Adjuncts and Ignorance in Collaborative Learning

Terry Caesar considers one of the trends in higher ed -- and what it says about the state of teaching.

April 27, 2006

"Sat on his arse and had group presentations teach class the last 5 weeks of qtr."
--a "Rate My Professors" comment

Quick now: when did you first hear the phrase, "collaborative learning" (and, if possible, where were you)? I seem to have heard it first only last year, when asked by two faculty members of a local community college about my "position" on collaborative learning during an informal chat about the possibility of teaching  there. Of course I immediately replied I was all for collaborative learning, which in fact made me what I am today. Students need to learn from each other, blah,blah.

Later, I asked a man I chanced to know who taught at the same place about collaborative learning. "It's all bullshit," he replied. "Everything is 'student-centered' this and 'student-centered' that. You e-mail them if they're absent, you give them make-ups if they fail. And to teach, just get them in a circle and stay out of the way while they talk to each other about anything except what you ask them to talk about."


Time to do some research -- into my own experience as well as the professional literature. What could something now termed "collaborative learning" in fact have been called a decade ago? The jargon of that period used to have a former colleague and I joking about having to stage a "circle jerk." Was the regnant term instead,  "student centered discussion"? Or "interactive competence"? Does it matter? Something, which I will term "collaborative learning" and  hereafter abbreviate "C-L," was at that time, as now, the Next Big Thing, either already arrived or about to.

Of course it turns out that C-L has been with us for a longer period of time, under even more various guises. As a pedagogy, we can trace C-L  back at least as far as "discovery learning" notions of the 1960s, designed to enable students to acquire knowledge through their own interaction both with various subjects (principally math and the sciences) and with their classmates. As a philosophical orientation, we can take C-L back at least as far as John Dewey. In practical terms though -- and in this context the terms are remorselessly practical -- C-L becomes part of a rich terminological stew, otherwise listed on the institutional menu as "cooperative learning," "collective learning," "peer teaching," "study circles," and so on.

Distinctions among these dishes can of course can be made. Nonetheless, we can distinguish crucial common ingredients. These include most importantly a rearrangement of chairs in the classroom, whereby groups of students face each other rather than the professor. Whether or not this rearrangement is thereby deemed a "community," each group of students is expected to be primarily dependent upon itself in order to understand something, ranging from a question on a particular day to the whole sequence of the course throughout the semester.

Sometimes, it works; students among themselves actually discover solutions, ideas or directions that they never could have possessed either so securely or so wholly if they had instead been led by their professor, lecturing. But what doesn't prove to be effective in the classroom, at some times, in some cases? Indeed, the fact that anything can be made or seem so is almost a definition of education. I used to know a guy (in psychology) who regularly had his students fan out on the floor and lie concentrically head-to-head. "Works for me," he used to say.

The goals of C-L, however, are at once more aggressive and more ambitious. C-L purchases its authority against the bad old figure of the Lecturer, whose model of learning is top-down, rather than peer-to-peer (and face-to-face). In a most distinct sense, the purpose of C-L is to substitute a collaborative notion of education for a hierarchical one. That hierarchy is bad goes as unquestioned as the assumption that interaction is good, period.

Is hierarchy bad? Set aside the more literal question of what the professor is supposed to do while his or her students are merrily collaborating? (To join the circle seems a cop out, and to set up elaborate rules or even individual roles in order to define student interaction appears to smuggle back an authority already left at the front door.) In C-L discourse, who exactly is this professor in the first place?

In one sense, this is easily answered. The professor is a "facilitator" or an "enabler." He or she falls into place as part of the larger cast of characters in the vocabulary of group dynamics, with its formidable list of favored terms, such as "group processing," "teamwork skills," and (my own favorite) "positive interdependence." In a classic account of lecturing available in his Forms of Talk, Erving Goffman states that in a lecture "the subject matter is meant to have its own enduring claims upon the listeners apart from the felicities or infelicities of the presentation." Not so in C-L.

There is no lecturer because there is no subject matter. We see this best perhaps in community colleges, such as the one above, where adjuncts are enjoined to participate in "professional development" sessions on C-L. Not about their respective disciplines. About C-L itself. Indeed, the "content free" nature of C-L as a pedagogy is revealed in these settings as its most compelling feature; not only is there no learning without "interactive competence" -- such competence constitutes all there is to learn, on the part of teachers as well as students.

If the professor were to lecture, he or she would lecture about that -- and this is precisely what he or she does in  the regime of C-L, depending upon how the spirit moves to explain to groups, excuse me, communities, how intricately or carefully all has been designed and organized for them. Except that it seems wrong to characterize the speakers as "professors." Professors profess a subject. The subject has been learned though specialized study. Instructors (to chose a more neutral term) instruct a method. Anybody can learn it.

But, I think, we have still not completely answered all questions about C-L until we seek to account for its popularity at the present time. A wide-ranging answer would be to link C-L to the "ideology of excellence" Bill Readings examines in The University in Ruins, whereby the appeal to excellence marks the following fact: "All that the system requires is for activity to take place, and the empty notion of excellence refers to nothing other than the optimal limit-output ratio in matters of information."

"Collaboration," in other words, now functions as at once the definition of activity as well as the value term sponsoring it. A less wide-ranging answer, though, would simply argue that C-L attained its present popularity at approximately the same time as the widespread use of adjuncts in college teaching. When I e-mailed a friend of mine about his thoughts on C-L, he replied: "Another way to hire fewer teachers and have more students." Exactly. The best way to hire fewer teachers is to hire more adjuncts. The best way for them to teach (especially to students with poor preparation for college) is to have them teach C-L.

Not only do adjuncts not necessarily have to possess specialized -- not to say "terminal" -- knowledge in their respective disciplines. We don't have to worry about them aspiring to become "professors." Just as important, adjuncts by definition lack the job security to be able to resist C-L's claims not so much as a pedagogy as an ideology. We don't have to consider them wondering out loud about, say, whether you can really teach "interpersonal skills," much less whether the imperative to learn them in an ostensibly noncompetitive setting is itself not designed to promote what Readings at one point characterizes as "the condition of the political subject under contemporary capitalism."

No wonder the Rate My Professors student complains. (A political subject who can't complain wouldn't be a political subject.) In its ideological phase, a pedagogy now as powerful as C-L  risks becoming available only in terms of its lowest common denominator -- the circle, in which students are left to their own devices. This is not fair to C-L.

But justice, alas, explains little about why things are as they are in higher education, or anywhere else. What explains more?

Let me suggest another word: ignorance. I am thinking of the great American literary critic, R.P. Blackmur. Once he uttered the following objection to the system of Basic English devised by I.A. Richards: "What, should we get rid of our ignorance, the very substance of our lives, merely in order to understand one another?"

The best thing about the bad old lecture method may be simply that it leaves us alone in our ignorance, whether we want to be or not. The worst thing about the bad new collaborative method is that, any more than cell phones or cable news, it never leaves us alone. Instead, C-L demands that we must understand one another as a function of learning anything.  


Terry Caesar's last column compared academic conferences -- and other kinds of conferences.


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