“If you’re reading Plato correctly, then his argument against Thrasymachus on the nature of justice falls apart,” said my professor. Not exactly how I wanted to start my philosophy oral comps — with an objection I hadn’t considered and couldn’t answer. But with enough prodding, clarification, and backtracking, I eventually reconciled “The Republic” with my written exam. In other words, I understood Plato better because I was put on the spot.
In reflecting on this exam, I realized that Hillsdale professors should cold-call more often.
I don’t mean that we should stick professors on the phones — the phonathons have plenty of enthusiastic moms. Cold-calling in class means calling on a student who hasn’t raised her hand. This method of teaching is popular in law schools, which you might have learned from a woefully unprepared Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde.”
Used properly, cold-calling improves classroom education in at least two ways. First, cold-calling encourages students to prepare adequately. Generally, students don’t have to read assignments beforehand. Maybe the honor code keeps most people honest, but its effectiveness has its limits and could use additional supports. As long as students don’t raise their hands, they don’t have to speak, so the incentive to finish the reading is low. The material might be on the exam, but for many exams students can slip by with their notes and a scan of the professor’s favorite passages. If the professor might cold-call, however, students will prepare for class for fear of humiliation in front of peers and teacher.
Perhaps reading quizzes accomplish the same purpose, but cold-calling is better because it both ensures student preparation and helps students to understand rather than know the material, the latter often being enough for reading quizzes. In my oral exam, for example, my professor asked me about Aquinas’s argument for the soul. On the written test, I had regurgitated the argument almost verbatim, citing the exact same examples as Aquinas. I would’ve aced a reading quiz. But I struggled with my professor’s objection. I didn’t know how Aquinas would answer it, and I couldn’t infer the answer. In other words, I didn’t understand the argument, though I could recite the proof from memory. By cold-calling — as my professor did — professors force students to defend their interpretation of the text. Professors can play devil’s advocate, compelling students to fortify their opinions against the strongest objections — or else correct them.
Yet cold-calling is not without its downsides. Some students don’t think well on their feet. When the professor calls on them, they may freeze and seem unprepared even if they’re not. But this is precisely why professors should cold-call — to help students develop the skill of speaking intelligently on (someone else’s) command. This is valuable not only in class but also in the professional world. For example, no one sees interview questions beforehand. Yet interviewers expect us to entertain no matter what they ask, whether that be about a time we experienced failure or something more unexpected like your three most influential books. Cold-calling better equips students to respond to the unexpected, a valuable skill in interviews, day-to-day life, and even first dates.
Another more disquieting downside of cold-calling is that it can cause the students to fear the professor. There is no easy fix to this problem because its solution takes an excellent professor with the right touch. She must cold-call constructively, aiming to teach rather than embarrass. She determines the kind of atmosphere cold-calling creates, whether that be one of hostility or collaboration. The former eradicates learning; the latter begets it.
There’s a reason Plato wrote dialogues to teach philosophy: because learning is best accomplished cooperatively. We don’t learn primarily by jotting down every word spat from the professor’s mouth; we have to subject our opinions and hers to rigorous criticism. Such criticism reveals whether we should embrace or forsake such opinions. In “The Republic,” Socrates cold-calls Thrasymachus for his definition of justice. He soon shows the insufficiency of this definition, leaving us all with a better understanding of justice.
But this wouldn’t have been possible without that first cold-call, which forced Thrasymachus to articulate his opinion — and see what was lacking.
Gill West is a senior studying Philosophy and Mathematics.