Sunday, October 23, 2011

Backwards Design and Higher Education

A note about the title: it's actually a joke.  There really isn't any meaningful backwards design in higher education.  But I'm not here to complain.  No, there's actually very little backwards design at every level of education, and for the most part I've managed to enjoy being a student throughout my life.  Even without backwards design, schools are wonderful places to establish networks, to have conversations, to try out ideas, and, if you put yourself in the right mental space, to learn by failing.*

* That could be its own post, but we'll save it for now.

Before I can say anything about higher education, I need to talk about backwards design, briefly.  Back in 1998, Grant Wiggins - who happened to go to a very good Great Books college - and Jay McTighe wrote a book called "Understanding by Design."  It's essentially a handbook for curriculum writers, advocating an approach that starts at the end and works its way backwards.  This idea was hardly new to educational theory by 1998 - indeed, in one of my courses this week we've been reading a piece from 1949 that advocates the same idea - but for whatever reason the formulation by Wiggins and McTighe grabbed ahold of the world of educational practice.

The essence of the concept is this.  First, you figure out what core idea or ability you want students to finish a class with, then you figure out how you're going to know whether they have it.  And voila, you're curriculum is done!

That's not entirely true, but it's pretty close.  Sure, you can import a handful of secondary and tertiary ideas or abilities with which students should gain familiarity, if not mastery.  And sure, there's still the work of actually writing the curriculum after that.  But figuring out the end goal and the assessment really is more than half the battle.  I would say that, in writing my creative writing curriculum this summer, for example, I spent a good two or three weeks decided on an end goal and an assessment, and maybe a day or two on writing the actual curriculum from there.  That is, once you know what you're trying to do, it's not so hard to figure out whether any particular activity or lesson plan fits into that bigger frame.

The funny thing is, in higher education this doesn't seem to happen at all.  I could speak to my current classes - though a couple are better than others on this front - but rather I want to point out a deeper and less personal issue.  It should seem obvious to anyone who has been to college or graduate school that the vast majority of Professors do not use anything resembling backwards design in their curricula (heck, most of them just stand up and lecture every week, and then have their TAs administer and grade a content-knowledge test at the end).  The question is, why?

At the heart of the problem, it seems to me, is a dichotomous conflict between research and pedagogy.  The difference between a Professor and a researcher at a think tank or consulting firm is, primarily, this: the Professor, in addition to doing research, teaches.  Perhaps it is easier to find Professor jobs than pure research jobs, or perhaps Professors like the idea of and prestige associated with University positions.  Regardless, once in the Academy, Professors do not, actually, get to choose one or the other.  Or, rather, they are not assessed, themselves, on both fronts.

For the most part, academic survival depends upon research and publishing.  While a great many people will defend the "publish or perish" mentality of the academic market as a necessary part of a meritocracy, it has an unintended side effect.  Professors, because they are evaluated almost entirely on research, do not spend time or energy designing or executing their pedagogical functions.  They are, in short, bad teachers.  And they are not necessarily bad teacher by choice, but rather by necessity.  A Lecturer (not a full Professor) at Stanford I spoke with this week related a story of a colleague whose Dean told him not to spend so much time teaching.  "If you ever want to get tenure," he (more or less) said, "You have to cut back on your teaching and get to work doing research and publishing."

It's important to note that "cut back on your teaching" does not mean teach fewer courses.  No, the admonition is to take your teaching less seriously, to spend less time and effort on designing a good curriculum, on employing effective pedagogy, on evaluating whether your students are understanding the material.  The result, for students, is long, boring lectures and even longer, even more boring reading assignments that float aimlessly in an ethereal mist, never to be connected to their studies except in their own minds.  In short, none of the habits of mind - design, making informed connections, creative generation of questions, and so on - that make for good research are modeled for students in the classroom.

