Calculated Neutral

In yesterday’s class in my course, “Teaching as Dialogue,” there was a clear shift in direction, conversation, and possibilities.

Thus began the 7th week of a 15 week semester course. Almost half way there. We have a good bit of experience in each other’s company.

Much of the discussion – more a “directed” dialogue, rather than a fully participant party with me kind of assisting – has been more about the idea of teaching. We’ve been concentrating especially on the “politics” of teaching so far – reading and reacting to Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Why we need to teach somehow as a dialogue, to overcome the tellings and lecturings which are stuffed into students’ heads.

Much about how to study, to know, to deal with, to survive in the various places and institutions where teaching reigns, and students show up to…to do what, we’ve wondered in this era of K-16, and the dominant sense that education is directed toward a credential. Less is education these days about life, about involvement, about the love of subject and of students.

And, in many senses, it’s been fairly abstract and remote from the sense of each student becoming teacher, each in her or his own terms.
Self-Portrait by Nathan Gibbs
So: Calculated Neutral, and why now. Students (and teacher) in class, mostly sitting around a fairly long table, mostly presenting themselves as their faces, expressing…whatever they “express.” And in this Twin Cities domain deriving much from Northern Europeans, especially Scandinavians, whose stoic appearances are legend: forms of not-showing much expression, variations on “neutral.”

Only after several weeks, can I call attention to the ways in which they are presenting themselves, everyone having gotten to “know” everyone else (about 20 students). But now I could claim with a kind of gained knowing, that these were not mere expressions – they are “active,” thoughtful, moving and redoing themselves as the situations and contexts change. Not mere neutral, but calculated neutral. Variations on “poker” faces, but with the game and stakes much less clear.

It was most fascinating to watch this all play out, moving across most of the class, with the realization these expressions were active, involved, changing somewhat in the muscles at work, but reading the setting, and settling anew into some version of neutral which was calculated not-to-reveal their “inner” thoughts and being.

“But I am teacher – your teacher – and you will become teachers, having to deal in your future roles with your own students.” For the first time in the course, the framing of the situation clearly involved its students, themselves as teachers; resituating myself-as-teacher as well. “I am you, you-all are me!”

A moment of “advantage” – a restating of the course, its present and futures – the literal recasting of the students as I move from their teacher, more to coach, from a somewhat removed authority to…themselves having to deal with their students in an extended course. Do I gain more authority? Or might I become some resonant character wandering in their active memories, being useful in thinking how and where they want their own courses to… go.

I promised them on the first day of the course that I, that the course could/would become “clear” only by the end of the course: 15 weeks. A “calculated” conversation, calling attention to everyone’s ways of expression, and opening (I do so hope!) the dimensions of the course in many ways and futures.

Calculated Neutral: a metaphor toward an understanding of oneself-as-teacher.