Won’t We Need to be Able of Critical Thinking Ourselves?

As commonly mistaken and as described in “Paulo Freire and Critical Pedagogyby Shelli Fowler, teaching does not consist of communicating the body of knowledge only. Teaching is a complex construct that encompasses several dimensions, including knowledge production, student’s encouragement and several concepts that should get included in the classroom such as diversity. But how to achieve such challenge? It sounds like a difficult task, but critical pedagogy and critical thinking provide a guide to be followed within the higher education context.

Critical pedagogy should be promoted in the classrooms in order to allow students not only to receive information but also to reflect and analyze the topics covered during the class. We should stop giving students a lot of information to memorize. Instead, we should incentive them to relate the class’ concepts or topics with their career practice or why not, with what is happening in today’s world.

Critical pedagogy involves the participation not only of the students but also of the professors. This is an interactive process where both groups can learn. But, how to incorporate critical thinking in the classroom? We should come back to the basics as Bell Hooks mentioned in his book “Teaching Critical Thinking”. We should encourage students to interrogate all the time what they are learning. Children’s learning is a great illustration. Children are not afraid of asking “why” all the time. And taking into account that in our daily lives we don’t know the answer to many questions, asking questions is a practice that should get encouraged in the classroom. Because if we don’t know the answer, someone in the classroom may do, which is why diverse environments are a lot more beneficial for the learning process. Additionally, everyone will understand and perceive the concepts/ideas/or issues in different ways. For that reason, we have to show them not only the positive side of a specific topic but also its contradictions. As Paulo Freire described in his article “The Critical Pedagogy Primer”, we can incorporate in the class thought experiments where we can ask students “what would happen if”.

Here is an example given by Armani. She has a disabled student in her TA course, Fluids Mechanics this semester. The primary physical issue for this student is the difficulty of moving his hands and legs like normal people, such that he needs a writer to help him do homework. He comes to her homework help session every week. For his convenience, Armani tried to become his writer and guide him to solve the problems on the whiteboard. But gradually, she noticed that he became very dependent, paid more attention to the final answer rather than the procedure, and did not think about problems by himself before coming to the help sessions. These behaviors also reflected on the grade of his first exam. In engineering, critical thinking is significant for learning not only in the classroom but also when they are practicing applying the concepts and principles to homework problems by themselves. Typically, we can ask students to show their calculation and explain what they think to us. However, because of the special conditions of this student, the general strategy seems not working. Also, when the educational systems and educators try to accommodate their inconvenience, sometimes it might discourage them to be become independent learners. Recently, inspiring from the reading of GEDI materials, Armani has found that for this type of students, we actually need to spend even much more time on asking them questions (e.g., “Why?”, “What do you think?”, “What is next?”, “Does this remind you anything you learned in class?”) and give them even much more time to think.  This is the way not only to teach them how to think critically but also help them to internalize the knowledge and develop their own logical ways to solve the problems.

In summary, these are some illustrations of how Critical Pedagogy’s strategies can contribute significantly to the learning process. These theories and strategies lead to a practice that can get applied in the different fields of knowledge, both in the social and technical ones. Incorporating a process of analysis and synthesis, providing a safe space so questions and discussion are encouraged, and acknowledging the potential of diversity in the classroom; lead to a better learning process and contribute to the creation of critical thinkers all around us.

Who Knows How to Use a Screw Driver?

A not so long time ago.

In a small classroom somewhere near us.

Brandon : How many of you know how to use a screwdriver?

Students thinking: (Refer to the image that follows)

Without peeling it, poke 2 holes into the onion using your screwdriver -- one on the left, and one on the right.

After about 3 people in a class of 30, raised their hands, Brandon realized the enormity of the task at hand. He also out the answer to the question – How many engineers does it take to use a screwdriver? (You would not be incorrect if you said 10%.)


Live scenes of Brandon from his class (not!)

Our group (Which was the Best Group Ever!!) acknowledges the limitations of the banking form of education. Simply trying to transfer our knowledge unto students is an outdated method of instruction.


