Teaching Today, From K-12 to K-16?

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.

Very differently, the 60’s and 70’s students were much more engaged in their educations: the Vietnam war and all men up for the draft, Civil Rights, feminism – those were great (easy and rewarding) times in which to teach. Involved in the world, in their educations, teaching was exciting, engaging, resonating in the thinking and meanings of students’ lives. In the mid-80’s, as money bubble began to float higher, much of our thinking and teaching shifted. The huge changes in technology which fostered this bubble, shifted “studenting” from school into the kids’ own ongoing experiences: game boys, cell phones, video games, internet, a celebrity culture where fame and economic success virtually controls the definitions of meaning. Our minds simultaneously expanded and thinned as we expanded the locus of being to include the entire globe, and thinned the presence of our own presence; mostly plugged-in.

Universities came increasingly “under law” in this money bubble – as we experienced the ideas that “students” had become “consumers” or “customers.” This has much (re)moved the relationship between teachers and “their” students – students and “their” teachers, from one which was more personal, deep, sometimes even “sacred.” The idea that students would respect, possibly “yield” much of their being to “their” teachers in order to gain meaning, has weakened dramatically.

Heightening all of this is the formality of the syllabus. Hard to recall, but there were hardly any syllabi in the 1950’s – maybe for good reasons: we shouldn’t “map” the entire course-to-come until we meet and get to study our actual students.

But, of course, they aren’t students any longer – but customers/consumers without character or dispositions that we should study as part of our teaching. Not to mention the fact that teaching has become not only more “formal,” but with audio-visual technologies and “power point,” the “presence” of the teacher has also become less than clear. Is there “anyone” who is mindfully present in the classroom? Meaning, significance?

Wesch says that students probably get more insight, ideas when they are not in the presence of the teacher. But I question the notion that most teachers “have” presence in their classrooms, these days.

Presence: “send your body” to class, but leave your “mind” where it wills to wander. And the “presence” of the teacher – reading from notes, now reading from the screens. Where is the thinking, the character, the meaning, significance of the course material, ideas, meaning to the teacher who doesn’t necessarily have to be “engaged” with one’s students – more to entertain them; tell them more than teaching them?

So: Teaching as Dialogue.

Wesch invokes Dewey: “people learn what they do.” I agree, but need to remind us that people are also in dialogue with others, and with their own internal thinking. How to involve their thinking with the thinking of their teacher as they consider new (and old) ideas, descriptions, questions, thinkers, analysis, understandings?

Wesch “decided to get to work creating a learning environment more conducive to producing the types of questions that create lifelong learners rather than savvy test takers.” How to do this? How to use the “power” of doing that students seem to be willing to “yield” to their teachers, to enable students to develop a more informed power to their own futures and meanings?

What is the nature, the possible power of any teacher to inform, question, inspire students and their futures?

As teachers, we have the great grace to be able to “touch” the future. Even more, my greatest hope is to be able to “inspire” the future. “Lifelong learning,” for Michael; for Teaching as Dialogue, to be able, be willing, be interested in examining the analyzing the world and themselves – to remain invested and involved in exploring and thinking out their “Next Places” in their long lives. To seek meaning…with a teacher who remains deeply engaged: an exemplar, someone you might trust to call up in your memory years after the course, itself, is over.

As Paulo Freire instructed us, teaching as kinds of “banking” – telling, instructing – is not sufficient to get students beyond their particular histories. He invoked the idea of dialogue – which many who teach also invoke. However, he didn’t much tell us how to conduct a dialogue, or how to become and grow as the teacher who engages in dialogue: no simple feat, and clearly a lifelong study of oneself, knowledge and ideas, of one’s teachings, of the students who arrive in class in each next era, of the kind of society we would educate toward: a democracy.

