Monthly Archives: January 2019

Reality Pedagogy (a critique)

My last post didn’t occasion the engagement I had hoped for. But I did learn something new, namely, that there is something called “reality pedagogy”, which was developed out of culturally relevant pedagogy and critical pedagogy by Christopher Emdin (2011). Though native to urban primary and secondary science education in the United States, it is (my critics rightly point out) a direct challenge to my approach to the classroom. As far as I can tell, it is being embraced well beyond this narrow context and I would disagree with its application even there. What is at issue is the nature of the of classroom and, therefore, the nature of teachers and students. In this post I want to offer some initial reactions to mark the crux of the disagreement as I see it.

I think Emdin and I could agree to approach the problem in broadly “constructivist” terms. Students and teachers aren’t natural kinds, but social constructions, and the construction site, if you will, is the classroom. The classroom is defined by the positions we assign to students and teachers; students and teachers are, in turn, defined by how we organize the classroom. This is, in part, what I was after in my defense of “the academic situation”: I think the classroom is a good place for certain kinds of activities, it is a context within which students and teachers can be “good” at what they do, namely, learning and teaching, respectively. It is not the only place where “learning” goes on, however. It is only a particular setting for learning and, I fully grant, not ideal for learning everything. Certain objects of knowledge are easily constructed in a classroom, we might say, and others not so easily.

But Emdin doesn’t let what Berger and Luckmann famously called “the social construction of reality” go deep enough. He believes that, in a crucial sense, the students are a “reality” that is given to the teachers and that their first duty is to understand this reality as given, to get to know “where they are coming from”.  He rightly emphasizes that this cannot be known in advance of the students’ arrival in the classroom. That is, you can’t just operate with some general understanding of “urban youth” and treat every class, year in and year out, according to this caricature. But he does seem to harbor a great deal of optimism about building “camaraderie” between teachers and students and proposes to devote significant energies to this end. Indeed, he seems willing to explicitly place course “content” at the bottom of the list of priorities and devote a great deal of time to letting students teach their teachers who they are and how they might be best learn. “The student,” he declares, “[is] the expert at pedagogy (the person who knows most about how to deliver information to other students) while the teacher [is] the novice who is learning how to teach” (2011, p. 288).

Emdin, it should be noted, is an engaging and charismatic thinker. I have no doubt that he has inspired both teachers and students to reach beyond what they thought themselves capable of. In fact, if this is realism it might best described as magic realism. In one TED talk he argues that education students are too often mired in meaningless scholarship when what they really want to do is “spark magic and change lives”. This magic, he suggests, is a teachable, transferable skill and could be part of the curriculum of teacher education. Specifically, he suggests that aspiring teachers should develop a “Pentecostal” or “Hip-Hop” sensibility  by attending churches and concerts and learning from people who truly know how to engage their audiences.

I believe that this sort of pedagogy arrogates* at once too much and too little power to the classroom setting. Too much because it imagines that the “whole person” of the student can be constructed (re-constructed?) within the confines of the classroom; it demands that students leave no part of themselves, as it were, “at the door”. It then proposes to transform this whole person, of whom it expects, I suppose, a full, authentic engagement with the learning process. But it is also too quick to declare the classroom powerless to extricate the students from whatever social conditions might be interfering with their learning and to protect them from them. It doesn’t grant that the classroom can impose an “order” for the 45 minutes the class lasts, suspending the social chaos that the student might otherwise be embroiled in among friends and family. Instead, it lets all of that material into the classroom and takes it upon itself to leverage it in the learning process.

I think this is a fool’s errand. No matter how much time you devote to “co-creating” the classroom with your students, you will never fully understand who they are or whether they’re really getting what you’re trying to teach them. Indeed, your students aren’t a knowable reality at all. They are, I want to say, an ideality. We should always direct our instruction at “the ideal student”, the subject of a learning process that most effectively delivers the content that we, the teachers, not they, the students, master. The ideal student reads their homework and sits still in class and raises their hand when they have a question. They do their assignments and clean up after themselves in the lab. They take careful notes, they devote a measured but intense amount of themselves to trying to understand what you’re teaching them. I’m not addressing the “whole person” of the student in my classes. I only talk to them as though I have their full attention for 45 minutes.