Teachers as Depositors

The banking form of education assumes instructors and teachers as being the single source of all information. We would like to disagree. We understand that students bring their own experiences and viewpoints to the classroom, and they can also impart valuable information to both their teachers and their peers.

Me when I started teaching

However, at the same time, we realize that teaching is not a one-way street. Learning to think critically requires simultaneous participation of teachers as well as students. One can obviously argue that current incentive structures hinders critical thought. A system  with primary focus on grades is detrimental to critical thinking. Students essentially minimize thought in an effort to maximize grades.


The drawbacks of the prevalent incentive structures

In an effort to wean students away from existing methods of learning, we should focus on incremental learning, like in cooking, where you reuse fundamental skills over and over, occasionally adding trying a new method or step to create something new.

Pedagogy is like cooking

Additionally, forming relationships leads to engagement in the learning process by the students. Educators and students can establish mutual teaching and learning relationships. Active listening as well as active silence are necessary to establish a successful learning environment.

Doing things differently

We as educators, must impress upon students that education is an ongoing pursuit for democracy, freedom, equity, deep critical thinking, and diversity. We should promote ways to overcome barriers that hold some students back from developing their deep potential.


Balancing Lives



Brandon: http://rockingthescience.net/GRAD_5114/

Ethan – http://ethanlarsen.net/gedi/

Jyotsana : https://jyots21.wordpress.com/category/gedivt-3/

Miguel Andres (https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/maguerra/)

Wejdan: https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/wejdangrad5114/


Source of Gif and Images in the order they appear:

  1. Source: http://www.viralnova.com/onion-phone-charger/
  2. Source: https://giphy.com/gifs/kanye-west-make-it-rain-mCId3zHmvi2JO
  3. Source: http://www.intoon.com/cartoons.cfm/id/14461
  4. Source: Unknown
  5. Source: Unknown
  6. http://www.who.int/features/2017/health-equity/en/
  7. Source: https://imgur.com/gallery/nISdv
  8. Source: http://rebloggy.com/post/writing-books-poetry-poem-reading-literature-dead-poets-society-poems-poets-nati/81999367107
  9. Source: https://giphy.com/gifs/soulpancake-teachers-students-kid-president-d42bbeRtFSSru


Critical Pedagogy: Education as Emancipation . . . or . . . Teach for the Sky

Table 3’s Take on Critical Pedagogy

Education is getting an overhaul. A growing appreciation of the dynamic nature of the world has led to dynamic classrooms, and we could not be more excited.

Previously, the initials CP might trigger vague thoughts of Canada’s largest international airline, or how physicists still measure luminosity (Candle Power). Not anymore! Now CP stands for one thing, and one thing only: Critical Pedagogy. But what is Critical Pedagogy?

Codified and championed by Paulo Freire, the Argentine polymath, CP is a revolutionary teaching approach that aims to challenge education’s traditionally authoritarian perspective (I teach, you learn). Whilst CP can be achieved in myriad different ways, there are several things it cannot do without.

Critical Pedagogy …


Requires dialogue between teacher and student

Teachers must know their students in order to be able to teach effectively, thus the relationship between the two, and the one that exists between the teacher and the collective group of students (class), guides and shapes the education that is given and received.


Facilitates the asking of questions   






Is political and requires teachers to be engaged in societal issues and debates


Is Centered upon the Concept of Biophily – nature is inherently dynamic, and thus can only be fully understood if we appreciate the changes and adaptations of natural systems over time.

Neither students nor teachers are static entities, and this has direct consequences for both teaching style and course content. Failure to recognize the fluid nature of a classroom will likely lead to failure. What’s more, the progress of society hangs on these shared dynamic properties, without which there would be no reason for hope. We have made it this far, but only by the skin of our teeth.

video – 4 Billion Years of Evolution in 40 Seconds

Blog post: Freire and Fromm on Necrophily


Searching to define the ‘best’ way of teaching – versus thinking that the existing way ‘works fine’.


Democratic in its approach to including all perspectives:

  • Attends to equity rather than equality   


Another illustration from a different perspective (CP in action!!)








