One lit chair, alone in a dark room

On Pedagogical Manipulation

Encouraging learning is an act of subtle manipulation. When we enter a classroom, we’re stepping onto a stage. This is true no matter how student-centered our classroom is, because our students are also stepping onto a stage (or into an audience). Even in the most open learning environments, we all play roles: the teacher, the student, the devil’s advocate, the reporter, the questioner, the dictator, the grader, the teacher’s pet. It’s in the careful modulation of these roles that we can actively control a learning environment. [Jesse writes this last sentence fully aware that his co-author and much of his audience will balk at the word “control.”] This issue of control is a delicate one, because the work we do in classrooms (as both teachers and students) depends on a very deliberate attention to how we manage the space and how we express ourselves within it. The work we do in classrooms depends on us finding a careful balance between asserting control and ceding it.

Before I started teaching in 2001, I [Jesse] would have described myself as an avid and dedicated introvert. I realized early on, though, that my own personality (whether inherent or learned) was not ideal for the sort of learning I wanted to encourage in the classroom. I wanted to create a dynamic, excited, and collaborative space, and that required me to not only be dynamic, excited, and collaborative but to appear to be all of these things as well. It was a mostly conscious decision: to reconsider and reshape my own personality in the name of the greater pedagogical good.

Over the years, I’ve tricked myself into being a person that can create a learning environment I admire (and one I’ve seen work), and it’s not unreasonable to say that I also trick students into learning. I do this by staunchly coming to class as a learner myself. This means assigning books/films I haven’t read, occasionally (and purposefully) under-preparing in the minutes just before class, asking questions that I actually want to know the answer to, turning questions back upon students, emoting visibly, etc. It’s a calculated genuineness, which may seem oxymoronic. What I’m doing is a sort of modeling. And I don’t think it would disturb my students to read this — for them to see me describing myself in this way. I’m certain many of them understand this about me already, that what I’m doing in the classroom (whether physical or digital) is at once both orchestrated and candid.

I am overtly “under construction” for students in order to encourage their own curiosity, playfulness, and development. Inasmuch as this is deliberate, it is a manipulation.

It’s not quite accurate to say I’m performing a role for my students; it’s more complicated. I’m performing a self, a real self, an honest self, but an intentional, manufactured self. The self I perform in the classroom is shrewdly haphazard. I might, for example, sit cross-legged on the desk at the front of the room or take off my shoes while scrawling notes on the chalkboard, not to be comfortable but to convey something to my students about the need for making the classroom a comfortable space. I am also extremely crafty about what I wear. At Georgia Tech, a mostly conservative campus in Atlanta, I insisted on wearing shorts — not just because of the heat, but because it conveyed a willingness to go against the grain of what my fellow instructors were wearing. These constructed identities evolve over time. Who we are (and who the students are) is different at the end of a term, because we’ve been changed by the interaction, and we should be reflective about how that change occurs.

[Pete] was recently talking with a student about an assignment she was completing for class. The students in my classes negotiate the topics for their compositions, so I knew she was supposed to report on the resources being used at a local Occupy site, tracing where the money came from and how the Occupiers survived, financially. After a week or two on the story, she sent me an email saying, essentially, “I have not done enough work on this story, and the project is not going well. Can I close it and move on?” Because my students view me as easy-going, I get this frequently in face-to-face conversation or over email: a request for a pass. I was not convinced. I remembered our conversation from two weeks before when we had hatched her idea. She was excited and eager to work on this project, with more energy than I had seen all semester. She needed that energy back.

I replied that the article was still valid, that the deadline could shift a bit, but that her original idea was a valuable one. It didn’t matter, I wrote, that she was hitting dead-ends in the research process; she needed to keep pursuing her story. Its questions were not going to answer themselves. Her reply was encouraging: “You’re right. I need to stay on it. I will have it completed in another week.”

I have built my pedagogical career out of this kind of negotiation. Pedagogical flexibility affords me a currency I never take for granted in the classroom because it purchases student investment. If I negotiate a new due date for an essay, I’m communicating to students that their own specific circumstances are important. When I later push them to work harder to revise a composition or when I assign a longer-than-normal reading assignment, my encouragement has more teeth. They know I’ve “worked” for them, individually, by taking the necessary time to understand their specific needs, so they are more prone to work for me.

Some of this can feel uncomfortable, because it calls attention to a student’s extrinsic motivation. Ideally, we want her to write a great paper because she wants to, not because we want her to. However, from years of teaching, we know this kind of encouragement can mature, can migrate from extrinsic to intrinsic.

Both of us [Pete and Jesse] work to win the adoration and respect of our students not because we crave adoration and respect but because those feelings have power, because they allow us to push on learning at just the right moments and in just the right ways. It’s crucial, though, to be honest about how this kind of power plays out in the classroom. This article from College Teaching suggests that the syllabus is where the work must begin. The syllabus is the first and most self-consciously manipulative of the interactions we have with students. That’s why its construction can seem so laborious. Beginning there, we must acknowledge that there is control, management, power, and manipulation at play in the classroom; and the best way to not let these dynamics unsettle learning is to be transparent about how they function (and to brazenly show the chinks in their armor).

In this article about Paulo Freire, Henry A. Giroux writes, “Too many classrooms at all levels of schooling now resemble a ‘dead zone,’ where any vestige of critical thinking, self-reflection and imagination quickly migrate to sites outside of the school only to be mediated and corrupted by a corporate-driven media culture.” As teachers, we encourage self-reflection by being honest with students about our own motivations / practices and by letting students peek behind the proverbial curtain. And it’s even better if we begin allowing students to monkey with the works, by encouraging them to recreate us even as they recreate themselves.

This article complicates a relationship understood in binary terms, an activity we assert is essential to understanding our hybridity. Whether in learning how a physical classroom can be infused with the digital or how traditional scholarly practices can inform our use of Twitter, we constantly explore how opposing ends of a spectrum create new opportunities in their collapse. Manipulation is not an appetizing humanistic goal; yet education is sometimes too rife with maxims on encouragement. Defining the overlap of both is an honest recognition of professional hybridity that makes our pedagogical practice more critically voracious.

We end with several questions in order to bring more overlapping voices (more selves) into this conversation: How does technology help disrupt or disseminate the strategies described here? Why is this an important discussion to have with relationship to digital pedagogy? How are these dynamics changing in the wake of online and hybrid learning? How do you negotiate power dynamics in the classroom (or digital learning space) as a teacher or student?

Revealing the strange and wondrous power of digital publishing, an unsolicited piece was written in response to this article, submitted by the author (from CO), reviewed by both managing editors (in GA and OR), revised by the author (back in CO), and published on Hybrid Pedagogy, all in under 12 hours.

[Photo by Pedro Moura Pinheiro]

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