Neither Showing Nor Telling: Practicing Patience with Student Selves

“As teachers, we should spend less time telling our students what they should do when they write, and more time showing them who they can be.” -Bizzaro 234

If you really stop to think about it, the very act of writing is itself a kind of miraculous reaching out in faith. A person writing performs a highly symbolic act of transmitting ideas from the brain into words, whether to communicate her ideas with an imagined audience or a real one. Writing something, taking concepts and opinions and thoughts and somehow making them into a textual artifact, requires a laying aside of the complexities, a temporary trust that the vagaries of self-expression can be adequately subdued even if only for a time. One can think of this as foolhardy denial or naive self-delusion, but I prefer to see it as a necessary faith. It’s imperative to defer doubt and forge ahead with an experiment in expression, trusting that the way forward and through one’s self will give rise to interesting insights for oneself and hopefully for others.

Teaching writing, then, is another act of faith. For while the Burkean parlor with its ongoing conversation of humankind posits a communal discourse around a constellation of topics, it also presupposes individual selves who are already able to listen, contribute, comprehend the ideas of others.

This is a major presupposition; while some advanced students may come to the writing classroom with a sense of personal identity, purpose, and self-knowledge about their writing and reading processes, I believe that most of them do not. For many decades, student writers have been treated as novices who must be brought in line with writing expectations in university discourse.

However, with the social and affective turn in writing studies, instructors are increasingly theorizing how we’re teaching writing as a whole intellect project, not just as a cognitive exercise in inculcating that core tenet of humanistic education, critical thinking.

To truly critique and improve our writing pedagogy and bring it to service of the actual human beings in our classes, it’s vital to realize that our beliefs about what we do and why we do it in the classroom is actually “one kind of theory,” even if we aren’t cognizant of it as such (Ostrom, xi). This self-reflection about motivations and priorities, which I personally struggle to find time to do while actively teaching a course, seems to me to be central to the task of teaching.

In his introduction to Colors of a Different Horse, Ostrom argues, using Jung’s concept of the “Shadow” other, that the very things we reject or deny in others can provide us with valuable insights into our own teaching. By stretching to think “playfully” about our shadows, to allow them to creep in to enhance our writing and teaching, we can bring our multiple selves–identities, practices, roles, paradoxical elements, emotions, histories–to bring wisdom to our pedagogical practices.

The first time I taught first year composition, I lacked the sophistication to invite those multiple diverse selves–mine and my students’–into the classroom.

In fact, I was deeply invested in the idea that there should not be a course theme, that we should privilege writing as the course topic. Because I was a brand new composition instructor, I hung my entire teaching ethos on this conviction. Looking back now, I can see that I did not yet, as I outlined as a goal in the first paragraph of this essay, trust in myself, in my students, in the writing process itself. By enthroning “writing” as the dominant “thing” in the classroom, I neglected the much more human-centered approach to which I now adhere.

That first time I taught, I operated from a position of filling the class schedule with writing time and writerly concerns. I had not yet discovered the fraught and rich complex ground in which writing can take place. In a way, I had created what Bizzaro calls a “prison of apprenticeship” (243); by positioning myself as an “expert” academic writer, I held on tightly to the goal of helping introduce my students to writing for college, to equip them to enter the Burkean parlor.

However, because I lacked faith in the process–not having yet developed a pedagogy of patience–I was fixated on telling my students what they could do in their writing. It is only as I’ve grown more centered myself and discovered the vast and varied valid approaches to writing pedagogy that I am spending “more time showing them who they can be” (Bizzaro 234).

So what does that look like in practice?

It depends on the day and what the student writers express as their current needs. It might be practical, explicit instruction about a particular aspect of drafting, researching, revising. Or it might be an open discussion about what challenges are coming up for them as they write.

I want the writing classroom to be a place where writing is never viewed as finished product. By trying to avoid the trap of responding to student writing and the nature of the classroom as a necessary hierarchy, I want to help my students reconceptualize themselves as writers not merely as students. My desire for this outcome relates directly to the question of in-class focus: should it be on craft or on something else entirely?

