Wednesday, November 28, 2007

“Discussion” in a Faculty Office

Fiction? Yes. But….

Full Professor Irma Fayles has been teaching at the inner-city institution since its days as a community college a quarter of a century ago. Never having published a book, let alone an article, she became a full professor at a time when the college had not re-envisioned itself as a four-year school with scholarship an important focus. Assistant Professor Sam Stamper is new to the college, but arriving with one book out already and another about to go to press. He doesn’t yet know the “traditions” of the school and has no preconceptions about its student population.

Fayles was recently assigned to observe Stamper and has decided that it is her job to put this tyro in his place, to teach him how things really are. He had asked her to attend his sophomore literature class where the students, over the semester, were reading four novels, four plays, and a number of works of poetry. The observation took place the day Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize. This conversation followed a week later:

Fayles: First of all, I must admit that you have a strong presence in the classroom. And you’re clearly a good and dynamic actor. But I must caution you: beginning with a mention of Lessing is going to do nothing for these students. You’ve got to consider who they are and what their backgrounds have been. They haven’t heard of Lessing, and aren’t likely to. This is just a bit of advice: work with things they know or will need to know; leave out irrelevancies.

Stamper keeps his mouth shut, though he cannot bring himself to nod any agreement. His chances of promotion and even retention, he knows, could be affected by Fayles’ evaluation of his class. Behind his straight lips, however, he bristles: the students, as he is well aware after even his short time at the school, know a lot more than many of his older colleagues believe, and have experienced a good deal in their short lives. Their world is no more limited than that of their professors. Doris Lessing might or might not ever again appear as a name before them, but now they could make some connection if she did. Furthermore, he thinks, there is something essentially classist, if not racist, about what Fayles is saying. The implication is that, at a “better” school, one with fewer blacks and immigrants, speaking of Lessing might be OK. But not here. He silently rejects Fayles’ implied thesis that, because the students come from what seems to her to be a limited background, their teachers cannot expect them to move beyond it, and should not even encourage them to try.

Fayles: I saw a lot of teaching in your class, a lot of pyrotechnics, but little learning was going on. Too much performance by you and too little activity on the part of the students. As a result, much of your class was wasted. You need to have different tasks, each an activity for the students, each lasting fifteen minutes or so. Otherwise you will lose them. Maybe have them read aloud, a paragraph each, and then write for a few minutes.

Here again, Stamper keeps his mouth shut, and once more can’t bring himself to nod. He simply sits and waits, looking at Fayles. Did Fayles see no difference between the needs of a remedial (or even first-year composition) classroom and a more advanced literature one? Or does she really believe that the only sort of learning possible for these students lies in mastery of a series of small tasks? In the context of this course, he is not interested in developing skills, but in encouraging students to think and to develop enthusiasm for reading and ideas—and he does not feel that reading a paragraph aloud or writing short paragraphs would contribute to that. He wants to bring his students into a more sophisticated dialog rather than falling into the simplistic thinking fostered by the sort of program Fayles had described. His class is themed around questions of generation of knowledge and his students are beginning to grasp and argue about the distinction between the believed and the demonstrable. Neither five nor fifteen minutes of writing—or of small-group discussion—is going to further that. In fact, any success that he has achieved would be lost.

And little learning? No, he had seen a great deal exhibited in the papers he had just returned to the students—book proposals, following the standard professional model, for works of fiction exhibiting some aspect of the problem of belief. Some of these students, whom Fayles believed couldn’t manage a task exceeding a quarter of an hour, had turned in creative and sophisticated ten-page proposals, some of which would actually make intriguing novels.

Fayles, he thinks to himself, mistakes activity for learning, one of the side effects of the “student centered” pedagogies of the 1970s. Though there is much to be said for Paolo Freire and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, it is essentially a political statement, and one that moves classroom pedagogy in one particular direction for reasons that have as much to do with desire for cultural change as with the real needs of teaching and the learning implied by the act of teaching. It has led to the confusion of learning and doing, placing (for example) an undue emphasis on small groups, short writings, and other in-class exercises. These have their place, of course, but they need not dominate every classroom. In fact, they should not. What Fayles is promoting, furthermore, is actually a perversion of Freire, for she is turning his methodology into a means for furthering oppression rather than stopping it.

Fayles: Really, I don’t see why you should do the reading aloud, though you are very good at it. Have the students do it. It’s good for them.

