waterside wooden bench with worn path in the dirt in front of it
28
Jul
2016

Learning Through Conversation

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Written by
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Reviewed by Chris Friend and Maha Bali / مها بالي
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No Worries” by garshna; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“My teaching portfolio speaks of challenges and failures alongside successes, all woven into a narrative organically establishing who I am and why I do what I do.”
— Martin Kutnowski


There’s a fair amount of talk these days about the questionable validity of student evaluations of teaching, a conversation that has addressed some serious concerns about gender equity and about teaching and learning being whittled down to mere customer service. At the same time, however, some of this writing has an edge of defensiveness that we shouldn’t overlook. The authors are typically educators who are justifying their decision not to give credence to their students’ complaints: They aren’t expert enough, or objective enough, to have a valid opinion about me; I know best. As a linguistic ethnographer, I see this as an instance of the general principle that having high status means you don’t have to make an effort to understand lower-status people; if they don’t speak your language, there are no consequences to you if you just ignore them. After all, if you think about it, professor evaluations of students are also often questionable, but that’s another conversation entirely.

So what happens if I, as course instructor, move my thumb off the scale? What if I listen to my students’ criticism and take them at their word? Well, if I look at my final teaching assignment of graduate school, the Language and Society section I taught in Fall 2014, things get ugly very quickly. On the final course evaluation, not only did my numerical averages fall deep in the lowest decile, but to give you the gist of the comments, here are a few paraphrases:

Course requirements were not clear.

He thinks he’s leading discussion, but he really just wants us to agree with him. After a while I stopped trying.

He expects us to have graduate-level understanding of the material as he does.

Worst class I’ve ever taken. I learned nothing this semester.

Reading this, I thought, now wait a minute. You learned nothing? I read all your final papers, and they were good. Some of them were better than work I’ve seen presented at conferences. You worked collaboratively, channeled your curiosity into productive research questions, explored relevant theoretical areas in the literature, collected and analyzed data. Don’t tell me you knew how to do that in September. What does this really mean?


Four years earlier, I had gone back for a graduate degree in linguistics, seeking opportunities for reflective practice and critical research that I hadn’t been able to pursue as a public high school teacher. I had few opportunities to teach, but my research applied my linguistic and anthropological training to classroom settings, and my dissertation project featured anthropologically informed research on teaching. I spent a lot of time thinking about knowledge residing in communities before it manifests in individual minds, and I came to understand learning as a newcomer’s participation in a community, through which they eventually become a more central member. If education is what happens in classrooms, learning is a much older and more fundamental phenomenon, and the more I viewed education as a type of learning — the more I considered what classrooms have in common with parent-child relationships, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and self-directed inquiry — the better I could understand school as a cultural environment and a social institution.

This perspective, foundational to my research program, also began to bleed over into my teaching. I found myself questioning the implicit theoretical position of most university syllabuses, which construe students as independent cognitive-psychological units and presume that the purpose of a college class is for them each to acquire a predetermined body of authoritative facts. If learning happens in communities, why do we require students to keep their eyes on their own paper? How can we, in good faith, assign a percentage of a course grade to “class participation,” if learning is really nothing but participation? And if we want our students to see themselves as participants in a research discipline, then how can we present the concerns of that discipline as “motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable … completely alien to [their] existential experience”?

As a fifth-year doctoral student, I was offered my first chance to be instructor of record of an undergraduate course, an introduction to sociolinguistics; and since I was positioning myself for the non-academic job market, I realized this might be my only chance. It’s now or never, I thought. Let’s see if I can put all this theory into practice. To prepare, I read case studies of teacher education for inquiry-based pedagogy, practical tips for student-centered teaching in higher ed, and exemplary project-based syllabuses. As my reading explored the frontier of critical pedagogy, my own way forward slowly became apparent: I would structure the course as a series of opportunities for students to be sociolinguists, working collaboratively in groups to articulate research questions, carry out original investigations, and present their learning to their peers. I would guide them to select course content topics based on their own interests. I would give feedback not through letter grades but through specifications grading, and at the end of the term, when the university required letter grades, they would be based on a portfolio of work selected by the students, because by that time they should be able to judge the quality of their own work. Building on these principles, I wrote a syllabus and brought it to the first day of class, fingers crossed.