This is to state there are various “politics” to teaching which dialogue can enable us to deal with, and to try to overcome. As Dewey admonished us, we have to choose our politics early in order to frame the nature of our educational ideas and practices: and here, the ideas of an ongoing (but always “new”) democratic world help us to envision the kinds of persons we would like to inspire our students to become.

More: the politics of teaching, the objections to students-as-consumers, is to probe the idea that students are students of their teachers, as well as students of subject matter. They study us: the first day of teaching is usually remarkable, noting that most of the students are “staring” at their teacher, with a depth of penetrations…looking for…?! We teachers have the opportunity (the responsibility?) to become memorable “players” in their lives – today, maybe as much or more toward their futures.

Me – the teacher who would Teach as Dialogue – I have to be student of my students, an Anthropologist of the classroom. Not just to see them, but to probe their minds, their reactions to various questions, issues, wonderments. How to do that? Not to force dialogue as in the movie, “Paper Chase,” but to begin to state the issues of any particular course, as well as to attempt to portray who I am as a thinker-responder to students and their questions. Questions: about the course issues, about who I am that they should study, trust (trust is “big”), begin to think about how I am thinking as I raise issues, questions, and wonderments. Do I know my subject matter, how do I think about it? Why this; why-not that? Do I trust my knowing, myself?

Teaching as Dialogue is an open invitation: to discuss the ideas of any/every course of study with me – “their” teacher – now and for their future thinking having anything to do with the course, and with themselves thinking. I try not to demand any more or less that they become engaged – with the subject, themselves, me and my thinking.

It’s not “easy” to do or to be, to Teach as Dialogue. It requires love of subject and of students (and of life, and one’s possibilities of inspiring their futures). The kinds of energy – vary from day-to-day – from the beginning to the end of each course: attempts to engage/invite students to ask questions, to probe me, themselves. It/I don’t demand that all students engage in dialogue “out-loud” – I ask them to think about what they want to do concerning their papers or projects – as they both “fit” the course material, and will be good work, explorations, thoughts for them – concerning the issues of that particular course of study. No exams – I firmly agree with Michael Wesch.

Dialogue should be a beginning, an opening: not a closure or completion.

And one more point (I am a teacher, after all!): the problem of “presence” in teaching, to have my mind’s eye totally involved in the present – of students and me-as-teacher – is central to Teaching as Dialogue.

It is very tempting (and quite “easy”) in lecturing, or in engaging in any pre-cast idea of what will happen in any course, or any given day – to “memorize oneself.” I have “been there” at an early point in my career when I was a quite “successful” lecturer. But I sensed that I was “losing myself.” I was not very present in most moments of my teaching.

Teaching as Dialogue provides the potential of being present, being “awake,” being student to my own teaching. Dialogue is, intellectually, a very “fast” form – mostly because I don’t much “know” in advance where I or these student’s thinking or questioning will come from.

I enter the class with no notes, usually – perhaps a three statement outline of my major points. The rest happens as it will – as the students will (and develop their own meanings with and in response to mine). I respond, as well as I can within my own study of subjects and the students who are right there. Responding to them – as they are thinking, questioning – is not an easy task. And it requires my “presence” – and the realization and admission that this is important to my teaching, and my own growing being.

Michael Wesch and I agree that the current forms of teaching lack something, and move us both toward the idea of “anti-teaching.”

My direction-practice in teaching is to “dig-in” more deeply into the depths of my being. Not to abandon it to the currents of a vastly changing world, but to seek for meaning in the experiences and ideas of those who also sought meaning in their times and placeness. To walk with their ideas – to “hold hands” with those who sought to understand with increasing depth and breadth – that is what lies behind the idea of a teacher who seeks to teach as a dialogue. I would very much like to be capable of being somewhat of an exemplar, a teacher who students can “call up” in their thoughts as they move along on their life paths. My attempt is to inspire them to get “beyond” my subjects and thinking, and can only help that I can help to inspire them and their futures: toward meaning and significance as ongoing in their lives.

Teaching and life: a dialogue. Being and life: a dialogue.