Teaching As Dialogue

Posts related to my book “Teaching As Dialogue”

(Further notes after my first “My Teachers” post.)

It was at Buffalo where I began to study with George Trager, Ray Birdwhistell, and Henry Lee Smith. They arrived there in the fall of 1956: I was one of their first two students. As Trager was the essential co-author of “The Silent Language,” I include E.T. Hall’s work and thinking in my education (and current re-reading).

I continue to be their student, over 50 years later.

Ray Birdwhistell is probably the one whose ideas and practices continue to shape me most. He was the originator of “Kinesics,” the study of the Body-in-Interaction. He was a trained dancer, the best observer I have ever met: observer of the very wide contexts in which humans…are. He also tried to describe in symbols what he was seeing: arms, faces, always in-interaction. A challenging task. The body…and the mind – who and how we are.)

Teachings: how to see people (always including oneself…seeing, being, and body movements); how to note that “presence” of anyone entails (from his other student, Erving Goffman: “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”) the facts that we appear as we do in the company and contexts of others…and ourselves. There is much more to study: behind the scenes, in private alone and with others…Think about other bodies (other species) interacting socially; the power(s) in any/every relationship. And the study of context, in always broadening senses: how we know “when” we are, just to begin. (I wrote about this in the “Foundations Project.”) Different cultures (and subcultures). Read the rest of this entry »

[From Nick Maxwell’s current Friends of Wisdom Newsletter No. 5 (PDF)]


By Harvey B. Sarles
University Press of America: 1993
ISBN 0-8191-8897-2
REVIEW by Maarten van Schie

I’ll give you my opinion forward and frank: I think this is a good book. What I have been reading the past month has been a book about teaching. I have read a few books on teaching, and most of them are full of theories and techniques to teach effectively, with standard presentation tricks like “Say what you are going to say, say it, and then say what you have said.” These books are usually written in the manner of a college textbook, authorative and impersonal.

The book that I have read and am reviewing now writes about teaching in a very different manner. It is, first and foremost, a very personal book. Harvey B. Sarles has written about his vision on what teaching is and what a teacher does and instead of writing about teaching as a job he writes about the teacher as a human being. From this perspective he explores the role of a Teacher, which is “the person who becomes Teacher to one’s students: entering their spirits in some depth”.

I admit I was at first a little put off by the ambitious metaphors of this kind in the beginning of the book. But Harvey Sarles has in his book distilled from the concept of teaching, which may be muddled up in “The Present Age” (Kierkegaard), the purely human and social aspects. And as he puts it, Teaching is not just about transferring knowledge, it has the potential to shape minds and ideas and to inspire. Read the rest of this entry »

(Further notes after my first “My Teachers” post, and additional perspective from my prior post on the State Department, Foreign Service Institute, and our Current Ignorance of the World.)

My teachers of Anthropology and Linguistics at SUNYBuffalo, had been working for the U.S State Dept, in the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) during and after WWII. Their work consisted centrally of working (“fieldwork”) in the different Languages and Cultures of the world – advising and teaching State Dept personnel in exploring and understanding the other languages and cultures of the world.

Language and Culture were considered important in understanding and dealing with the world.

Different peoples and nations had to be studied in their “own terms,” in order to understand and deal with them “realistically, effectively…” To be an effective statesman, one should speak the native language In these senses: other countries were different from us, but should be studied in their own  terms, toward good and effective foreign politics and policies.

As Sec’y of State to President Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles had a quite “different” picture of the United States and other countries. They were not just “different” from the U.S., but they were considered as somewhat “lesser,” in the contexts of a kind of “hierarchy” of nations. (Dulles was a deeply religious person with a deep sense of “America-First” – America was a kind of “City upon a Hill.”) His picture of America and the world has persisted well into the present.

In any case, all the Anthropologists and Linguists in the FSI were “fired,” in 1955. Read the rest of this entry »

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In the June 29 Mpls. Star-Tribune, two extensive editorials debated the notion that many new teachers in our local schools would be sponsored by Teach for America: public schools, charter schools…

The usual routes for teachers trained by Colleges of Education would not be judged by Teach for America, and these new teachers – who primarily have earned very high grades in getting their college or university degrees – would offer much better teaching to our K-12 children. Or they would not – said the other editorial.

his home for 7th grade science, flickr photo by Monkey & Tree

"his home for 7th grade science", flickr photo by Monkey & Tree

What’s going on here? Are our schools failing with the ordinary or usual teachers: how badly or well are they doing – for whom? Who are these new teachers: are they “qualified?” To do what? Will they be better teachers? Or is this so much hype?

Here I’m speaking from the perspective of a Professor at the University of Minnesota, where I have been selected as “Teacher of the Year” in 2001, in the College of Liberal Arts. I also teach a course in Teaching as Dialogue: a book I also wrote. Just this Spring, I’ve been involved in the recently formed “Great Teachers” program.

And during the “money bubble” times we’re currently passing-out-of, there has been a virtual redefinition of students. Like Medicine (capitalized), students and patients have all been “converted” to “Consumers.” There are really no persons in this description which has sold so well during the money-bubble. And so there aren’t really any persons doing the teaching: increasingly removed from teaching…it used to be lectures from “yellowed” ancient lecture notes. Read the rest of this entry »

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(Part 1 on my teachers. Part 2 touches on this line of thought, part of how it stalled, and impact on society. Part 3 is on “languaging”. Part 4 summarizes some lessons learned from my teachers.)

