Threshold Concept: Teaching What I Don’t Know

(This is the 5th post in a series of 5. To see the earlier posts, start with Part 1 where I explain what threshold concepts are, following Addler-Kassner and Wardle.)

Teach what you don’t already know.

The last threshold concept took me a bit by surprise. As a recovering know-it-all, I very much still like feeling like an expert in the room. Even given my second threshold concept (“Knowledge is always already in-becoming, not motionless, static, or objective”), I still planned to maintain my position as slightly elevated in the classroom. If only by virtue of being older, more experienced in academic discourse, and better read than my students, I hoped to hold a smidge of expertise.

Then I read Haake’s essay “Dismantling Authority: Teaching What We Do Not Know,” in which she describes organizing entire courses around a theme or body of knowledge in which you aren’t an expert. I gulped. I wanted to dismiss this idea because it felt scary. But then I reminded myself of my third threshold concept (“Teaching can be a spiritual practice”).

This fall, as part of my spiritual practice, I meditated on the seven traits of mindfulness: one of them is “beginner’s mind,” shoshin. Shoshin is a positive mindset to cultivate, through which one approaches each moment with an attitude of curiosity, open-mindness, non-judgement. In fact, psychologists who study the nature of expertise have found that self-perceptions of expertise increase closed-minded cognition and limit the subject’s ability to see creative solutions and approaches.

As I sat with the idea of teaching what I don’t already know, I felt the nervousness start to morph into anticipation. There are so many things I want to know more about, that I want to talk about with well-read, thoughtful, inquisitive people. Could it be that the privilege of teaching E110 could actually offer the space for that? Could it actually be that, by abandoning my need to be an expert, I could encounter richer discussion, writing, and collaborative learning, right in my own classroom? It remains to be seen, as I walk through that doorway. But right now, I feel more hopeful than I have in a long time that I can bring my own full self, with my strengths and shortcomings, passions and obsessions, capabilities and stories, into the classroom, all while inviting my students to do the same.

Works Cited

Haake, Katherine. “Dismantling Authority: Teaching What We Do Not Know” from Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, Anna Leahy, ed. 2005. pp. 98-105.

Threshold Concepts: Celebrating the Messiness of Writing

(This is Part 4 of a 5 part series on threshold concepts in the teaching of writing. You can go back to see the first post here.)

Writing is processural, and we need to talk openly with students about this and celebrate the mess together.

Since taking Intro to Writing Pedagogy with Dr. Melissa Ianetta in the fall of 2013, I have been utterly convinced that writing needs to be about process, and not just one process but each individual student’s personal process. I’ve always talked with my students about this important understanding of writing as a process-based, not a product-based, practice. And yet I have not always done a good job of structuring my classroom assignments to best embrace the messy, iterative, boggy experience of writing. I have set assignments on tight schedules even as I ensure multiple rounds of drafts and revisions. Most of all, though, I fear that I have not adequately acknowledged and modeled the ways in which even professional and advanced writers bump into major research, drafting, and revising challenges.  

In this case, I crossed a threshold when reading Berthoff’s “Theory and Practice,” in The Making of Meaning, in which she talks about why students suffer from “premature closure” (22). This is something I witness each semester with good students who are scared to take risks.

Berthoff writes, “We can encourage our students, instead, in learning techniques of revision only if we forego treating false starts, unfruitful beginnings, contradictions, and dead ends as mistakes, and see them, rather, as tentative steps, stages in a process,” writes Berthoff (22). This passage convicted me and opened up my realization that it isn’t enough to a) acknowledge that writing is a process and b) to talk to our students about it as such. The final step is moving beyond acknowledgement to actually embracing and celebrating the mess as we’re in it. I look forward to doing this the very next time I teach E110 by sharing more of my own “false starts, unfruitful beginnings, contradictions, and dead ends,” and I’ll share them as necessary blunders on the pathway to a productive process.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann. “Theory and Practice” from The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Models, and Maxims for Writing Teachers. Heinemann, 1981. pp. 19-29.

 

Threshold Concept: Teaching As Spiritual Practice

(This is Part 3 of a 5 part series about threshold concepts in teaching writing. You can see Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Teaching can be a spiritual practice.

The last few years I have been on a spiritual journey of better understanding myself and my way(s) of being in the world. I do a lot of reading, meditation, embodied connection work to reintegrate my intellectual aspects with my spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects, and journaling to trace and reflect on this work. I started noticing applications of this kind of self-reflection and mindfulness in other areas of my life, including my friendships, my life as a parent, my decisions as a consumer, and more. So it’s only natural that, as I research the psychological insights and hangups of academic writers, I start to ask how to bring this mindfulness to bear on my professional life in the classroom.

I read Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature with some credulity, yet her (somewhat critical) response to Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach was very helpful to me. Her reference to Palmer’s work led me to track down some of his writing, which, it turns out, speaks to me in deep ways and has altered how I think about my presence in the classroom. I have loved reading about responsible ways I can allow the self-reflection and love for myself and others that I cultivate in my spiritual practice to inform my work as a teacher. So many of the values I bring to bear in my E110 classroom were, in some ways, related to the spiritual convictions I live by, but reading Palmer (as well as bell hooks) helped me think further through those beliefs and link them more explicitly to my spiritual journey.

This threshold concept also relates to my own (not infrequent) teacherly anxiety. In my private life, when I experience a strong reaction to something or someone, particularly when it’s negative, I am learning to pause and investigate that resistance. I’m starting to ask, “What is being activated in me? Why am I taking something personally? What part does my own psyche have in I feel threatened by something or someone else’s idea?” I’m learning to stay with the discomfort and to pay attention to it. Rather than hardening and getting defensive, I’m working on dialoguing with it as a “shadow” part of myself, as Ostrom recommends in his introduction to Colors of a Different Horse. As part of learning to incorporate spiritual lessons and heart-centered mindfulness into my pedagogy, this approach of thinking playfully about discomfort allows shadows to to creep in and enhance my writing and teaching.

