Let’s Get Emotional! … ?

This week’s reading caused me to pause quite a bit. When that happens, it means I am learning something that challenges who I am — or who I envision myself as. Palmer’s five “immodest” proposals seem to have persuaded me about something, namely, allowing emotion to (re)enter the academy amidst a false objectivity claimed by academics. Yet where do we draw the line for emotions in our classroom? Every syllabus I have encountered mentions — or should mention — appropriate “ethics” for a classroom: no shouting, civil discourse, and if all else fails, agree to disagree. But to be fair to Palmer, I don’t think this is completely the type of emotion being discussed. It involves allowing teachers and students to come in “as they are” in order for learning to occur. One particularly salient feature of the paper is that new professionals are “in but not of” their respective institutions. Meaning, the power-structures that we find ourselves under institutions do exist, but we inflate the significance of those powers. Instead, each one of us are institutions. “Institutions are us”, Palmers claims. Intriguing, and a good idea, but problematic in real living.

Perhaps more important was the idea of cultivating our sensibility and emotions, as they too have an “intelligence” to them. Martha Nussbaum’s work referenced in Palmer’s article speaks about this at length, and anthropologists have begun to look at emotions and how people respond differently to the same stimuli, and what that says about different bodies in different societies. Lots of interesting research here.

I would like to quote from Edelstein’s piece briefly on how the humanities can teach innovation to the natural sciences. Edelstein says, “the real difference between studies in the humanities and the sciences resides in how their respective canons are assimilated. Students studying the American Revolution, for instance, are not only expected to know the names and dates of all the important players or events. They are also obliged to demonstrate that they can make sense on their own of the material; that they can develop original arguments about reasons, motivations, and outcomes for the past.”

Edelstein goes on to state how the final exam paper must be an original piece innovated by the student — different from, say, a final calculus exam where everywhere who gets the right answer is homogenous. But isn’t arriving at the right answer here a sign of “originality”? To take a statement from an author I recently read, “is there not great creativity required in good imitation?” ; Edelstein further claims that the humanities ask for innovation in thought from their beginner courses, not simply regurgitation of science text books. But here is a problem too; while the humanities do ask for students to pitch in their own unique voice, there can be little advancement past freshman seminars/electives in the humanities unless one takes into account certain vocabularies, authors, arguments and texts central to a canon of thought. Thus, the humanities, like the sciences, require students to engage in a “common language” without which advancement would seem unlikely (Who can enter the humanities in the Euro-American academy without having come across the names Kant, Rawls, and Foucault?). Edelstein acknowledges this point about the humanities; every “discipline” requires a certain “disciplining” of its students. Nevertheless, as a former chemist who left the natural sciences and have now ended up in doctoral program in the humanities, I certainly see — in hindsight — the importance of my chemistry training in how I take notes and think through the humanities. Innovation, it seems, can work both ways.

Problem-posing education: Roger, a goat and a rabbit

Chapter two from Paulo Freire was probably the best thing I have read in the course thus far. I would assess his argument as partly being anti-intellectual in that it inspires subjects to receive an education that makes them active doers in the world. There is a spiritual echo present here that chooses ‘becoming’ over ‘being’, action over intellectual description.

Perhaps in an effort to begin the process of a dialogic, problem-posing education would be to open up what Freiri calls the banking concept of education (i.e., an act of depositing knowledge from active subjects to passive recipients). Freire gives a (humorous?) analogy of the banking concept of education that deals with a form of knowledge that has no bearing on reality. Thus, we teach a “vital question” like “Roger gave green grass to the goat” only to instead come to learn that actually “Roger gave green grass to the rabbit”. I would love to begin a dialogue on what you think this analogy is meant to represent within the banking model of education? I have an idea, but need further clarity from other disciplines.

Chomsky sees the education of Freire as consciousness raising. I also really appreciated how lucidly Freire shows the relationship of language to power and ideology. Cultivated languages essentially masquerade as ideology and power. Nevertheless for Freire, one must have an acquaintance with the dominant linguistic pattern, but it is not necessary that they imbue the dominant pattern. Their learning it is for different reasons than say aspirations for wealth or prideful articulation. Rather, it is so they can voice their oppression so it be understood by others. His reinterpretation of Marxism, fused into a spiritual liberation theology that is active, focusing on education for life, that is anti-necrophilia has, after a long time, convinced me that we can and should do something to change our educational system, one teacher at a time — beginning with YOU.


