Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why teaching is like throwing up

I spend a fair amount of time packing things into my head – ideas, quotations, allusions, contradictions, references, images, sounds, etc. Connections are made, links are forged and I often see things via compound material that a single idea would never allow. I do this mainly so that I will have something to say in front of a room full of people all looking in my direction. While I appreciate silence, it often makes me cringe. I was taught to value product, to have a goal, to provide information and steer the conversation. There are times when I want someone else to do this, but placing that responsibility on a student doesn’t quite seem fair. Team teaching is great for this since I know when I reach a point of silence there is another “authority” in the room to help move things along.

I do want to be patient, to ask questions and wait for a response. Unfortunately my lead-in to discussions is often the silence inducing “what did you think of the readings?” I am constantly amazed that chatter can happen effortlessly before and after a class, but once that dreaded connection to the assignment happens silence ensues. There must be a way to seamlessly move between these separate worlds.

Readings, of course, are never arbitrary. I assign things for two reasons – 1) so that we have something to talk about and 2) that students might get excited about these ideas and go off on their own and find out more about them. With the five readings for today, for example, (non-dualism, Taoism, chaos theory, ‘Pataphysics, and rhizome – which amounted to Eastern spirituality, science, avant-garde, and post-structuralism) each of the articles was saying the same thing in a different way and the hope was that students would see the interconnectedness. Also, if they didn’t get the idea with one of the readings it might come through in another. In either case, there was quite a bit to get exited about.

Yes I could treat students like baby birds and pre-digest the readings, and often do, but I am more interested in an interpretation that I can’t control. When none are forthcoming I wonder if they have done the reading – the obvious start, understood it, or understood it the way I understood it. I always worry that students who have read the material are silent for fear of appearing stupid – that somehow they feel that they have misread or misinterpreted the article. The thing that took me so long to understand was that even a misreading is still a reading and that it can often provide a unique and unforeseen way into an article or idea. So the old adage that “there are no stupid questions” should really be extended to “there are no stupid interpretations or readings.” But silence leaves many possibilities.

In the hope that students will express their understanding of the material I want to resist the urge to just blurt out everything I have been thinking about. But my head is crammed with information, silence unnerves me, and I want students to see the exciting things that I see, so I erupt. This is not unlike that feeling when you realize that that last drink was perhaps one too many. You can fight the urge, but sooner or later your body will do what it can to purge. My mouth is open and “iteration means this” is out before I have a chance to swallow one more time.

So this is the dilemma. I want to talk but I want to listen. I need to be “in charge” because that is technically part of my job description, but I also want to leave room for other voices. I have authority, but I want to pass it on to someone else. I keep coming back to Roy Pea’s notion of distributed intelligences combined with an idea expressed in an article called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar." The idea is that within a specific environment 20 minds are infinitely more powerful than a single mind. It is not that intelligences pile up on top of each other like batteries, but that each mind functioning on its own solves problems and explores ideas that complement, struggle against, undermine, overwhelm, and synchronize with others. Another adage – “many hands make light work” – could easily be re-phrased to read – “many minds . . .”

In preparing for class today – part of the cramming my head with stuff phase – I ran across an article called "Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum" by Dave Cormier. In this essay he points out “The rhizome metaphor, which represents a critical leap in coping with the loss of a canon against which to compare, judge, and value knowledge, may be particularly apt as a model for disciplines on the bleeding edge where the canon is fluid and knowledge is a moving target.” This seems to be the exact idea that I am struggling with.

Neither Bob nor I could ever compressively cover the subject of generative art no matter how many lectures we gave, how many readings we assigned, how many answers we provided. But, by processing this information as a community – divided into multiple projects, discussions, blogs, online conversations, etc we can approach the topic from many sides at once. Each piece interacts with, comments on and engages with all of the other pieces with no intentional hierarchy. As the idea of the rhizome is all plateau that has no beginning, middle, or end we did not begin by talking about the history or genesis of this form, but plunged in with a project and questions as a point of departure. As Cormier states, “The role of the instructor in all of this is to provide an introduction to an existing professional community in which students may participate—to offer not just a window, but an entry point into an existing learning community.” With this topic, more so than others, we have an opportunity to move beyond simply pondering this idea to actively employ it.

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