Flexible in its construction: not proscriptive or prescriptive – utilize what makes sense, adopt practices and outcomes that align within the general framework of Frerie’s ideas, but does not need to follow them exactly


Respects students’ pre-existing knowledge and make use of it.

Learning goes beyond re-learning existing knowledge, includes the creation of new knowledge. The teaching process is more than knowledge transfer, encouraging the learners to create and recreate knowledge for themselves.


An example for this from Chang:

My previous research was focused on some new functional nanomaterials before I came to Virginia Tech. Then I joined the group at VT which the projects were mostly about environmental contaminants detection by spectrum analysis. By using this kind of analysis, substrates were employed to get the chemical compound detected. In some specific project, the nanomaterial I studied before could be used as perfect substrates in the work we are doing now. It s a great incorporation for which I could dig deeper based on my previous study and make use of it in the future research. My advisor totally respects what I have got and he said he had definitely learned something from it.  


Open to various ideas and perspectives  

Multiple perspectives are essential in order to reach various learners  and promotes students adopting various perspectives








Group Members:

Brittany Boribong, Chang Liu, Faith Skiles, Jonathan Harding, George Brooks, Kathryn Culbertson

ENGAGING Definitions of Critical Pedagogy from Six Different Disciplines

VT Engage is a department at Tech that encourages participating in service through a collaborative manner. Volunteering sometimes does more harm than good because we go into communities with an almost white savior complex and ‘fix’ problems that were not there. Then we leave as volunteers, happy that we did service, while the community still has problems. VT Engage however, directly works with communities in a collaborative way that allows them to identify the problems. We then work with communities on problems that matter to them. This allows us to learn from them and how to work together to reach their need based goals, not ours. This makes us aware of their realities and needs, in addition to making them the subjects instead of objects. This is an example and extension of critical pedagogy and how it may be applied. Below are definitions of critical pedagogy from the perspective of our respective disciplines:

Higher Education

Critical pedagogy can be thought of as focusing on the student. This is in line with what Paolo Freire talked about when he wished for us to consider students as subjects and owners of their own learning experiences. Higher education looks at student learning through a holistic perspective and this is an extension of critical pedagogy.

An example: The education field, and especially higher education understands the importance of critical pedagogy. However, this message is not easily transferable to our colleagues in the university that are interested in the bottom line. For example, an advisor might not understand why a student is unable to decide what major to choose. The advisor has heard their advisee talk about doing Finance or Environmental Law. The ‘clear’ choice is finance because it makes more money and the student is on a full scholarship at VT. However, if the advisor adopted a more critical perspective or pedagogy and looked at the student through a holistic point of view, they would see that there are other salient things to consider other than what degree will reap the most benefit or money.


As a historian, my understanding of critical pedagogy begins with using Freire to amplify the tenets of liberal learning that form the foundation for historical inquiry: identifying the sources from which historical meaning is constructed and situating those sources in context. Or, put more simply: analyzing material to create an interpretation or perspective on how things change over time. Critical thinking 101. The critical pedagogy piece manifests when the discovery process (learning) provokes students to think about their own historical context, leading to a new awareness that inspires them to work for constructive change. That awareness brings with it the potential for self-actualization, fulfillment, and learning that expands beyond the classroom and after the end of the semester. The learning community formed when teachers and students make themselves available to each other is essential to the success of this project, and this where I lean on bell hooks’ concept of engaged pedagogy:

“Engaged pedagogy establishes a mutual relationship between teacher and students that nurtures the growth of both parties, creating an atmosphere of trust and commitment that is always present when genuine learning happens.” (Teaching Critical Thinking. Practical Wisdom, p. 22)


