On Socratic Conferences:
The questions we ask so that they may learn
“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”
I could say a great many things about Socrates. However, I have a distinct feeling that many of those things would risk me getting fired, since I would feel obligated to curse occasionally in order to properly express my thoughts on the matter. I do have a respect for Socrates—especially after reading Plato’s account of his trial. I just recognize that, if asked to list a given number of Socrates’ personality traits, some variant of the word arrogance—or at the very least one with similar implications—would need to be included to properly characterize him.
But he was also brilliant. Not necessarily right, but brilliant nonetheless. According to him, he didn’t believe that to be true—even though one of his friends had gone to the Oracle at Delphi and been told that Socrates was the smartest man alive. Socrates then insisted on proving this by traveling around Athens and asking those who were revered as highly intelligent questions in order to prove that they knew something he did not. All he ended up finding was that he, at the very least, knew that he did not know anything.
And thus the Socratic Method was born.
Of course, the purpose is significantly different when the Socratic Method is applied to the Writing Center. The point is not to demonstrate to the writer that they are idiots. There are advantages to showing writers that their perceptions of their writing do not match their actual writing abilities, but there are more amiable ways to do that than making them look like idiots. Rather, the purpose of the Socratic Method is to force individuals to think critically about what they are writing by asking them questions about it. They will develop their ideas further, be challenged and asked to explain what they know, and in doing so will clarify for themselves the topic of discussion. And, for writers who are scared and frustrated by writing and intimidated by the blank screen in front of them, expressing their ideas verbally overcomes any issues they have in putting their ideas into writing. People tend to be far more accustomed to speaking than writing, and therefore they waste fewer mental processes in using that form of communication—though there are occasionally strange individuals like myself who go through points where they are better able to communicate ideas through writing than speech for the same reason.
The Socratic Method, as applicable to the Writing Center, does possess several other modifications from Socrates’ application. Most prominently, the Socratic Method does not require one to bear certain resemblances to the nether regions of donkeys in order to be utilized—or at least so I’m told. I cannot make definitive statements about that, as through my application of the Socratic Method I have been told by several individuals—by one in particular on multiple occasions—that I can be very frustrating at times because I keep asking questions they can’t answer. They then later insist that their paper improved and that, aggravating as I may have been during a conference, I helped them significantly. I hope that they were not trying to spare my feelings in that.
However, the Socratic Method is almost an inescapable part of being a consultant because it is devoted to asking questions. “Why” happens to be a good staple, but repeatedly asking that makes one sound like an inquisitive child, who very quickly becomes frustrating because they don’t grasp the concept that no one exactly knows why everything happens. It’s a good mental exercise of course, but eventually it just starts to make your brain hurt, and consultants need to avoid frightening off writers. Admittedly, the Socratic Method is not always the best at preventing writers from becoming frustrated. While it can help build confidence if the writers are able to answer the questions effectively and develop their ideas, enough questions which they cannot answer to their own satisfaction leads to aggravation. Thus, a large degree of its success relies on proper application.
The Socratic Method does, however, have numerous advantages. Foremost, it does not require knowledge of the subject matter in order to be effective. Knowledge of that subject matter is still advantageous, but that’s a topic for a different post. This does not mean that one can know nothing and still apply the Socratic Method. One simply needs to know how to ask the right questions and be able to follow the logical train of thought the writer possesses so that, through inquiry, the consultant can challenge the writer’s understanding of their subject matter and force them to defend and develop their own ideas. Thankfully, that is a very specific skillset that is easier to practice and apply than individual knowledge of the writer’s topic—especially since the writer is the one who needs to be the authority on the subject matter, not the consultant.
Yet, I would be doing a disservice if I did not point out the greatest flaw in this method of conferencing: in its pure form, one cannot make definitive statements about whether something is right, wrong, intelligent, stupid, or apply any other sort of value judgment directly to the process. There is something to be said for not making value judgments—the intention of the Writing Center is to have peers rather than authorities and above all it helps prevent consultants from making mistakes—and I know there are several notable members of our writing center who would insist that is a good thing. I am not one of them. Once again though, that is a topic for another time.