On Stating the Obvious

Several years ago, students I was teaching at the time asked that I try not to connect thoughts with words like “obviously” and “of course”. It wasn’t, they said, that they doubted the logical connection of one idea to the next, but that, from their perspective, these were not “obvious” connections but new ones. These students felt that my using these phrases made it hard to ask questions or seek clarification, because they implied these concepts, despite being new, shouldn’t need further explanation and the students were somehow unsatisfactory themeselves as if they did not understand immediately.

Put in these terms, my students’ case made good sense. In fact, I would even say it made obvious good sense – with the understanding, in using the word here, that in this situation I am actually the one learning, and so better able to tell whether a claim is “obvious” or not. I have attempted – with varying success – to avoid these phrases and others with similar implications when possible in the classroom.

In the school, the teacher has an institutional authority, which is not always used wisely. In other contexts, an attempt to provide an explanation or correction by its very nature is a claim to a similar authority. So, in those contexts as well, the goal in assuming such an authority is not to parade your own superiority, but to make those things you already know become obvious to those you address. I have offered an anecdote here to demonstrate how even normally harmless words can hinder such attempts to communicate. It is always our responsibility to watch our words carefully, but this is especially true when attempting to instruct others.

Speak Your Mind - Politely

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