Environmental Engineering 

Critical pedagogy in environmental engineering field should focus more on letting students deal with real environmental issues in our daily life and fight air/water/solid waste pollution around ourselves. As environmental engineers, we learn lots of remediation knowledge and techniques via textbooks and classic examples. This passive learning process treats students as “banking accounts” (concept proposed by Paulo Freire). However, in critical learning, or problem-based learning experience, students are encouraged by teacher to first identify environmental problems (air/water/noise/waste) around us, for example near your apartment, around campus, or in a specific community. This process strengthens the connection between student and our mother nature, and give students a chance to improve their living environment for real. With a clear identified environment problem, students are encouraged to propose a detailed remediation plan. These draft plans will be open for discussion through the semester by teacher, industrial people, and most importantly among the peers regarding creativity, feasibility, performance, environmental friendliness, and cost-effectiveness. More problems will be discovered, and students are actively engaged in the learning process to polish their remediation plan under effective communication and solid team work. Promising plans can be converted to a prototype or small-scale treatment system with the help of teacher before being implemented to address source issue. Trial for practical application provides both teacher and students valuable hands-on experience and continuous feedback via periodical maintenance. Critical learning, eventually, establishes student’s confidence as an environmental engineers to build a better and greener environment.

Figure: To Think Like An Engineer
Link: http://discovermagazine.com/2013/dec/15-e-is-for-engineering

Transportation Engineering

From a transportation engineer’s point of view, the definition of critical pedagogy is two fold: be ready to embrace the future and dare to deny the results from formulas for the sake of social equity.

Transportation was never a static area. Not only because its subjects always moving (which is in the definition of transportation), but also because of its high dependency on the technologies. Connected/automated vehicles were not in the context when most of the textbooks were written. The dynamics of a transportation systems will be different from the existing models. The methods to predict the trips are also changing with the social media data (e.g., steam from Facebook, twitter) become available. Future engineers need to revisit and be able to adapt the basics in transportation theory. They need to be able to dare to challenge the authorities and existing framework to make better trips for people.

Transportation is a social asset that should be able to access by anyone equally. As is stated in Bell Hook’s introduction of “Teaching Critical Thinking,” a good education should “encourage an ongoing commitment to social justice.” The current development of transportation facilities hurt the wellbeing of the poor and do the favor towards the rich class. The goal in highway design usually includes minimizing the cost which is related to the cost of the land and maximize the benefits. These thoughts usually lead to the situation where highways are constructed in a low income place. Although the highways physically lay in those area, the residents could not access the highway thus cannot benefit from the government funds. Moreover, the highway passing their area caused noise and air pollution. Although a large amount of government funds goes to transportation sector in the US, only a small part of it goes to public transit, which is accessible by the poor. With richer data available, the future engineer should keep in mind that their “optimal” design may not be fair to a certain social class.

Social Theory 

Even though social theory should by definition be explicitly engaged with the world beyond the classroom, this is often not the case. My field tends to suffer from a sort of academic myopia — especially in the more philosophically oriented courses. Making the connection between what we learn and teach in the classroom and the realities of non-academic life is essential to critical pedagogy in both social theory (which I study in the ASPECT program) and arts and humanities (which I teach in the Religion and Culture department).

In her writings on democracy and pedagogy, bell hooks discusses the divide between theory and practice. Her reflections on life as a Black female scholar exemplify a situation many of us in the humanities and social sciences are unfortunately all to familiar with: the case of the instructor who believes their intellectual engagement with progressive ideas is a substitute for practice. I have personally been in a few classes with seemingly forward-thinking — sometimes self-identified “radical” — professors who, after class, demonstrate very clear sexism and bias against students from certain backgrounds (particularly students from rural areas or with more mainstream ideals). So one goal of critical pedagogy in the humanities and social sciences should be to emphasize practice as much as theory. The hurt of sexism and other forms of bias — including racism, which I do not experience, but have observed secondhand all too often — is compounded by hypocrisy.

One way we can combat this is to emphasize self-reflexivity a bit more. I would like to see instructors be more transparent about their own bias and background, especially those who seem to feel very comfortable in their positions. The best humanities / social science instructors I have had were open about how they came to form their opinions, and even what led them to this career. In fields that deal primarily with subjective content, where interpretation and meaning-construction is key, critical pedagogy should help us resist the urge to present our course content as objective fact. Discussing how the course material evolved to become what it is today will offer students a good lesson in intellectual history and social epistemology — and, perhaps more importantly, establish instructors as human beings who are open to learning more, as well.