Although I am deeply invested in helping my students learn the craft of writing, which Haake defines as “writing habits, rules of thumb, helpful tips” (184), but I see as more important the much harder to define “coming into being” aspect of writing (185). And this is where my pedagogy of patience and faith (both sounding like biblical virtues, but I promise they carry great weight even stripped of religious valence) engenders that “coming into being.”

As a teacher, I strive to offer a safe and open space for students to explore their shifting and varied selves both in discussion and composition, because I believe that exploration to be the necessary step for students to claim their own authority.

I continue growing as a teacher and a writer, both experiencing in my own writing practice and helping to inculcate a habit of self-reflection and trust in the process of writing as an instructor, and to do so, I need to better embody the practice of authority: as Bizzaro says, not the authority of knowing the “right way” to do something, but authority “on how to disperse authority” among the many other writers and thinkers who inhabit the classroom community (243). I am committed to this approach because a true writing community is not about a teacher making little writers like him or herself, but about a faith-based interaction, an exchange of ideas among those who dare to connect through language.

Works Cited

Bizzaro, Patrick. “Reading the Creative Writing Course: The Teacher’s Many Selves.”

Colors of a Different Horse, edited by Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom, NCTE, 1994, pp.234-237.

Haake, Katherine. “Creative Writing.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s), edited by Bruce McComiskey, NCTE, 2006, pp. 153-198.

Ostrom, Hans. “Introduction.” Colors of a Different Horse, edited by Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom, NCTE, 1994, pp. x-xxiii.

Advertisements

Finding the Center, Pedagogically Speaking

 

centered (adjective): 1) Placed or situated in the center. 2) [IN COMBINATION] Having a specified subject as the most important or focal element. E.g. ‘a child-centred school’ 3) US (of a person) well balanced and confident or serene. ‘she is very together, very domesticated, very centred.’ Etymology: Late Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin centrum, from Greek kentron sharp point, stationary point of a pair of compasses, related to kentein to prick.” (OED online).

The word “centered” gets bandied about a great deal these days, but I realized recently that I don’t really know what it means or where the concept originated.

In this reflective piece I want to play with the term and its etymology to interrogate the commitment to a “student-centered” theory of pedagogy.

As the above definition indicates, the word “centered” comes through several languages but originates in the Greek word “kentron,” which means “sharp point,” as in the jabbed end of the compass. As part of the compass tool for drawing circles, the pointed end must be held confidently still or else the continued arc around it won’t meet up evenly as a circle. No matter the circumference or diameter of the circle, the hand that holds the sharp point must be steady and firm in order to draw a good circle. When someone talks about a Christ-centered church, a family-centered medical center, or a child-centered elementary school, I have some sense that they give focus and importance to the object around which the organization is “centered.”

Where, then, can we find the center of a classroom? The spatial layout of a class space can tell us a lot, though not everything, about the commitments of the learning community that meets there. If the chairs are organized in tight, straight rows, the instructor is enthroned in the front. If, instead, the chairs or desks stand in rows but long aisles separate them, the teacher can alternate between lecture and rhetorical pacing. He may willingly pass amongst the students, yet there still exists a grid structure. We’ve all taken classes where the teacher orients the chairs in a large circle, which indicates a collaborative or at least conversational approach to the class. However, placing the chairs in a circle does not, alone, bring about truly community-centered pedagogy and learning. And the mere presence of a circle does not specify what actually exists in the center.

Up until recently, I would have said that I endorse a student-centered pedagogy; I would have argued that focus on the student should be the sharp pivot around which everything else happens in the circle that is the classroom. It seems self-evident that the work that we do in the classroom should be based on, centered on, those who are the learners.

However, as Friere and Rose have compellingly argued, we should not view education as a transaction of information or knowledge flowing from us (as teachers) to our students. If true learning occurs within conversation among a learning community (which includes the “teacher of record”), then students and teachers by necessity should both be centered. Or neither should be. I was grappling with this spatial construction when I started to read Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (2003).

In her discussion about various approaches to teaching literature, Showalter categorizes Parker J. Palmer’s spiritual approach to teaching as “teacher-centered.” I can see her point, in that the quotes she draws from Palmer’s books a focus on the instructor’s convictions and willingness to be vulnerable with her class.

