Columns, Opinions

Calvelli ’19: I’d like to do more than ‘push back on that’

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Anyone who’s taken a seminar at Brown knows the scene: some kid who clearly hasn’t done the reading raises their hand to say something ignorant and borderline racist. Another hand shoots up. Then that student softly says, “I’d like to push back on that a bit,” and goes on to fundamentally denounce the offending comment.

“I’d like to push back on that” is perhaps the most iconic phrase in Brown classrooms. (“Echoing that,” “to build on what she said” or “I think it’s more of a structural problem” are in a close battle for second.) These might all seem like harmless semantic quirks, but these phrases, especially the passive-aggressive “push back on that,” are indicative of a class discussion culture that’s often disingenuous and unproductive. They illustrate our inability to openly dissent and they wrongfully conflate people with the ideas that they put forward in class. This precludes the kind of critical conversations that facilitate real learning. Instead, we should learn to disagree forcefully and openly, capitalizing on the unique setting seminars provide for challenging ideas without criticizing people.

Right away, “pushing back” is an inaccurate metaphor for what goes on — or should go on — in classroom debate. When someone offers their take to the class, they aren’t “pushing” anyone; they’re making a contribution to a cloud of ideas. Pushing makes it personal. It’s like saying the person’s comment needs to be shoved back where it came from, in the dark recesses of their brain where it belongs. This wrongfully equates the speaker with their argument. Once an argument is presented, we shouldn’t think of it as the property of the person who first suggested it. Rather, it should be debated on its own merits, with the original speaker an equal participant in the process of critical review.

This person-idea distinction matters for discussion because “pushing back” is a rhetorical trick to couch serious disagreement behind cordiality. Civility is a necessary precondition for an open dialogue. But civility goes too far when it makes us think that critiquing a person’s idea is akin to being mean to the person themselves. It might take a broader cultural shift to disassociate personal and intellectual criticism in many students’ minds, as we often see critical feedback as indicative of personal failure.

Still, reframing the way we “push back” on things can be a helpful first step in making discussions more genuine. If you really find a comment egregious, it’s better to let everyone know clearly where you stand. Being precise about where we agree and disagree facilitates a clearer process of argumentation and evidentiary support.

The way I’d suggest we do that is through a simple phrase: “I disagree.” “I disagree” is direct and to the point. It makes clear where you stand and brings intellectual difference to the center of the debate. A long meandering comment prefaced by “I’d like to push back” and littered with hedges and qualifiers is a lot less likely to spark an argument that people can actually follow.

Even better, say “I disagree with that.” Adding “that” emphasizes that the divergence isn’t person-to-person, but idea-to-idea. Of course, people should bring their personal experiences and perspectives to the table. Yet the seminar should still prioritize ideas and evidence over an individual’s feelings or their worries about interpersonal awkwardness.

It shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that the primary goal of a class discussion is to challenge students to learn more and think deeply about the topic at hand. I also don’t think people can truly learn the course material without also learning how to engage productively with competing viewpoints. Class discussions are a perfect place to do that, ideally offering a space where students can reconcile their competing thoughts without becoming bound to the arguments they propose or judged for how they express them. The seminar room isn’t an on-the-record news interview, and that’s important. It’s a place intentionally designed to encourage a wide-ranging discussion. As students hear new information and perspectives, they are supposed to be able to change their minds.

So next time you hear something in class that raises your blood pressure, summon the courage to say “I disagree,” and proceed to make your case as to why the original idea was wrong. But by all means, don’t fall into the trap of couching your serious disagreement behind a timid “I’d like to push back on that a bit.” Sure, doing so isn’t a radical shift. Still, it’s a signal of respect for the ideal discussion, one where ideas are constantly challenged while participants feel comfortable contributing.

Soon, our most important debates won’t happen in the seminar room. In the real world, there might be steeper consequences for offering a competing viewpoint in order to better explore it. So let’s use the seminar room to its full potential while we still have it. Plant your chair with four legs on the floor, and don’t let anyone push you or your ideas around. 

Aidan Calvelli ’19 is a world class devil’s advocate. If you would like to push back on this column, he can be reached at aidan_calvelli@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

One Comment

  1. This author has it exactly wrong. His arguments are seriously flawed.

    Young students don’t like to have their opinions challenged in blunt terms (as I did in the previous paragraph) and are much less likely to take it personally if one’s disagreement is expressed in mild terms. “Pushing back” is a terrifically useful phrase, as it expresses disagreement that might be less than total and allows the first speaker to save face in the discussion. “I disagree,” while perfectly legitimate, can feel like a slap in the face to a student who finds it hard to comment in class in the first place.

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