Environmental Design & Planning

The definition of critical pedagogy from a planning perspective is to embrace the complexity that comes with diverse learning environments and leverage it to question the knowledge we exchange with students through unique lenses of experience.  Just like our cities, our classrooms live and die with this complexity. When we try to simplify our cities with urban planning, placing communities and uses into well defined boxes (or zones or neighborhoods), we tend to lose the cultural intricacies that create vibrancy. This is what Jane Jacobs begins to chronicle in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Similarly, as Joe L. Kinchloe explains in The Critical Pedagogy Primer, our schools and our classrooms need complexity to thrive. His concept of Critical Complexity combines critical pedagogy with organizational complexity theory and is a convincing argument against the standardization and oversimplification of assessing academic performance.


Kinchloe mentions in his chapter “Moving To Critical Complexity” that Albert Einstein would have been considered a problem child and a nuisance in many classrooms of his day. His relentless questioning and assigning lessons from one domain to another would have frustrated many teachers who were trained to teach by the book. But as always, Einstein gets the last word. He is quoted to have said “Everything must be as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Einstein understands and embraces the need to complicate theories in order to better represent our complex reality, but striking a balance between manageable simplicity and critical complexity is key.

In conclusion, the strategy of VT Engage in service work and philanthropy is similar to what Christine Labuski mentioned in her follow up to last week’s discussion regarding Universal Precautions: we must move away from notions of savior neo-colonialism and assume that the people from troubled communities understand their problems best and therefore must be an integral part of the solution. In the context of teaching and critical pedagogy, no educator can possibly understand the wealth of experience and learning that brings each student to the doorstep of the classroom, and this student must be engaged in his or her own education enough to help decide what is best for their academic evolution. Different students learn in different ways; they see things through the varied lenses of the diverse lives they have lead. Teachers and students, writers of text books and journals and leaders of conferences all have biases that must be identified. Together we can be more critical and learn from a larger, shared perspective. We must embrace diversity and its ability to help us all constructively question the information placed along our path and apply it boldly in the direction of our dreams.

The What and the How of Critical Pedagogy

This blog post was a conjoined effort among group members. Table 2 consisted of:  Nicole, Kaisen, Alex, Sofia, Amy, Anurag, and Robert

What does Critical Pedagogy mean to you and your group?

Our table discussed the different approaches to critical pedagogy, and arrived on a series of terms that captured the essence of our articles. Each of these terms related to the significance of empowering students to “take ownership” over their learning process.


Empowerment is essential to critical pedagogy, given that the students are meant to play an engaged role in the learning process. A few of the articles mentioned the limits in top-down teaching, but the goal should be to facilitate student learning rather than merely teaching content. This space for student engagement enables students to personalize the learning experience and to connect the topics or themes in the course to their lived experience. This breaks down the boundaries between inside and outside of the classroom, and fosters student agency in the learning process.


The notion ofcomplexity was essential to the Kinchloe. He argued that complexity was often removed from the classroom, and therefore complexity was to be embraced as a productive tool for learning for each individual.


The classroom cannot be a one-way transfer of knowledge. The transmission model dehumanizes the students, limits creativity, and destroys their self-worth. Instead, we must engage with them as peers, fully capable of contributing to the classroom, and worthy of respect and empowerment.


Acknowledging that people have individual needs and that “one size fits all” is not always effective. Students may have different learning styles, backgrounds, previous schooling/experiences, etc.


Recognizing that the students are more than just receptacles and can’t be treated as such, One must recognize their agency, their need for creativity, their strengths and capacity for problem-solving, and their worth.


Seeing one’s position and others’ positions through multiples lenses, gaining new vantage points, acknowledging how something came to be. Reflexivity is essential to the classroom setting as learning and being cannot be separated from one another (ontology).

cooperative and decentralized

Where the teachers act as facilitators and relinquish their authoritative position to a more engaged and inclusive classroom. By decentralizing learning, the door is opened to learning from each other.

Have you ever think that it is impossible to apply critical pedagogical practices with your learners/students? Watch this video to get inspired:


And how may you apply it to your specific fields and educational settings?

