Monday, May 31, 2010

Teaching Scholarship: the Conversion Experience

I've been reading the assigned readings in preparation for the instructor instruction thing I'm going to tomorrow. Some of the readings make interesting points, but there's a thread through them that I find irritating. It's the conversion narrative. I suppose I'm suspicious of conversion narratives in general.

Here's how it goes: The author talks about him/herself as a recent PhD, teaching just the way s/he was taught. And s/he suddenly realizes that students aren't "getting" the course. Then s/he even more suddenly realizes that s/he hadn't thought much about what students should get from the course before setting out the reading assignments and starting to lecture. And then (cue angelic choir), s/he learns about goals and outcomes! S/he learns that s/he will be more successful if s/he thinks about what's s/he's doing and how! And you, dear reader, should, too, and you should start by listing your goals and outcomes...

I think that's what's frustrating to me. Do people really go blithely off teaching without thinking in the least, hey, what do I want students to take away from this part of the class? (I admit, I rarely think in terms of "how am I going to assess whether this 15 minute segment actually taught what I was trying to teach?" Except that I expect students to be responsible for responding when I ask for questions. And that's probably unrealistic.)

I don't think I'm overwhelmingly brilliant; I'm pretty average for a Phud, I think, but it was pretty common in my graduate program to talk about canon formation and choices, and how that taught students to be good capitalist patriarchal cogs in the narrative of white patriarchy. We talked about how the classroom set-up itself taught students. We talked about how helpful it is that students had learned before they got to our classes about how to behave in groups, but that we also wanted students to be aware that they'd been trained to raise their hands and obey bells for reasons that weren't benign and wonderful in all ways. We talked about how course structures marginalized women and people of color, and how that worked, and how we might subvert that without losing our jobs. And we talked about how that little subversion would be contained and neutralized by the white patriarchy.

The fact is, we talked about this stuff, but didn't figure out how to really change things, because we also realized we were being taught to be good little cogs in the academic machine. And we talked about how important it is to teach disadvantaged students how to play the game while recognizing that it is a patriarchal, unfair structure, but that there's no escaping the structure, at least not easily.

But I'm not seeing that sort of awareness behind the conversion narratives. Yes, they're interested in teaching effectively, but they aren't interested in thinking about the deeper structures of education and how they work to reinscribe white patriarchy. They're willing to open up the avenues to success, but only within white patriarchy. White patriarchy has long been willing to allow a few successful women, a few successful people of color, and to use those as justification for oppressing the rest.

So when I see the goals and outcomes thing, and think, that's what we called "what we want students to learn," I don't only think about "students should learn to read difficult language, including verse in early modern English" but also "students should learn to think critically about patriarchy and white oppression." But I never see that listed in my university goals. It's there; I hear it in our lunchroom. But it doesn't make it to the goals because so many of our students and their parents are resistant. And the people who benefit most from white patriarchy resist most vehemently.

My worry is that I've become less agressive in fighting oppression, and more beaten down and just trying to get by.

I have two pieces of homework to do before the thing starts tomorrow. And I need to run some errands and figure out how to get there. And I need to pack.


  1. Anonymous8:45 AM

    Bardiac, I'm learning sloooowly how to pick my battles, or I feel beaten down trying to win battles that I was setup to fail constantly. There isn't a day that goes by where I literally have to stop myself from replying to privilege spew. Not one. I'm the only PhD woman in my building. I walk away to save myself sometimes, then I feel guilty about not standing up. One person cannot fight these battles alone. If you've figured out who the allies are, tag team with them to share the burden.
    hugs, jc

  2. I finished grad school long enough ago that there was not much discussion on the scholarship of teaching and learning. And it took me a long time to get over the "coverage" stuff, which was my initial "obvious" goal. But when I had my conversion experience, it was not to goals and objectives, but to active learning! (I am old.)

  3. Good stuff. Are you going to write a piece on your important and underrepresented perspective on the scholarship of teaching???? I'd love to see that.

  4. Ugh. Am I sick of the conversion narrative, too! At warm-and-fuzzy school, there's been a lot of discussion about goals and outcomes because they've been going through reaccreditation and all the hoop-jumping that entails. But mostly all people are doing is throwing around jargon to make themselves look sophisticated. When it comes down to it, everyone is teaching just the way they've always taught, and despite the school's pledge to uphold women and diversity, they play right into the white patriarchal paradigms that you mention. It sucks.

    My word verification is "delik" which is close enough to me to "dislike."

  5. I had to grin a small wry grin because I'm one of those annoying people putting on the annoying workshops and hoping to see conversions. I hope you have a good, useful, encouraging time at this one you are going to.

    In my original field, agriculture, there is no -- NO -- conversation about the structural inequalities that conventional agriculture perpetuates. I never once heard in a production agriculture class that maybe slave labor was a bad idea. (Heard it in a couple of rural sociology classes.) In the organic/sustainable subfield, there is some, mostly shrill, and focused either on the Evil Government or the Evil Seed Companies.

