January 14, 2008

Teaching about what humans do

I've been tagged by Craig Smith, who asks, Why Do You Teach and Why Does It Matter? after reading Dr. Crazy's explanation of why she teaches literature. This comes on the heels of Stanley Fish's boldly hedonistic Epistle to Philistines and the expansion on this, last night's Epistle to Dumb-Ass Colleagues. (Okay, the posts were properly called The Uses of the Humanities, parts 1 and 2, but I agree with Margaret Soltan's reading of Fish Epistles I.) Fish's essays are in his typical eliding style, with just enough of substance to frustrate me when he misses the obvious.

And here is one part of the obvious: an academic education requires the study of a variety of disciplines, including science, math, and also what humans do. Understanding "what humans do" requires behavioral sciences, social sciences, and humanities. While the configuration of disciplines is not carved in stone, a student will get a pretty good education in the culture that humans produce within the humanities. One way to think about the value of any discipline or area is to think about the institutions that leave out the area.

Here is the other part of the obvious: you don't learn how to think in the abstract but in bumping up against ideas in specific contexts. That "bumping up against" phrase is important to me, because you don't learn anything if you are not challenged. Some subjects appear easier to you or me than others, but that perception is about subjects that are under a threshold of difficulty, not the absence of new ideas and challenges. Teachers can make learning easier, but that fact doesn't eliminate the need for challenge. And the specific context matters. As my favorite high school English teacher told us at the beginning of AP English, she taught writing, and she did it in the context of teaching about literature. She also taught us an enormous amount about literature in the course of that year. Even philosophers talk about topics. Care for a casual game of penny-ante Ontology?

In my case, I teach social-science and humanities perspectives on education, with a focus on history and sociology. The majority of my students come to me to fulfill exit requirements or in the midst of pre-professional training that reinforces psychological assumptions, and I have most of them for only one semester. I provide students with an additional set of views, humanities and social-science perspectives to examine schooling. When students leave my classroom, they should be able to explain how people fight over the purposes of schooling and the different models of how schools function as organizations (or don't).

In many ways, I am lucky to be in a field where I get paid for navel-gazing. My neighbors and fellow citizens should want me to teach students who want to teach that the world may not agree with their reasons for teaching or their view of the purpose of schooling; that the world's range of schools includes places that provide a very different education from their own experiences as they grew up; and that the job of teaching involves more than going into a room, shutting the door, and letting the gorgeous lesson plans unfold without interruption or difficulty. That's a fairly practical purpose. There is also the specific example of the argument above: Formal schooling is what humans do today, and studying the social context of formal schooling is a reasonable way to study what humans do.

In addition, when students are in my course, they have to write extensively and coherently about schooling. Over my career, I have taught over 2,000 students. I have taught most of those students at USF, where I have never written a multiple-choice final exam and where I have always required that students write papers. Before my colleagues and I agreed to craft a single paper assignment across all of the undergraduate social-foundations sections, I assigned a "perspectives" paper where I collected sources on two or three recent "hot topics" in education and told my students, "This is not a research paper. I've collected all of the background you should need. Your job is to apply the concepts you have learned in the course to these hot topics." (I gave students the ability to propose a topic of their own choosing, as long as I approved it in the first month of the course. Almost no students took me up on the offer, and as a result, I stopped having students propose topics that focused more on psychology than the topics in my course.) In most cases, the common readings for the course never directly addressed the hot topics, so they couldn't just regurgitate ideas. I was mean! (See the bit about challenges above.)

Some of these assignments were more successful than others. I am still aghast that a few years ago, the majority of students who wrote about the "intelligent-design" controversy in Dover supported teaching it alongside evolution in a science class. I graded them on the merits of the assignment (which is not synonymous with the question of what should be in the curriculum), and then explained my point of view in comments separate from the grading. But I challenge students' beliefs about education, no matter what they carried into the classroom, and I push students to  justify their conclusions with plausible arguments.

And to continue this meme, I tag...

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Posted in Academic freedom on January 14, 2008 12:16 PM |