So what does that have to do with backwards design?  While Wiggins and McTighe talk mostly about courses, I think there's an argument to be made that educational structures as a whole can be subjected to a similar analysis.  In the case of higher education - and especially graduate studies - the analysis leads to disturbing revelations.

- At the level of the individual course, there is no clear sense of what a student ought to be getting out of the course, nor how anyone (except maybe the student) will know whether the course succeeded.

- Institutionally, there is little coherence to the student experience except what the student is capable of bringing to it herself.

- It is not clear that the assessment procedures we have in place - that is, the dissertation - are effective measures of whether students are adequately prepared to do meaningful research.

I've hit on the first of these above, but the second two deserve quick explication.

Institutional incoherence is a big problem in the humanities in particular, where students routinely take ten years or more before they finish their studies.  While there are many factors that cause this problem, one of the most important is the lack of clear objective for graduate students at an institutional level.  That is, Universities do a very poor job of saying "what we want out of our PhDs in English is _____."  Of course, they do generally have something to fill in that blank with, but it's rarely something that makes sense, or that would be agreeable across the department (let alone amongst students).  Now, that may not be a problem, per se, except it leads to our other issue.

How do you assess outcomes (or processes, even) when you do not know what outcomes (or processes) you desire?  In the case of the University, the dissertation has long been the be-all-end-all.  Why? Because of tradition.  Oh, sure, there's more to it than that, but not much more.

In the modern world, I think it's fair to ask whether the dissertation is an adequate reflection of whatever kind of learning students are meant to do.  That is, the dissertation exists, primarily, as a kind of pre-monograph, a preface to a first book.  But is our goal to turn all PhD students into writers of books, anymore?  How many graduate school programs define their success based on whether or not graduates go on to publish books?  While that may have been the model in the past, that publishing itself is undergoing rapid transformation in the modern age demonstrates that its probably not the best model for the future.

What's more, the dissertation is written, published, and defended individually.  It is, perhaps, in some ancillary sense a collaborative experience, but it is still held up as an indication of individual achievement.  The problem is, Professorial research is decreasingly individual.  Collaboration has taken hold in much of the academy, and, indeed, part of the goal of graduate studies probably ought to be habituating students - many of whom have been stuck in highly uncollaborative environments through the whole of their academic lives - to working in teams.  And yet, our final assessment is monolithic, and, what's more, it's almost unimaginable that it be anything but the work of a single person.

All of which shows not only a disconnect between purpose and assessment in higher education,* but a total lack of consideration of that disconnect.  What is the purpose of a graduate education? How do we know that we've achieved that purpose?

* We haven't even touched undergraduate, which is its own messy can of worms.

A great many institutions obviously do a fine job creating future scholars, and so the system is working fine on a certain level.  The question is not, however, if it has worked or if it is working, but rather how does it work and will it continue to work?  Despite missing the kind of clear curricular structure I've mentioned above, the Academy has always has a resilience, thanks largely to its clever, self-motivated members.  It is not clear, however, that survival alone means that the system actually works.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Watching Myself Read

For my "Future of English" course this week we were asked to watch ourselves read and to reflect on the process.  This is my result.

In trying to watch myself read, I was surprised to find that I already do watch myself read. That is, I sat down to read and said "ok, now to watch myself read" and found that, as I started to read, I was reading exactly the way I always do. So, really, that wasn't what surprised me, actually. What surprised me was that I didn't realize that I always watch myself read. You could say I haven't watched myself watching myself read.

This continuously self-aware division into reader and watching-reader leads to interesting contradictions. I am an extremely critical reader, on the one hand. I am an extremely agreeable reader, on the other. I naturally filter what I read through the lens of other familiar texts, but I am often hard-pressed to say just exactly which text I am filtering my understanding through, or even if I actually am filtering at all. I have a sophisticated and refined interpretive ideology, and yet strive to adopt the ideology of the text I am reading.

