learning · pedagogy · teaching

Teaching with compassion and responsibility

While  compassion and responsibility do not sit at opposite of the pedagogical spectrum, I’ve stumbled over this conundrum lately, and I might just need your help to sort it out. The basic question, I guess, is how to balance the need to teach facts, e.g., passive voice, as building blocks for higher-order critical thinking, with the expectation, especially in an English class, that everything is up for interpretation. More pressingly, how to accurately assess the process of learning in a way that does not belie a progressive pedagogy.

I see it as my responsibility to equip students–as many as possible–with these building blocks that they can later count on, and thus dispel the myth that analyzing literature or popular culture and writing about them are the domain of a chosen few. If we model these methods–here are the building blocks, here’s how we put them together, here’s how they become evidence, here’s how we analyze, rather than simply judge–in class in a variety of ways–individual and collaborative–students will leave class with a toolkit they’ll be able to access afterward.

Compassion comes into the equation in a variety of ways. First, through the respect enacted in a decentred class. Second, by ensuring a distribution of different methods of delivery and types of assignments, so as to engage the various types of learners. Third, through ongoing consultation: most students I’ve encountered can diagnose their needs well, especially if they’re at a moment in their life when they can dedicate their attention to education. And that’s the final aspect of compassion for now: most students I teach juggle their education with jobs to pay for it,  volunteering, and family responsibilities.

Where’s the conflict? Simply put: in the unsatisfactory act of putting a grade on an assignment that comes at an arbitrary point in the ongoing process of learning and skill-acquisition. That grade, in spite of my attempts to contextualize it with tailored comments (and a wealth of them, at that) remains a poor, problematic, yet final assessment that tends to foreclose a process that  otherwise might have continued: what’s the incentive, for students who are as multi-directionally engaged, to continue practicing those skills, when the judge has spoken? Moreover, how do we reconcile the contradiction between the decentred class that the instructor moderates, and the fact that instructor suddenly becomes the judging authority?

There are alternatives out there: many people I know work with the contract grading model, in which a student is guaranteed a certain grade if s/he submits all assignments, and participates in the mandated meetings. Moreover, the assessment happens globally, on a portfolio, on the progression of learning, etc. Yet another system, championed by HASTAC, proposes a system of Badges for Lifelong Learning, which both acknowledges the need for and the reality of the ongoing learning process, especially when it comes to skills.

You’d think that, eight years in, I would have figure these pedagogical conundrums out, but they just seem to become more pressing. How do you see and achieve balance? Conversely, what’s your pressing pedagogical conundrum?

best laid plans · emotional labour · parenting · pedagogy · righteous feminist anger

Pedagogical and Parental Responsibility in the Face of Precarity

You might have heard that the Alberta budget was released a couple of weeks ago. You might also be familiar with its consequences on education, the higher one in particular, although there are deep cuts at all levels, without enough noise being made about them. This austerity move from the province everyone in Canada views as the richest, most privileged one, led me to think more deeply about precarity. It seems to be the going theme here at Hook & Eye this week. What do we do about it? How do we combat this neoliberal wave of blowing up every remnant of job security, human solidarity, and certainty in the near future?

My interest started due to my own unexpected, deeply emotional reaction to the budget and its implications. I felt disbelief, betrayal, grief, etc. I was going through all the stages of mourning, and I wanted to understand why. What was it about my relationship to the province that made me react this way? An unwarranted, and definitely unreciprocated attachment? Once the initial hurt–also the reason why I couldn’t formulate a blog post last week–passed, I was able to think about it in a more detached manner: my reaction is personal, because I don’t think I’m prepared for this brave new neoliberal future.

The answer came, as it sometimes happens when we have the benefit of children to mirror our own idiosyncrasies, through my oldest, when she explained to me that she can now perform a certain physical feat, because “I practiced it a lot.” She had internalized, you see, my parental injunction that “we only become good at something if we practice it a lot.” I froze on the spot and the coin dropped: yes, that’s how I was raised, that if you work hard enough at something, whatever it is, you will eventually become good at it. But what happens when the world around shifts so that being “good at it” doesn’t guarantee any kind of gratification, no matter how much you defer it? Am I parenting on a Fordist model, when the world stopped being like that a very long time ago?

What about teaching? We and others keep making the point of the relevance of humanities for today’s world, that universities should not cater to industry, etc., but what is it that I do in the classroom that prepares students for the world that I’m not doing at home? I suppose it’s critical thinking, as in the ability and the flexibility that allows students to thrive in a variety of situations, to tackle problems from novel angles, and, ultimately, to create new, better worlds. One would hope. Do these skills work when students themselves face a precarity in their professional lives that does not allow them to “think big!” “be creative!” “change the world!” but insists their efforts go into the less glamorous “paying the bills” “buying food,” and “getting rid of that student debt”?

This pragmatism does not in any way go to undercut the importance of arts education. If anything, it reinforces the potential of arts education to allow people to step back and gain perspective in the face of sustained and systematic blows from a global system bent on breeding and generalizing inequity. So, what is the solution? How do we–teachers, adults, educators, parents–empower the young ones to tackle this increasing precarity or deal with it better than I see my generation doing it? What right do we have to place such an immense burden on their shoulders, when we couldn’t solve it? (and yet I realize that our inability to solve this issue necessarily places the burden on them).

In Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, Bernard Stiegler charges contemporary (French) society with having failed the youth altogether by withdrawing the responsibility of the older generations towards the younger ones, severing the ties, while at the same time demanding the youth display the behaviour that only the careful education of such responsibility would have provided. Instead, he says, we leave it to contemporary capitalism to exercise its psychopower on generations of youth devoid of the care that should have prepared them to engage with it. Stiegler promises to come up with solutions in the next volume, but the charge is clear now: there is an intergenerational failure, whether of pedagogy and/or of parenting, which leaves youth unprepared, while capitalism continues to do its thing.

So, my unfair question to you, just before the weekend is, what do we do? How do we live up to our responsibility in the classroom and elsewhere? Do you have little tips and tricks. I know the questions are big, but the solutions need not be. How do we teach four-year-olds critical thinking without swiping their big-eyed wonder at the world in one? Anything? Bueller?