Monday, February 28, 2005

Teaching Towards the Utopian...

Recently, I had to read a book by Jill Dolan called "Geographies of Learning". In it Dolan, primarily a theater and performance scholar, attempts to take perspectives on feminist and queer theory and apply it to a broader perspective of learning and intellectualism.

At the end of every chapter, she includes lists of questions or ideas that provide a sounding board or reaction point for the reader to think and interrogate the concepts brought up in that chapter. In one of the chapters, "Performance as Feminist Pedagogy," Dolan gives "My 'Ten Commandments' for Teaching" In an effort to foster understanding of my response, I include these here:

My "Ten Commandments" for Teaching

Finally, my ten personal commandments for teaching. I have to stress that these are my own; they've worked for me and they might work for others.
1. Teach to the highest common denominator. Students will rise to the occaision. Learning should be hard.
2. Teach for questions, not for answers. Focus on the gaps, the omissions, the whys, the maybes, but always take a stand around the knowledge you share or discover.
3. Teach to unsettle, not to create a safe space. Learning should be dangerous, because ideas and what they can do have real meanings and real effects.
4. Teach to learn something. Never teach the exact same syllabus twice, but always look for different readings, new input. Learn in front of your students, as you teach.
5. Believe that good writing is fundamental to learning anything and insist that students do it well.
6. Believe that students have a lot to teach one another. The teacher isn't the only one in the classroom with something important to say.
7. Believe that humanities/arts classrooms should be about learning the skills of analysis, about how to ask questions more than about transmitting correct readings of canonical texts.
8. Believe in embodied learning and teaching. Everyone's body should be on the line in the classroom, even if no one leaves their chair.
9. Be responsible to your own authority and power as a teacher. I give ths grades, so I have to be as organized, committed, and well prepared as I expect the students to be.
10. Believe in a classroom in which pleasure circulates freely: as desire, as humor, as intellectual inquiry, as the passionate commitment to ideas, theories, and practices.

Jill Dolan, Geographies of Learning. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001.

I have a response that I have composed, but I will wait a day or two to post my opinion. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Blogging as an intellectual?

A couple of my friends and colleagues have asked me why I, or anyone, would blog as an effort in spreading intellectual ideas. It seems somewhat antithetical that the Internet, and the egocentric Blog movement, would possess any real key to creating a form of intellectual communitas.

It is a good point. However, the use of the blog is not really that much different from a combination, of sorts, of the millenia old practice of the academic society presenting ideas within a rhetorical mode and the centuries old practice of keeping a personal thought-diary or journal. It seems to me that the blog has the very real potential of reifying the word and written discourse as a way of self-expression.

Yes, not as many people write real letters or articles. No longer do the ideological broadsheets and pamphlets exist that allowed a wide range of individuals to express their thoughts and opinions on contemporary issues and disseminate them (and get punished for them).

There was another story on CNN this morning in which news organizations were questioning the new "fad" of political bloggers. This is not a fad. The method of communication might be different, but I feel that the drive and content are similar to early colonial authors such as Payne and Adams and the authors of the Federalist Papers. These were not functionaries of accredited new agencies. They were individuals with axes to grind. Granted, for the most part, the successful ones were privileged individuals who wanted to retain their wealth, but that is another story for another time.

The specific impetous for me to throw my hat in the ring comes from reading the transcript of a roundtable forum from early 2001 that was published in The Nation. In this article a number of threats and responses to the goals and challenges of the public academic intellectual are brought to light. One of the most hopeful comes from Steven Johnson who writes about the potentials of the Internet,

"The ability to center your intellectual life in all of its different appearances in your own 'presence' online, on the home page, so that you can actually have the equivalent of an author bio. Except that it's dynamically updated all the time, and there are links to every thing you're doing everywhere....The web gives you a way of rounding all those diverse kinds of experiences and ideads....the web is finally all about linking....And it also involves a commitment to real engagement with your audience that perhaps public intellectuals have talked a lot about in the past, but maybe not lived up to as much as they could have."

In an effort to connect things would encourage you to go and read this forum. Then feel free to share your thoughts here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Pedagogy and Reality...

