Sunday, April 6, 2008

Transparency; or, the Whole Foods Management Approach to a Composition Pedagogy

I recently asked my students to read Margaret Atwood's "A Letter to America" for the next class period and to come prepared to speak about it. Just to be sure there was no confusion, I reiterated several times the part about being prepared to make comments--aloud--on the reading. On Thursday. Read Atwood's two-page essay and come prepared. To speak. Have something to say about Atwood's perspective and how she couches her argument. Thursday is when this is happening. Atwood. Two pages. Read them. Make comments.

Come Thursday, however, the most thoughtful--and damn near only--response offered was: She's old and Canadian and obviously she's upset that things aren't the same as the good old days.

Not wanting to bore you with the details of how poorly I handled the situation, it should suffice to say that at one point I asked if they were actively committed to stumbling willy-nilly through their respective worlds like blindfolded sheep. Several students chuckled at this non-rhetorical question, and so I also laughed but mostly to help mitigate the poor form of my reaction.

Auto-browbeaten and otherwise non-plussed, I shared my lament with several colleagues (because whining and bitching to one another is apparently one of our chief coping mechanisms and ostensibly the best argument for communal office space). In so doing, one Steve Rucker--he being a scholar, gentleman, and otherwise real congenial bastard--shared with me his take on this problem. Fortunately for you, he elaborates this in his April 2nd blog ("I am the Joe DiMaggio...")--which I hadn't then yet read--and so I won't recount it here.

What appeals to me about Steve's approach, though, is that it attempts to demystify what seems to me are some of the more counter-productive aspects of the typical student-teacher dynamic by establishing a substantial degree of pedagogical transparency. Perhaps because I've had a consistently rough go at generating student participation (excepting the sport vs. game debate), and also because I share many of Steve's sentiments regarding what may be the source of their reticence to speak up, it strikes me as logical that elucidating one's teaching philosophy to students may go a long way towards alleviating their fears. Maybe more so, I think, if you subscribe to a Social Constructivist model, since alerting students to the notions that 1) you don't perceive yourself as the sole bearer of Truth within the classroom (ie, acknowledging your fallibility), and therefore 2) they are expected to be active in the construction of the truth-making process should help significantly undermine their fears of sounding "stupid" or what have you.

I feel like it's too late in the semester for me to implement this kind of pedagogical transparency with any sufficient impact, though I anticipate giving it a whirl next semester for sure. In the meantime, I'll be sure to stay apprised of how it's working out for ol' Steve "DiMaggio" Rucker.


Knife the Cat said...

Early on in my first semester, I tried out revealing my pedagogy. The students took to it fairly well, but the first comments they then felt comfortable to make were criticisms about my teaching style. It was a tough can of worms to open, but I'm always glad that I get my obvious fallibility out of the way early on. It's a good airing out thing to do. Sure, it made me vulnerable and human, but that's the first step of college- when they realize their professor's aren't infallible, merely deeply troubled. "By the way, I make mistakes and I'm sometimes willing to submit to your point of view. Just offer a somewhat competent opinion sometime, or you'll always be a doormat. Please don't stumble about as blindfolded sheep, but if you do, at least know I won't castigate you too severely. I'll just bottle my disappointment inside, right between humiliating camp experiences and that time my uncle touched me."

imcriswell said...

I too use transparencies in the classroom. I don't believe in using powerpoint or computers in the classroom; the overhead projector is as technologically advanced as I get. Transparencies are helpful because you can make marks on them while you are discussing certain aspects. You can't do that sort of thing with powerpoint. You have to just remember to change it later or that you talked about it. It's so stupid! I'm glad that you wrote a blog about the upsides of transparencies. Granted, I did not read the whole thing, but I'm certain that it is absolutely incredible if not Earth-shattering. How do your students feel about your use of transparencies? Do they ever comment about how much they enjoy your transparencies? Mine do. They're mostly in black and white, but I have some that are in color, too. Pie charts show up really well in transparencies... pie charts about breakfast foods.

Steve Rucker said...

It took me a while to get to this blog, and all I can say is: "It's about time someone has recognized me for the absolute genius I have always been." Too long have I waited in the shadows for my time to shine, and finally, I am ready to begin my onslaught on the world. No, seriously, I'm glad that our conversation helped you out. A lot of this whole approach was admitting to myself, and not just my students, that the whole teacher/student dynamic does not mean you have to be an infallible dictator of "truth." This does not mean that I actually have a huge ego, but more that this is what has always been presented to me as I came up through the public school system: the teacher knows everything and must adhere to such a principle; students will follow instructions and thus learn. Now, I've tried to not be like this from day one of teaching, but I caught myself perpetuating the same attitude that never worked for me as a student. I admit that I would have been a receptive if I were in their place. So, I figured that it was time for me to consider what I had learned about being a teacher and try to do my best to relate to them as a human being, not simply as their teacher. Since then, things have run so much better. I do encounter some mishaps from time to time, but nothing that we ALL can't work out. I hope they were able to overcome some of their misconceptions of what constitutes a "teacher," as well.