Teaching As Dialogue

Posts related to my book “Teaching As Dialogue”

It’s the end of the semester. Kysa and I discussed and recorded grades for the large course in Cultural Pluralism this morning. It is now mid-afternoon, and I am somewhat fragile, fragmented, and frustrated.

Playing the violin just now, trying to pay attention especially to intonation – playing pretty much in tune – I feel the need to express thoughts, to reconcile the fragility with the sense that it is time to move ahead. No longer needing to get up early in the morning with the idea of having to teach always and persistently wandering in my mind, I am free. Or sort of…free.

I review the course, fleetingly, with certain moments of contention and towering success (Ha!) vying with my remaining in the present. Wondering what I, what they could have done more or better, or with an energy which might translate into long-terms of growth and grandness for them…and for me. I review…and wonder.

I wander. My mind floats to the other course – Teaching as a Dialogue – which was for more advanced students, people, thinkers, wanting (would-have, should-have thought) to be teachers, themselves, to the worlds of their futures, and to the future of the world. We never reconciled, nor much discussed with much direction, the question of authority. Dialogue, thought an older student, is somehow between equals, or between all people. I tried to state, with some authority of my own, that dialogue between equals might lead somewhere, but might drown into the “Lord of the Flies” in which apparent equality degenerates/develops into tyranny. Without any sense of authority, and some accompanying sense of directedness, there isn’t much left…a nililism, a cynicism, some cunning whose cunning turns where it will, and where it can because everyone else is denying what’s happening.

Back to the fiddle, fiddling with the ideas and with Bach who wants to be played with somewhat more attention than I think I have on the day I am coming off teaching.

Response: Michael Wesch – “Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance”

Michael Wesch is playing; at play with the idea that his form(s) of teaching are actually “anti-teaching.” As he studies and interviews his students, he is pondering the fact that many of them are “struggling to find meaning and significance” in their education.

While they “take” courses, and successfully “complete” them, the information or knowledge that they are given does not much penetrate their thinking. Much of the course material is not very relevant to their lives. “For many (students and teachers alike) education has become a relatively meaningless game of grades and telling rather than an important and meaningful exploration of the world in which we live and co-create.”

I agree. As someone who teaches and shares Michael’s background as an Anthropologist, I also meditate on the varied situations of teaching in the modern university (U. of Minnesota). I find the teaching situation that he describes to be accurate – and unnerving. I have been trying – over my long career – to explore various modes of teaching. Teaching as Dialogue is my attempt to reach students, meaningfully for them and for me.

First, a few questions about context – when we are: about these times. A student from the unconnected 1950’s, I wonder if what is currently going on has much to do with the “times we are in.” We 50’s students were also pretty remote from the happenings of our times, just looking for how to “make it” in the world. I didn’t “wake up” intellectually until I was taking the medical school course in anatomy, dissecting the hand, and “discovered” my own hands and body – with a “wow” that has driven my ideas ever since. But – other than a few still memorable courses – school was fairly boring, and something to do to get work, have a career, vocation…success.

photo by billerickson

Our current students were born and have been raised in a money bubble. As Jane Smiley so poignantly describes in her ethnographic novel, “Moo,” education has become (merely) necessary to gain a credential. School and success have shifted from K-12 to K-16, and is something “everyone who-is-anyone” needs to do. But the actual “doing” of learning, studying, thinking is quite a distance from the experience of putting in time to gain that credential which earns the right to be successful in the world. Read the rest of this entry »

A recent review of Nick Maxwell’s book – founder of Friends of Wisdom – met with them in London last month – and my comments interwoven.

From Knowledge to Wisdom

Nick Maxwell’s recently republished book – “From Knowledge to Wisdom” – may be reaching its time. First published a quarter century ago, it got many good reviews. But its ideas didn’t “go” much of anywhere in terms of thinking or practice; a palliative with little action; a “feel-good” approach which we could ignore until…right now – says Nick.

From Knowledge To Wisdom

Nick asserts that we are heirs of earlier ideas, committed to the exploration of the universe, but without the thoughtful (moral) bases which gives philosophy and life its groundings and meanings. Philosophical knowledge has taken us far and wide, but…leaves the human condition with little more than promises of the ultimate utility of that knowledge. It contributes little to the “best hope of helping us progressively to resolve our most urgent problems of living…a more humane, a more just, a happier, a saner and more cooperative world.”

