What makes a good conversation?

In everyday life, we tend to think of a successful conversation as one that navigates around moments of tension: a primary if implicit aim of most conversations is to avoid conflict, misunderstanding, and awkwardness. This course, by contrast, will explore the possibilities offered by conversations that don’t go so smoothly. In readings from Plato, Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Aimé Césaire, Hannah Arendt, Kazuo Ishiguro, and others, we will consider how adversarial or difficult conversations might allow modes of understanding and forms of community that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Each of the texts we’ll read explicitly stages a difficult conversation, and often more than one. As we read them, however, we’ll also discuss how the dynamics of productive disagreement might structure intellectual exchange and critical writing. That’s not to say that the course environment should ever feel hostile or antagonistic. Rather, I want to explore how the questions and counterexamples that interlocutors raise can enrich both our thinking and our writing, leading us to rethink our assumptions and refine our claims. My ultimate aim is to allow you to play the role of friendly yet critical interlocutor for yourself, stepping back from your own thoughts to look at them from a new perspective and ask what you really mean. For Arendt, this back-and-forth movement is what defines truly critical thinking: a “questioning and answering process…whereby we constantly raise the basic Socratic question: what do you mean when you say…?”