Metaphor as Technology, Module 5: Problems in Teaching This Unit

I have had two problems in teaching this unit.

1. In response to the third set of questions in the assignment, students usually want to say that we have progressed in our understanding of bats thanks to technology. Here are some samples of their responses:

It's amazing how technological advances change our understanding and interpretation of different things. The first definition of a bat, from the Oxford English Dictionary, provides the reader with a detailed physical description of the creature. It focuses on creating a mental image of what the bat looks like, what its habits are, and simple facts about the number of species, etc. All the things listed are tidbits of information that can be easily obtained through close investigation of the
bat itself. It gets the facts out. In the second definition, however, from the Columbia Encyclopedia, the complex hearing system of the bat is described. Since the definition of bat in the Oxford English Dictionary, words such as "sonar," "radar," and "echolocation" were developed, contributing to the updated version in the Columbia Encyclopedia. During the time when the first definition was written, science was not developed enough to understand the highly developed hearing that bats rely on. Because of this lack of information, the only descriptions they could use in the dictionary were those of physical observations. At that time, this was considered a lot of information. However, since then, since so much has been researched and discovered, we are now able to more deeply understand the life of a bat.

As time progresses, our technology continues to increase exponentially. All of these new technologies help to further our understanding of the world and things we interact with on a day to day basis. In the instance of bats, a heightened technological understanding has dramatically changed the way we think about the animal. Humankind had known about bats for centuries; they were even mentioned in literature as early as the 1300s. Up until recently, bats were just seen as a noctornal animal that flies. As technologies emerged in the middle of the 20th century such as sonar, a whole new understanding of bats and how they operate became common. Now, when I hear the word "bat", in my mind it is synonymous with "echo-location" and I think about a bat soaring through the night sky, honing in on its prey using sound instead of vision. As technologies continue to be developed and advanced, who knows what images the word "bat" will cause to flood my mind. Only time will tell.

I have been one time successful and one time unsuccessful in class discussions at getting them to think about the radar model as different but not necessarily better than the previous model of "aerial impressions." It involves disrupting a progress narrative that is rather sacred to them. At stake, though, is an implicit claim as to the importance of studying history: the more models we have for how things work, I argue to the class, the better, since every metaphor highlights and hides something.

Marcia Baxter Magolda has pointed out to me at a conference that asking students to entertain many possible ideas is like asking them to kill or abandon members of their family: it is not simply mental gymnastics but has an emotional component; it feels as if we are asking them to betray their upbringings. The idea of progress is a big one, huge. They have been told all along that technology improves; our lives get better and better (although sometimes, contradictorily, that people were more moral in the good old days). When you tell them that neither narrative is factually true, you open up an abyss of what they need to know and think about. They feel overwhelmed, unequal to the task. They want answers, not comparisons, the pat-and-dry, not messy complexity.

2. The second problem I had consisted in discovering that there is one basic claim made by Lakoff and Johnson that the students do not see nor get. They seem to believe that writing and speaking are a matter of looking words up in the dictionary and, finding one meaning that fits into the sentence you are trying to write or speak, and then using that word. I'm not sure there is any substitute for experience in trying to teach usage. I had a hard time convincing students that, if the word "impression" has as one of its meaning the imprint made by a printing press on paper, the word is being used metaphorically in its other meanings. Lakoff and Johnson prove that fact by showing how systematic metaphors are. That is, they show that the word "combat" doesn't just sometimes mean to fight in war and sometimes to fight in an argument. They show rather that war is being used as a model to understand many aspects of argumentation (you fight, win, lose ground, in an argument, just as in a war). That one can and does say in our language "She made a deep impression on me" suggests that something has been physically pressed into / engraved upon some kind of substance (a stylus used on a wax tablet or a printing press used on paper); while the other uses of the word might not suggest that physical reality, Lakoff and Johnson would maintain that "getting rid of a first impression" will seem to be as impossible as getting print off the page of a book, and that feeling we have about first impressions comes from the metaphor of the printing press's pressing action.

To put this all in Lakoff and Johnson's terms, students will usually uphold the "Strong Homonymy" view, and they expicitly argue against it on pp. 106-114, propounding instead what is really the basis of the new cognitive psychology championed by Jerome S. Bruner and his followers.

To put it more simply, they are still in the Humpty Dumpty stage of thinking about language use, imagining that they can decide to give a word one meaning (that they unlike Humpty get from the dictionary), without intending or conveying all the other meanings, the word's "baggage" -- or, to put it more positively, the form of life implied by the word. To tell them that words have ideas of their own, so to speak, is to make them feel dispossessed of a power and an efficacy they imagined themselves (and authorities) to have. It is frightening to them.

Samples of problem #2: first-year student responses to assignment 1 and my comments on those responses

If you have any ideas about how to work through one or both of these problems, please email me, Laura Mandell, and I will post your ideas here.