As the book takes us from several century old ideas of knowledge to the “needs” of the current era, Nick guides us through the history of thought which has dominated (philosophical) knowledge then and endures to the present moment: what is the universe, how do we study it, how do we know, what is truth? We have come far, in many senses, but now seem to be at some impasses.

He urges us to rethink where we are, how we got here, and the deep necessity to broaden our explorations toward (philosophical) wisdom, rather than being bound to particular and narrow historical ideas of what knowledge consists in.

Wisdom is the perspective that how we go about thinking and pursuing knowledge must include its effects on and implications for the human condition. In so many senses, knowledge has “overstepped” itself, and has endangered our very existence: e.g., the blights of the 20th century – holocausts, atomic bomb, GMO’s, and so much more. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ll be part of a roundtable at this weekend’s conference: Rethinking the University: Labor, Knowledge, Value

My roundtable will be: “Radical Pedagogy.”

I’ll talk about Teaching as Dialogue, attempting to put some flesh and experience on Paulo Freire’s hope that teaching can become a dialogue.

The questions: what is dialogue, how to practice this with actual students/people, how to become and be such a teacher who can inspire the students to
seek meaning in their own futures, to learn from the dialogue and move on. These are all complicated practices, needing constant study of the students who are actually present, and the need to maintain one’s own “presence” with them, so that the teacher is not talking from “memory,” but is “right there” to respond to the actual students in the ongoing dialogues.

The politics of dialogue are also complex. Students – after all is said and done – are students of the course, and they are students of “their teacher.” The problems of having “sufficient power” to inspire the future, to help them create meaning for themselves – revolves about portraying/living as one who is thoughtful, moral, loving of subject, of students, and seeking meaning in the teacher’s own life and work.

Dangers include the temptations of the power yielded by students, to tell them how to think and be – to have ready “answers” to all questions – or to overstep one’s power and move from questioning to interrogation modes. So, the study of oneself – and of one’s students – are ongoing tasks. It is helpful, probably vital for teaching as dialogue, to have a couple of good, critical friends who will help keep the teacher grounded.


Fully available now is “Who Owns The World?” the keynote I gave at the conference on Multiculturalism, Pluralism, and Globalization. Also linked to on my list of works page.

Video from Kare 11 News - U Faculty move classes to support strikers

[Video about the strike, interviewed me and a student after class, from KARE 11 News]

About 1/3 of our secretaries, technical workers, and some others have gone on-strike at the University of Minnesota – seeking higher, more reasonable wages. The administration continues to resist…

I’m a (tenured) Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature. Given that the secretaries are my co-workers, friends, supports, I (and a number of others – professors and graduate instructors – this all began on the first day of classes this year) have decided to teach our classes nearby, but off-campus. My location is a couple of blocks from the original University classroom site: University Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

This course is “Issues in Cultural Pluralism” and has over 40 students, mostly juniors and seniors; almost all of whom seem pleased to be off-campus (a few dropped the course, for whatever reasons). The church room is quite informal, and helps us to engage in the kind of active dialogues which enrich my teaching style.

With a few comments about the strike – especially noting that the strikers are mostly women – an aspect of the primary questions of Cultural Pluralism: who are we, who “makes” it in America, who doesn’t do so well; history, why, when did women become “citizens?” – answer 1920, with the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, we have been actively discussing the course subjects.

The course is “framed” by an argument between Aristotle in his “Politics” and Thomas Jefferson in the “Declaration of Independence.” Aristotle claimed that “some men are destined by nature to be kings, and others to be slaves.” – the historical justification for monarchy. Jefferson stated that “all men are created equal” – democracy, not monarchy, for the first time in history. I remind the students that America is framed in slavery – the 13 to 15th Amendments “ended” it the first time; then “Separate-but-Equal” in 1896 until 1954 and Brown vs. the Board of Education, and now the huge numbers of African-American (mostly young males) incarcerated by drug “possession” – What and why? – we ask.

