Friday, February 4, 2011

Platforms for Participation

Fox posted a video to Facebook wherein Michael Wesch, a professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, discusses the classroom and its faults. His lecture is thick, full and heady with the possibilities and the pitfalls of so-called 'new media'. I was struck in particular by his comments on the structure of our classrooms, which reflect limited diversity across universities. The university classroom is structured with a space or a stage for a lecturer to speak from and a series of desks or rows of chairs where listeners assemble. The chairs all face a chalkboard, whiteboard, or, in some of the newer classrooms, a screen for the display of digital presentations. It had never struck me before, but the room can be read as a binary (thanks Claude): authority (lecturer) and governed (listeners). Most classrooms do not facilitate discussion, and if they do, it follows the binary system. A single listener can direct a question to the lecturer, but not, generally, to a fellow listener -- unless an openness has been permitted to the system, and the binary has been relaxed. The thing is that while this model has served as the bulwark of university education for centuries it fails to provide us (the faculty) with the type of students we want to see our schools produce. We want free thinkers. We want collaborative thinkers. We want critical thinkers. This means that authority must be questioned, and not simply for the sake of agitation, but for the sake of developing cognition. When we read, we must question. We must, to go postmodern for a minute, deconstruct. To do otherwise is not to read critically, it is not to question, it is not imagine how the authority could be wrong. We want our students to imagine that, and more, speaking now as an historian, we want our students to pull together disparate threads and to make connections. We want them to see how economic pressures coupled with political motivations combined with material availability can lead to conditions that precipitate social change -- as an example. The presentation of information without the inclusion of the tools needed to process and criticize that information is dated and useless. I am reminded of a recent, fictional history teacher -- Cuthbert Binns of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series. The only ghost who teaches at the university, his lectures are dry (almost) ramblings of facts and dates -- nuggets of digestible material that students must successfully regurgitate when asked. This is not, however, history, though it is what our discipline has become for many. History is investigation. History is critical thinking. History is innovative, dynamic, and absolutely essential if we are ever to answer the question that Michael Wesch poses to all of his students: Why are you here? We cannot afford to be ghosts. We must interact with our students and have them interact with one another. We must restore dynamism to the classroom. If we don't, we shall be irrelevant, just like Binns, relegated to the back corner of the student's busy mind.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of classes I've taken where the teacher purposefully makes us re-arrange our chairs into a half-circle so we can discuss and see our reactions.

    When that video asked me how I learn I realized that many of my well-learned lessons were from mistakes. "Well, THAT didn't work. What now?" Either that or from fantastic unexpected success - Like the year we got 250lb of potatoes from our garden. If schools continue to punish mistakes then students will continue to minimize the risk of punishment.
    I've had several teachers or instructors(not just academically) who like to use mistakes as a teachable moment for the whole class but conditioning from early schooling still makes me feel like a putz when it was my goof.

    Not everyone makes the same mistakes but there's enough commonalities that it's worthwhile to experience other people's mistakes - especially mistakes you may not have made on your own. I wonder what the ideal group size for mistake sharing is, and whether it varies with the subject matter. #Calculus to the rescue! Find us the maximum point of that curve Mr. Newton.