Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why are you having us do this now?

Between excursions with my nephews, sister and parents, I managed to cobble together an application for a seminar for faculty from different schools across the NYC area committed to defending and deepening liberal arts general education for students in every kind of school. Whether I'll be accepted I don't know, but it was enjoyable to fill in the application. One of its questions was

What would you say is the most significant thing about teaching that you have learned from doing it? What did you experience that helped you realize this?

After some reflection I decided to answer this way:  
It is a cliché that the teacher learns as much from teaching as her students do. What I think I have learned is that there are ways that sharing this experience with students deepens their commitment to learning, and to teaching themselves and others. Part of this presenting oneself as a fellow learner, something I am aware is easier as I get older – and easier for someone who “looks like a professor” (white male). It is something I have largely learned from the transition from teaching at Princeton (mostly lectures) to teaching at Eugene Lang College (almost all seminars), and learned from my students here. I offer two illustrations.

1. From Lang students I learned to give real reasons for why were were reading/doing what we were doing in a course – at Princeton, students assumed I was an authority but at The New School students aren’t interested in authority or authoritative reasons (such as “this is what everyone’s reading” or even “this is what the most scholarly/experimental/progressive/etc. people are reading”) but in something more situational: why are you having us do this now? After initial deer-in-the-headlights experiences in the face of such questions (which I initially mistook for an unwillingness to learn) I’ve learned to anticipate and even encourage them. I now routinely ask students “Why do you think we read this? Why didn’t we read this before that other thing? Should we have read it before? What else might we have read? What do other people read?” The result of this isn't (or intends not to be) skepticism for skepticism’s sake but a sense that knowledge is generated, transferred, reformed, challenged, extended by people like them – along with standards, methods, and values (what matters?). Students should feel they can be part of the generation of knowledge, a business individual but also collective and social.

2. When I first switched from lecturing to seminar teaching, I essentially brought fully prepared lectures to class and tried to coax students into giving them through Socratic questions. When students’ answers weren’t what I was after I cut them off to get back to my notes. But after some time things began to change. Students’ answers would be unexpected and unexpectedly interesting and, since our class sessions are long (100 minutes), I would let discussion go where it listeth… sometimes at the expense of what I had planned. Other times the class discussion found its way to the main issues I was planning to cover, but in a different sequence than I had planned. As a result my course preparation has changed. I no longer bring a flowchart of the discussion I want us to have but a list of topics to cover/passages to focus on/activities to do. I let the class discussion wend its way between them. Often I will put an abbreviated list of topics on the board; when we get to the fourth thing on the list before the third (for example) I’ll draw arrows indicating the change. Students may initially find this odd but soon grasp (I trust!) that I understand my responsibility as facilitator as thinking about the whole discussion as it unfolds and letting it build its own momentum and direction – while not just letting it “free-flow” any old where (a common student complaint in seminar discussions). At some point I’ll make sure to tell students what I’m doing and why. If I’m surprised or even delighted at the unexpected way we’ve ended up somewhere I’ll say so, and that that’s one reason I’m so happy to teach in a seminar college. Depending on the students, I might also level with them when a connection I thought would flow doesn’t (perhaps not until the next class) and offer them my guess as to what went wrong/why that didn’t work in this setting. The point is never to fault people for trying to understand things in their own way (unless they’ve slacked in preparation, etc.) but to get them to understand and, in a way, share the work of teaching. Increasingly I have been asking students to imagine syllabi as a way to encourage them to think like teachers – and ask them, and have them ask each other, the why are you having us do this now? questions.

I am aware also that this form of teaching is not appropriate for all students, or not for students at every stage of development. The meandering discussion frustrates some students, who pine for the lecture-disguised-as-a-discussion; it is also true that it is not easy to take notes in such a learning environment, and difficult to retain the connections and discoveries of the discussion. Further, a welter of interpretations of what’s important can produce a nihilistic paralysis in some earnest students which disguises itself as relativist laissez-faire; to less motivated students it seems to countenance know-nothingism. The “who decides?” questions must be carefully deployed, and are perhaps best saved until students feel they are able, or are on their way to being able, to participate in the making of knowledge, of deciding what is important, in this learning community setting, and, if only potentially, beyond it.

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