Each of the table members hailed from different disciplines and will be teaching different types of courses. This section outlines the different ways critical pedagogy was or could be applied in each of our specific fields.

Robert: For someone teaching a political science or history course, the ambiguity of core terms can see frustrating, but are actually quite productive for critical pedagogical practice. One example of this productivity was in the international security course I taught last spring. In the first session, I gave students the space to define precisely what “security” meant for them and to explain how it was achieved. The diverse array of answers was particularly eye-opening. Some students explained that security related to the state and the role it plays in the security it provides for them to live a life free from encountering violence. For these students, security was about protection by a threat of violence. Other students explained that they defined security as something related to living in the that their family provided. That feeling of security came from other family members able to fulfill different functions essential to life. These different definitions demonstrated that students have very different interpretations of a foundational term, and it prompted reflections on the limits of dictionary definition of terms as space for a deeper student engagement. 

Pyrros:  In simplest terms, we can apply it by treating the students as humans, rather than automatons ready to receive their  programming. We cut them down, treating them as ignorant and worthless, dependant upon the professor, and force them to accept delivery of our knowledge deliveries. Instead, we recognize their prior skills and strengths, and empower them to solve their own problems. — In my specific field of spatial epidemiology, this would involve switching from lecture dominated classes to problem-based learning. Allowing the students to realize that they can critically solve their own problems. We can offer them tools, and a bit of guidance, but not dictate to them or guide them to specific solutions. It is a daunting prospect though, our existing “transmission system of education” has so much momentum, and most of us were trained in this system, breaking free of it will have to be done piecemeal. Still simply recognizing the students have their own agency and should be encouraged to embrace it, will go a long way.

Nicole: I am a student in the field of Food Science and Technology. I would facilitate a discussion about the scientific method. This could first begin with providing information/ a refreshing about what the scientific method is and its specific steps. Then, in a discussion-based format, I would ask students to reflect on who created this/how it came to be. Why is this the standard? Does the scientific method work for all types of scientific research? What are the requirements for journals students in our field would submit to? Who created these standards? Do they work for all types of research? These questions set up a platform to talk about the construction and deconstruction of knowledge, gatekeepers, and how it is healthy to question the “norm.”

Kaisen: I am a student in Environmental Engineering and would like to teach an Intro class in the future. In the syllabus I wrote couple weeks ago, I have a group project arranged, aiming to let the students apply the knowledge they learn from my class and help them think actively. After our discussion today, I think a good “tailored” approach is instead of assigning one same project to each group, I can let the students determine the topic of their projects. In this way, they are given freedom in learning the topics that they are interested in further by spending time on it and working together. As the instructor, I will have additional office hours for each group to help them on their group projects. I think that is something that I can do to make my class a little bit “customized” by students.

Amy: I am in Engineering Education, and my background is in Mechanical Engineering. I would love to engage students in thinking critically about engineering design. In engineering, we often talk a lot about the design process and incorporate design classes and design projects. However, at least in my own education, I rarely thought about the broader impact of engineering design. I didn’t really think about who was deciding what problems engineers solve and the implications of having a small group of people finding “solutions” to these problems. Therefore, in these engineering design contexts, I want to engage students in thinking critically about which problems are being focused on and the perspective from which these problems are being approached. I just want to end with this short clip:


Anurag: I am in Civil Engineering, and have not had any teaching experience until this point, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about the way my classes have been taught and what I would want to change. Engaging students starts on the first day and I completely agree with my reading that we should not assign anything that we are not prepared to do ourselves. Small exercises in the beginning of the class to help students get to know each other will go a long way in getting them engaged in class. It helps humanize us and develop respect for each other as we know something about them.

Sofi: I am a PhD student at the Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise department. For me equity in education is very important. I would try to design the lectures with different types of materials and sections (e.g. power point, video, discussion, reading and writing). These materials would help visual learners, auditory learners, reading/writing-preference learners, and kinesthetic learners. Specifically, in food policy is necessary to understand the different stakeholders and their role. Readings before the class are always very helpful to take the class discussion to the next level. A power point can be used to map the different stakeholders in order to visualize them. Then a video with  the stand position of policy makers regarding an initiative can be showed. Finally, writing a blog, tweet, commentary with the take away point of the class and final conclusion.