But at this point I had already made two crucial mistakes. First, I forgot that I was asking them to learn how to do two things, not only sociolinguistics but also inquiry-based learning. When I framed “linguistic inquiry” as the content of the course, I obscured the fact that I was also asking them to learn to be students in an unfamiliar way. Second, and more fundamental, I forgot that I was also learning to do inquiry-based teaching, and that my students would form the community in which I was to learn it. I’ve come to that realization too late to do them any good, but I’m still learning from what they taught me.


Fourteen weeks later, I struggled to understand how the students who had produced such sophisticated research papers, who had led such engaged class discussions, had come to feel so poorly served by me and so demoralized by the course. I studied their comments closely, trying to square the experience they described with my own memories of the semester.

Course requirements were not clear — I originally trained as a language teacher, and when you’re assigning a task to a group of beginners with six different native languages, clarity is of the utmost importance. I knew how to do this; I had no excuse. But now, blinded by my democratic ideal of a negotiated, co-constructed curriculum, I had sacrificed clarity and replaced it with experimentation. To begin with, the first version of the portfolio guidelines turned out to require an unrealistic amount of work. We collaboratively revised them several times, but while this work was in progress, there was no certainty about what students were actually required to do to pass the course. Some individual assignments, such as student-led lectures, were tasks that I had never even seen done before, so it was hard for me to articulate expectations. I conducted a mid-semester course evaluation and made some changes based on that feedback, which ameliorated specific problems but also contributed to the overall feeling of confusion.

Part of the challenge is that inquiry learning is naturally a more fluid process than what students are accustomed to — in the syllabus, the entire month of November was marked TBD — and a teacher more skilled than me in its implementation would have been able to counterbalance this fluidity with what Earl Stevick calls control, providing students a sense of security even as they explore new terrain. A bigger problem, though, was the ambition that led me to approach this one-semester teaching fellowship as a pedagogical attempt to shoot the moon. In all my reading of theories of learning, I never imagined myself in the learner role, a newcomer to the community of critical pedagogy. Instead, I convinced myself that it was all or nothing, that it would be unforgivable hypocrisy for me to lecture, use letter grades, or offer anything short of total syllabus revolution. And in my now-or-never sense of urgency, I tried to do too much too quickly, and the whole thing fell apart. (Writing this paragraph, I am struck by the frequency of first-person singular pronouns; it’s not about what my students needed, but about all the great things that I could do [for them].)

He thinks he’s leading discussion, but he just wants us to agree with him — this is a fair critique of my always-developing teaching skills. Undergraduates are used to being given answers through lecture. I tried instead to create opportunities for them to make their own discoveries through dialogue, but I often lacked the patience that this process requires. I wanted them to arrive at the truth in their own time and in their own way, but I hadn’t prepared myself for the role of guiding them to deeper understanding, and too often I tried to just correct mistakes. On one particularly shameful occasion, a student presenter offered up an interpretation of data, and I raised my hand in front of the whole class and said, “I don’t see it” — a rudely dismissive move that it still pains me to remember. If I really wanted knowledge to emerge from discourse, I needed to allow the group to live in a place of uncertain and incomplete understanding. I told them this many times as they grappled with difficult concepts, but too often I didn’t allow them the space to actually do it.

He expects us to have graduate-level understanding of the material — I’ve heard it said that if you expect a lot from your students, they’ll rise to meet your expectations. This is why, in my implementation of specifications grading, I differentiated between two levels of acceptable student work, providing criteria that showed understanding as well as more stringent criteria that showed mastery. Perhaps this was a poor choice of words. Perhaps my too-frequent interventions into classroom dialogue, as well as my copious feedback on written work, made them all too aware of the points they didn’t understand. Perhaps the effect of “failing” to achieve “mastery,” when they are used to earning A’s, was discouraging rather than motivational. This is how I have finally come to understand that one student’s comment that they had “learned nothing:” not that I didn’t teach them anything, but that I failed to help them see how much they were learning. I had presumed that my students would find inquiry-based pedagogy empowering — The textbook is not the authority, you are! — but paradoxically, this “empowerment” was something I tried to push them into by force. As Jennifer Gore writes, “If empowerment is constructed as the exercise of power in an attempt to help others to exercise power…we confront the unforeseeable and contradictory effects of the exercise of power and must be more humble and reflexive in our claims.”

