Resist the Pedagagogical Far Right

Robert J. Nash offers principles for putting students -- not prestige or politics -- at the center of higher education.

September 22, 2009

This fall I will be starting my 41st year as a professor at a so co-called “Public Ivy” institution. Some of my colleagues ask me if I’ll ever retire. Whenever I give my stock response -- “They’ll have to carry me out of here in a box, and bury me on the main university green before I retire” -- my colleagues look at me as if I’m crazy. Perhaps from their perspective I am, but from my own view, I’m very sane. I love the life of academe, in spite of its irritating intellectual rigidities, its sometimes lethal, passive-aggressive competitiveness, its deeply entrenched resistance to change, and, worst of all, its over-the-top superiority complex. Still, I’m here to shout to the world that academe has been good to me, and I consider myself lucky to be a professor. But it is my teaching that fills me up the most, and it is my teaching that has provided the lasting memories.

The past few years I’ve been reading a lot about teaching and learning as preparation for writing a book on how to help students create meaning both inside and outside the classroom. Most of the work I’ve read, with a few remarkable exceptions, resounds with critique, regrets, complaints, settling old scores with some perceived enemy, and, worst of all, with belligerent put-downs of millennial and quarterlife students. For many of these authors, today’s college students are lazy, preoccupied, unmotivated, poorly prepared, distracted, politically correct, and, above all, “entitled.” In a word, students today are “unteachable.”

These scholars go on to say that if the academy is to save itself, it must return to the older ideals of a reduced elective curriculum, a stringent, no-prisoners-taken grading policy, an uncompromising commitment to the tried-and-true academic research methodologies, and, most of all, a no-nonsense, lecture-only, close-textual-analysis, stick-to-the-facts/research approach to reading and writing. “Rigor” is the catchword for these writers. Sadly, in the aftermath, “rigor mortis” could very well become, if it hasn’t already, the catchword for students.

I mourn the current turn to the far pedagogical right in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. I am deeply troubled by the retreat from recent curricular reform, alternative research methodologies, innovative teaching and learning experiments based on a multiple-intelligences understanding, and, most of all, the turning away from helping students at all levels to find and make meaning of their personal and professional lives through their classroom studies. And, so, in the spirit of reviewing the personal meaning of my own professorial calling — particularly its teaching-learning dimension — I offer the following propositions:

As professors, our primary purpose on a college campus is to teach students. Without them, there would be no campus, no professors, and no subject matter to teach, scholarship to cite, or research to undertake.

As professors we are in the classroom to inspire, evoke, respond, inform (not conform), and clarify. Students must retake center stage on the college campus. At best, we educators ought to be located somewhere backstage or in the orchestra pit. Only secondarily, if at all, are we there to direct or choreograph. Neither is our classroom function primarily to expound, propound, or confound. The conventional pedagogical practices of most professors serve only to blunt and defeat students’ independent pursuit of learning.

Truth be told, before we are anything else, we are teachers. Proportionately speaking, few of us actually spend much time researching, writing grants, and producing original scholarship. We may talk this game, but we don’t play it. Those of us who do consistent research reside in perhaps 100 of the most elite colleges and universities in the country. Furthermore, of this privileged group, a large percentage stops doing original research and creative scholarship upon getting tenure.

Thus, most professors in the majority of the 3,500 institutions of higher education in the United States get paid primarily to teach, advise, and do committee work. The point I am making is that the academic culture in more than 90 percent of higher education is built on the teaching function of its workers. Shouldn’t we, therefore, avoid sending the message to our constituents that the university would be a great place to work if only there were no students there to interrupt what’s really important — our research, intra-mural politicking, grantsmanship, and committee work?

The publish-or-perish reward syndrome on college campuses today is the major cause of the retreat from effective and innovative teaching and learning.

In many of our colleges and universities, faculty are still driven by the myth of tenure-track terror fueled by the unrealistic desire for second- and third-tier institutions to enter the first-tier ranks. Even though this rarely if ever happens (why this goal is important in the first place is a question we ought to be asking throughout higher education), the publish-or-perish imperative in these institutions keeps junior faculty constantly on edge. It reduces the time and effort they can put into their teaching. While it might be true that grants, scholarly publications, and conference gigging throughout the country put some institutions on the prestige map, it is effective, responsive, and passionate teaching that attracts, and retains, students.

I believe that the realistic, everyday question for most of us in the academy ought to be how to make our teaching better. How can we get our students actively and passionately involved in their own learning? And, from the perspective of their critics, how can we excite them enough to distract them for a little while from texting, surfing the Internet, tweeting, and Facebooking? How can we convey to them that, when push comes to shove, we want to teach students as much as we want to teach our cherished subject matter? Better still, how can we find that special pedagogical flow in our classrooms that does not even promote such a dichotomy; a flow that makes process and content, and teaching and research, inseparable? Whether one publishes a hundred articles or none, these questions ought to be central to the academic experience. Here’s a maxim that guides my own teaching and scholarship these days: research is best whenever it’s connected directly to a student’s me-search.