In short, I know my reading extremely well on a surface, procedural, level, but understand it almost not at all at a deeper, existential level. That is, I know how I read, but I don't know exactly who the I is that is doing the reading. It's not the I that eats dinner with my wife, that's for certain. Indeed, that dinner-eating I often spends much of those dinners trying to understand what the reader I has just experienced, appropriating the readerly experience and reinterpreting it for my real life, synthesizing and analyzing, arguing and explaining.

As an almost schizophrenic reader, it is not uncommon for me to generate a lot of ideas as I read, and especially shortly after or whenever I pause to take a (mental) breath, often by glancing at the clock or leafing through the upcoming pages or checking my Twitter feed. In these times of pause, the more familiar, more argumentative, more discursive I interposes on the receptive, reader I. This is the I that has always watched the reader I. This is the I that is critical. This is the I that searches for connections. This is the I that is consciously ideological. This is the I that is always the same.

The reader I, on the other hand, is much more mysterious, despite how conscious my bifurcation is. I find myself reading texts back-to-back that contradict each other, and, at the reader level, agreeing with both. My reader-self will follow even the most dubious argument to its conclusion, nodding in assent the whole way. Nevertheless, the reader-I is not wholly passive. It is the reader part, not the interpretive part, that shifts voices as an author does, that can tell whether Eagleton is speaking his own opinion or is rehashing the views of someone else.

In observing my reader I this week, an interesting phrase occurred to me. It is this: "the audience of your reading." My reader reads, while the interpretive I asks questions like "who is the audience of your reading?" I might as well say, while I am reading, a part of me is always writing - or preparing to write - also. Whether that writing ends up actually written is immaterial, I engage in mental preparation for it either way.

I would not go so far as to say that, for me, reading is writing. Rather, that they are different is exactly why my reading process is so bifurcated. Then again, the reader I and the writer I almost always coexist. They are not, perhaps, so schizophrenic after all. Rather they are like Aristophanes's lovers (from Plato's Symposium), amorphous blobs meant to be together. Indeed, they are not only meant to be together, but incapable of surviving without each other.

Perhaps the true challenge of this assignment, however, is not in recognizing this dichotomy. Rather, it has been in getting the reader I to read itself. The writer I is used to interpreting the transmissions of the reader, and the writer I is used to looking at and analyzing itself. The reader, however, never really gets a chance to turn that equation in the other direction*. Because this reader I is so impossibly anti-ideological and anti-interpretive, its voice in the process is non-existent. It is, after all, the writer within me that writes this very reflection. Even when I read my own writing, the reader I adopts its traditional role, treating the text as if it is not my own, letting the interpretive I do the interpretive work.

* Except, perhaps, when I'm doing astrology, but that involves the procedural trick of placing myself outside myself in a system of formal codes.

Reflection is a telling word, in fact. When I look in the mirror, what I see is not myself, but a reflection of myself. In trying to turn the interpretive mirror on myself, what I discover, above all, is that the same interpreter that interprets my reading also interprets myself. This could be maddening, but in fact it bothers me not at all. The system, it seems to me, works. I see no occasion for dramatized crisis. Nevertheless, it is interesting to observe and articulate this strange division-cum-non-division, and it is surprising to me that I had never noticed something so fundamental to my own reading before.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An Alternative Pedagogy for the PhD Core


Because my last post was a little bit negative, and perhaps somewhat dramatic,* I want to offer a constructive follow-up.  Let me make explicit, first, the criticism that is really at the heart of yesterday's post.  Then, I'll offer an alternative. 

* I never, ever write overly-dramatic posts, do I?

The problem with my two required courses is that they are not, at least so far, good courses.  One is a Doctoral Proseminar that every first year PhD student has to take.  Its stated objectives are, in part, taking a broad look at the field of education research and, in part, getting to know the rest of the cohort.  The other required course - the spark for yesterday's existential angst - is the first leg of a three course series of introductory research methods courses required within the first two years by all Education PhD students. 

