"maybe it's 'cuz 'cuz
we're all gonna die die"

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The semester begins tomorrow

This afternoon, I watched the minivans and SUVs pulling up to the college and disgorging their cargo of young college students-to-be, both eager and not-so-eager, along with the accoutrements, which in addition to the scores and scores of familiar milk-crates now include DVD players, window air conditioning units, and microwaves, all wrapped up in cardboard boxes and masses of packing tape. I watched this with the usual mixture of nervousness and excitement. The beginning of a new semester, for me, always means the chance to try again and maybe hit a little closer to the mark. I don't lose sleep the night before classes begin, not any more. But I still feel a little nervous every time I walk into a classroom, and the first day always seems like a momentous occasion; I tend to think, rightly or wrongly, that it will set the tone for the experiences of the next fifteen weeks. Not to mention that it'll affect my tenure bid, which is coming up, really, in just a matter of weeks now.

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So here's a bit of inspiration to carry into the classroom, for myself and for any other teachers who might be reading this. It'll be familiar to many, but it's new to me. It's long; bear with me.
The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring. And if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere. Neither Freire's work nor feminist pedagogy examined the notion of pleasure in the classroom. The idea that learning should be exciting, sometimes even "fun," was the subject of critical discussion by educators writing about pedagogical practices in grade schools, and sometimes even high schools. But there seemed to be no interest among either traditional or radical educators in discussing the role of excitement in higher education. Excitement in higher education was viewed as potentially disruptive of the atmosphere of seriousness assumed to be essential to the learning process. To enter classroom settings in colleges and universities with the will to share the desire to encourage excitement, was to transgress. Not only did it require movement beyond accepted boundaries, but excitement could not be generated without a full recognition of the fact that there could never be an absolute set agenda governing teaching practices.... But excitement about ideas was not sufficient to create an exciting learning process. As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another's voices, in recognizing one another's presence. Since the vast majority of students learn through conservative, traditional educational practice and concern themselves only with the presence of the professor, any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone's presence is acknowledged." (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom [NY: Routledge, 1994], pp. 7f.)
I'm now reading bell hooks for the first time and finding her work really powerful. Here's something else from the book, something that hooks quotes:
Diversity that somehow constitutes itself as a harmonious ensemble of benign cultural spheres is a conservative and liberal model of multiculturalism that, in my mind, deserves to be jettisoned because, when we try to make culture and undisturbed space of harmony and agreement where social relations exist within cultural forms of uninterrupted accords we subscribe to a form of social amnesia in which we forget that all knowledge is forged in histories that are played out in the field of social antagonisms. (Qtd. in hooks, p. 31; from Peter McLaren, "Critical Multiculturalism and Democratic Schooling," International Journal of Educational Reform 1/4 [Oct. 1992]: 392-405).

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This intersects in kind of peculiar ways with a couple other things I've been thinking about. First, I've been reading Dee Fink's Creating Significant Learning Experiences, which is certainly the best book on learning-centered pedagogy that I've read (with the possible exception of Walvoord and Anderson's Effective Grading, from which Fink draws considerable inspiration). This has been pushing me to think in more concrete terms about moving away from the old "content" model of learning and towards a model based around -- what? -- skills, competencies, or perhaps better, values. Old news, I know, but still, like many of the lessons about learning-centered pedagogy, it's one of those ideas that sounds great but is very difficult to put into practice effectively. I won't quote at length from Fink's work (though if you're interested you can get a taste of his thinking at SignificantLearning.org, or you can see some handouts that the BYU instructional support people have developed based on his ideas here). Fink encourages instructors to think about "caring" as a key dimension of learning, in multiple senses of the word: as a professor, you're teaching students to care about things they might previously not have cared about, but you also inevitably have to draw on the energy that students bring to the material via the things they already care about. This suggests that learning must be social and must have some firm anchor in a moral community in order to be truly effective and potentially life-changing. I think hooks would agree.

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I've also been reading Robert Inchausti's The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People. Inchausti introduces a category he calls the "postmodern plebian" (the phrase is pretty barbaric to my ear, but whatever), and he uses as examples MLK, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Lech Walesa, Elie Wiesel, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He is very invested in the category of the "postmodern" and the novel sort of relation to history it implies: whereas for the modern (I can't help but think of Stephan Dedalus) history is "a monster" (he quotes Milan Kundera to this effect) that threatens to destroy the individual or that forces the individual into a kind of atomistic cultural amnesia, the "postmodern plebian" sees history as, indeed, tyrannically oppressive -- but also a sort of worthy adversary to be combated with the weapons of a historically grounded moral tradition. Each of the "plebians" he mentions enacts a practice rather than grounding a theory, but the practice in question is rooted in transcendent notions of justice -- opening the possibility of a bridge between the essential and the existential.