So if this was failure, what did I imagine success would look like? What was my purpose in implementing this style of education? Beyond the knowledge and skills of the community of sociolinguists, beyond even the experience of engaging in inquiry, I had hoped to communicate a philosophy of what learning is, and what education should be: not “an act of depositing” but a process of becoming, not a series of transactions — “class participation” for grades, grades for credentials, credentials for future salary — but a developing understanding that knowledge is a human creation, and that anybody can be the one to add to it. What I didn’t consider is that this is a hard thing to learn! I was working with students who had spent their entire lives playing a certain game and had come to excel at it, and all of a sudden here I was, some grad student teaching a required course, forcing them to play by different rules. I think about the careful demonstrations I developed for concepts such as sociolinguistic repertoire, the personal guidance I offered to develop their academic presentation skills, but I realize now that all my talk was focused on the least important things. What students really learn through inquiry — sometimes you don’t understand something, and that’s fine; sometimes nobody is going to tell you the answer, and you have to discover it for yourself — if I had to articulate a purpose for education, I might name this as its most important principle, but it’s not something you can teach by explaining. Perhaps teaching is essentially an effort to help students arrive at this deeper truth, in comparison to which academic content is only ever secondary.

Only now, writing this essay, does it occur to me that the same principle applies to my learning of pedagogy. Nobody is going to tell me how to be a better teacher; I have to discover it for myself. But that doesn’t mean that I’m on my own. On the contrary, learning can only ever happen through conversation. All the theorists I mentioned above, from Freire to Vygotsky, are in agreement on this, and the clumsy conversations in Language and Society were emblematic of the course’s deeper flaws. But now, as I work to become a more reflective critical educator, where is the conversation in which this learning happens? My reading of the literature was a kind of conversation, but an exclusively one-sided one, and in my graduate program, my mentors and colleagues did not generally engage with pedagogy in the same way that I did. This, I believe, is why I decided to write this essay. I’m willing to lay my failure in the open because I’m not chasing tenure, but I’m motivated to relive it because I care about teaching, and I can’t get better without talking about my failures. Naomi Barnes writes, “You are an activist because you are revealing your flaws in an industry that pretends it has none,” and maybe this is activism of a sort — it’s a re-envisioning of how we do academic self-presentation, a teaching statement of failures to accompany a CV of failures. But more practically, it’s also a conversation starter. Through Hybrid Pedagogy’s collaborative peer review, I’ve begun to talk more about the issues that confronted me that semester, and as the reviewers pushed me deeper into my own vulnerability, I came to understand more about myself as an educator.

In their wisdom, though, they never tried to explain this to me. A lecture on my professional weaknesses would have been useless at best. Instead, my first draft of this essay began a conversation in which, guided by their encouragement, their critical eye and technical expertise, I have stumbled toward a way to tell this story. And through their mentoring, I have come to understand that my students are the most central members of the community in which I learn critical pedagogy. In my correspondence with Chris and Maha, I wrote at one point that my students “have given me invaluable feedback on what I need to fix, but they’re not in a position to help me figure out what I should do instead.” On further reflection, I wrote, “students could be in a position to help me figure out what to do, if I knew how to facilitate that conversation.” And now, I feel that even this formulation puts too much emphasis on me doing things. I’m through with trying to empower people by telling them what to do. I resolve instead to be a better listener.

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8 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve certainly experienced the “requirements not clear” as I tried to teach my high school courses with a focus on inquiry and critical pedagogy. I learned in later years how different my approach to teaching and learning was from other teachers. Two weeks ago I completed my first university outline for a 4th year education course on literacy across the curriculum. Creating the outline was a huge struggle of wanting to at least appear like I was a “team player” in the typical expectations, and wanting to create an outline that would reflect how I want to (and will?) teach the course. I want to reduce the “I” and empower the students. I strongly suggested that their final project of a sample teaching unit should be done collaboratively. How can I complain about teaching silos and not make collaborative teaching and class preparation a team effort? By the end of November, I’ll be ready to write about my own high ed learning journey. Your shared experiences are helpful preparation

    1. Daniel Ginsberg

      “wanting to at least appear like I was a ‘team player’ in the typical expectations”

      This is a huge issue. It’s hard to get students to buy into radical changes, especially if you’re the only one making them – if “the final exam is worth 50% of your grade” is good enough for everyone else, why isn’t it good enough for you? Since I was a grad student when I taught this course, I made sure that the chair at least knew what I was doing, so that I wouldn’t get in trouble later. But with students, it’s really tricky, especially because of the power issues: in the final analysis it’s not up to them.