The How

How are these courses bad?  Well, they are both co-taught, but there is not even a semblance of collaboration between the Professors co-teaching the courses.  In both sections, one Professor gets up and lectures while the other sits around looking bored, only occasionally interjecting.  At some point the Professors might switch places when the topic changes, but that's really it.  There's no dynamic interaction, there's no prior planning, there's no engagement.

The lack of interaction is perhaps not damning, but the lack of student participation is.  Now, a student in one of these courses might very well object that, yes, we do participate some.  This is true.  The lecture style in both classes is not pure, incessant blather.  There is some opportunity for back-and-forth.  But there is no room for dialogue, even so.  The path of the "conversation" is, if not predetermined by the Professor, managed in its entirety by him.*  Students don't have the opportunity to speak to each other without Professorial interpolation.  That's not dialogue, that's Q&A. 

* I say 'him' because three of the four Professors in question are male, and the three men are the chief pontificates.

A word on the classroom that both of these courses take place in.  It's not exactly conducive to dialogue.  It's basically a small-to-medium sized meeting hall, perfect for a breakfast get-together.  There are a number of round tables that fit four people each, with a longer desk at the front of the room, in front of a SmartBoard (that, incidentally, none of the Professors knows how to use).  At the back of the room is a blackboard.  Notably, one wall contains creative artifacts made by STEP (Stanford Teacher Education Program) students, who use this same room more dynamically.

For a typical class, students will read a few articles and do a kind of preparation activity.  In the Proseminar these are basically note-taking activities designed to reinforce good reading skills.  In the methods course, these are writing activities, some of which have proven interesting and valuable, and others, well, yeah.  My last post addresses that.  Regardless, with the rare exception of some small-group work at the tables, whether a student has done the reading or not has no particular bearing on the course because the Professor simply stands around expounding about said reading for far too long, asking theoretically probing questions that the same five students answer.

In short, it's a typical University class.  But what is striking is how different it is from my experience at this very University as a Master's student.  It is said that the difference between the Master's level and the PhD level is that the latter is more focused on research.  It seems that, in addition, because research is the important thing, pedagogy goes totally out the window as well.

A final note on the how and why of the problems with these required courses.  In addition to troubling pedagogical practices, the curricula of both courses are far from compelling.  There is no clear "this is what you're getting out of this class."  That means that, while the assessments are fairly good, there's not a strong sense of how said assessments measure whatever it is that we as students are supposed to be learning.  For example, the book review required in Proseminar may develop good habits of mind, but it does not connect in any meaningful way with the readings or the lectures, at least so far.  In the methods course, we're supposed to design a study around our research interests and questions, but in the first three weeks (30% of the quarter), we've not even spoken about research questions, research design, or what makes for a good study, let alone actually done anything.* 

* It's becoming a source of personal amusement that, in a certain sense, my tennis course is pedagogically superior to my other courses.  Each session we show up, we warm up by working on whatever part of our skill set we want to, then the instructor shows us a new skill or a wrinkle on an old one and we go practice it for a half-hour as he wanders around giving pointers.  And you know what?  My ability to play tennis is improving much faster than my ability to research.  I know it's not a totally fair analogy, but that doesn't mean it's not worth thinking about. 

The Why

Why are these courses the way they are?  Perhaps the Professors teaching these courses are doing it because they're trying to curry favor with the administration, and thus they don't want to invest in designing a strong curriculum or practicing good pedagogy.  Perhaps the course curriculum, because it is designed by committee and not by the teacher, is innately unfocused.  Perhaps no one has recognized the problems with the room the courses are housed in, and therefore hasn't tried to come up with a more engaging way of using the space.

Whatever the reason, at its heart is this: Stanford University, like most institutions of higher education, is primarily interested in research.*  While many Professors like to teach, they frequently have little to no actual teaching training, and their jobs are in no way dependent on the quality of their teaching.  Students, similarly, are generally less invested in classes** because they're wrapped up in research agendas and assistantships and meeting other requirements and trying to survive in the Bay Area on the roughly $20,000 a year they make as PhD students. 

