November 29, 2012

Looking for context clues

In tutoring and elsewhere, an explanation—no matter how difficult—is necessary despite easier ways out.

“Read that word right there again for me,” I said, pointing to the page before us.

“Skill? No, scale.”

“Scale. OK, cool. Can you tell me what that means?”

“Scale... ohhh, I know. A scale is that thing where it tells you how much you weigh.” The first grader whose science homework I was helping her with sprang that one on me out of nowhere.

“Ha! Well, you are right,” I said. “Good job! But scale can mean a few different things. Can you tell me what it means in this context?”

(The blankest stare.) “What in what? Why?”

“Uh, what I mean is, like, the words here—like around here... around scale, the words around it—they make it mean something else. So, uh... uh, yeah, like, because, there are other words and—you know?—around scale, there are other words on the page, here, and they make it mean another thing, but what you said is right, but, like, here, the stuff around it is context... and that makes it... another one. Another meaning, I mean.”

(An impossibly blanker stare.)

“So, uh... if you look at the context, which is here (*waving hand in every direction at once several inches above the page*) can you tell me what scale means here?”

“...I’ll be right back. I’m getting applesauce.”

I know it was painful for you to read that. But, brave reader, you will never fully appreciate how awful it was to hear myself stumble through that “explanation” of the concept of context—not to mention how awful it must’ve been for my student, who just wanted a little help with her reading.

When she returned, Mott’s in hand, I took a different approach to the problem. Namely, I opted not to stupidly soldier on through what would undoubtedly have been a sweat and stutter–filled pragmatics lecture just to teach her that a scale is a glorified number line. Instead, I just made sure she understood what the hell the Mohs hardness scale is. And in doing so, I did manage to get across a simpler, more effective version of my point about context affecting our understanding (of one word, at least). Most of the time, I’m a decent tutor (honest!), but I have more than once run into the problem typified here—that of explaining outwardly simple things to children.

That said, it’s a problem that I can always get around. It’s one of those difficulties in life that seem to arise just frequently enough and with an express purpose to remind us that it is, in fact, one of life’s funny little mysteries. But once that’s out of the way, there’s an obvious means of resolving the issues made plain by the inverse proportionality of intuitiveness and explicability.

That solution is to try. This could entail employing a different approach, starting with a different concept, or just making more of an effort, but regardless of the form, in my experience, trying always works.

Really, the only way you can really do wrong in such a situation, one that everyone—from other students to working adults to parents to Housing administrators—faces at one point is to not try; to not offer any explanation when one (or at least a wholehearted attempt at one) is clearly owed. It’s a particularly disappointing blunder.

For an illustration of why it’s so disappointing, consider a few possible responses to our first-grader’s confusion at my initial word vomit. I could very well have said:

“Well, I’m sorry if you feel that way. I don’t have an explanation, but anyway, why don’t I just finish your homework for you?”

Or: “Well, I’m sorry if you feel that way. I don’t have an explanation, but anyway, since I know this isn’t ideal, I’m planning on moving you to another, much nicer after-school program nearby where you can finish your homework just the same as you do here. It was built for older kids!”

Or even: “Well, I’m sorry if you feel that way. I don’t have an explanation, but anyway, I can offer you $500 redeemable for Mott’s applesauce or Snyder’s pretzels, or at the Seminary Co-op.”

In all of these cases, our student seems to get a pretty sweet deal: a new place to go after school; a ton of money to spend on books or on other, more fun things; and, at last, some closure over the whole homework situation. There’s no arguing that, and her homework has to get done somehow anyway.

However, the lack of any kind of explanation from me regarding what’s really going on in the homework has to be concerning. After all, does it reflect well on me as a tutor—as a leader, and as a person to be trusted—when I neglect to try as hard as I can to explain “context” to my student? After all, if I can’t even illustrate context—the background which gives rise to a certain situation—it’ll make the student wonder if I understand it myself. At the very least, I’d appear disinterested, like the kind of impersonal and interchangeable tutor who could go off and start volunteering at another after-school program the following week—like I’m not accountable.

Moreover, and most importantly, if context remains unexplained, what’s to say the same problem won’t arise again later? The after-school program is bigger than me and will continue beyond me. If I can’t make clear to everyone involved in it that I understand the “context” which gave rise to the issue to begin with and that we mustn’t forget it, then I am giving no thought to the program’s future, and no indication that I really care about it or feel that the students are a part of it. In that sense, quite frankly, I’d be unworthy of my position.

But like I said: All that anybody, in any position, must do to avoid all this is try to explain everything in his or her capacity to anyone owed an explanation, no matter how difficult or revealing it is to do so, and no matter how piercing the question.

Ajay Batra is a second-year in the College majoring in English.