How patronizing, thinks Stamper, still silent. Anyway, I am not teaching reading, but am trying to show a group of students who have never seen it the beauty prose can rise to. The passage I read was short, no more than a page or two, and my purpose was for the students to hear the skill of the author and the beauty of the phrasing without my telling them. There are times when it is appropriate and useful for students to read aloud (I use play cuttings read by students, for example, when teaching drama), but this was not one of them. Fayles, why have you put such a blanket rule in place, stating categorically that, if text is to be read, students should read it. I prefer a much more expansive and flexible view of the classroom. There are, one might say, more arrows than one in my quiver—and I choose the one best for the situation.

Now that I think on it, I wonder if she has actually read Freire, or had simply heard tell of his describing and debunking what he called the banking model of education, where passive students just give back interest on what they had been given—or worse, simply regurgitate what they have taken in. This was part of a simplistic concept of audience present from the 1950s through the 1980s, and not only in regards to the classroom. Watchers of television and movies were also considered passive receptacles. However, readers of books, for some reason, were not. It was rarely recognized that watching could be just as active and intellectually stimulating as reading. We are beyond that now, most of us, and realize that lack of physical motion is not lack of intellectual activity. Fayles wants me to go backwards; it’s not going to happen.

The movement towards “student-centered” classrooms was a response, in part, to what was seen as a patronizing, paternal system of education that, in many eyes, amounted to indoctrination, not education. The irony is that, today, it is people like Fayles, insisting on the Freire-influenced classroom, who are being accused (by critics on the political right) of indoctrinating rather than educating. The accusers, though I hate to admit it, are right to this extent: any attempt to enforce a cookie-cutter model does lead to conformity and not to thought. And the older models of education were not nearly as indoctrinating as many, in the heat of a political moment, came to believe.

Teaching by example of knowledge and enthusiasm, as the best lecturers have always done, amounts to something quite different from indoctrination. And it is a necessary element in a good education—though never the only one. Not every course should be a lecture/discussion of the sort Fayles observed, just as her model, while admittedly useful in certain contexts, should not be universal. Many of us, when we think back to the teachers who influenced us most, find that they were the ones who lectured and discussed—with fervor and finesse. We weren’t indoctrinated by these teachers, but were led by their passion to explore on our own. When we decide that such leaps into our own learning are not possible by our own students, we demean those students and block access to an important element of education. It was good enough for us, we are showing, but is beyond what they can handle. That is unacceptable.

Since I began teaching, Stamper thinks, trying to be patient, observations have been my bane. The checklist of small groups, exercises, and constant shifts in activity that has become the observation staple (to the point where students make jokes about their professors adding these things to the class only when being observed) has become quite stale. I will not lower myself any longer—as well I could—to playing this particular game, certainly not for an observer who does not recognize that both times and students have changed.

Small groups were new and unusual in the 1970s, and students saw them as a refreshing shift from the teacher-centric classroom they had been familiar with. To many of today's students, however, the small group is something they “suffered” all the way through high school. In fact, Stamper knows, all of the parts of that checklist are things now more common to high school than to college. Today, if students are to move beyond their high-school behavior, they have to be treated as something other than high-school students, utilizing methodology other than what they earlier experienced, methodology more demanding upon them. Methodology moving them forward in their education, not simply providing the same thing over and over again, class after class.

There's that other factor, of course: the computer. In a year or two, more than a quarter of students nationally will be taking classes that are at least partially online. Such classes are necessarily task oriented and many of them have to follow the Fayles model. Simply to survive, on-campus classes are going to have to be offering things online classes cannot. We need, Stamper believes, to accent the instructor in the classroom today, not further reduce her or him to the "facilitator" that some online programs actively promote. The leadership, the broad knowledge, and the enthusiasm that a professor can show in the classroom does not come through so well (at least, not in the same way) in online situations, so should be emphasized if the "real" classroom is to survive.

Yet we must be careful, Stamper warns himself, in what we “say” to students in our classrooms in other ways. Tasks of the sort Fayles wants utilized in the classroom are seen, more often than not, as onerous by the students. These do not engender a love of the art being studied, but can even lead in the opposite direction. In a course where a skill (such as writing) is the central focus, task-oriented classrooms are essential. In a course where the goal is much broader, tasks of the sort Fayles insists on can deaden student enthusiasm for, and appreciation of, the art. Certainly, they do little to enhance it.

Fayles: One of the basic rules of teaching is that students must be engaged at all times. I saw students drifting in and out of the discussion. You need to draw them all in.

What, she wants me to work down to the lowest rather than challenging the highest, doing so in a way allowing the lowest to rise as well? Either way we do it, we risk losing some of our students. I’d rather, in this class, that risk be at the bottom than at the top. Yes, I like teaching remedial classes, too, bringing the struggling students to the point where they can attempt college work… but not every class should be like that, focusing on the lowest common denominator.