* Well, research and football, anyway.

** A quotation from a Doctoral student well-along on her path: "Your classes don't matter."  In that case, I wonder, why do we have them at all?

In summary, Professors are not accountable to their employers for their teaching.  They are accountable to their students, but their students don't particularly care whether they teach well or not.  As a result, there's no particular motivation to improve a course, no particular need to assess whether it is "working" or not,* and no particular place for a student who does care about the quality of his courses (and the pedagogy therein) to voice concerns.  It's a self-perpetuating, broken system.  Except it's not broken at all: it's exactly what almost everyone involved wants it to be, which indicates that maybe the real problem is much, much deeper.  But we'll have to leave that for another time. 

* At Stanford in particular such an assessment would be confounded by the fact that most students here are extremely good at doing well in and taking as much as they can from poorly taught classes.  Otherwise they wouldn't have made it to Stanford in the first place. 

An Alternative Pedagogy 

Vogon Guard: "Alright, so what's the alternative?"
Ford Prefect: "Well, stop doing it, of course!  Tell them you're not going to do it anymore.  Stand up to them!"
Vogon Guard: "Doesn't sound that great to me."
  - Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The alternative to lecturing is, simply enough, not lecturing.  The alternative to none - or few - students participating is getting them all to participate.  Perhaps this is my St. John's education speaking, but I still think there's a lot to be gained from students talking to each other, and there's no reason that can't happen in these required courses.

How does that work?  First of all, no more powerpoint slides.  No more prepared lectures or conversational agendas.  No more "this is what this article means" declarations.  Questions - even pointed ones - to shape a conservation are fine, but presupposed answers are death to inquiry.  If the goal is for new doctoral students to learn to interpret research, to discuss or analyze a text, and to be able to construct and argument as to what that text means, then it's imperative that they get practice at actually doing it.  That does not mean "write a summary," that means dialogue, conversation, and argumentation.

So instead of two Professors trading off droning - with occasional interruption - at 30 students, let's put all of the manpower and brainpower in the classroom to work.  Split the class into two groups of fifteen,* and send one Professor off with each group.**  Sit in one great big circle, let the Professor ask a question about the text, and let the students work together to try to answer that question.  Have, in other words, a dialogue. 

* And rotate the groups around each week, so there's always a different mix in each group.

** Alternatively, split into even smaller groups - say five groups of six - and let the Professors float around, or put them into different groups each session.

Does that sound like St. John's?  Of course it does.  And why do I suggest it?  Because it works.  Stanford PhD students are smart people.  If you put fifteen of them in a room with a text and ask them to figure out what it means and why it's important, odds are they're going to succeed.  So why not give it a chance?  They'll be developing interpretive skills, learning to talk to each other about research (which, vitally, may not even be in their area), and getting to know each other much better than they can when they're sitting four-to-a-table and being lectured at for two hours.

It is true that Professors are generally experts in these fields while students are not, but their wealth of experience does not mean that they are innately better readers than their students, or that they can say something more insightful about a text.  What's more, even if they are better at those things, students will not learn simply by watching them talk.  I cannot learn tennis without swinging for myself (and sometimes hitting it into the net), so how can I be expected to learn to speak to my future colleagues about research without being given a chance to do so, even if sometimes our interpretations are wrong, or we cut each other off, or we oversimplify?  By doing will we learn, not by watching.

The Professor's role in this picture is to be the net.  When I hit a tennis ball too short, I can tell.  When I say something stupid, the Professor can chime in.  But here's the really cool part: even that can be given over to students.  If you let us talk to each other, we'll learn how to point out each other's mistakes, as much as highlight each other's strengths.  In short, we'll form and learn to be a part of an intellectual community much like the one we're supposedly entering as future PhD-holding scholars.

