Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance in the Classroom

Throughout my undergraduate and masters degrees, and through six years of full-time adjunct teaching in Religious Studies and Philosophy, I had the very good fortune to study with, and serve under, one of the top teachers in the field, Tim Renick, at Georgia State University. And it wasn’t just me who loved every moment of Professor Renick’s courses, whether in Church and State, Religion and Ethics, Early Christian History, Philosophy of Religion, Contemporary Religious Issues, etc. Hundreds (if not thousands) of GSU students readily self-identify as “Timists,” even the religiously conservative (from one tradition or another) and so-called “angry atheist,” students. Indeed, I was surprised to see them consistently return to Dr. Renick’s courses semester after semester, enjoying themselves, despite the fact that they seemed always and deeply opposed to much (if not all) that we read and talked about in class, and despite the fact that Dr. Renick frequently challenged their assumptions.

I’ve thought a good deal about the “virtues” I saw Dr. Renick demonstrate in years of lecturing: enthusiasm; humor; clarity of expression; lengthy, detailed, and thoughtful mini-essays written back to students on the papers they submit; exams that brought together weeks of reading; and so on. But, one could do all of these things and yet still see far too many students who are easily alienated by a single reading or discussion that strays from what they’ve been trained to think. So, what else was Dr. Renick doing such that easily alienated students were more likely to enjoy arguments and evidence generative of cognitive dissonance?

A recent NPR story sheds some light on this. In working to explain why ideologically committed Americans tend to reject data that conflicts with their prior assumptions, the article suggests that, “partisans reject information not because they’re against the facts, but because it’s painful [to encounter information that cuts against what we believe].” This, however, suggests “a possible solution: If partisans were made to feel better about themselves — if they received a little image and ego boost — this [might] help them more easily absorb the ‘blow’ of information that threatens their pre-existing views.” This hypothesis nicely captures an important aspect of Dr. Renick’s approach: he consistently created numerous spaces (in class discussion, in private meetings, in his detailed mini-essays written back to students) in which the arguments, objections, evidence, and concerns, that students advanced were acknowledge and appreciated. This seems to have helped students “feel better about themselves” and thus enabled them to thoughtfully consider, even enjoy, rather than reject out of hand, the experience of “cognitive dissonance.”

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