The real magic of the classroom lies in the order it imposes willy-nilly on everyone that enters, not in the charisma of the teacher or the sincerity of the student. Pierre Bourdieu has a very useful concept of “social magic” which depends on the misrecognition of the conditions that produce the social categories we then take for granted as “real”. Think of a magic act which depends on the audience remaining seated for the duration of the performance. We have to obey this rule in order to enjoy the show; but we also have to forget that we are obeying it. Likewise, the student knows that the classroom is an artificial simulation of the real world of numbers and letters, forces and masses. But there is a moment, for some students while reading a poem, for others while solving an equation, for yet others while conducting an experiment, where the whole of reality seems to rush in and assert itself. After much struggle with a particular set of carefully chosen materials, the student finally gets it. The ideal student leaves that other “reality” at the door.


*Update (26/02/2020): This was a poor word choice. Leaving aside its now obsolete senses, it implies that the power is unjustified. Not only is it needlessly confrontational to insinuate arrogance in the person you’re criticizing, I end up suggesting that we’d be justified in “arrogating”, i.e., justified in claiming without justification, a different kind of power in the classroom. 

The Academic Situation (a defense)

Even academics have fallen into the habit of using the word “academic” as a pejorative. It can be found in the slogan “I love learning but I hate school” (see Susan Blum’s detailed study of this sentiment) and in the view that school assignments don’t have a “real” or “authentic” audience. Both of these ideas have become central to the reception of John Warner’s new book about how we teach writing, the second most recently in a review by Cate Denial. She puts the point in a familiar way:

As I read the section on grading and learning, something Jesse Stommel once said about providing “real” or authentic audiences for student work make greater sense to me.  Students, John argues, need intrinsic – rather than external – motivation to do well, and one way to do that is to make the stakes real; to have a real audience in mind for an essay, for example, rather than an artificially convened audience of ‘the professor.’  Jesse’s said this before, too, and it finally clicked for me that I can have my students write for a friend, or a newspaper, or . . . anything, really, that constitutes an actual audience and not the artificial one that’s me.

This idea that students are doing something more “real” when they are writing for a friend or for a newspaper than they are when they are writing for a class is worth thinking seriously about. It’s not always wrong, but I think it needlessly underestimates the “reality”, if you will, that is available in the traditional classroom. As Denial points out, the problem is easily solved even within the classroom, so in a sense it is surprising that the issue persists, but I actually think her solution is a bit too easy. After all, does asking a student to imagine a friend or a newspaper reader make that reader “real”? Doesn’t the fact that this remains a school assignment take the authenticity out of it? Would her students be writing to their friends or for the local newspapers about this subject if she hadn’t asked them to?

Those are of course mainly rhetorical questions. It’s possible that an assignment could be designed to make the letter to the friend more authentic, but I don’t think most students would do anything other than dutifully try to imagine it — often along lines they imagine the teacher is proposing.  Indeed, the utility of the exercise would depend greatly on the caliber of the student’s friends, and some might go ahead and imagine friends with greater interest in the subject, perhaps even friends with greater intelligence, in order to earn the grade they desire. In other words, I would question the assumption that this sort of task would make the audience more real. Nor is it entirely clear how this might render “the stakes” more real. Are we seriously going to ask students to stake their friendships and future careers in journalism on a college assignment? Something seems off about this.

But the deeper problem is the presumption that the classroom doesn’t provide the students with an authentic writing environment. After all, it very definitely provides them with a room full of peers, and what is academic writing other than writing for one’s peers? The classroom, I want to argue, is an authentically academic environment and this can be used to situate writing assignments rhetorically.

Denial is right to eschew herself as the ideal audience for student writing. Students who are writing for their teachers and examiners are imagining readers who are much smarter than they are, and not, at least not usually, and not really, interested in their ideas. (Students who do imagine that their teachers might be moved by their words are often — though of course not always — kidding themselves.) But the classroom is full of nearly ideal readers of their texts; all the students have to do is imagine explaining what they have learned in class to each other. They should do so in the spirit of exposing their thinking to the criticism of their peers, of revealing their ideas to people who are qualified to tell them they are wrong. These are people who have read the same readings, attended the same lectures and participated in the same class discussions. They are comrades in the struggle to learn the same material. Academic writing, as I never grow tired of emphasizing, is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. The students are themselves the knowledgeable people they are trying talk to. They are (roughly) as knowledgeable about the subjects they are studying as each other.

