now begins the experiment

By | February 22, 2012

I started teaching college students nine years ago, when I was a graduate student in Colorado State University’s Creative Writing program. After I finished up there, I spent a few years as an adjunct instructor teaching almost any class that any university could offer me. Back then, I had little formal training in the theory and practice of teaching. I mostly went by feel, by what felt successful to my students and to me. By “successful,” I mean to point to activities and classroom language that led to higher engagement, more discussion, more efforts to challenge what the textbooks, what the instructor said was “true.”

Back then, I believe, I was heading toward a classroom pedagogy that treated teaching as a practice of freedom. In Teaching to transgress, bell hooks writes:

Education as the practice of freedom is not just about liberatory knowledge, it’s about a liberatory practice in the classroom. So may of us have critiqued the individual white male scholars who push critical pedagogy yet who do not alter their classroom practices, who assert race, class, and gender privilege without interrogating their conduct.

I don’t know if it’s possible to become a liberatory teacher without sustained research and interrogation of dominant pedagogical practices; that is to say that I don’t know if an adjunct instructor, working effectively in isolation from her teaching community, can engage in a sustained critique and reframing of what it means to learn and teach toward freedom instead of toward submission and repression.

Now I’m teaching again, this time at a Research I institution, in a department that wants its academics to value research over teaching. (While Colorado State University is also a Research I institution, I was not there to get a Research I education; I was learning how to write poetry in an MFA program.) This time around, I have career goals and a plan for myself; my plan includes sustaining enough Awesomeness to snag a job at a Research I institution once I finish up at Indiana University.

This institution does not emphasize teaching as the practice of freedom; in fact, it doesn’t particularly emphasize teaching as something that requires a whole lot of sustained interrogation or time or energy. Which is not to say that individual faculty members at my institution do not value teaching, do not strive to be excellent teachers; only to say that their efforts are the result of a personal desire to teach well, and are not supported by the institution.

You get tenure at a Research I institution by doing good research, not by doing good teaching.

So I’ve taken several steps backward in the movement toward teaching as the practice of freedom. I rely an awful lot on Powerpoint and the lecture; I ask students to rearrange the desks into a discussion circle sometimes, but I don’t insist that we use this structure for a whole lot of discussion. More than once this semester, I’ve asked my students why they do what I say: “Why do you agree to work in small groups when I tell you to?” and “What do you think would happen if you just refused to listen to my lecture today?” But I haven’t required them to speculate with me.

And to tell the truth, I haven’t really wanted my students to speculate with me on these things. I’ve wanted these challenges to be seen as thought experiments, not as real challenges to rethink how they approach learning.

My students are, for the most part, studying to be teachers. Some day, assuming we continue to value teaching and assuming the economy continues its turnaround, my students will be teachers themselves. If I believe in the importance of liberatory pedagogy, if I believe that teachers can and should do better, can and should foment revolution, then the only ethical way to proceed is to attempt to practice this pedagogy in my own classrooms.

Now begins the experiment. I’ll keep you posted.

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