There is a body of research that can help us to put the student at the vital center of the teaching-learning transaction — without compromising the high intellectual standards that are so near and dear to most of us.

I’ve been able to unearth the following research during the writing of my newest book that points the way to what students will need in order to be fully engaged in their own learning. Richard Light’s (2001) and Kenneth Bain’s (2004) empirical findings confirm that when teaching is working well, the following learning patterns are evident:

1) Students engage actively in their learning with a vibrant sense of expectancy and excitement; 2) open-ended, evocative, problem-based questions in lively conversation are far more prominent than close-ended, test-based answers; 3) learning is interdisciplinary, unbounded, and wide-ranging; 4) teaching and learning are frequently narrative-based, personally vulnerable, and honest; 5) a variety of pedagogical techniques fill the learning space, including lectures, small and large group conversations, student-generated colloquia sessions, service learning, and the frequent use of internet chat rooms, listservs, and blogs.

So, too, the latest research on brain-based learning by such neuroscientists as Gerald Edelman (2006) and Michael Gazzaniga (2008) demonstrates that students learn best when they are given the opportunity to personalize their learning by looking for its practical implications in their everyday lives. When students can see the organic connections between subject matter and their interests in performing service to others, or dedicating themselves to a social cause that results in self-transcendence, or creating something artistic, then their learning becomes intense, focused, integrated, and full of passion. Dichotomies disappear. During this time, students’ neurons are at optimal firing capacity, and their cognitive patternings are rich and complex. Also, according to this brain-based research, while students highly appreciate some type of evaluative feedback from educators, nearly always the imposition of grades acts as a serious deterrent to their relaxed alertness and complex cognitive processing.

Building authentic relationships with our students both inside and outside the classroom is the sine qua non for successfully transmitting subject matter.

A growing body of research supports this assertion. Light’s findings, stemming from his decades-long research on the Harvard Assessment Project, confirmed that the classes hundreds of undergraduate students like the best and learned the most were those that involved being able to make connections with others. Students mentioned getting involved outside of class with the arts, special-interest clubs and groups, and a variety of content-linked, experiential activities. While the hands-on experiences were important to them, even more important were the interactions they had with others in order to achieve a common goal. Through these interactions, students learned the invaluable human skills of how to initiate, sustain, and deepen relationships.

In the classroom, students especially appreciated small classes. It was in this setting that students were best able to get to know the professor, both in and out of the classroom. Students also enjoyed classes that emphasized writing assignments. They particularly appreciated classes with a lot of personal narrative writing, because over 90 percent of them felt that being able to write clearly and creatively about their own lives was the most important single skill they hoped to develop during their undergraduate years. Also, students learned best about how to write when they were able to share their writing with small groups and, in the process, receive valuable feedback from their peers.

The warning flag that predicted future academic frustration and failure, however, was when a student felt a sense of isolation from others. Light’s research showed that initial feelings of being isolated only served to intensify the state of isolation, because the student, motivated by feelings of embarrassment and loneliness, tended to dig in, withdraw even more, and work alone. Isolation led to increasing feelings of desolation. It was when faculty and staff reached out to put students in touch with like-minded others, as well as with counselors, however, that their grades, and attitudes, drastically improved.

We must rethink conventional assessment strategies and homework assignments.

The key is to remember that the most important part of the word evaluation is value. The best way to evaluate the outcomes of meaning-making learning is to ask students themselves what the value of their experience has been. According to Bain’s research, the best evaluation stresses learning rather than performance. Performance means living up to others’ expectations and requirements. Learning means that students take full responsibility for their own intellectual, emotional, kinesthetic, and personal development. Performance is mainly about acquisition, storing information, and taking tests. Learning is developmental and an end in itself.

Some of Bain’s best teachers asked their students to evaluate themselves, while still requiring them to provide various types of hands-on evidence that learning did, indeed, occur. Often, these students presented this evidence in face-to-face conversation with their teachers, in addition to writing extensive narrative self-evaluations, complete with such “evidence” as learning portfolios, time logs, daily or weekly written reports, and a variety of independently designed work projects. The upshot for the successful assessment of learning in meaning-making is to encourage students to set their own goals and to take full responsibility for determining whether or not they were able to meet those goals.

So much of what I’ve learned about teaching in the academy for over four decades can be summarized in this way: often when I teach less, I find that I actually teach more. I call this a “pedagogy of ironic minimalism.” Whenever I take the time to call forth what it is my students actually know, and whenever I intentionally minimize the “endless breadth and depth” of my own “vast wisdom and knowledge,” then my students learn the most. This, dear readers, is why I keep coming back to the classroom — for lo these many years.


Robert J. Nash is an Official University Scholar in the Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Vermont. His latest book, co-authored with Michele C. Murray, is Helping College Students Find Purpose: The Campus Guide to Meaning-Making (forthcoming from Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2010).


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