But even Showalter has to admit that Palmer’s approach “advocates a communal pedagogy and a community of learning that includes the teacher and the students” (Showalter 34, emphasis added). In direct contradistinction to the (retch-inducing) description Showalter gives of “teaching as performance,” the theory put forth by Palmer seems to me to center on a collaborative and open space created by an intentional learning community.

Of course, the teacher is ultimately the one who brings together these individual learners, but she is not herself above or separate from them. If anything, she bears a greater responsibility than anyone else does for helping the class develop an “ethos of trust and acceptance” (34). This trust and acceptance, which then fosters true “intellectual rigor,” can only be forged by a teacher who has examined her ego minutely, who is willing to take authentic risks and make room for difference, for messiness, for open-ended seeking. I would argue that the position Palmer stakes out belongs, not in the student-centered theories, but rather in a human-centered category. By this I mean that the nature of humans being informs and creates the course, necessitates the materials and assignments, and ultimately encourages learning. It’s not at all about instruction of content, as I see it.

The reason the professor shares her own feelings, thoughts, and vulnerabilities is in order to give the students in the class a true look at her intellect, not so that they are “entertained,” “awed,” or “cover[ed]… by the academic volcanic eruption” of “scintillating education” she spews all over them (Showalter 33). If anything, this revelation decenters the teacher as individual and opens the space for feelings and experiences that inform and interact with learning.

“Teaching and learning are human enterprises and we must use human emotions in the learning process rather than letting them use us,” Showalter quotes Palmer (34). We have feelings, reactions, hang-ups, fears, needs, frustrations, Palmer says, so let’s examine and harness them instead of repressing them.

Palmer’s spiritual approach to pedagogy takes as its starting point the centrality of the whole human–with history, baggage, expectations, emotions, and needs–in the class and in learning. To return to the original meaning of “centered,” the teacher who takes this angle spikes down a clear point and then creates an open, vulnerable, and rich space, the circle of the classroom, in which the students and teacher can actively construct themselves and their learning. Without a central point held by a self-aware instructor, the class can easily swerve from teacher-centered to subject-centered to student-centered and back again. Without a clear center, we end up with something less like a circle and more like a jaggedy ovaloid.

It seems to me that Palmer’s pedagogical approach would bring a lot of wisdom, patience, and authentic learning to the classroom. In fact, I was not at all surprised to read that Showalter wrote that Palmer’s approach appears in “the toleration and even encouragement of silence” (Showalter 34).

Perhaps instead of visualizing the teacher as the center, I can take a page from Palmer and instead argue that the teacher holds the center. She doesn’t stand there drawing attention to herself, but by her inner convictions about the human-centered, vulnerable, and messy process of the learning community, she confidently and precisely orients the space around which the humans and materials and conversations pivot.

Works Cited

“Centred.” Oxford Living Dictionaries. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/centred

Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

*****

Does the etymology of “centered” impact your understanding of what role the teacher plays in the classroom space? Do you consider yourself to fall into the “student-centered,” “content-centered,” or “teacher-centered” camp, or do you concieve of your pedagogy as inhabiting some other spatial configuration?

 

Time Enough For Learning

 

“But give them time. Provide some context, break them into groups or work with the whole class, including everyone. Let them see what, collectively, they do know and students will, together, begin to generate meaning and make connections.” -Mike Rose, Lives on the Boundary, 145.

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” -Paolo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 72.

In educational settings, we divide a school year into semesters, then into weeks, then class sessions. As a brand new instructor of E110, the University of Delaware’s writing class required for all students, I created daily plans broken down into 10 minute chunks.

I knew what I planned to have the class doing at 7 after the hour, half past, quarter til, and in the waning moment of the class meeting. It made me feel prepared to have the minutes each parsed out, shuffled into orderly groups, delineated from each other and each in service to the scaffolding activities and knowledge I was teaching that day. I bought the conviction that teacher control of how we use our class time would result in better learning outcomes.