Perhaps the objection could be raised that dialogue doesn't happen among Professors, either, and that therefore such a pedagogical system would not prepare students for the Academy.  If that's so, then this alternative to lecturing becomes doubly important: we need academics who do more than merely pontificate, but who can actually communicate.  The only way we'll get them is by training them to do so from the beginning.  And anyway, it's a lot easier to transfer the ability to dialogue into giving a good lecture than the other way around.

A St. John's-ian dialogue, of course, is not the only valid alternative to a lecture class.  Not all good classes are discussion classes.  I do, however, pose it as a radical opposite pole.  Somewhere in between is an equally good place where co-teachers actually work together, where the affordances of the room are taken into consideration when shaping the curriculum, and where the students are allowed to practice and be engaged with the material (and each other) for the whole two to three hours.  Such pedagogical strategies exist.  I wish that some enterprising Professor teaching a required, core course would use them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

When Doing Poorly on an Assignment is a Crisis

I knew, when I decided to come to Stanford, that there would be days I would wish I had gone to UCSD instead (just as the reverse would have been true).  I did not expect that one of those days would come so early.

Those that know me know that I care little for grades.  I am perfectly capable of assessing my own learning.  What I desire, instead, is feedback, constructive criticism, helpful advice.  Harsh doesn't hurt.  On the contrary, the more direct the feedback, the more specific the criticism, the better.  I want to be a better writer, a better thinker, a more skilled lover of wisdom.

In one (or two) of my courses this quarter, however, I'm feeling something of a crisis of purpose.  The course is a core requirement for all Stanford PhD students, a course that, in principle anyway, is at the heart of what we're doing and learning as future researchers.  The course is a methods course, an introduction to research methodology and thinking.

It is in this course that we recently read a piece by Jerome Kagan.  The piece was the first chapter of his "The Three Cultures," and, frankly, it's one of the worst pieces of writing I've read in a long time.  Its point - that different research methodologies* have different cultures - was blindingly obvious, but its construction was totally inane, ranging from disorganized to grossly oversimplified to needlessly complex.  Phrases like "the critical point is" appeared over and over, often referring to disparate ideas, while the phrase "to put it simply" appeared in front of one of the most complex formulations in the text.  A single paragraph mentioned algae, bees, and ferrets in an effort to make a point about language, but the point got lost in the bestiary. 

* That is, the hard sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

All of this was prefaced by two inexcusable writing decisions.  The first was a table that shouldn't have been a table. The table charted "dimensions of research cultures" against those cultures, with the horrifying result that some cells contained whole sentences formatted like bad poems.  Note to self: anytime you put a 20 word sentence in a table, try to make the cells wide enough so that you do not to have one word per line.

The other decision - perhaps graver - was an invocation of Ludwig Wittgenstein near the opening of the text.  Wittgenstein, if you don't know, is famous for destabilizing theories of language and meaning with his not-always-clear, fragmentary texts.  He challenged the assumption that words meant the same thing all the time, and ultimately convinced everyone from philosophers to linguists to social scientists that context is really important - perhaps the only thing that is important - to meaning.

Kagan uses Wittgenstein, then, to begin his treatise on the three cultures.  His citation of the philosopher is made to preface his own observation that, within different research paradigms, different words have different meanings.  Fear, for example, means a different thing to an English professor than to a Behavioral Psychologist.

Which is all well and good, of course, if blindingly obvious.  No, the offense here was pointing to Wittgenstein as the divider of the disciplines.  It perhaps did not strike Kagan as supremely ironic that Wittgenstein himself probably would not have been all that excited by the theoretical division of the "three cultures" of modern academic research, that Wittgenstein's ways of thinking were in equal part scientific, social, and humanistic, that his methodology was not easy to categorize by the very system that Kagan found Wittgenstein to be the father of.

Behind my disgust at reading page after page (after page) of the drivel in "The Three Cultures"* was a lurking fear.  You see, this was not something I was reading on my own.  No, this was one of the first pieces that I was meant to read as a PhD student at Stanford University.  In some sense, this was canonical, brilliant, an important work for me to contemplate and consider.