I have been learning all sorts of ways in which I, as an instructor, am supposed to inspire and enlighten my students through brilliantly innovative handouts and wonderful discussion. These lessons in pedagogy always transpire the same exact way, and I wonder what sorts of things that one must do in order to break the cycle.

Let me walk you through a typical class session:

I show up, walk in the door, and find a seat. I have been a good student and read the assigned essays on the topic of the day. Now, as I read these essays, which declare that as long I actively involve the students with each other and with the subject matter, you know "make it real" to them, then I will see exponential returns on my intellectual investment, I find myself frowning more and more often as I remember that morning's class that I taught. I prepared. I engaged. I did all of these things that this person is telling me, but there is nothing but blank stares and meaningless nods.

Needless to say, I go into the pedagogy class a bit skeptical that this will really improve me as a teacher. Over the course of the class, there is plenty of opportunity for questions, and I continually raise my hand and ask for advice in given situations that seem to defy this presentation of a new approach to teaching. However, every time that I emerge with a brilliant stumper, the professor has either a brilliant response at her fingertips or she simply states, "Sometimes there is nothing you can do."

Gradually, I begin to succumb to the logic of these arguments. I return to my office and type out new assignments and exciting changes. "Yes," I think, " I can do it! And if I don't, then it is not my fault! I can change the world!" I meant this in the least "Ruler of the Universe way."

Then the next morning, I stride into the classroom, rearrange the desks (if the pedagogy of the day indicate), I place some mellow music into the cd player, and we are ready to learn!

Or not.

I think the problem with pedagogy as a discipline is that it, to some extent, assume students who genuinely have some desire to learn and to express their opinions. I many ways education makes the same assumptions as democracy. It assumes a populace who cares.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. I know that I am generalizing. There are many students in America today who care greatly about learning and challenging themselves, but it seems that most of these have not been instructed on how to begin such pursuits.

The other day I asked the students about what their opinions were in regards to the readings we had been doing, and they sat blankly, staring at me. Now I could understand this if we had been studying quantum mechanics, Heidegger, or economics, but we had been reading about the trends in the world of people becoming fatter and fatter and the potential causes/solutions thereof.

You would think that these young students would have *some* opinion on the matter. After five minutes of complete silence, I just called on someone. (the five minutes of silence is another "brilliant" pedagogical tool that is supposed to play on the discomfort of contemporary students with silence, ha)

So I guess my question to the universe today is, "What can possibly be done?"

Friday, February 18, 2005

The Meaning of Life...

Let me introduce myself. I am Steve. I go to school at a mid-sized state university in the mid-west where I am working on earning my Ph.D. in American Culture Studies. This blog is in part an exploration of the concepts that are coming up in one of my current classes as I work towards my Ph.D. at BGSU. It is an opportunity for me to put some of my thoughts, as well as daily happenings, down for my classmates, friends, and anyone who might be interested.

The concept of the public intellectual extends back at least as far as Plato and continues to be a major issue today, just look at the uproar over Ward Churchill in recent weeks. So for thousands of years we, as members of societies, have struggled in one way or another to deal with the meaning of being someone whose primary goal was critical thinking while at the same time working and living in a world where that is fundamentally different from the lives of most people.

Yes, I know that for many people day-to-day living takes a priority over sitting around and theorizing of the meaning of being both in the public sphere of life and in the intellectual mode, but Antonio Gramsci, Italian Marxist Theorist, writes that everyone possesses some interest in thinking about significant things. He surmises the existence of an "organic intellectual" who is a member of the working/labor class that possesses a drive to think about the location and tasks of his class. This seems significantly different from the life of an Ivy League professor with the endowed chair. (Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that. I think that many of us in academic pursuits would jump at the offer) One of my goals is to enact a form of connection through this blog in which I compose and present my thoughts and open them up to discourse by anyone who happens to find my blog.

My interests broaden out from this initial starting point quickly. In addition to hard core theory about the purpose of academics, I also write about culture, film, music, philosophy, and issues of faith and spirituality, and I would imagine that some of my time here will be about more simple and "organic" things.