Fayles: You need to be careful with the things you say, or you will lose the students. You should have explained the “butterfly effect” when that came up. Some of the students probably don’t know what it is.

More dumbing down, she wants? No thanks. What she is asking, again, is that I stoop to what she believes is the level of my students, not demanding more from them than they are used to giving—any of them can find out what the “butterfly effect” is quite easily by asking others in the class or looking it up online. After all, the mention wasn't mine, nor was understanding of it essential to the point being made. The students don't need to be spoon-fed such things, anyway. My feeling, again, is that more can be gained by demanding the students rise than by lowering myself. Sure, a few students will be lost—but as many (if not more) will disappear if I dumb things down—and all of them will be poorly served.

As she talks and Stamper does not respond, Fayles becomes angry, more and more so with each stony lack of response to each comment. When her officemate comes in and starts puttering around, she stops, waiting for the other to leave. Stamper finally speaks, telling her it is OK if the other overhears. Fayles, trying to smile, says it is not OK with her—and asks her colleague to withdraw. Once they are again alone, she continues, her frustration with Stamper clearer than before.

Fayles: During the class, you brought up World War II a number of times. That was a mistake. Our students have little knowledge of history; some confuse the Civil War and World War II. It’s best to avoid history unless you are going to teach it.

Understanding history, Stamper believes, is necessary for understanding literature. He has been laying out the basics necessary for the texts being covered since the beginning of the semester. If he were to follow Fayles’ advice, he would have to teach different texts, probably much simpler ones. And that would not suit his purpose. We serve our students poorly, he believes, when we don’t open up the unknown country.

This, he tells himself, is getting ridiculous. But, boy, is she steamed!

Fayles: And bringing in 9/11? That was gratuitous, facile, and unnecessary. There is no reason to talk about something like that in a literature class.

What are you talking about, thinks Stamper, forcing himself not to respond. 9/11 was the most significant common event of the lives of today’s students. I wonder if she would have said the same in 1969 about the assassination of JFK, same number of years earlier. 9/11 needs to be a part of our teaching for quite a number of reasons, including the simple fact that it can be used to open all sorts of doors. Our students, quite naturally, are interested in it; they perk up and listen, making 9/11 an effective entry into any number of topics.

This isn’t ridiculous… it’s stupid. He stifles a sigh.

Fayles’ anger is now clear in just about everything she says, her words becoming more and more accusatory in face of Stamper’s determined lack of response. This young man just isn't listening, she realizes, isn't respecting the experience that she brings to interaction with these students. But she goes on anyway.

Fayles: Another problem was that you didn’t ask the students enough questions, and did not call on specific ones. You need to drag them into the conversation, sometimes! And you should never answer the questions yourself. You did that at least twice.

My goodness, more high school? It becomes like high school if I force students to squirm under my eye as I put them on the spot. And I don't believe that is effective pedagogy. All it does is embarrass the student. The last thing I want is for the classroom experience to be actively painful. I try to build a comfort zone into the classroom… which is one of the reasons my students show up. Maybe you didn’t notice, Fayles, but all 30 of them were there.

What time is it? Five minutes to the hour. Ah, good! I’ve an excuse for getting out of here and I had better use it—or I’ll end up saying what I think, and that won’t get us anywhere. Though it has to be said, this is not the place.

Stamper: I’ve got to go teach.

He stands and leaves without another word.


Anonymous said...

Aaron, this is just what I needed when I was going through job interviews in 1997-2000. Fortunately I eventually found an institution where this nonsense isn't asked. Rodger Cunningham

Anonymous said...

We need to spend more time on this--the dimension of academia that lies somewhere between those little bubble forms that you fill out at Taco Bell after you eat, and something more like a 1984-style attempt at mass homogenization. This really evokes a compulsory silencing-- the chilly, Stalinesque feeling before the safety of tenure descends and a lack of freedom in what ought to be a discipline devoted to inquiry, not to its opposite. That, and it's pretty damn funny. How many people know that Frantz Fanon's Black Skin,White Masks was rejected as a doctoral dissertation, along with Benjamin's Origins of German Tragic Drama (the rejection of which banned Walter Benjamin from academia permanently). We need more room to breathe and less of this absurdity. We should all be fighting against absurdity with humour!

Ahistoricality said...

Well, at least they understand each other.... Though it's not much better than my own experience, which is positive feedback after every observation, but low-to-average student evaluation scores, leading to more-or-less annual discussions with the Chair about how I'm doing everything right but need to get my scores up anyway!

My immediate reaction is that he needs to invite another colleague to do an observation, one who might be less doctrinaire, and quickly and get feedback in writing. Getting this dinosaur to put her feedback in writing could be entertaining, too.