Collegiality as Pedagogy

In the really cheap academic seats, serial use of YouTube clips, movies, and “student-centered learning activities” will and does pass as course content … In slightly more affluent markets, something more middlebrow will be expected — say, an original Prezi presentation with YouTube bits thrown in only for spice and to establish “relevance” and perhaps also to satisfy nascent bourgeois resentment by affording a moment of condescension to “the culture.” ~ Ron Srigley

The only explanation for Ron Srigley’s recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books is chagrin. His own, or his hope to lather with chagrin the parents of university students, his fellow teachers -- in particular those he refers to as “not scholars but employees” -- and even students themselves. His voice comes off the screen acerbic and self-satisfied, and the nakedness of his spite for current trends in education (“student-centered learning”, YouTube lectures, and the veering away from a tradition of classic texts, grade- and professor-centered university culture) is so palpable it’s a feast of bile.

I am not trying to shame or malign or even chide Ron Srigley. What would be the point of that? To respond to him in kind would be to agree with him. I do not agree with him; most particularly, I don’t agree with what his argument evidences of his pedagogy, namely that learning happens through shaming, maligning, chiding. For I think we can make no mistake in his intention: his article is not meant as just a testament or epistle -- it’s meant to teach. To teach us and the rest of his audience about the insolence of today’s educators, the erosion of the ivy-covered tower, and to remind us about the inevitable laziness of college students. And he teaches through scorn. It’s that scorn I disagree with.

I once wrote:

“If higher education is ailing, it is only because its many doctors have not applied themselves to its resuscitation. This is not a system that will care for us forever. It is a relationship that requires nurture and aid … We are not a university unless we are colleagues, unless we care for the adjunct among us, unless we elevate the student, and unless we make friends as an act of radical political resistance.”

Ron Srigley is a colleague. And while his article is not collegial, I want to assume that it’s his worry, borne from someplace deep in his love for education, that motivates him to write cruelly about the men and women at University of Prince Edward Island beside whom he works.

So, if it seems I don’t sympathize, please believe that I do. The truth is that the important shifts in education today are masked by misunderstandings and misinterpretations, seedy buzzwords, hip trendiness, and edupreneurial attempts to capitalize on the bits and pieces of theory that creep into sales meetings. Personalized learning, adaptive learning, competency-based learning -- even “student-centered learning” -- are all fueled by whispers of critical pedagogy without actually being examples of critical pedagogy. I will assume that Ron Srigley is not angry at critical pedagogy -- at a rigorous pedagogy that, in its rigor, puts the student at the center; Ron Srigley is angry at the weird way that the educative zeitgeist taunts him. Silicon Valley has done very little to make honest the efforts of digitally-minded and student-centered critical educators, taking from them their language, marketing upon their backs the learning experiments they conduct, building from often ill-gotten data digital products that do more to cage learning than to free it. The University’s old windows stare across the expanse at the Valley’s glass buildings, blinking in confusion. Theses could be written about how pedagogy is lost in translation once it reaches California.

Ron Srigley (and here, of course, I’m no longer talking about Ron Srigley, but the masses of educators to whom he gives voice) should pause and take a breath. He could use to spend some time with those critical digital pedagogues he badmouths exploring what it means to bring the digital to learning, and to empower learners to own their educations. There is no loss of rigor here; the masterpieces of old are valued and beloved; the humanities have profound importance. In fact, critical digital pedagogy is nothing if not a discovery of the human -- the social human, the literary human, the creative human. As Ira Shor says in A Pedagogy for Liberation, “Rigor is a desire to know, a search for an answer, a critical method of learning.” There is nothing more human -- nor more critically pedagogical -- than inquiry.

The call for student-centered learning (slash critical pedagogy) is not new. As Molly Worthen writes in The New York Times,

“‘In 1852, John Henry Newman wrote in ‘The Idea of a University’ that true learning ‘consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas.’ The lecture course, too, has always had skeptics. In his 1869 inaugural address as president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot warned that ‘the lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. The water may be wholesome, but it runs through. A mind must work to grow.’”

While I don’t exactly agree that student minds are “sieves”, I do agree that the mind must work to grow. And so do the Ron Srigleys of the world. The question is not whether the learning mind must work, but what that work looks like, how it’s encouraged, and what kind of diet it requires. At the bottom of this argument is a question of technique, which in some lecturers’ hands becomes a question of tradition, of the “right” way to educate.

Ron Srigley, in a moment of reflection, says that “When I think of my teachers and the scholars to whom I have looked as models of what it means to do this work well, I don’t just feel inferior to them; I am inferior to them.” He says that professors are not professors, students are no longer students (though they “look like students” and they “have arms and legs and heads”), and digital pedagogy consists merely of “gimmicks”. When I read this, it smacks ripely of nostalgia, of idolizing the university-that-was. Nostalgia relies on simulacra, though, and is not critical. Are his complaints real? Yes. Have we heard these woes before? Every day since the foundation of the educational institution. Those professors who were (capital P) Professors in Ron Srigley’s mind also grew misty-eyed and irritable when they reflected nostalgically. And I’m sure many of them retired dissatisfied, going to their graves curmudgeonly and unhappy.

There is no end to complaints about students. The fairyland of digital pedagogy -- of MOOCs (c and x), online learning, experimental teaching that mucks about with tools like Prezi and Youtube -- has also its disillusioned, nostalgic masses. Even in the most encouraging conversations with the most enthusiastic teachers, a dissatisfaction with learners lies just one rhetorical turn away. I’m certain that my teachers complained about me, your teachers complained about you, and Ron Srigley’s teachers complained about him.

Students can’t be the problem, unless they’ve always been the problem. And if they’ve always been the problem, perhaps we should reconsider the whole endeavor. It is for them, after all. But really, at some point, we need to stop blaming students for the state of education. If, after so many years of controlling student behavior, analyzing their data to understand and curtail that behavior, we are still unhappy with their performance, perhaps it’s time we turn education over to them. Perhaps it’s time we made them our colleagues.

Paulo Freire suggests that teaching is an act of research. “When I think of spending three hours with a group of students discussing the political nature of education, or the educational nature of politics, if I think that this is not researching, then I do not understand anything!” Further, he says that a teacher who views himself as a “specialist in transferring knowledge” robs himself of “the necessary, the indispensable qualities that are demanded in the production of knowledge … action, critical reflection, curiosity, demanding inquiry, uneasiness, uncertainty”. It is when we don’t make learners into colleagues that we falsify the educative process for them and for ourselves. We fail to be Professors and become instead merchants peddling our wares to buyers who have better things to do. But engage learners in the same intellectual bootcamp we ourselves woke up to with enthusiasm and vigor, and we not only uncover that vigor in them, we fuel our own once again.

I admit that it’s difficult to engage the Ron Srigleys of this world. If he decides to respond to this post, I may find that it’s harder than I think. Or, I may find that it’s easier. All teachers are potential allies in creating (or re-creating) great education, so long as we are willing to engage in a critical dialogue that sets aside the restless spite of a disillusioned professorate.