This summer, the faculty of Shimer College held a discussion of Jacques Rancière's book The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. In it, he discusses the educational theory and practice of Joseph Jacotot, who claimed that one could teach a subject one didn't even know in the first place. For Jacotot, teaching isn't a matter of expertise, but of determination. It isn't about transmitting knowledge to the student, but about holding students accountable to the material that they are working on.
Though the method Rancière described was more radical than anything we would actually try, the general approach resonates with what we try to do at Shimer, a small liberal arts college in the Great Books tradition. Our classes are all discussion-based, centered on important texts, artworks, and scientific experiments, and the professor serves not to instruct the students but to keep them on task and nudge them in the right direction. A handful of our faculty members have actually taught the whole curriculum, covering the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and all are required to teach in at least two areas.
All of this remained mostly theoretical for me until this semester, however, when I began teaching Humanities 1: Art and Music. I am knowledgeable about fine arts and am a passable classical pianist, but my Ph.D. is in theology and philosophy and the course is the first I've ever taught where the primary object of study was something other than texts. The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly.
The problem is most pronounced with music, where students often express a need for something called “music theory” that will permit them to talk about the experience of music in an intelligent and informed way. For the visual arts, there’s a more immediate intelligibility, given that the majority of the works we discuss in the course are representational (or at least suggestive of representation) — yet even there, students can feel that they don’t know what to say beyond assessing whether the painting represents what it’s supposed to in a way that is somehow “realistic.”
Our approach is to give students a handful of “hooks” that allow them to point out certain aspects of a given artwork. We begin with the format of the class, which is centered on Ovid's Metamorphoses, a work that has inspired artists for generations. As a result of this framing, the majority of works that we study are somehow representative or narrative in form, giving the students a basic orientation. The ready availability of different works on the same subject also gives us the
opportunity to highlight the differences between different media and the types of choices that artists make within the same medium.
On the level of form, we try to give students a ready familiarity with a few basic concepts. In music, the most important goals include being able to hear consonance vs. dissonance (which is fairly intuitive once it’s pointed out), knowing how to talk about melody and harmony, and being broadly familiar with the distinction of major vs. minor. With painting, we focus on the use of perspective, the interaction of colors, and the composition of the piece as a whole. These tools give them enough to begin thinking about how the expressive content of the artwork can reinforce, compliment, or complicate the emotional content of the narrative being portrayed.
By halfway through the semester, I had developed a certain level of confidence on art and music. Yet the syllabus threw me a curve ball when I was required to introduce a new art form by taking the students on an architectural tour in downtown Chicago. Here I felt my ignorance much more acutely, and instead of trying to create my own tour, I asked a senior faculty member to demonstrate the tour he had given the previous year, which I simply repeated.
We had only a short time for the tour, and so I could only point out a handful of extremely basic points. I showed them a few buildings that were built before the skyscraper technique was developed (basically, the outer walls had to be load-bearing before the skyscraper technique allowed for an internal distribution of the weight) as well as some early skyscrapers. I talked about the ways that the architect can get us to “read” a building — how the eye is drawn upward, how a building can be “capped” with a different design on the top floors, how the base of the building can provide indications of where the entrances are and how the facade can reinforce that. We saw some buildings that were highly ornamented and some that were very stark. We also looked at lobbies in a similar variety of styles. Finally, I tried to point out to them the way buildings interact with each other.
None of this was very advanced, and indeed, I was most often simply pointing out to the students what my colleague had pointed out to me on our tour. Yet the students reported that they had benefited from simply being told to step back and actually look at the buildings and from being given certain rough-and-ready indications of what to look for. Some reported they had never really thought about architecture at all, that it had always faded into the background. Even a more knowledgeable student said that being asked to look at buildings in the context of the cityscape rather than in isolation was a step beyond what he’d done before.
