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Mar­keting Department | Courtesy

“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.