So: ideas from history, who gets/deserves what and why, monarchy vs. democracy…to the Constitution: “We the people…” and its evolution to include most everyone until the complications of today. But Amerindian people, African-Americans, Latinos…some others still are excluded, profiled, etc. We are in a “money-bubble,” a new “Gilded Age.” How to see the present, to locate ourselves, to work toward continuing democracy in a most changing world. Immigration and its history; eugenics, Hitler, many of the ideas were developed right here!

The movement of classes off-campus has been resisted – scolded, even – with the claim that we are not doing our proper jobs. I respond that the U. of Minnesota has been a “Land-Grant” University, and ask if we are abandoning that idea and moving toward whatever buys prestige and big bucks, credentials more than critical thought and ideas. I hope that students in this course learn much, especially toward critical thought of how and where we are…and where they will take us in their futures.

I quote the lovely phase embossed high up on the central meeting ground of campus: Northrup Auditorium – and wonder why it is not included in our current “strategic plan” for the University:

University of Minnesota


Founded in the Faith that We are Ennobled by Understanding


Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning and the Search for Truth


Devoted to the Instruction of Youth and the Welfare of the State

The State Department, Foreign Service Institute, and our Current Ignorance of the World.

Why are we doing so poorly in understanding those who oppose us: terrorists, enemies?

Are we studying toward understanding their worlds, or engaged principally in inferring from our thinking to how their’s must be?

Several recent journalistic books agree that our ways of studying the Mideast have fallen way short of the actual situation, mind-sets, and thinking of our declared enemies. (E.g., Dennis Ross: “Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World.”)

Studying the 9/11 terrorists, they’re not poor, uneducated, merely “evil” people. They came from middle to upper-middle-class persons in England, Brussels and Germany: had a deep sense of the loss of meaning, sought for direction and help, and dedicated themselves to their mission. They were thoughtful, rather than merely stupid and angry – sought and apparently found mission and meaning in their horrendous (certainly to us) activities.

We have misread the people and factions in Iraq, and seem bent on continuing our ways, irrespective of whatever is happening, and the costs to our soldiers, to the people of Iraq (and elsewhere), but muddle on, apparently content that we “know what we are doing”.

The journalists agree that we have done a poor job of examining our opponents, and I want to report on some fairly personal history of my teachers who had been members of linguistic units during WWII and then part of the newly created Foreign Service Institute right after the war. They were anthropologists and linguists who examined first hand the cultures, languages, thinking.

I was one of their first two students at SUNYBuffalo, where several of these persons were hired as their place in the State Department was terminated. And the then Dean of Arts and Sciences at Buffalo (who my spouse worked for as his child’s care-giver) hired them to begin the Department of Anthropology and Linguistics where I earned my M.A. — Henry Lee Smith, Jr., and George Trager (link to PDF noting his influence on E.T. Hall) were their names. Others went to other universities: Northwest and Pittsburgh – where they lived productive lives as scholars and teachers.

As far as I can tell – I know this through the 1990’s, for sure, and it seems very obvious to this day – that the State Dep’t doesn’t much study others in the world – to explore how they live, talk, think: my training. How did this happen, may reveal a good deal about how our foreign service operatives know and think.

My teachers were canned as John Foster Dulles came into be Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower. Dulles had a particular view of America, and how we are with respect to the rest of the world: America is the “City upon a Hill.” We are the best country, the example and exemplar for all others: the best, the highest. Never mind how other countries are or think: they are long ago. It was, apparently, Dulles’ way of dealing with the Cold War: to oppose rather than to seek new or other ways of talking to our “opponents.”

And my teachers’ heirs have never gotten back into the State Dept – we do not train or use linguists – almost no one speaks the languages of the mid-east, or studies their cultures, educational modes, religions – they are not students of the world who actually go there, live, study, learn. The State Dept, and our foreign policy persons, are not skilled in the world-views of others, but more stamped by how our more military/religious thinkers tend to label them: e.g., we are good, and they must be evil – if they oppose us. If poor, just become active American-type capitalists, and all will work out, good, right.

So sadly, our understanding of the cultures and languages of the rest of the world is not much part of how we deal with that world. Isn’t it finally time to rethink how our diplomatic world is – just that – diplomatic, rather than from the “best country in the world” whose job it is, apparently, to impose “democracy” on all others.

(Just a few months ago, an Australian anthropologist was actually hired to work in Afghanistan, advising our guys at least in that context. Let us hope!)

Bureaucracy can be very strange…!

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