* I prefer to be a generous reader, but in this case I cannot think of a single redeeming quality of the piece.

With even greater horror I turned to my assignment: I must summarize this monster and, what's more, apply its reasoning to my own potential research interests.  The written summary is, I think, a poor piece of pedagogy and assessment as is, but it's doubly hard when the work in question is of such poor quality.

Being the contrarian that I am (nicht diese tone, after all), I decided to write a poem.  I suspected this might get me in trouble, to a degree, but I have always tested academic limits (often to my benefit) throughout my time as a student.  This was not, for example, the first poem I've turned in on a non-poetry assignment, and historically my assessors have appreciated the change of pace, as well as the effort at creative insight.  Some have leveled a warranted "don't do that again" at me, as well, but at least there was respect for the process.

In this case, I borrowed some of Kagan's language, inserted a one-sentence statement of the simple fact - that different research cultures are different, basically - and ended with the observation that "somebody misappropriated the Wittgenstein."  It was, in my opinion, a funny but not inaccurate piece of analytical and synthetic work considering the quite dull material with which I was presented.  It was not a good poem, but it was not meant to be.  Good poems (and perhaps good writing of any kind) need subject matter worth writing about.  Of course I could have, in less time and probably with better results - at least from the Professorial point of view - done a traditional summary, but if I'm going to spend hours reading a piece of drivel, I intend not to bore myself by writing the same kind of drivel in response.*

* It is worth noting that the Kagan piece was poor writing by academic standards as well.  It was flowery and full of needless metaphors.  It was organized so that multiple and unclear ideas populated each sentence.  It was a mess.

In response to my poem (and, for the other reading, an interpolation of the reading into Plato's Meno; another, I thought, interesting and synthetic attempt to summarize the work without driving myself totally mad at the grade-school-book-reportiness of it all), I received a "check-minus" with a note that I did not summarize Kagan, and that I should look at my classmate's example passages for help.

Hence my crisis.  I know how to summarize a piece of writing.  I can write a clear and concise sentence when it is worth writing.  But I am not here to learn how to regurgitate simple information poorly presented.  And yet, increasingly, that is how I feel my classes are designed.  Classes taught ostensibly by critical pedagogues - who believe in student-run classrooms and dialogue and activity - are two-hour lectures.*  Courses in research methodology involve no training in research or methodology, but rather middle-school level assignments that ask primarily that I demonstrate not that I understand the ideas of a text or am striving to make them my own, but rather that I have done the reading, and am able to copy and paste important ideas into equally vapid academic jargon.**

* A fact that would amuse me were it not so sad.  It is a shocking revelation that the people who teach teachers to teach (and teach education researchers to assess good teaching) - that is, School of Education Professors - are such poor teachers.

** Perhaps that is "methodology" to the modern researcher?  If so, academia is in worse trouble than I thought.

Perhaps I was mistaken in thinking that Education research was open to people who value ideas as much as research, people who value creativity, process, and inspiration as much as method and practice.  It is not that I discount research, method, or practice, it is rather that I see so little of the other stuff that I'm beginning to wonder, well, whether wonder is a part of the equation at all.

Again, I don't really care about grades.  I could get a check-double-minus or a D or whatever and that wouldn't bother me.  No, what bothers me is that the feedback I received misses the point entirely.  It bothers me that the conversation is one way.  That the pedagogy is so deeply flawed.  That the underlying philosophy is so undemocratic.  That the value system is so blindly accepted that it cannot see that, maybe, a whimsical, irreverent, and sarcastic spark might have merit beyond "not being a summary."  Of course it wasn't a summary; it was a condemnation.

