The Swing of Inference (Poesis 3)

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” — Duke Ellington

For years, I have used sports and music analogies to focus students on what they must do in class preparation, study, and assignments. On the first day, and throughout as necessary, I say something like this:

In sports and music, there are severe limits on what someone can tell you do by giving instructions or formulae. A coach cannot verbally describe every detail of a base hit and thereby guarantee that a batter will hit one. The batter has to practice, and by practice, I mean swinging at the ball. Nobody can swing at the ball for the batter. The coach can shape the performance, once there is a performance to shape, and the batter will improve through attention to her experience. Similarly with music. The teacher can tell us some things, and show us others, but we can’t learn to play without actually playing. In intellectual life, the batting or playing is thinking – making inferences and building them into an argument that has a point.

Something like that. The speech arose in a specific context. Years ago, in a team-taught course, my colleague and I required one-paragraph responses to questions we wrote about a session’s reading. These were provided in advance. Some students tried to write these by finding paraphrases on the internet, and then paraphrasing those. They were having trouble because our syllabus choices didn’t easily lend themselves to the summarize-other-summaries procedure. One student complained that we expected them to grasp, completely, difficult reading.

No, I replied. We expect you to struggle with it. That means you, yourself, have to think about it. Finding things other people thought about isn’t doing that. Suppose a batter was learning to hit a baseball, and instead of actually swinging at a ball, he collected a few good YouTube videos of someone else swinging at a ball, and gave his coach the links. But the task was not to find examples of other people batting; it was to bat, himself. Athletes do learn from studying videos, but studying examples is a different act than batting a baseball. Finding things other people thought is a different act than doing some thinking of your own.

The student complained that we expected perfection.

I do not expect you to hit a grand slam. But you have to swing at the ball.

Consider the combination straw-person and false dichotomy fallacies in the claim that we expected perfection. Exaggerating the other’s position beyond all recognition and then acting as if only two alternatives exist amounts to an invisibility spell: both the actual expectation and the many simpler ways of meeting it are rendered invisible. Students have expressed, in many ways, the wish that their work be reducible to following instructions. The expectation seems almost unconscious, and I suspect that it comes from the pedagogy many of them experience in secondary schools. It is far too pervasive to be individual refusal; indeed, it isn’t really refusal, but an interpretive default that parses assignments as finding and arranging things. (These are cognitive tasks, but they are ancillary to developing one’s own line of thought.) So I find sports analogies useful in making the distinction: I am not asking you to recognize someone else batting a baseball. You have to swing at the ball.

Like all analogies, this one has limits. Earlier this year, there was some discussion on higher ed blogs about teaching as coaching, and how similar or different they are. Thus I want to clarify the site of my analogy: I am not comparing teaching to coaching. I’m comparing thinking to playing – to batting or to playing a musical étude. Nor am I arguing that these activities are comparable in some absolute sense. Rather, the analogy helps draw a contrast between thinking and various easier substitutes for it. It helps students see where they are supposed to do something, and what they’re supposed to do.

With this analogy, I aim for a clear focus on inference-making as our basic task. All intellectual labor depends on it. Most important, it’s a verb, an activity. The acts of identifying and classifying (a collection of batting videos) are types of inferences, but what we want in analytical thought and writing is a further, deeper arc of inference such that the thinker has generated some premises and a conclusion that are all her work of inference. Even when someone else’s work supplies a premise, the act of deploying the other’s work in one’s own argument is also one’s own act. While I don’t claim to do this well – it’s difficult – I try to paint this line of intellectual acts in neon colors. This is what we want students to do. It rests on understanding inference as the building block of intellectual labor, and grasping that each inference is an act performed by someone, so that the question “whose inference is this?” is as clear as “who hit that double?” or “who played that Bach preude?” Whether by analogy or some other route, students need to grasp that inferences and arguments are intellectual acts, before they can identify their own intellectual acts and take responsibility for them.

The nod to poesis here is that we need to see these acts as acts before we can be creative in the mode appropriate to disciplinary discourse. Creativity in inference is a sweet spot between the low hover of paraphrase and a helium balloon let go from any mooring to anything but atmosphere. It is likely that most of our students have been drilled in summary (the low pass) and opining (the balloon), and feel safe from critique in these modes. But neither affords the kind of task where intellectual creativity is possible. Nor can our students – or we – begin with intellectual creativity until we practice the tasks of inference in this middle altitude.

I have shifted metaphors, and perhaps some will object to these. The analogies are not perfect. But so far, I know no other way of verbally directing students to the task. It also helps to show examples, and to identify where an author is making their major inferences. The basic building block of an argument is an inference. Inferences can be strong or weak, creative or modest, obvious or nearly invisible. Before they can have any qualities, they must be made. Before a musical performance can have qualities, it must by played. And before a hit can advance a game or be a subject of discussion, somebody must swing at the ball.

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