Can’t Let it Go — Inclusive Pedagogy With #Gedivt

We are deep in the heart of the Contemporary Pedagogy Syllabus and last week’s session on Inclusive Pedagogy left me reeling — in a good way. Talking with a diverse group of people about how to cultivate inclusive and diverse classrooms is always interesting, and often quite challenging, but this session was especially noteworthy for …

My voice? My VOICE?

Before I started teaching, a friend shared with me learned wisdom from his time as a student-slash-instructor, that peculiar situation in which many of the GEDI order now find themselves. “You learn a lot about yourself by teaching,” he said. This didn’t make me excited. I already know a lot about myself — I kind of wish I knew less, actually. And I definitely don’t want undergraduates to serve as a mirror to any self-knowledge of which I myself am unaware. Like Sarah Deel, I’ve had age and gender-based concerns about emphasizing too much of my “real” self in the classroom. Young female instructors already have to work harder than their male counterparts to gain respect, and it seemed to me like “learning about myself” would only come through an over-emphasis on me in the classroom.

At the end of my first semester of teaching, I was emotionally and intellectually depleted. Instructors field everything from frequent, unnecessary questions about assignments (how many times can you say: i t ‘ s  o n   t h e   s y l l a b u s) to potentially grave psychological issues among their students. This is all, of course, aside from the work of conveying the content of your course. It seemed to me then that people who take up teaching for the “soft” payoffs — the gratification of doing such meaningful work; a sense of connection to the rising generation — are in it for the wrong reasons. Teaching, I thought, should be about a love of the subject. Passion for knowledge, not people, is what makes a good teacher. Maybe it’s even okay to see it as “just” financial security while pursuing your own research.

Over time,  my perspectives on this have become more nuanced. College kids have a sixth sense for BS — so the appearance of naturalness in the classroom is  important, except you can’t be too natural if you yourself are obviously still in your twenties and of the gender that always has to fight to be taken seriously in intellectual professions. Authenticity as a measure of pedagogical success seems unfair when “realness” can discredit you. What a mess!

For these reasons, Dr. Fowler’s paper on authentic teaching self is a bit of a godsend. I’ve sometimes found myself walking into the classroom while the mental tape in my head continually reminds myself that what’s about to happen is a performance. Dr. Fowler’s focus on the similarities between teaching and acting — and especially on the physical component of the teaching-performance — really compounds this. Good acting always includes some reality: actors are instructed to “think the thought,” to try to genuinely feel the emotion of a scene and get caught up in the story. This is why getting in and out of character is a practice, just like memorizing lines and stage directions. Likewise, I think there are shades and degrees of authenticity that you can exploit to bolster your teaching performance. I do care about my students, and I really love what I teach. Now I think of this positive regard as its own self-replenishing source of energy that can be channeled toward every element of teaching (including administration and grading).

Authenticity (or at the very least, its appearance) seems key to establishing yourself as a Yearner, too. Seymour Papert didn’t really investigate experience and demographic-based obstacles to the kind of paradigm shift he’s interested in — perhaps he does that later in the book. So I think Dr. Fowler’s tools are a little bit more useful to me than Papert’s theory, although I certainly read the former as a vehicle for the latter. In truth, I’m still not totally at ease as an instructor. My teaching “voice” is still relatively untrained. Only with more time will I be able to gracefully navigate the space between absolute transparency and an overly stiff professional mask, both of which are hardly ideal as teaching personas. Perhaps the self that I’ll learn “a lot” about will be composed of those parts I feel comfortable showing in front of students. Those elements of ourselves that we draw from when we teach have got to be some of the most timeless, the most meaningful.