In his interviews about his book, and in my discussions with him on Twitter, Warner often invokes “the rhetorical situation” (consisting of purpose, audience, and message) as a kind of deconstruction of the standard “school” essay. He’s especially interested in the infamous “five-paragraph essay”, which he thinks we need to “kill”. When I do finally read it, this is one of the arguments I will be looking very closely at. In my view, the academic situation is rich in opportunities to develop the students’ rhetorical sensibilities. That is, addressing oneself to an audience of knowledgeable peers leaves ample room for experimentation (What do they know? What questions might they have? Do they necessarily agree with me?); the classroom can occasion many purposes and a variety of messages. But it does, in most cases, suggest a particular form — namely, essays composed of paragraphs. Not necessarily exactly five every time, but certainly a definite number of claims to be supported, elaborated or defended. I know there are other situations, but this distinctly academic one seems to me, at least at university, to be worth defending. For people engaged in learning, it is altogether real.

Media Literacy (part 2)

One of the key moves in Norm Friesen’s The Textbook and the Lecture (which I’ve written about before) is to approach his eponymous forms as media. He follows the OED in defining media as “an intermediate agency, an instrument or channel; a means, especially a means or channel of communication or expression” (p. 13). Of relevance to the issues of my last post, he points out that “a textbook, a Twitter tweet, a click of a mouse or a tap on a screen, even a whisper at the back of the classroom can all be seen as instances of ‘mediation’.” That is, we can use the concept of “media” to compare essays and tweets as forms of communication. Indeed, Friesen traces the lecture and the textbook back to the technology of writing, construing them an essential part of the historical development of literacy, the “long moment” of humanity’s ability to read and write. I guess what I was arguing last week is that the tweet, and often even the blog post, doesn’t actually participate in this moment.

A great deal depends on what we mean by “writing”. Indeed, much confusion, and some conflict between writing instructors, stems from the referential opacity of this word. I want to suggest that it can be used to name either a skill or a medium. When someone says, “Writing is hard,” they are using it in the first sense; but when they say, “Put it in writing,” they are using it in the second sense. Brian Street’s (1984) distinction between the “autonomous” and the “ideological” model of literacy also seems to play on these two senses of the word, where the first model sees writing as a skill that lets individuals and communities accomplish particular goals, while the second model sees it as a set of values and conventions that do more to define the goals of the community than to reach them. James Gee (1990) goes so far as to call the first model a “myth” and hopes to draw attention to our “moral complicity” in promulgating it.

I suppose he’s talking about me. I generally approach writing as a skill, and I try to teach people how to become better at it, to better express their thoughts. But there are others, people like John Warner, who see it more like a medium, i.e., something that both carries and shapes their thinking. That may help explain why I’m a supporter of the five-paragraph essay, and Warner is strongly opposed to it. Since I see writing as a skill, I see the paragraph and the essay as “tools” — as means to various ends. But since Warner sees writing as a medium, he sees these forms as ends in themselves, or at least he worries that that is the impression we’re leaving on our students through our teaching. I assume that the writer is getting more powerful through mastery; Warner is worried that the very same forms are disempowering the students, perhaps even oppressing them. Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right, as the saying goes. Every building, by a similar token, can serve as a prison.

Recall Friesen’s definition. The difference between a tool and medium, let’s say, is that a tool doesn’t have any agency, while a medium does. A tool is really only a lever to amplify a person’s agency, while a medium gets between the actor and the act with its own, if you will, agenda. Warner approaches the five-paragraph essay from the point of view of this “intermediate agency”, the power it exerts on the writer, especially the relatively powerless student writer. He is concerned about its formative influence. I approach the very same form as a way of extending the agency of the writer by more efficiently transferring the force of their argument.

In the end, these distinctions are not hard and fast, but differences of emphasis, matters of degree. Media are themselves tools, if you hold them right. It depends on whether you see them as things you use or things that use you, as equipment you deploy or situations* you are immersed in.** But I do think this difference between construing writing as a skill and as a medium and, more specifically, construing particular forms of writing as tools or channels, can go a long way towards explaining the confusion among both students and teachers about why, to use Warner’s title, “they can’t write”. Hopefully we can also use it to resolve some of these differences and then begin to pull in the same direction towards reforming the institution that conserves our cognitive faculties, i.e., the university. The common cause, after all, is to figure out how to help them to write better.


*Warner emphasizes that writing should be approached through “the rhetorical situation”. My response to this has been to say that, at university, this situation is relatively well-defined, allowing for particular efficiencies students should be taught to exploit. I should think more about this for a later post.

**In trying to come up with a good tweet-sized summary of this post I hit on the contrast between “equipment” and “predicament”. Also worth exploring. (With a nod to Heidegger, we can think of Zeugzusammenhang and Zwangslage — more basically, Zeug and Lage.)

