Tomorrow's Professor - "Teaching as an Imposition" posting

Friday, January 12, 2007 (Around 7 years ago)

Teaching as an Imposition

Teaching is an unnatural act, an incursion on another person’s learning-in-progress: it’s a yippy little dog, a surprise water balloon, a telemarketer on a sunny day. Each persuasive attempt to get students learning about barium or facework or Hegel or genderlects or sine waves or Afghanistan comes with a built-in demand that they stop thinking - for a while - about what yesterday’s unexpected smile really meant, or why mom and dad are divorcing, or lunch. It’s a challenge to teach while suspecting my students may cast my dignified self as a waterfighting sales terrier, but teaching is no doubt an imposition, a sustained redirection of other curious creatures’ voracious cogitation. In curling terms, they’re sentient rocks slowly cruising; I push/glide/sweep my way alongside and a little ahead, strategically melting patches of frigid path, aiming for productive ‘clicks’ at the end of things.

I am Teacher; hear me impose. This presents a daily dilemma not easily resolved: research shows us that students’ purest motivations and richest learnings emerge best when we impose least, when they’re given as much autonomy as we can muster during the process - especially given USAmericans’ “don’t fence me in” prickliness about being told what to do. This is an uncomfortable truth for those of us called to smart ‘em up, since each course’s learning objectives lasso students’ otherwise free-ranging interests. How do I direct without dictating? Even better, how can I teach in ways that help them fall in love with seeking?

Okay, in truth, sometimes I just cop out and dictate (ab-dictate?). Teachers, like ranchers and nations, sometimes wave off the gnatty and knotty realities of imposition and simply pull rank to get others looking and sounding like we think they should. For example, sometimes I find myself corralling what happens in class by talking at my students, who diligently write my stuff down. I’m not alone in this, mind you. Like most of us, I was socialized to believe that “teaching” equaled “telling.” There’s the story of a new dean who, after 20 minutes watching an experienced professor facilitate small groups expertly working on a problem, sidled up to whisper that he would come back to observe on a day when the professor was “actually teaching.” That’s been a powerful addiction for verboso-me to kick: the teach/tell/talking belief that defines “learning” as “students memorizing my understandings” instead of constructing their own. It resembles belching in its effects - satisfying for the manufacturer, but less so for belchees.

What are the costs of this mere exhaling? Students’ love of learning can wither in that breeze, and they often come to resent their teachers’ authority (and the things teachers value, like fresh ideas), just as citizens of occupied countries look askance at their overseers’ virtues. Teaching as an occupation, indeed. Nor does abdicating one’s rank and course goals to curry students’ friendship bring anything more than a new set of problems.

But yea, though I have walked through the noisome valley of teaching-is-all-about-me, there is another path - a co-creation, a dialogic practice of building new knowledge and relationships by exhaling and inhaling as teachers with our ever-learning students. Tending those pesky teacher-learner relationships is at the unmissable heart of our work. We negotiate them constantly in the guise of messages about due dates and message design logics, weekends and paper topics.

One memorable early experience of such a parley involved trying to re-collect an exam failed by Jon, a charismatic, disturbed, sweet, and lousy student. He refused to give back his test, on which were questions I was charged with keeping secret for other teaching assistants to use. Jon trumpeted to the class that he had done so poorly he was too ashamed to let me have his test back. When I (young and foolish) tried to grab it from him, his face lit up as his bug-eyed classmates held their collective breath, and we knew he had me. After class, I stopped talking at him:

Me: So, what’s the deal here? He: My samurai self is too shamed by this performance; I won’t be able to show myself at synagogue. I can’t let anyone see this ever again. Me: Well - that’s what I want, too, what should we do? He: Can we burn it?

Thus did we find ourselves seated side-by-side on brick steps, briefly parting the puzzled river of incoming students with a torched test and secret smiles.

Felicitous classroom relationships also change what we learn there, morphing teachers from mainframes to mentors in the process. A novice teacher in class once challenged (yea!) my claim that all teaching is values-laden. I asked Aimee her favorite book to use with her kindergartners (Goodnight Moon), we queried the ‘moral’ of that story (peace, calm care, and ever-present love), then asked whether she gave angst, hate, and indifference equal time in her class. Those two minutes were an epiphany for all of us, and they’d arisen from conversation, not lecture.

One good colleague argues that most of the time we don’t talk our way into good relationships, we listen our way into them, one conversation at a time. This is always a challenge where there’s a built-in power difference, especially if I just can’t s* up - but I know by now that I earn more genuine influence over my students’ learning by judiciously giving up some control over how they get to epiphany. Though I shiver a bit as I floss my ears and prepare to dance with my students each teaching day, I’m convinced that responsive-yet-goal-focused guidance is best for their learning, for them, for us, and for me. Healthy learning relationships need room to breathe, so to give my students air I’m learning to s* up. And perhaps it’s time I do that now.

Jeff Kerssen-Griep, Ph.D. Associate Professor & Graduate Program Director Dept. of Communication Studies University of Portland 5000 N. Willamette Blvd. Portland, OR 97203-5798


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