For those not in GEDI, the Virginia Tech graduate pedagogy course, here are the writings I’m responding to in this post:


http://amynelson.net/grad5114F15/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/The-Authentic-Teaching-Self-and-Communication-Skills.pdf (I really like this one)


The Buddhist and The Hot Dog Vendor

One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands has this lyric as a refrain:

“Change is the thing that is what we do, change is the change that’s changing you…”

It’s surreal, not really logical, but that’s why I like it — it emphasizes the disorienting quality of change. Theorizing the causes and nature of change has been a big project for contemporary philosophers, and there’s no reason why educators shouldn’t incorporate some deep reflection on change as part of their teaching. I approached the Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown reading from this perspective.

Okay, some of their musings on contemporary change struck me as glib, and my first reaction was to fall back on the same basic critique I’ve had with many of our readings: in their embrace of the new, they fail to acknowledge the unique character of older teaching methods that can’t simply be updated and made more accessible through the, uhhhh, magic of technology. (Although I hated it at the time, I’m actually glad my sophomore year Medieval Literature professor made me memorize the opening to Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English). But the project of rendering change visible can not only equip students to deal with the world beyond the classroom (which is, for better or worse, in a state of constantly-accelerating flux), it can offer a good philosophical message about the status of knowledge: facts are constructed. That doesn’t mean they can’t be true, but they are the result of methods and inquiry which are themselves a product of human innovation. Bodies of knowledge change, presumptions are overhauled — and if you’ve read Thomas Kuhn, you know that sometimes entire scientific paradigms shift so dramatically that we can speak of qualitative breaks in our shared understanding of the world.

Focusing learning programs on this notion of change and inherent instability could (and maybe they should) represent a break in pedagogy where students come to a deep awareness of their own agency in producing knowledge. Wikipedia is a great example of transparent knowledge production, and using Wikipedia edit records as a way to emphasize the constantly-changing, actively-generated nature of knowledge is an interesting idea. This awareness shouldn’t be limited to philosophy students with a focus on epistemology, the study of knowledge itself. The tenuous status of knowledge and informational authority is too present in the real world right now, and I suspect that this ambiguity is only on the rise. (Unfortunately, I’m thinking of fake news).

Meanwhile, I have no problems at all with Ellen J. Langer’s article — except that, maybe, its emphasis on presence and focus seems to challenge a lot of the technology-happy work we’ve done so far! I insist that my students put away their internet-connected devices at the beginning of class, not because I inherently dislike smartphones and laptops (that’s another issue), but because I want to create the conditions for mindfulness. Her observations on mindfulness and adaptability to change really hit home for me. Doing coursework in an interdisciplinary PhD program means constantly adapting not only to new content, but new ways of thinking about things. I didn’t major in any of the departments that I take ASPECT courses in, so I often find myself sitting in history, political science or cultural studies classes, attempting to grasp the methodological / epistemological assumptions of historians, political scientists, and so on. (Stuff that some people picked up as undergrads and master’s students, to be sure). The only way I’ve accomplished this while maintaining a sense of clarity and consistency is by paying very close attention to context. I adopt the idea that I’m coming into new disciplines not just to learn the explicit content, but to grok the assumptions that professors and long-term students of a discipline take for granted. This has been completely necessary whenever I’ve encountered quantitative methods… I’ve learned that those who see themselves as math and numbers people somehow appear to intuitively grasp contextual frameworks in ways that I don’t. That’s a bit unfair, but math becomes much easier for me when I try to explain those frameworks to myself before learning a new equation or concept. (It means I spend less time thinking about “why” we use a certain equation, who came up with these methods anyway, and how, and so on…). Hopefully that makes sense. The project of becoming aware of context is so, so important when trying to make sense of content in environments subject to rapid change. Mindfulness is a key component of this.

By the way, all this thinking about change and mindfulness reminds me of a dumb joke about a Buddhist monk and a hot dog vendor. It starts with a cheesy one-liner and then gets even worse:

A Buddhist goes up to a hot dog vendor and says “make me one with everything.” 

When he asks for change, the vendor replies: “change comes from within.”

And I’ll end this post here!


For anyone reading this not in GEDI class, here is the first article I’m responding to: http://www.newcultureoflearning.com/newcultureoflearning.pdf , pp. 39-49. The second is only available through the Virginia Tech network.

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