  2. Hmmm…Interesting. I thought the article would be more about discourse and learning, but still found your points to be worth reading.

    I do wonder where you got your information about Freire? DId you ever read about his practice? Or just his theory or pronouncements. He wrote and spoke about “his pedagogy”, but he never put it into real practice except for 6 weeks in NE Brazil. I wonder why you cite him with such certainty?

    1. Daniel Ginsberg

      This is an issue that I wonder about a fair amount, not just with Freire but with a lot of my favorite theorists. In my linguistic / anthropological work, I go back to Erving Goffman and Pierre Bourdieu pretty frequently, but both had pretty limited field experience. I guess I’d say that for me, the validity of a theory doesn’t depend on whether the theorist themself was able to put their ideas into practice. Rather, when I think about concepts like the “banking model” and the idea that learning should be grounded in personal experience, they resonate with the work of other theorists I value, and also with my own experience as a student, teacher and researcher. I believe the use of theory is to help us understand experience, which doesn’t depend so much on the details of the theorist’s CV.

  3. Jennifer Lubkin Chavez

    Hi Daniel! This is such a wonderful post, full of so many powerful reflections. One thing that strikes me is how often we lose sight of how hard learning is. It is no great wonder that the best professors don’t get the highest evaluations–because learning is often a struggle, and who gives top marks to struggle? But this reflection is also a good reminder of how important it is–and what a challenge it can be– to help students recognize their progress and feel positive about their learning experience. In the way of a practical tip, I remember reading a psychology study (sorry, can’t remember the citation) that basically said if you take two groups of people, have them struggle with a frustrating task (didn’t matter how long), and have one group continue in the same vein until the end while having the other group end with some manner of success and celebration, the two groups will apply very different meaning and value to the struggle. So the more frustrating an assignment, the more intentionally I *try* to plan some culminating celebration or public praise. I hope you do have the opportunity to teach again…or let me put that differently–knowing how much a struggle teaching can be, I won’t wish that on you 😉 but– I DO hope students again have an opportunity to learn with you.

    1. Daniel Ginsberg

      “the two groups will apply very different meaning and value to the struggle”

      This is a great way to think about it. Struggle is necessary, but the person who is struggling has to find it valuable.

      “I hope you do have the opportunity to teach again…or let me put that differently–knowing how much a struggle teaching can be, I won’t wish that on you 😉”

      So, linking this back to your earlier comment: it is a struggle. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done. And yet, I do find it valuable, and I’m open to opportunities to continue the work. I have thoughts about why that is, but nothing articulate enough to share.

  4. Daniel~~I think your post is brave. Instead of brushing off challenging student comments, you reflect and analyze them. This takes courage (imho). It is far too easy to apply the lens of “IfTheyHadJust-itis” (If they had just attended/listened/put forth effort…etc…). I have often wondered what would happen to the insights in student evaluations if they also took place in a second round, perhaps a year or so after course completion. As a student, I struggled with some professors and courses. I just did not “get it” or “get them” until later, usually after direct experience, or less personal drama on my part, or just more maturity. I have had correspondence from students months or years after my courses who express similar breakthroughs. …Just wondering… Thank you for embodying both Freire’s “Act of Teaching” and “act of Learning” (Pedagogy of Freedom).

  5. Rob Walker

    I am reminded of Garth Boomer’s paper, ‘The helping hand strikes again’. The paradox Jennifer Gore identifies seems unavoidable, that to establish a democratic or participatory climate requires initial authorative acts, which then undo themselves. Maybe the solution is to establish initial areas of expertise. What are the skills and knowledge that each person brings to the curriculum, and what do they hope to come away with? How can the teacher design tasks and assess progress that meet these needs?

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