Walking Afraid in Hyde Park

Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi” was titled such after a black graduate student, Brent Staples, at the University of Chicago (Hyde Park, IL) felt his presence caused white community members discomfort (an all too common scenario on American campuses). He noticed that white people often drew one another closer as he walked by, or locked arms with fear in their eyes. In order to alleviate their fears and make himself feel safer from prejudice, he began to whistle Vivaldi — a famous classical musician — publicly so that he was viewed as elitist, someone who knew high culture, etc.

I too was a graduate student at Chicago and lived in Hyde Park for 2 years, a few blocks away from President Obama’s home. The dynamics of south side Chicago are complicated, and the city itself has been the source of major sociological studies in urbanism for over a hundred years (The Chicago School of Sociology). Chicago remains one of the most racially divided cities in the world, and particularly south side Chicago has been called by some a war-zone of sorts. In fact, not too far from the University campus is deemed one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country where gang fights often occur during hot summer days, sometimes leaving children caught between bullets and dead as a result of gang conflict.

The feeling walking on campus, expressed by Brent Staples, was very real. People simply did not know — and continue to not know — how to react around the presence of minorities since surrounding neighborhoods are so volatile. The mental question “is person X walking behind me a member of this University or part of a neighboring war-zone” often leads to the typical insular reactions felt by Staples. It is difficult to assess whether such reactions are acceptable or not, especially in a city and campus as diverse as Chicago. Yet I can completely understand how Staples felt the need to fit in, or to act out “imposter syndrome” as Steele calls it. As Steele’s work demonstrates in his meticulous explanation of his social psychology experiments on testing women and minorities, minorities do not want external pressures to interfere with their work. I interpret Staples whistling as not only his own willingness to not feel he is un-necessarily or accidentally intimidating others, but also to safe-guard the investment he has made towards graduate study. Why ruin a golden opportunity because others are afraid of you because of their own messed up psychological issues? If his sense of identity was eased, his intellectual performance would become better; why risk the latter? Ironically, just a few blocks away is one of the richest black neighborhoods in America where the President resides (as well as one of the homes of former boxing champion Muhammad Ali and other black luminaries). I wonder how Staples might behave in such a neighborhood? I wonder what he might whistle, or not whistle at all?

Regarding education, campus culture in institutions of higher education in America revolve around an “elitist, northeastern, secular Anglo-Saxon” white culture. There is little in denying this fact. Experiments like the “blue vs brown eyed” by Jane Elliot exposes the stupidity of race alienation. The Tom Ostrom strategy (pg 163) was also a creative solution to the problem of “white criticism” to minority students. But this problem is far from a student issue, as Steele alludes to professors having to deal with this problem. One famous black professor of philosophy at the liberal arts college I attended disappeared and joined another institution. He returned years later to explain why he left. He was assigned to a committee to diversity incoming students. In an effort to begin the diversity question, he wanted to look at factual information regarding the student body at the time. He said something to the effect, “About 30% of our student body is white-Jewish”. He was later silently accused of anti-Semitism amongst his colleagues. Because of this, he voluntarily left on his own accord. This is a problem deeply entrenched within the academy, which starts — as Steele says — from the greater culture from which schools spring-forth. Almost all societies exhibit some form of racism, but there is something a bit stronger, a bit more touchy, and a lot more sensitive in American racism than in other places.

Too much writing…apologies. Thoughts?


Teaching as Self-discovery

One of my favorite teachers told me years ago that teaching was a chance for you to reinforce material you have come across before, to solidify previous knowledge, to assign readings that you yourself have wanted to read. This way, the teacher is understood as a student who learns alongside his or her students. Teaching was thus a process of self-learning, self-discovery. Does this seem counter-intuitive? Are we not supposed to “know” our material before teaching it? Well, yes and no, it seems. We “know” enough to garner the respect of our students, that they acknowledge that the teacher knows more than them. But we certainly don’t know our disciplines as much as we feel we aught to, thus making sense of Einstein’s pithy statement “The more we know, the less we know”.

