Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thinking Educationally

This week we shift emphasis from thinking historiographically to thinking pedagogically. Our session will start with a presentation by Suzanne Le-May Sheffield and a discussion of teaching practices and challenges facing Teaching Assistants. I encourage you to visit the CLT's web site, which has a number of useful resources.

Before I discuss this week's themes and reading, here is the excerpt that Michael circulated Monday, along with his comment: "After reading the Jill Lepore "Just the Facts, Ma'am" article about men writing history and women reading novels, I looked up the etymology of history and noted that the word comes from the Greek for wise man, judge and that story is differentiated from history around the 1500s when the first novels were being written."

History: 1390, "relation of incidents" (true or false), from O.Fr. historie, from L. historia "narrative, account, tale, story," from Gk. historia "a learning or knowing by inquiry, history, record, narrative," from historein "inquire," from histor "wise man, judge". In M.E., not differentiated from story; sense of "record of past events" probably first attested 1485. Sense of "systematic account (without reference to time) of a set of natural phenomena" (1567) is now obs. except in natural history. What is historic (1669) is noted or celebrated in history; what is historical (1561) deals with history. Historian "writer of history in the higher sense," distinguished from a mere annalist or chronicler, is from 1531.
Story: "account of some happening," c.1225, "narrative of important events or celebrated persons of the past," from O.Fr. estorie, from L.L. storia and L. historia "history, account, tale, story" (see history). Meaning "recital of true events" first recorded c.1375; sense of "narrative of fictitious events meant to entertain" is from c.1500. Not differentiated from history till 1500s.

Like history, education has an interesting etymology, and it draws on a number of related concepts, such as pedagogy and enlightenment. I encourage you to visit the online etymology dictionary, and the online OED, and review the history of these concepts.

This week's required reading challenges readers to think critically about the meaning and goals of education. Postman is referring to education generally, but I think his observations hold for academia as well. As you read his article -- it's quite short, so you will have plenty of time to reflect on his provocative ideas -- please think about how his approach to education relates to our discussion of history. How are education and history similar and/or different? What does Postman's taxonomy of stupidity have to say to historians?

As you reflect on his article, you may want to consult the Fallacy Files web site, which has entries for most of the "balderdash" that Postman cites, such as either/or thinking, conflating facts & inferences, et cetera. If history is like education, should we focus on curing historical error rather than achieving historical arete?

My introduction to the late Neil Postman was his 1999 book Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century (the title is a pun on a Bill Clinton speech). The book was well written and provocative, and while I didn't agree with everything Postman said, I thought it would make a great teaching tool. For several years, I assigned it for History 4250, and the students responded positively. Then, one year, I had a strange experience -- one that I've never had before or since -- when a student responded angrily to Postman's book. At the beginning of one seminar discussion, she exclaimed that Postman was a "Fascist." Looking back on the incident, I think I missed a useful teaching opportunity. I should have challenged the student to explain what she meant by Fascist and why she felt that this horrifically odious term should be applied to Postman. But I was so taken aback (and the other students were so taken aback, too) that I avoided tackling her comment directly and the seminar navigated uneasily to other themes.

When I reflect on teaching, I often reflect on my own experiences as an undergraduate student. The best teachers I had (and I was fortunate to have a number of excellent professors in the 1980s) were invariably interested in questions as much as answers. They were interested in how you thought as much as what you knew. And they listened as well as they spoke. They knew intuitively that in history -- and in education generally -- the journey mattered as much as the destination, and certitude wasn't going to get us very far. This is not to suggest that these teachers lacked confidence but rather that they had to confidence to admit that their knowledge was partial, fragmentary, and fleeting. They saw the classroom as a place where they learned as much as their students; their openness was palpable, and their energy was infectious.

Recent research has shown that emotions are as infectious as germs. You can affect a room full of people with your demeanour as much as your sneezes. All too often, teachers (both TA's and professors) assume that students comprise an inert body that brings essential qualities which determine a collective personality. I have often heard colleagues talk about good or bad groups, seminars that were enthusiastic or bored. I have no doubt that part of this reaction is based on the real abilities and attributes of the students themselves; however, the other part is based on what the teacher brings to the classroom.

Teaching is, in essence, predicated on a relationship between and among students and instructors. That relationship is, at the very least, a two-way street; in my experience, what you get out of this relationship correlates to what you put into it. If you bring detachment, boredom, fear, disdain, or (to quote Postman) pomposity, then you will reap what you sow. If you want your students to do better, then start by expecting more of yourself and spend at least as much time assessing your own performance as your students' shortcomings.

Teaching is like writing: a never-ending craft that demands careful attention and endless reflection. But there is an importance difference between the two: while you can write all by yourself, you cannot teach all by yourself. You can teach only by learning how to communicate effectively with other people. And the basic building block of that communication is clarity. When I was asked once about my teaching philosophy, I thought about it and said that clarity was the most important quality, because a teacher can have the most brilliant ideas, but if you cannot communicate clearly, you are just talking to yourself.

Finally, here is the link to the Wente article I mentioned in class, plus a rejoinder published in the Globe and Mail. If you get a chance to read them, think about how they relate to what Postman was trying to argue.


Anna said...

It's a little unclear from your anecdote if you stopped using the text because of the student's reaction to it, or if you stopped using it for some other reason.

I'm not sure what I think of Postman's article. Certainly I think more discussions in the classroom about logical fallacies would be a good thing, if one thinks the role of education for K-12 is creating critical thinkers. Unfortunately, I'm a terrible cynic on this topic (although an idealist on many others) and view the role of K-12 education as creating good workers.

Postman is obviously trying to challenge that, but I don't think this essay was aimed at the right audience for that. Of course, I'm not sure who the right audience to aim such an essay at would be.

I wish this allowed OpenID to comment, rather than just google accounts.

James said...

From a Dal point of view I especially enjoyed this line: "there are even universities where the subject is held in such low esteem that it is possible for a student to major in, of all things, Business Administration but not Education."

I'm not quite sure exactly how seriously Postman wants to be taken in this article, but he seems to have at least found a novel/memorable/amusing way in which to tackle an oft-repeated theme—that the project of Western liberal education has failed. We can't reach the goal of that project, he seems to be saying ("the most perilous of all these superstitions is the belief, expressed in a variety of ways, that the study of literature and other humanistic subjects will result in one’s becoming a more decent, liberal, tolerant, and civilized human being"), so all we can do is attempt to ameliorate the more egregious gaps in common understanding.

If he was completely serious about jettisoning the baby with the bathwater one might share the aforementioned student's concern with "Fascism", but the rest of the essay is in fact shot through with traditional liberal values (e.g. respect for other peoples and religions than one's own).