    I'm not sure why the "big goals" of the university are not taken seriously down to the level of individual classes. Perhaps Martha Nussbaum's book *Not for Profit* would shed some light. And, completely agree with Steel Magnolia and might even adopt the idea for next year's faculty learning community on scholarship of teaching....

  6. Amen. I don't like these narratives. I admit, however, that I have had many an emergency "come to Jesus" conversation about learning objectives. I don't think it's as much a problem in the humanities as it is in the sciences, where "coverage" seems to be a bigger imperative.

    Many science faculty come to this university with no teaching experience, or maybe one quarter as a TA--because they were star researchers and "didn't have to teach." I get mostly science grad students and postdocs in my seminar on college teaching for this reason--they're going on the job market and they realize, oops! they forgot to acquire a major skill.

    But of course there are also the science faculty who show up without any teaching experience, and then realize they need, er, professional help. (This is also the time when they realize they're going to need to address lifelong challenges like dyslexia in a different and possibly more rigorous way, as suddenly they realize they can't write formulae correctly on the board in front of 300+ students.) I've found with a little nudge these faculty can be very thoughtful--with a few exceptions, of course, of people who fall prey to what someone has called "the tyranny of content."

    Humanities folks, however, have had to work as TAs or instructors for much, if not all, of grad school, so they've ironed out a lot of the kinks by the time they arrive in their first postgraduate position.

  7. Oh, and @Victoria: We're starting a new sustainable ag major here at UC Davis, and the faculty in it are STELLAR. They totally get how undergraduates learn and how to assess that work. They're leaps and bounds ahead of much older departments, and their students really appreciate it.

  8. I'm not a big fan of conversion narratives either, although I did just finish running a week-long workshop on teaching writing that spent its opening day looking at goals for the course and how goals for assignments fit in with that. I think that even in the humanities, the notion of coverage holds enough sway that it is easy for course planning to end up focusing on what the material should be for the course, and not so much what the students will be doing with that material (and I say this knowing that I need to push myself to answer the questions my own workshops set up for others!).

    All of which is to say, I'll be thinking about how I present goals work in light of what you're saying here--but I'm also hoping I'm not just being defensive in seeing ways that it can be useful to talk about goals w/o going the conversion route.

  9. I'm so frustrated. I wrote a long comment -- and it got eaten by teh interwebs! So here's a poor shadow of that comment!

    First, you're not alone in questioning these conversion narratives. Nancy Welch wrote a wonderful article called "Resisting the Faith: Conversion, Resistance, and the Training of Teachers" back in 1993 (CE 55.4 pp. 387-401) that is actually available online. I think Shari Stenberg's _Professing and Pedagogy_ also discusses a bunch of different approaches to teacher development as well.

    I'm a bit skeptical about all the focus on outcomes and objectives (not that I don't use those myself) because I think that these language comes out of the assessment and accreditation. Learning objectives, for example, come out of an approach to education from instructional design that emphasizes what you can see and assess. And while I think it's important to be able to articulate and measure main teaching goals (I know too many teachers who teach some content and then assign an essay or lecture then give a multiple choice test without much thinking about the learning experience of the student), there are educational goals that are very difficult to assess in a single semester. A critical mindset, for example, is not something you just pick up the first time you come across it. Becoming a good writer for multiple audiences is also a long-term goal. One problem with the measurement approach is that we can end up assessing for too much development at once and then reward people for having learned skills and habits of mind before they ever come to our class -- and that doesn't help individual students learn either. Learning objectives and the whole behavior/performance approach to assessment is laudable in some ways, but cannot measure cognitive development, only what can be seen and measured. I'm a major advocate of active learning (shout out to Susan!), so even though I have plenty of critique for this particular teacher development fad, I tend to think that anything that encourages teachers to think about what they're doing and why is a good thing. (Usually I don't see this problem too much in the humanities; my institutional context seems to include a lot of professors who don't inquire into their teaching and why they do what they do very much. Nor do they question the value of traditional exams even though they also realize that students in an advanced courses typically do not remember the introductory material. Yet it never seems to come together with the idea multiple choice exams privilege short-term memory-making, which is not real learning.)

    I think the core problem is that lots of teachers don't see their teaching as needing the same kind of scholarly inquiry as their research. If we take our teaching seriously, then surely we should apply some of the same inquiry, questioning, creativity, and skepticism that we give our research. Can you tell that I study pedagogy? =p

    Basically, I think it's good you're questioning the conversion narrative you're coming across. What's important is to _think_ about this stuff rather than teaching thoughtlessly. Yay Bardiac!

    As my totally non-academic sister says: chew it over before you swallow it.

    (Judging by how long this comment is, maybe I should be writing something on this subject!)