None of this resulted from any special skill I brought to the table — even the mechanical execution of the tour was pretty inept, and I’m known to mumble. (My students strongly discouraged me from pursuing a career as a tour guide.) It was simply a matter of being told to look and being given a few specific things to look at. It made them want to look more closely in the future, as indeed preparing for the tour made me want to look more closely as well.
While it was most pronounced with architecture, I've been learning along with the students throughout the semester. During trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, I've found that my way of looking at paintings has changed. A recent visit to the symphony with my students revealed that I'm getting better at following and thinking about classical music — after the concert, I found that I really wanted to talk about it and even investigate it further, in a way that wouldn’t have been true before. I see similar progress in my students, as they become more and more comfortable with talking about the formal elements of the artworks and relate them in more sophisticated way to their representational or narrative content. In fact, one of my students who transferred from a local art school claims that she has had more and better discussion of art in our class than she did in art school.
At this point, my reader may be skeptical. Perhaps I am giving students an adequate introduction to the fine arts, making up for my ignorance with my enthusiasm — but wouldn't they be better off with a more knowledgeable professor? In some ways, I'm sure they would. Yet I would turn the tables and point out the disadvantages of having an accomplished expert teach an introductory course. Too often, such classes consist in the delivery of scholarly knowledge that only serves to exacerbate the distance that the students feel from the material itself. Instead of learning how to look at an artwork or listen to a piece of music, students learn how to categorize them: this is early Renaissance, this is Impressionist....
The two skills don't have to be mutually exclusive, but on a practical level, they most often are — and I would rather that my students begin by gaining the confidence to analyze and respond to a work and only then delve into the historical and scholarly background according to their interest. We live in a time where there's no shortage of access to facts, but college may be their one chance to develop a real understanding of how art and music work. From that perspective, my inability to supply “the right answer” or to indulge my students' curiosity about historical trivia that distracts our attention from the work before us counts as a positive advantage.
This isn't to say, of course, that I must never teach in my own area of expertise. Indeed, my experience as an “ignorant schoolmaster” has already changed the way I think about teaching things within my comfort zone as well. It has pushed me to think more about holding students accountable for the ways they reach their own answers than about how best to give them — or Socratically help them stumble upon — the “right answer.” Even in classes where I bring much more to the table, the focus is and must be the material we're working on together, not all the information I'm bringing from the outside. More than that, though, all that information must be put to the test of the material itself, so that I always have to be open to the possibility that the interpretation I brought to the table is wrong, or at least not the whole story.
The approach I'm describing here goes against many of the deeply engrained habits that academics develop in graduate school and carry over into their teaching. While Rancière and others would cast moral aspersions on the expertise-centered approach to education, I view it more as a failure of imagination. Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago president whose approach forms the basis for Shimer's curriculum, once said that liberal arts colleges tend to imitate graduate programs because at least graduate programs have a clear idea of what they're doing — namely, producing experts. An undergraduate education, however, neither can nor should achieve that goal. The liberal arts approach in particular provides a unique opportunity to form broad-minded critical and creative thinkers who have the right combination of intellectual boldness and intellectual humility to enter a wide variety of professions and explore many bodies of knowledge. A crucial part of that formation is learning to have the courage to admit one's own ignorance, and I believe students would be better served if faculty members were more commonly called upon to display that same courage.
Submitted by Paul Fain on December 3, 2013 - 3:00am
A dramatic expansion of apprenticeships would strengthen the nation's economy while boosting workers' lifetime earnings and benefits by an average of $300,000, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress. The report suggests policies to encourage the use of apprenticeships, including tax incentives. Its authors focus on the example of South Carolina, which saw a 570 percent increase in employer participation in apprenticeships over six years.
An article in these pages last week, "We Are Not Luddites," by Brooks Kohler, argues that being skeptical of online learning does not make one a Luddite.
Very well, then. I think most academics would agree. If his article had gone on to critique the tendency of tech folks to alienate skeptics of online learning by labeling them backward or hopelessly outdated, I would have been on board.