Who am I? A deep and developing question. But I did have several teachers who helped me to formulate my thinking and directions.

Above all, Ray Birdwhistell – the originator of “Kinesics,” the study of the human body-in-interaction. He was an Anthropologist who was the best observer of people I’ve ever met – observer in the sense of seeing people in careful and detailed senses. He was trained as a “classical” dancer, and seemed to see all others as performers in life’s dances. And he didn’t only concentrate on each individual. He also/always noted how they interacted: in groups, in life’s varieties of social contexts from infants to older, the ordinary and the exceptional in every sense; richer and poorer, healthy and injured and “odd” and…; ethnic, linguistic. His ways into the world were always expanding. Life is social, interactive: the individual…?

My Teachers - My Teachers - Ray Birdwhistell, George Trager, Henry L. Smith Jr., Norman McQuown, ...

My Teachers (click image to enlarge)

Ray was a student of the Chicago School of Symbolic Interaction – heirs of the American Pragmatist, George Herbert Mead, and the anthropologists who wandered the entire world. His work wandered from American Indians to the average family dynamics, to the sick – physically and, particularly, mentally. And he directed me to the U. of Chicago, Anthropology, where I continued my studies with linguist Norman McQuown – under whose tutelage I (and family: J, and infant daughter Amy) studied a Mayan Language (Tzotzil) and lived in Chiapas, Mexico for two years deeply immersed in both Indian and Ladino (their term) cultures during this time.

Ray was also a student in the line of thought and active fieldwork (life is fieldwork!) of Franz Boas: Margaret Mead (especially), Gregory Bateson, influenced his thought. Read the rest of this entry »

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Change, Change, Change! Yes, Yes, Yes…

Change, Change, Change – Yeah, but…

In my office at the University where I teach, there is a poster which I look at frequently, but keep mostly hidden from others: “I touch the future: I teach.”

Now older, many years of experience in thought and in teaching, I am even less bashful. “I inspire the future : I teach.”

Change, yes: but towards what? How can we envision the futures of democracy, without probing where we are, how we got here; and where is there to go?

Where are we: emerging from another “gilded age,” a “money bubble” which has so altered the shape of democracy, that it might be powerful enough to shape our very ideas of change. How to see, how to study these so-fragile times?

How we got here? We have been part and partners in the great money bubble: our children, our students go to school less to learn how to think, or grapple with their futures. More they go because that is the “thing to do.” Not to think critically, but to work toward a credential as “efficiently” as possible. Then their futures will be “O.K.”

Envision the future?? It will take care of itself, as long as we do what we do? Think critically? Bah! Do what we’re “supposed” to do, and…

Change, change, change. The mentality of the gilded age has pushed us into ourselves on facebook and U-space. The world in which we reside shapes us so much more than we realize. We have – not thoughtfully – accepted the oligarchies of money and power which shape our very desires. As it is all collapsing – in “crisis” – my students hardly blink, as they hardly realize that the world is always, already changing. Democracy entails awareness.

How to study these so-fragile times? History can be very useful? How did the last “gilded ages” – of the late 19th century and the 1920s collapse? How did the “progressive age” take place? Explore Hofstadter’s “The Progressive Movement,” and Josephson’s “Robber Barons.” How did we move – forward – from the great depression?

How might we envision the future of democracy? Where may our “Next Places” be – both politically and personally? A next progressive era?

Education: said John Dewey – probably the most thoughtful of the progressive thinkers – and do-ers. The very idea of democracy must be rethought, and taught to each new generation. It is the future, their future, in which they need to think and act. Teachers need to be sufficiently thoughtful and “important” to be able to inspire their futures.

The gilded ages have been driven mostly by new technologies: ideas, products, and the new monies generated and then controlled by the very clever, and very selfish and greedy few. How to return the U.S. to “we the people” as we go from boom to…?

Explore where we are, try to foresee various possibilities, then set out visions for the futures of those students whom we inspire to become truly engaged – in these times and their times – toward education and democracy.

I wandered in the world, seeing what there was, guessing what there could be, and wondering. I smelled the new, damp green of spring as it appeared, and wished, each winter, that the days of snow and grey would give way. The wishing turned into meaning as I learned how to brood and to wish away whatever was, for what would be, and what I wished. The world had become stage; the people, actors in my creations; my real leaning toward grotesque, the unreal wanting to become my beauty.
I redid the mirrors to reflect my eyes’ vision. My third ear compared what I wanted with what there was, until reverberations could be refiltered to match. Awful! I learned to watch my doing. As the others saw me, I learned to see myself; what they wanted to see, I sought to be. At one point there was no watching left. I cracked, revealing nothing, no one. I was only what they thought. Now, no wiser; perhaps, wary. I try to see each flake of snow; see it fall, see it down to the snow banks of my life.
I become the painter of the silvering which backs the glass transparencies, now become its own mirror. Trying to locate what is, where I am; while still seeking for illusions. (An existential accounting for the experience of paradox in our lives!)

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