire to push the envelope of the horror film.”
The point here is not to have people agree with me about “slasher” movies but merely to understand how I am using the term. Definitions are an important part of what we do especially when one of our most important (and often unstated goals) is to get our students to define themselves–to consciously and conscientiously make themselves the human beings they want to be–and to take responsibility for doing so.
Next week infallible signs of a bad teacher (not bad teaching–they are different).