But Kohler takes a curious turn when he writes that liberal arts instructors who welcome online learning are in a state of “technological hypnosis.” Students, according to Kohler, are in a “fixative trance.” Apparently digital technology is a dangling medallion swinging back and forth, and we are all getting very, very sleepy.
Kohler goes on to describe a “pathetically sad” scene in which “a classroom could be reduced to a rectangle (sic) screen on a distant wall, or thought to be comparable to that of a interior space where a qualified human stands as the moderator before eyes that are watching.” Online learning to Kohler is inherently dystopian, akin to Orwell’s 1984, while the face-to-face classroom is, in contrast, natural and human.
This conversation calls to mind Plato’s Phaedrus. In this dialogue, Socrates laments the technology of writing because he fears it will diminish memory skills if Athenian citizens no longer have to memorize and practice oral discourse.
Worse yet, writing is inferior to speech, according to Socrates, because we can’t argue with a piece of paper like a living person; writing only has the appearance of wisdom, not wisdom itself.
Frankly, I’m not interested in reinforcing such a strict for/against dichotomy when discussing online learning and new digital technologies. I think such binary thinking is part of the problem.
I teach face-to-face, online, and blended sections of composition at a small rural state university and I see strengths and limitations in all three approaches. My online classes look nothing like Kohler’s panoptic nightmare. Or, at least, I hope they do not -- now that I think of it, perhaps students calling me Big Brother isn’t a term of endearment after all.
Kohler does not take kindly to being called a Luddite, yet he suggests teachers and students working hard to make online learning rigorous, academic and accessible are hypnotized dupes attracted to shiny surfaces and entranced by blinking lights. Worse yet, he charges that online learning encourages contingent academic labor and the demise of tenure-track positions when in fact this erosion has been a decades-long process with roots extending long before online learning.
Notice I’ve been using the term “online learning” and not “MOOCs,” the latter against which I harbor a much deeper skepticism, but that’s a story for another time. I highlight this distinction because a sleight of hand occurs when Kohler begins his article by discussing MOOCs only to substitute that digital phenomenon with a more generalized “online learning” later in the same paragraph.
I’m not just splitting hairs. MOOCs and online learning are too often conflated. They are, of course, not the same thing. Suggesting otherwise is merely shoving stuffing into a straw man. The problems of MOOCs do not automatically extend to online learning in general.
A similar game of three-card monte is performed when Kohler uses a generalized “technology” when he really means new digital technologies. This slippage leads to historical and theoretical quandaries.
For example, when Kohler chortles “as if a pen and pad were inherently inferior” he fails to recognize that pen and paper are technologies, and that writing itself is a technology, as Walter Ong famously argued. Conflating new digital technologies that facilitate online learning with technology in general results in a fixed, narrow, and uncomplicated definition of technology.
Again, this isn’t academic hair-splitting. Such a distinction is helpful because it leads our dialogue away from dystopic visions and forces us to confront the fact that even analog technology like Kohler’s “pen and pad” shape how and what we learn.
Because teachers believe that online learning can be a worthwhile experience does not mean that we are hypnotized, nor does it mean that we are chasing fads and abandoning “literature and writing” and a “fine attention to detail,” as Kohler claims.
Instead of charging one another as either entranced by new technologies or a Luddite, we should be cultivating dialogue, criticism and best practices to make online education better.
We should also pay more attention to issues of race, class and access when it comes to online learning. And we should be building space and time into our online courses for students to reflect on their own skepticism and concerns with digital learning. Including students in this dialogue is essential.
I too am skeptical of online learning. However, this skepticism does not lead me away from online teaching, but toward it. I want to make it better. I believe it’s our duty to make it better. Drawing broad caricatures of online teachers and students only reinforces the importance of not devolving into a strict for/against dichotomy in our dialogue.
John F. Raucci Jr. is an assistant professor of English at Frostburg State University.