Time really is the thing we have as teachers. It’s not the only thing, but I believe it’s the most important. I may not have my students’ attention, best work, good will, but they show up and sit in class for three hours a week for the duration of the semester. All of the intentions and hopes and accomplishments (and failures) we experience individually and collectively in the classroom happen within time. This sounds obvious, but as I’ve reflected on the concept of time and learning, I have found myself questioning pedagogical values and approaches I previously had taken for granted.

When I was reading Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose for an advanced pedagogy class, I sat bolt upright at Rose’s practical advice for helping “students who have not had a privileged education” connect in the classroom. “But give them time” (145).

As someone already obsessed with time, I lit up on the word. It’s such a short phrase, and Rose starts with “but,” indicating a rhetorical connection with the preceding sentences about what the students don’t have and can’t do. They “freeze up” because they “don’t have the background knowledge or the conceptual grab bag” to “make connections” (145).

What does time have to do with these major obstacles faced by both students and teacher? “Give them time” could just be a cliche, a turn of phrase, a shortcut. But I can’t get away from the feeling that this seemingly-trite phrase may actually get at something important about teaching.

The parceling and carving of time in the classroom prevents us from giving our students time; this hyper-control of time usage actually reasserts the “banking model of education” as castigated by Paolo Friere. In a teaching economy in which information is static, constant, and transmittable from one person (the teacher) to the class (the receivers), time is just a vessel to fill and pour out. In other words, time stands as a commodity in the banking model. Teachers must use time, maximize time, economize each minute, not “waste” time. And yet, as Friere, Dewey, and many others have pointed out, the banking model of education fails precisely because it denies temporality and the socially-constructed nature of learning and knowledge.

In contrast, Rose here says that educators can give our students time, and that in fact, this may be one of the most important things we can do. Along with that, we can “provide some context” (145, emphasis added); I love that Rose clarifies “some” context: not everything, not all, the exhaustive information that would within it carry the meaning of what we want them to do or where we want them to go moving forward. Along with context and time, Rose says that we should get everyone participating and involved in the time and space to talk, to discover what they already know as a group. This approach to classroom learning couldn’t be more temporal and relational if it tried.

If communication and collaboration are the ways in which knowledge is created and shared among our educational communities, then it is vital that the classroom reflect those methods.

As an educator, I sometimes approach time as a vessel to be filled–the 50 minutes or 75 minutes out ahead of me. Not just filled, but filled to the brim, with a mini-lecture where I provide context for the topic we’re working with, with silent writing, pair share, group discussion, activities, samples to break apart and put back together. And those all are or can be good things. Yet as Rose shows in Lives on the Boundary and Bartholomae shows in “Inventing the University” and Friere argues in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that filling-up of time (and with it, human educational subjects) runs counter to the core commitment to dialogue, discussion, and conversation.

When I am teaching, I often fail to give my students time enough to listen and to talk. I remember so many instances when I have posed a question or made a statement and asked them to respond somehow, and then immediately jumped into the abbreviated silence to say more. Even if what I say is a clarifying or restating of the question, there’s something kind of terrifying about a silence in the classroom. It seems like a waste of time. On the student end of things, I have encountered this impatience as well; even good teachers stifle messy (but potentially productive) classroom discussion by saying too much and not leaving enough time for students to respond and engage. I don’t know if it will be helpful long term, but I propose this attention to silence, waiting, provision of time amounts to a pedagogy of patience.

As I continue developing my own beliefs about teaching and what good teachers do, I’ll keep playing with the idea of time–giving time, taking time, making time–as something we can act within and on, not just a temporal space in which I can impart knowledge, but a co-creative thing with which we can play and make.

Time is a thing, it’s the most important thing in the classroom, and Rose seems to agree: “you could almost define a university education as an initiation into a variety of powerful ongoing discussions, an initiation that can occur only through the repeated use of a new language in the company of others” (192). When we “give” our students (and ourselves) time, we reinscribe the actual work of class time, shifting it from something to fill up with material to a valuable tool we can use to speak “a new language” to discover both what is already known and what is brand new in this moment.

 

Works Cited

Friere, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, 2005.

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary. Penguin, 1989.

*****

What about you? How do you think about time in the classroom? Do you struggle, like I do sometimes, with letting a silence hang or a messy conversation play out for fear of “wasting time”? I’d love to hear from others in the comments.