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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Conduit v. Catalyst: Ideology in the Classroom

There's always ideologies at work when we make pedagogical choices. 

November 28, 2017



I don’t have the year in my class notes, but this was at Clemson in a literature class, so it must be 2007 or 2008, and the note[1] says, “Class went apeshit over Love Test.”

We were discussing Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr., a novel about a guy named Junior Thibodeau who is “blessed” with the knowledge of the exact date of the world’s extinction (when Junior is 36 years and 168 days old) from the moment of his birth. This obviously causes some complications, including to his ability to form relationships.

For fun, and as a way to inject a little context into the discussion, I had students take a “Love Test” which involves a series of questions designed to ferret out your love style or type: Eros (passionate, love at first sight), Ludus (love as a game), Storge (friends first, love second), Pragma (love as a rational match), Manic (intense, volatile love), and Agape (selfless love). 

In addition to finding their own type, I asked them to determine Junior’s type, based on their interpretation of the novel.[2]

I have no clue as to the reliability or applicability of the “test” to the world, but it seems to get students fired up and talking.

Anyway, this particular class period, things got pretty active, lots of cross-talk, multiple conversations happening simultaneously. I was having a hard time keeping things focused, and at one point, I realized I had a choice between really yelling, like loud, or just letting things go for a bit.

I don’t like to yell, so I didn’t.

I stepped back and watched and listened. I’ve always tended to prefer order and structure, and this went against my nature. It wasn’t chaos, but it wasn’t wholly controlled either. I saw and heard things: animated faces, passionate discussion, laughter, one student slapping his palm to the desk to make his point, another lurching forward in her seat out of excitement.

I attended to one of the conversations nearby, four or five students arguing over Agape love, one student insisting she practiced this ethos in her relationship, others skeptical. Many students in answering the quiz will self-identify as Agape, but upon further discussion, we recognize this as wishful thinking for anyone other than the most self-sacrificing individuals. I was a little worried this young woman was getting ganged up on and moved to step in when she said, “Wait! You know who’s Agape? The dad from The Road.”

Her classmates nodded and yessed and they suddenly switched to discussing a book we’d covered four or five weeks earlier.

Actual epiphanies are pretty rare for me to experience. Most of what I come to know is usually the result of a long, slow slog through the backwaters of my own brain, but this was a light-bulb-above-the-head moment.

Right in front me, without my control or intervention, learning was happening. It was happening all around me and while I may have catalyzed it, I didn’t need to control it. The connection between texts and concepts is exactly what I was hoping for. In another context I may have prompted it by explicitly invoking The Road, but here, I didn’t have to.

I wasn’t necessary.

Things simmered down and eventually I was able to ask different groups what they were talking about and they shared their insights with the class. I reminded them they were supposed to be on the lookout for topics and approaches that allowed them to synthesize two or more texts from the class into a single analytical essay. The styles of love applied to multiple texts became a popular approach on the assignment.

Around the same time I was reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do and had been significantly provoked by two of his observations: one, that effective teachers create “natural critical learning environments” rooted in “intriguing, beautiful, or important problems” as part of “authentic” tasks.

The second was how the best teachers “trust” their students, in Bain’s words, “They [teachers] usually believe that students want to learn, and they assume, until proven otherwise, that they can. They often display openness with students, and may, from time to time, talk about their own intellectual journey, its ambitions, triumphs, frustrations, and failures, and encourage their students to be similarly reflective and candid.”

All of this is in pursuit of what Bain calls “deep learning,” “learning that involves conceptual understanding and critical thinking and leads to ‘adaptive expertise.’”

This is what I’d wanted for students, but I’d been struggling with how to achieve these ends within a context I could guide and control, even as I believed them worth pursuing, and here, in front of my face, it was happening.  

Fast forward ten or so years and yesterday I had one of those slow-motion epiphanies that I put into a tweet.





The moment I typed it, I knew it accurately reflected my experience, even if I’ve never considered it precisely this way before.

When I wrote the other day on how I am not a fan of banning things in class, including electronic devices, something went awry in my communication, as some believed I was embracing, in the words of commenter, a “hyper-rugged individualism and libertarianism.” 

In reality, it’s much closer to the opposite, I am a communitarian, but what I’ve come to recognize over these ten or so years is for a communitarian philosophy to work inside a class context, I must cede my power and make myself considerably less central to the course. The community must be shaped by the students as much as by me, maybe more.

Definitely more.

I will repeat what I hoped was the takeaway from the previous post, which I think I unfortunately obscured. How one views these debates depends on how one views the instructor role in shaping the student experience. This is a question of values and ideologies in a space where values will and must differ. The decision to ban laptops rests on one set of ideologies, the decision not to ban on others.

I wonder how much of the “laptop debate” hinges on how one views the role of the instructor?

If one believes the professor is central, serving as a necessary conduit to the material, more control is a natural outgrowth of these values.

If we think of the instructor as a catalyst rather than a conduit, we see the instructor fading into the background.

Catalyst teaching works for me because it fits well with my values and disposition, even as I still sometimes struggle over ceding control. A community-based ethos which involves students in my pedagogy keeps me both focused on the process and honest about living my convictions, even when I may be discomforted.

But different frames and values will work differently in different contexts, and not all learning needs to look like what happened in the classroom that day. Conduit teaching may be more appropriate when privileging other values, or in different disciplines. We could argue that the classroom is “inherently paternalistic” and as such instructors are required to exercise appropriate controls on behalf of student interests.  Where “academic performance” (not necessarily the same as learning) is paramount, it may require an instructor to exert significant control in service of that goal. There are contexts in which students learning different things depending on the individual may not be wholly desirable.

These things flare into disputes for good reasons, but I think we (including me) sometimes lose sight of the arguments worth having.

My hope is that we can always get down to the value level because this is where I believe the important discoveries are to be found.

[1] I am not 100% dedicated to this, but as part of a reflective teaching practice, I write down impressions and experiences following the class period. I tend to only do it when something notable happens, but every year I resolve to do it more consistently.

[2] I don’t want to spoil the book, but it’s structured in such a way that Junior comes out with different types depending on the story thread one privileges.


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