Works Cited

Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Blackwell, 2003.

Ostrom, Hans. “Introduction: Of Radishes and Shadows, Theory and Pedagogy,” Colors of a Different Horse: Rethinking Creative Writing Theory and Pedagogy. Hans Ostrom and Wendy Bishop, editors. NCTE, 1994. pp. xi-xxiii.

Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Threshold Concepts, Part 2: What is Knowledge?

(This is Part 2 of a 5 part blog series in which I write about conceptual thresholds I’ve crossed in teaching. You can read Part 1 here.)

Knowledge is always already in-becoming, not motionless, static, or objective

Even though I’ve thought a lot about the social constructedness of reality, for some reason I had deeply considered what that might mean for my teaching practices.

Reading Friere helped with that. Before taking this class I knew about Friere. However, I had not taken the time to really delve into his writing, so this semester’s encounters with Pedagogy of the Oppressed was great. I took pages of handwritten notes, much of the book challenging and resonating with me and my educational philosophy.

My second threshold concept arises from two short passages in Friere: “Education is suffering from narration sickness,” the teacher talking, narrating reality “as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable” (71). And the second, which melts my heart and gives me such hope for the future: “Dialogue cannot exist in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people” (Friere 89).

I see these two sections of text interacting with each other because the first names the pathology: narration sickness caused by teachers talking as though their expertise grant them a position of ultimate power in the educational setting. The second highlights the necessity of “dialogue,” which can only exist in the presence of “profound love for the world and for people.” That profound love prevents hubris and opens up the space for dialogue and discussion.

I don’t think the concept of “narration sickness,” which I’ve felt and also unwittingly created in my own classes at times, will ever be one that I can forget. If I slip into narrating knowledge as though it is something I have the corner on, I’ll trip on this threshold. Hopefully I’ll catch myself and reopen myself to dialogue and the always in-becoming nature of learning.

Works Cited

Friere, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. Continuum, 2005.

Crossing Thresholds, Meditating on Teaching

(This is Part 1 of a 5 part series about threshold concepts of teaching writing.)

The idea of a threshold contains within it both a spatial and a volumetric valence; the spatial is more obvious, as everyday we pass over thresholds into rooms or spaces, into and out of buildings, offices, homes, places of work and pleasure. Transitional spaces through and over which we cross mark a portal from one space to another. Thresholds do not register on the temporal plane–one can cross over a threshold, back and forth, many times or never, those crossings unbound by time. Adler-Kassner and Wardle, in their introduction to Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing, assert that threshold concepts differ from learning objectives in part because they are “liminal, time-consuming, and unpredictable” (9). As ontological as well as conceptual crossings, thresholds may beckon or repel, but ultimately when a person crosses over, there is a shift in who we are and how we see the world.

This spatial shift, a more obvious interpretation of why thresholds (and threshold concepts) matter, partly conceals the volumetric meaning. When someone says that a threshold has not yet been crossed, it is because the magnitude or intensity of something has not reached the required level for a certain result to occur. If water rises toward a house, it must rise to a certain level in order to cross the threshold and flood into the building. In this sense, then, a threshold marks a line over which some substance must rise before the required magnitude can cross it. In this way, thresholds may be breached, not just stepped across. There’s a certain point at which something reaches a level at which point it must overflow, and there’s no going back.

While I’ve moved through my advanced pedagogy class this semester and engaged with the course readings, the threshold concepts that have rocked my pedagogy have felt both like upwellings of something that’s been there all along and like steps taken willingly into a new space.

Here’s my first threshold concept:

Time is the most important resource in a composition classroom

 

I’ve always been hyper-aware of time, and when I first started teaching I planned every second of a class period out. By the minute. I did not always rush through things, but I felt hesitant about building cushion and margin into the schedule. Sometimes, even though I valued writing activities, I worried that “giving up” class minutes for students to sit writing might not serve my course objectives the best. Even though I had loosened up on controlling time in E110 each semester I taught it, the words of Mike Rose in Lives on The Boundary struck me to my core: “Give them time” (145). Rose is writing about his students freezing up because they “don’t have the background knowledge or the conceptual grab bag” to “make connections” (145).

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 says that educators can give our students time, and that in fact, this may be one of the most important things we can do. As a teacher, I have often approached 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.

This threshold concept–which seems deceptively simple–reminds me to give my students time enough to listen and to talk. And to write. 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. This realization has invested me in 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.

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. University of Colorado Press, 2015.

Friere, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. Continuum, 2005.

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared. Penguin, 1989.

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.

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.

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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.

Hello, World!

Academics do a lot of interesting work. As a PhD candidate of English at the University of Delaware, I have the privilege of reading and also producing texts that are part of a scholarly conversation.

Unfortunately, much of the scholarly conversation goes on behind closed doors sequestered off at the end of a long hallway in the top of the ivory tower.

This website is my small effort to share pieces of my current research and writing with a broader audience than my professors and seminar-class colleagues. As wonderful as that smaller community is, I want to engage with the work others are doing and share what I am doing with those outside my school, discipline, and geographic region.

A bit about me and my interests: I earned my BA in English Literature from Messiah College (2004) and my MA in English from the University of Delaware (2015). I’m currently a PhD student at Delaware; my area of research is emotion, affect, trauma, and writing.

My dissertation project is interdisciplinary and draws on psychology, writing studies, composition pedagogy, medical humanities, trauma studies, and creative nonfiction theory.

I intend for this space to house my works-in-progress as well as works I’ve completed.

As I continue adding to the site, I will also share more of my teaching materials.