Sarah Deel’s “Finding my Teaching Voice” was a poignant personal narrative of her own journey towards finding her own voice as a teacher. She ultimately discovers that by discovering her ‘teaching voice’ she herself was ‘liberated’. This was not the feeling I had teaching for the first time at VTech. I recently taught my first undergraduate course last week. I have spent the semester watching other teachers and taking mental notes on where they are succeeding and where I need to do better. Yet when the moment came, I found myself giving a 1 hr and 15 minute powerpoint presentation — with an 11 minute movie clip — because giving presentations was what I knew as a student. It was where “my voice was”; but I didn’t feel liberated as Deel did, I felt ‘stuck’ in the mode of presentation. I later realized that while I did a reasonably good job at asking the students questions and getting them to respond, I did not really “teach” the material; I simply gave a presentation of the material. The next class, I watched how the professor “taught” the class. She didn’t speak for more than 15 minutes, breaking up the class into group discussions, journal entries and a debate. She taught, I presented; and she did it with a lot less stress! Fowler’s advice rang true and clear “Teaching is not all about the teacher; that is, teaching is not all about you”. Instead, the professor was what Fowler calls a “guide” and “facilitator”.

The professor who watched me later said that I shouldn’t beat myself up too much, that I did very good for my first time, and that “you looked very comfortable up there! If you have managed to get that out of the way already, you are on a great start”. While I was happy to hear positive reinforcement from the professor, I still felt deficient in something. But one thing rang true: I had to be myself. Teaching forces you to open up and take a risk in being yourself. There is almost no other way to do it. You figure it out very quickly in front of your students.

One important nugget I took from Deel regarding successful teachers:

“They [the teachers] explained their strategies to their students. The context of the particular classroom was very important; since the students in each class understood their teacher’s philosophy and evaluation style, they were able to learn from the teacher’s responses to their writing.”

Quickly: Fowler’s “Authentic Teaching Self” was remarkably useful and terse. This type of nuts and bolts approach to providing quick advice to aspiring teachers works like an effective tool-kit that repairs minor damages. I particularly appreciated the “physical aspects” section where teachers are advised to ‘warm up’ their body and mind prior to teaching. I do precisely the types of strategies she mentioned in order to remove nerves. It actually works! Warming up the vocal box is useful too.

There are a lot of different ideas floating in this piece. Apologies for the obvious disorientation in this post. I’d appreciate thoughts/reflections on something/anything here.

The colossal divide between grades and learning: A college experience

Like most freshman entering college, I did not know what I wanted to study. But to play my cards safely, I went ahead and completed required courses for pre-med “just incase” I still did not know what to do upon graduation. BIG MISTAKE! I learned a lot about myself and other friends who were on the pre-med path, with one general constant: by focusing almost entirely on their grades, they hindered their learning capacity. It wasn’t about ‘learning’ biology yet, they maintained. It was only about getting into medical school, where all the “book theory” in the first two years still don’t prepare you for anything except other exams. It was only during rotations in 3rd/4th year medical school, where you visit patients and take a hand-on approach where medical learning begins. Anyone who has a friend in medical school can attest to this narrative (what a waste of time, right? except they got $$$….so sad these are our doctors!)

My roommate was an interesting case-and-point. He simply knew how to make an A, no matter the content, material or structure of the class (Organic Chem, German film, econ, social theory, all A’s!). One time I asked him how he did it. I knew he worked hard, but he did not strike me as someone particularly marked with high acumen. Aside from working hard, re-writing his homework, taking meticulous notes, etc, he made an effort to visit professors and compliment them. “Do this a few times a semester” he advised, “and you will have an A”.


I DID NOT JUST HEAR THAT…(or perhaps I was thinking, “Gee, why didn’t you tell me this earlier dude?”)

My roommate uncovered the subjective element in grading, the human element, that I had so easily forgotten due to my unconscious subservience as a student towards my mythic-god like professors. Don’t get me wrong, he worked really hard. But it was clear to me that he tapped into a resource that pushed him above the rest of us.

I’m certain he doesn’t recall or care much about what he learned in college, but for me, it has been a recurrent nightmare. All those pre-med courses could have been better spent in courses I actually cared about. Luckily, my senior year I met a sociology professor who got me up to speed with “learning”, writing and arguing a cohesive paper, and most importantly, to get me to NOT CARE ABOUT THE GRADE. I would add that this professor was notorious on campus for (1) giving too much reading similar to graduate level courses and (2) never giving an A to a student (there have been rumors that a select few received 3.7 over his 20+ year career teaching).

