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.

No comments:

Post a Comment