A recent article in The Economist, “Learned Luddites,” described liberal arts instructors who refused to adopt MOOCs as “Luddites,” a term made famous in the 19th century by English textile workers who were so paranoid that machinery would replace their jobs that they took to the task of physically destroying the machines they used. To conclude there is a connection between what the Luddites did and the arguments against online learning is reaching, if not absurd, and devalues the discussion happening in academic departments nation wide.
In America, after the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the creation of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, emphasis was placed on math, science, and foreign language studies, as these three disciplines were deemed crucial to national security. Move forward 10 years and by the late 1960s one out of seven Americans was employed in the defense industry, military spending had risen from 1 percent to 10 percent of the gross domestic product, and corporations were increasingly profiting from an infusion of money from government contracts.
At the same time, high debt from domestic spending combined with outside competition from foreign markets was having an affect, and by the mid-1970s America had slipped into post-industrialism as jobs moved away from manufacturing toward more office based and service type employment opportunities.
The end result of shifting from assembly line to office tech, resulted in a college degree becoming a necessary component to a career, and as universities and community colleges began to accept more and more applicants, higher education began to trend course loads to part-time instructors.
Today, in 2013, a majority of those teaching in academia are working on a contingent basis. Tenure is nearly nonexistent, and liberal arts professors are being made to feel as though they are simply no more than an application, a helpmate, so to speak, that guides the student along as though they were a navigator steering a ship, following a mapped course not set by them, but by some far-off captain who serves as a default programmer for a higher purpose that is kept hush-hush until the time is right, a captain whose job it is to make sure the cargo arrives on time and without any scuffing from the occasional rogue wave.
At worst, more than a few professors feel they are becoming little more than a retention tool, a gimmick or novelty act whose entire future depends on whether or not one can “get with the program” of algorithmic evaluation, spreadsheet printouts, and constant barrage of software programs designed to make keeping track of grades easier, as if a pen and pad were inherently inferior, and all the while the academic is asked to maintain a classroom atmosphere that is not only educational but also so entertaining that even the most mind-numbing of subjects can compete against the fixative trance of the portable handheld device.
Ironically, the analog education one received before the Digital Age, an educational model that emphasized literature and writing, is admired for its fine attention to detail, as detail is considered to be hallmark of success. Yet that style of learning, though suitable for Fitzgerald and Stein, will not work in world where students are groomed as future customers and national security is commingled with corporate wants that drive the areas of study that schools find most lucrative.
It is pathetically sad to think that a classroom could be reduced to a rectangle screen on a distant wall, or thought to be comparable to that of a interior space where a qualified human stands as the moderator before eyes that are watching. A cold, sterile scene from Orwell's 1984 comes to mind in a world where the educator is 20 miles away and the students are considered close.
As a professor, I am not opposed to online teaching, but I do believe we are losing more than we are gaining from a technological hypnosis that has the potential to reclassify the teacher as a network administrator. I am not a lab rat, nor do I want the classroom considered a lab. Our culture is fascinated with language bewitchment and making the obvious appear novel. Yet at the end of the day the MOOC is still no more than a student interacting with a computer regardless how convenient or user friendly the experience has become.
If our embracing and use of technology becomes more important than our mission to teach, to meet in groups for discussion, or to sit one-on-one with a student seeking guidance, then not only should online education be critically evaluated for its unintended affects but also the very system itself that would interpret skepticism as a regress.
Brooks Kohler is an adjunct instructor with an M.A. in history.
Daily online quizzes appear to improve academic performance of students in an introductory psychology courses, and to reduce the gap in performance between lower- and upper-middle-class students, according to a study by University of Texas at Austin professors. Details are in a new article in PLoS ONE.
Engineering students become less interested in the public welfare during the course of their time in college, according to a study by a Erin Cech, an assistant professor at Rice University who has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. Her study will appear soon in the journal Science, Technology and Human Values. Cech's research was based on surveys tracking attitudes of engineering students at four colleges. She sees a "culture of disengagement" that grows during college.
One college unexpectedly found that female engineering students responded particularly well to its project-based learning approach. Experts say the curriculum could help attract and retain women in the STEM fields.