Media Literacy (part 1)

Late last year, I discovered the work of John Warner, who has a written a book that I’ll need to address soon. The discovery has a led to a series of long and illuminating Twitter exchanges that have clarified my views on a number of important topics. One of them is the blurring of the boundary between literacy and orality in the age of new media. When I retired my previous blog, I was thinking seriously about what sort of activity blogging actually is. I wrote two posts vaguely inspired by Barthes and Foucault about the nature of blogging and then — defeated, I suppose, by the irony of the project — gave up. In my discussions with John, however, I found myself returning to it, insisting that tweeting is not really writing, at least not in the sense of something I’m trying to help students and scholars do well. Indeed, I don’t even think blogging should be counted as proper “writing”. I don’t blame John for balking at the idea, but I want to explore it nonetheless.

As I understand his argument, it’s not quite as simple as pointing out that in order to tweet and blog (and produce similar social media “content”) you have to, literally, write. I don’t deny this of course. But you also have to write in order to make a shopping list or leave a note on the fridge to your wife telling her you’ve eaten the plums. Doing so doesn’t make you a “writer” (though if you are already a writer these notes may famously have some literary merit). John took it a step further by suggesting that tweeting is writing as a matter of neuroscientific fact. The same parts of the brain, he said, are involved in writing a tweet as are involved in penning an essay. I’m not impressed enough with neuroscience to let this change my view. It may be true that at the present stage of science we can’t distinguish the two, but I will insist that my intellectual and emotional posture (and even my bodily comportment) is entirely different when I write tweets and when I write essays. This first hand knowledge trumps any insight a brain scan might provide into my process.

Now, you may say I have shifted the goal posts. I started with “literacy vs. orality” and I’m now talking about literature vs. everyday communication. But let’s keep in mind that I coach writers at a university, which is to say, I work at a relatively high level. I think it’s fair to say that “the ability to read and write”, at least here, always aspires to “literature”, either in the proper sense (poems and novels) or the scholarly sense (“the academic literature”). It marks a higher competence, a greater difficulty than reading signage or even newspapers. You get a university degree in order to learn not merely how get around in a world of written signs, but to make use of what Kenneth Burke called the “equipment for living” that the world of “letters” makes available to us. When Barthes asks “What is writing?” and Foucault asks “What is an author?” they are thinking of something quite specific, even rather specialized, and not something that everyone is capable of or interested in. When I say a tweet is not “written”, I’m trying to be specific in a similar way. When I say that even this blog post is not a case of “writing”, I am, of course, first and foremost trying to be provocative. But that’s not all.

The distinction I want to draw turns on the distance that is established between the “writer” and the “reader”. The scare quotes are there to indicate that this actually works both ways: a writer may very well dictate a book and be no less a writer for that, a speaker may establish a literary distance to the audience. Think of the root meaning of “lecturer”, i.e., a “reader”, as they are still often called in the UK. That is, this has nothing to do with what our hands are doing; it is about the nature of the relationship between the sender and receiver of the utterance. Though I’m sure it is a gross simplification, I think this is why the concept of différance (meaning both to differ and to defer) is at the heart of Derrida’s “science of writing”, his grammatology. Literature, i.e., writing “proper”, is about the spacing and timing of the utterance, about the amount room that is allowed for interpretation, for reading between the lines, if you will.

In conversation an utterance succeeds or fails immediately. A joke, for example, will work or not at the time it is told. It is impossible to fix it by way of interpretation (unless that was part of the original joke), except by making a new joke, which now includes the recovery of the failed communication. Literature does not expect such immediacy; it is asking to be interpreted before it is understood.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this now? When we write a tweet we are looking for an immediate reaction from our followers and expect it to otherwise be forgotten. Indeed, much of the tweet-mining scandal-mongering that we’ve been seeing lately seems to completely misunderstand the ephemeral (and highly contextual) intentions behind most tweets. A few years ago, I will add, my blogging degenerated into almost constant live-action engagements with controversial issues. I wasn’t writing, I was thinking out loud. Since I hadn’t made this clear to myself (I saw myself as a writer, not a “mere” blogger), it was an unsustainable position to be in, and these days I don’t think of my blogging here as actually blogging. I don’t have a very big audience (as far as I tell from my traffic) and I don’t seem to engage them on issues of the day. I get very few comments and I don’t interfere with anyone’s mood. I’m basically just drafting things that (I hope) will one day be published in a more permanent, more accessible form. I’m not really blogging, then. I’m writing.

(Update: actually, this post, which was published on the same day it was written and then immediately tweeted, is way too “immediate” to be considered writing on my definition. It’s sort of a hybrid I guess.)