Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Critical pedagogues of the world, unite!

Jamie Littlefield, of, wrote on 4 Ways to Recognize a True Teacher several months ago. I just came across it today.

I can see by Jamie's reading list that we have a confluence of influence. As an M.Ed. student I was trained in the culture of critical pedagogy by at least one professor and fed a steady diet of Freire, McLaren, Macedo, Kozol, and Gatto. I learned, as maybe she did, that free thinking, peer-making, and instilling autonomy does not go down to well in any authoritarian institution. Inevitably, I have been complemented for my work in three public high schools while at the same time finding the work environment and orientation to the student professionally untenable.

Jamie has efficiently nailed several qualities of mystical teaching. I may or may not achieve them in my university classrooms, but I certainly aim for them. She observes that valuable teachers teach us how to think, not what to think. This is reason why my favorite students end up being the ones who challenge me. At least in the humanities, argument is the algebra we use.

It reminds me of my obsession over the past few years, in both my dissertation and my teaching, over the difference between content and methodology. As a literature teacher (I am looking forward to my first lit class in a while this spring), I want to instruct students on a method, or methods, of interpretation. Everyone else makes fun of how much English departments like to use the word "hermeneutic", but here it suits my needs. I am not too concerned about what conclusion an undergrad arrives when she takes apart "Young Goodman Brown" or  Beloved. What I care much more about is how clear is the method she used to get there.

Quintillian was saying similar things at the end of the Roman Empire, when he handed on a twelve volume treatment of education that ended up being the model that Europe used for centuries afterward. Institutio Oratoria was not Quintillian's creation; he just documented what he saw going on around him to great degree. What you take from that picture is a thorough understanding of the fluidity of language and, consequently, knowing, and how important it was (and is) for a student to be adept at intellectual methods rather than intellectual facts. In fact, unless we plan on coming to the end of knowing, the facts will always change, but the best methods will continue to provide fruit or evolve into stronger ones (like the transition from text-only research to researching digital media).

I don't know if Jamie was headed in this direction, but she sure pointed me there. Attention to method, language, research, interpretation . . . these are the trademarks of the most powerful kinds of knowing. Making fans and creating drones, as Jamie writes, does not get us there. In a certain sense, teaching a student to observe, identify, and solve one problem, with an meta-critical attention to his process, enables him to use that method with any related problem in the future.

That's why I don't care if we get every "classic" read in my American Literature semester in the spring. Doing the literary dance really well through a handful will be enough.

I said I would come back to this article. It had me thinking all evening. After dishes, signing school notebooks, cleaning out folders, and getting lunch ready for tomorrow, I am just able to wedge it in before my shower.

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