Along with all this, I've also been gradually working on an essay on a peculiar course I taught a year ago. The course was pretty much conceived around the idea that my students and I would simply venture out into the wide world of religious otherness and try to make some sort of sense of what we saw together. In teaching it, I really walked away from any real claim to authority I might be able to make as a professor. I abdicated. I refused even to grade my students' work; I made them do it themselves. I think they may have thought I was crazy. Now, in thinking back on the events of that semester, I've figured one thing out. I'm not the greatest teacher. I readily admit that. In fact, I could go on for pages about my failings -- that's sort of a personality defect of mine. (In fact, I did go on for at least a paragraph in an earlier draft of this post, but I decided it didn't really add much to the point I was trying to sketch out.) In other words, there are things I can't do in the classroom -- things I simply can't succeed in teaching my students because of who I am and what my limitations are. But there are other limitations in place as well, limitations that have to do with our conceptualization of religion itself. I have gradually come to think that there's an aporetic element at work in the discipline of religious studies itself. Just look at the Euthyphro. There comes a point -- sometimes very early on in one's studies, sometimes after a lot of prolonged and intense digging -- when one throws up one's hands and says, "I am never going to be able to make sense of this." The trick is to recognize that moment and not to fight it, but also not to give up on the whole project when it comes. We need to teach, or perhaps better, to learn a kind of scholarly quietness in the face of the infinite, wild variety of human cultural practices. There are more things in heaven and earth, et cetera. The other problem, for someone like me anyhow, is that I can't use that as an excuse for my own limitations as a teacher. When my students walk for the first time into a Hindu ceremony, I want them to feel, briefly, the awkwardness and alienation that comes from seeing something that makes no sense. Of course, on the other hand, ideally, I also want them to walk in knowing as much as is practically possible about Hindu community, practice and thought. I don't know how to bring these things together effectively. What I don't want, and what I think is easy to let happen, is for students to have a bullet-pointed list of ideas and to translate what they see in that temple too rapidly into abstract, rationally-comprehensible ideas they've learned from a textbook or some reference source. That kind of thinking about religion lets us off the hook too easily. It makes it too tempting to avoid sitting with the raw, unnerving discomfort of sheer difference and outsiderness and unfamiliarity. Until you've really let that feeling sink in, I think -- and here I'm going to hazard one of those blanket statements that I usually try to stay away from, and which I'll no doubt come to regret -- I think you have no business believing you have answers to questions about other people's religious lives. In other words, if you haven't really felt in your gut the pathetic inadequacy of your own efforts to translate alien experience into familiar, comfortable conceptual categories, then you run the risk of falling into the old philosophia perennialis trap, describing all religious practice in the modern Western language of universalism, liberalism, rationalism and spirituality. If you have felt it, on the other hand, you're much less likely to succumb to the scholarly hubris of thinking that religion is basically a matter of beliefs and concepts. This aporia -- and again, I'm thinking of the Euthyphro -- is humbling and disorienting, but ultimately pregnant and salutary, I think.

I have to go to bed. So much for not losing sleep the night before classes start. But I had to get this off my chest. What ties it all together is the common thread of caring instead of knowing, and of grieving as a form of caring. We can't help seeking to understand, but in that search we have the potential to hurt ourselves and others, even as we bring some undoubted benefit into the world. I don't think that's just some kind of Faust-style romanticism. I think what hooks, Fink, Inchausti, and the various problems I ran up against in teaching that course all have in common is the idea that knowing -- at least, the kind that matters -- has to happen in a way that's embodied, social, and laced with emotion and danger.

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There's something else, too. I've also been reading Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting, mainly because it seemed for a week or two in the middle of the summer that a number of people I respected were talking about it. That's anotherblog post, though, despite the fact that I think my reactions to Kohn are related to these themes. Kohn's subtitle is "Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason," and I think his unquestioning linkage between "love" and "reason" is what rubs me the wrong way about his thought. For the most part, I agree with much of what he says, which amounts to respecting your kids, even if they're little, and taking their thoughts, feelings, and wishes just as seriously as you would take your own -- which is actually a fairly radical idea. However, he believes that the way to put this into practice is, in part, to engage in reasoned dialogue with your children in pretty much all circumstances, and I think this is wrong. I think there are times when, for a parent, reason and love are at odds with one another, and that love should win; that conveying to your child the expectation that they understand you, your feelings, or the feelings or experiences of a third party is unfair and burdensome.

I'm going to leave it there for now.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).