If a summary had been worth writing, I would have written one.  Give me an assignment worth doing, an article worth reading, a conversation to have (instead of a lecture to attend to), and I will produce high quality work.*  Give me a class worth taking - do not waste my time for three hours at a time with your pontificating and your holier-than-thou elitism (tenure alone does not make you interesting).  I, too, am an intellectual.  I, too, love ideas, perhaps more than you would believe.  I, too, can speak and listen.  I, in my own way, am well-read.  I have stood in front of students and shut myself up so that they might speak, and it was wondrous.  Yet, if no such thing can happen even here, at Stanford University, in a PhD program, in Education, can we hope for it to happen anywhere else?

* I might as well say the same for any and every student, and yet this lesson learned so well in research has not been learned in practice even by the very researchers who teach it.

It is not my assignment that makes me wonder about all of this.  That is but a small and ultimately meaningless symptom of a much deeper problem.  Nevertheless, it is an indicative example of the bigger picture: a case in which, it now seems obvious to me, the result was destined both because of how I was inevitably to respond to the assignment, and how the assignment, so to speak, was going to respond back to me.  And so the deeper culture becomes the question, and leaves me with an exhortation.

Instead of demanding that I fit into your narrow boxes, academia, you would do well to invite and celebrate your radicals, your creative thinkers, your irreverent teachers, your trouble-makers.  I know that UCSD does, and yet I chose Stanford, in part, because I believed that it did as well.  Now I'm not so sure.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Four Random Thoughts on Reading Gerald Graff's Professing Literature (and Sundry Other Works)

Ok, so this is a response to my reading for my "Future of English" class this week, but I believe it is actually broad enough that it should more or less make sense to people who aren't in the class.


When I taught creative writing last summer, we spent a day with Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. It's an enigmatic book, a difficult one, but intensely perceptive. Getting high schoolers to appreciate – nay, to comprehend – the project of the work I feared would be impossible. As we read sections together, my fears were realized: they had no idea what was going on.

So instead of forcing a conversation, I jumped into the later part of the activity sooner. I sent them out of the classroom (this was a private school, so I was allowed to do this) to find a place on campus that they found interesting, and then to compose something in the style of Calvino (or at least his translator). An example:

A City In Perpetual Motion

The city in perpetual motion is constantly rising upwards as its inhabitants' visions grip the stars with the dreams swirling in their minds. The city is made of glass allowing a communal flow of energy to circulate through its streets. Glass wall upon glass wall are lined and stacked to form endless buildings, those too, upon glass. The glossy skyscrapers are filled with rarities and talents and treasures, seemingly weightless and untainted. The glassy floor is covered in flourishing plots of herb and flower, each of their seeds pulled from the farthest edges of the universe. As the city in perpetual motion rises upward, it expands, its inhabitants determined to take their place above the stars.

Perhaps not as skillful as Calvino – certainly not as impressive as the vast, interwoven collection he produces, complete with self-reference and surprising invisible threads and the strange Marco Polo / Kublai Kahn back story – but good enough to give rise to a question. Did the students actually fail to understand Invisible Cities? What was I looking for? What ought I have done?


It strikes me that the history Graff describes is a history of Hegelian dialectic aborted. Time after time, apparent theoretical, pedagogical, and interpretive opposites have circled each other in the English Department, seeking synthesis, but unable to find it thanks to an unwillingness or inability for the the institution to engage the conflict.


I wonder what a similar history of the School of Education would look like? What conflicts have been subsumed into the now-incoherent structure of the institution? Certainly the tripartite division between the researchers who identify themselves with 1) the humanities, 2) the social sciences, 3) the hard sciences comes from some historical disagreement that Schools of Ed participated in, but continue to shield their students from (instead requiring methods courses in each of these research techniques separately, without asking them to consider the fundamental question: what is research?)


What does the ideal University look like, or is there such a thing? Perhaps a better question is: if one had the power to build not just a University or a College, but indeed the Educational system or, deeper still, the entire society itself from scratch, what would it look like? I suspect one would need to go to social values to make any meaningful, fundamental change. Why?

Is it maybe the case that, given our social values the system we have is the ideal, or at least a very good representation of those values?