Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Carpe Diem

For all you teachers/educators out there...you may be familiar with this fantasy: You know, the one where the teacher, by sheer force of personality, inspires each and every underdog student. Robin Williams played one, Samuel L. Jackson did, Michelle Pfieffer even Jack Black. I've come to the conclusion that those movies are more than sheer fantasy - they perpetuate a pedagogical model that I try and steer away from.

Where do I begin with all this? First, I offer classes that stray from the common and usual. And I am not speaking about subject matter or content. I've been so lucky to have been taught by professors (way back in the day) who never lectured, or gave tests or asked me to write a mammoth term paper for him to read. I rarely used standard fare text books. I was lucky enough to be a student of these brave souls who stood against criticism and ridicule by their peers - and I was lucky enough to return, work with these renegades and formulate my own classes on the same model. I think it's called "collaborative learning" - where students work in small groups, and are guided through a series of processes which help develop their critical thinking, research and writing skills. I am no longer the bearer of "the truth" (or of all the relevant information necessary to take the exam) - I am a guide - pushing and encouraging students to find their interests and just run with it. No one can learn under the intense pressure of an inquisitors gaze, nor do I think term papers serve much purpose, nor do I believe that a good memory is the key skill one needs to demonstrate proficiency. I evaluate differently, I conduct courses differently. Students are expected to participate - and if they don't their learning suffers. I could speak volumes about how I teach. It is as much a philosophy as a pedagogy. I'll footnote this cursory introduction with a disclaimer: I am not interested in converting the masses. Lecture courses are okay. They do certain things, and people can learn from them (just as one would learn from a movie or a documentary). I teach the way I do, because it fundamentally changed my understanding of learning and education.

The great inspiring movies I alluded to are dangerous in the sense that they perpetate the common assumption that great teachers lecture, use tough love and stand in front of the class while the students don't really do much else but be inspired after the requisite conflict and struggle. Yet still, I have secret desires to be that great teacher.

I hear alot of chat in the staff rooms at school about students. Not about anyone in particular, just general things that profs need to do to outsmart the class. There is this underlying assumption, I think, that students really do not want to be there, or they are not interested in doing any of the work. You know what I am talking about - pop quizes before a long weekend, and leaking exam info only on Fridays. And then there are the profs who seem to be really out of touch with where first year university students are (both socially and intellectually). Eighteen year olds are not stupid or undereducated, despite the rumours. Eighteen year olds tend to be a little naive, but egotistical enough to feel confident about their independance. Many of them have never been asked to express their opinion at legnth, or to discover within a course the areas that interest them the most Much of their innocence gets labelled as stupidity and then the exams and term papers get more and more rigid. Some professors have an ego that needs to be stroked. Students are then challenged to find the secret answers and interpretations that lurk inside the dark corridors of their professor's intellect. Sometimes its all about worship.

In some ways I think the current high school system ruins kids. It encourages laziness, and apathy. These are my biggest challenges. I sometimes imagine myself as a safari guide, desperately enthusiastic about the trek through the veld, and all I see are vapid stares and the occasional yawn. I guess I am feeling powerless against apathy and boredom. The old addage "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink" really rings true. I can do my darnest to create an atmosphere where learning is not only a good thing, but it sweeps you away in a mindblowing headrush...but I cannot be responsible should someone choose not to. Sometimes its tough for me to learn when to draw that line - when my responsibility ends and the student's begins.

I have had a couple of students tell me that their first reading - a passage from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - was boring. This article was delicious as it was mindblowing. The metaphors she layers could keep us in conversation for the whole term. I guess, as an educator, I don't know how to effectively respond to the boredom cry. On the one hand, it tells me that the student has little desire to engage in the material. So what, its their problem right? Doesn't that response just feed into the next response, apathy? I figure there must be a way to turn that response on its head. There must...and one that does not disempower the student...

This is when the fantasy teaching moments, as perpetuated in those movies ruin me.


Susan said...

I so want to take a class from you. Or better yet, I want to meet you for lunch between your fabulous class and my fabulous class.

I was thinking, the other day, about how the last few semesters that I taught, when I was pregnant and getting ready to leave my university job to be a sexy stay-home mommy, my syllabi became Five Novels I Love (and You Will Love Them, Too!). And when I taught texts I loved, with writing assignments that I thought were genuinely interesting, the classes were more interesting. For me and for the students.

Now you've made me want to go back to teaching.

I love this post--I can feel your energy and excitement. Hooray for you! And for your students, too--they are so fortunate to have you.

Kim said...

Great post. I have no answers. I teach an online sales course to advertising sales people. They pay big $$ to take the class. Their employers expect them to excel. Yet, I hear over and over again how time consuming it is and how overworked they are. The people who really engage in the course make a personal connection between what it taught and how it applies to their own lives. The others? Well, I wonder how they get up and go to work each day. They have to be numb or completely bored if they can't get excited about something so obviously geared towards their success.

So, I suppose, I'd wonder what is going on in their lives. At 18, 19, 20, I was painfully shy and probably would have dropped a course before interacting on the level you're describing.

And Susan, your course sounds fun too!

hotboy said...

I work in a school library. It's a Scottish bog standard high school full of teachers who seem totally stressed. Sometimes you can hear teachers bawling at kids in the corridor. High schools here are one big discipline problem! Hotboy

Mary P. said...

When I was in university, and considering what I would do with the English degree I was gleefully earning - I was one of the interested ones - I decided that I would never teach English. The reason? I couldn't bear the thought of having people respond with apathy or disdain or resentment to the things that I loved so well.

Ironic: "I will never teach English because I love it too much."

Your classes sound wonderful. I'd love to see one in action! May I join you and Susan for that between fabulous classes drink?

Candace said...

I'm one of the apparently few people who LOVE tests and papers and HATE small groups and collaborative learning.

I hate it. I mean really, really hate it. Most of the teachers in my culinary program subscribe to the collaborative learning philosophy and I just want to tear out my hair and beg for SOMEthing that I can work on by myself.

I find that 1. I'm a control freak, and 2. people don't do the work to my standards.