The words of Dan Pink and Alfie Kohn really struck a cord with me. Replacing grades with narrative assessments has seemed to have a fairly positive effect, especially given the fact that elementary and middle school grades are not considered for college applications. I have been scared from the learning v grading divide. It is a visceral experience that has essentially made me no longer care about grading and only towards learning. Some of my most memorable interactions with people have been those who have learned a skill or language without schooling. When asked how they did so, the reply was usually something like “The school called life taught me!” Somethings we simply learn with time, and adolescents going through high school and college already have so much on their plates. How can we provide narrative reports to students/parents with administrative support from universities? The quality of Letters of Recommendation remain the strongest reason for acceptance into universities. Why not make this a practice for grading?

I’m sure many of you have been on the unfortunate side of the learning/grading divide as well. Comments please!

Robinson, Wesch and the politics of ‘risk taking’ as a teacher.

The teachers that have made the greatest impression on me and my direction of study have been those who learn alongside us students. The power-directing, control orienting, “look at me up here” teachers are usually the type we fail to recall much, perhaps with some exception.

Ken Robinson and Michael Wesch echo this sentiment through their respective attitudes on the dearth of real learning. I took to heart Michael Wesch notion of the ‘significance problem’ and watched his disheartening video “A Vision of Students Today”, showing us the all-to-often harsh reality of the contemporary student’s attitude towards learning in universities. Both Robinson and Wesch are asking us to put purpose, teleologically driven mindsets back into classroom management and teaching.

Wesch, for example, takes Mashal McLuhan’s notion of the “medium is the message” as a means to reify learning instead of simply conveying information. One way to assess the success of this so called “Simulation Method” is to see the quality of students questions. Since Wesch is not “teaching” in the traditional sense mentioned above, he describes his style as akin to a type of “anti-teaching”. He states, “I am in the wonderful but awkward position of not knowing exactly what I am doing but blissfully learning along the way [with his students]. My job becomes less about teaching and more about encouraging students to join me on their quest” (last page, second to last paragraph). Thus, by making ourselves a student alongside our students, stating from the first class that “I too am learning alongside you!” will create an environment of humility towards knowledge and life that is necessary for learning. And everyone learns, even if they do not go to school.

Wesch is willing to take the risks that Robinson lays out in his speech to instill a sense of curiosity and learning about “how the world works”. Would we be willing to take such risks as teachers, fearing student responses, the position of our tenure-ship, inter-departmental politics, funding, and a university administration that seems to perpetuate the dullness of learning? There are simply too many political impediments that make such risks possible. Just as students want to get credit and get out, university administration seem to believe the same. Is a revolution in teaching, thus, necessary from the ground-up or top-down? Help me think this through!

Do we need technology to be connected? A critique of the so called “digital age”

John Taylor Gatto, in his famous polemic “Against School” (http://www.wesjones.com/gatto1.htm), articulated his experience of over 25 years teaching in New York City’s public school system and the failures the system has for fostering genuine curiosity for students. Yet no where in his essay does he claim that a need for more technology is needed for children to obtain this curiosity. One fundamental problem that we can flesh out of obtaining information from digital sources is not only authenticity, but the over-abundance of information. Ibn Khaldun, the famous historian of the rise-and-fall narrative of societies, once said to the effect that in his times, the proliferation of books was causing people to learn less. The well known axiom “less is more” can and should be applied to the concept of connected learning. Indeed one could claim that the narrative of the “digital age” leads to more information does not necessarily lead to the same conclusion that more learning occurs. This known experiential reality by most people was probably best articulated in Nicholas Carr’s piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/) where Carr argues how Internet jumping from one site to another has altered the brains capacity for depth. While we may have accumulated more information, it is a very shallow information at best. I would finally like to push-back somewhat against this assumed “digital age” that we all seemed to have ushered into; as a historian, the naming of “epochs” “eras” and “moments” is problematic because they imply a universal narrative that is actually contextual. Often the contextual masquerades as a universal. The videos presented here on connected learning assume to much weight as to what technology can afford us without observing the negativity that can come around with new technologies. But more problematically, it assumes that connected learning can happen the world over. Access to running water is a far reality let alone the internet in the world, and the wealth gap is only widening in the very societies that promise universal (actually national) education for all. Are we really living in a digital age? Or are the privileged living in it? I in no way am a luddite (someone who hates all new forms of technology), but I would echo Gatto, Carr and Khaldun that too much of anything is a bad thing; and that with new forms of technology, there are always people who lose out.

See also (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W86P_FX6PdI)