This Week In My Classes: Information and Education

cranfordWe’re starting new books in both of my classes this week (well, weather permitting, we are, anyway!): The Road in Introduction to Literature and Cranford in 19th-Century Fiction. What makes this a particularly exciting but also daunting prospect for me is that they aren’t just the next books on our syllabus but they are also both novels that I have not taught before, in any course. So: no lecture notes, worksheets, handouts, discussion questions, slides, or other materials lurk in my archive of teaching materials. Also, I have no experience of, and therefore no expectations for, what ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’ about these books for students: what will be the sticking points? what will get them fired up? what will I discover, as we go along, that I need to know more about?

I’m not just going to show up, book in hand, of course. I’ve read them both before, and reread them both last week (and will reread them again in the assigned installments as we go along in class). For The Road, I’ve been collecting background information from books and scholarly articles as well as from online resources such as the website of the Cormac McCarthy Society or Oprah’s Book Club guide to The Road (which, just by the way, has some pretty good stuff, including these bits on ‘Fiction and Science’ in the novel and clips from McCarthy’s apparently very rare interview with Oprah). I’ve got some of my own materials on Gaskell, but they focus on Mary Barton and North and South, both of which I’ve taught fairly often, so though I don’t need to look up much general background, I’ve been surveying academic sources specific to Cranford (which are not nearly as abundant as for her social-problem fiction — something we’ll talk about in class, actually) and, again, peering around online for things to help get me thinking. One stimulating source is one of my long-time favorite bloggers, Amateur Reader, whose posts on Cranford at Wuthering Expectations are models of insightful brevity: here, for instance, on ‘Cranford and the Strong Female Character‘, or here on the trickier-than-she-seems narrator, Mary Smith.

This process of class preparation has had me thinking (not for the first time!) of the odd way our work as professors is often characterized. Recently, to give just one example, Melonie Fullick tweeted a link to an article proclaiming that recent developments in online education signal “the coming end of the monopoly of information held by professors in classrooms.” If it were true that professors believed they held some kind of monopoly on information, and that suddenly there was an unprecedented challenge to that monopoly because of the internet, a lot of the end-of-the-university-as-we-know-it rhetoric would ring true — but there have always been abundant sources of information outside of classrooms, and outside of universities altogether. It’s true that some of what I’ll be doing is passing along to my students information that they could get for themselves somewhere else — if they knew where to look, and, more important, if they knew what to choose from the flood of information out there. One of the things I’m doing is filtering information for them: for our purposes, here are the kinds of things we need to know, or know enough about that we can follow up in other venues. Another thing I’m doing is framing that information: what are our purposes, after all? what do we want to be able to do with these texts? And I’m synthesizing and shaping it for them, and looking for new directions it could send us in — and here’s where it gets more idiosyncratic, because the ways I will do this are not exactly the same as someone else would do it, because I am who I am — and because they are who they are, and so I’ll be responding to them as we go along. Information transfer is part of my job, but it’s silly and reductive to imagine that it’s a straightforward part of my job, or that students new to this material, and beginners in this discipline, could effectively (never mind efficiently) conduct the process of finding, sorting, and making meaning from available information without any guidance. Also, that transfer of information is only the beginning of what we will do together, because ultimately my goal is not for them to memorize facts about Elizabeth Gaskell or Cormac McCarthy but for them to become better readers and critics, which means they have to engage independently with the texts, framing their own questions and trying out their own answers. They can get a lot of information from Wikipedia (I get some of mine there, too), and if that was all our classroom time was about, then sure, that’s the beginning of the end. But that’s not education: not really. I strongly agree with Melonie’s characterization of education in her post “Can education be sold?“:

My friend Dr. Alex Sevigny has an analogy that I think works much better: education is like a fitness program. Yes, you can pay for access to a gym with top-of-the-line facilities. You can pay for a trainer to take you through the best possible individualized regimen. You can buy the shoes and expensive gym clothes. But ultimately if you don’t get yourself to the gym, multiple days a week, and push yourself to get fit–there’s no benefit in any of it.

Education works in much the same way: it is a process, one in which the student plays a necessary part, and an experience, in which the student plays a major role in the “outcome”. In fact every student actually receives a different “education”, with different outcomes, even if they’re all paying the same amount. What you pay for with tuition money is not “education”, but access to resources–libraries, expert staff, teaching and mentorship, even social contact–and access to a formal credential. Even the credential isn’t guaranteed, since students must complete academic requirements in addition to paying tuition and fees.

Another common way to dismiss what happens in ‘traditional’ classrooms is to scoff at the ‘sage on the stage’ model. I don’t agree that there’s never a good time, or a good way, to lecture. In addition to offering information, lecturing can model ways to argue, or, in my field, ways to build and support an interpretation. Even when transferring information, as I’ve said, there’s a process of filtering and framing that makes a thoughtful lecture something more than a list of facts or claims. Passivity in the face of information, though, is never the point, the process, or the purpose. It’s the interaction between a thinking person and information that really matters, and that we aim to promote, ultimately, in our students. Professors don’t have a monopoly on that process either, but it’s what we train for, it’s what we stand for, and it looks like it’s also what we’re going to have to fight for, as the pressure mounts for ways to automate, commodify, and depersonalize our classrooms. It’s frustrating to see how often the arguments for a revolution in higher education turn on reductive stereotypes of the work we actually do.

7 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Information and Education

  1. Stacey Donohue February 3, 2013 / 2:29 pm

    Rohan: I also taught The Road for the first time last quarter, with similar preparation. But what surprised me was that the students with intimate Biblical knowledge (esp. of Revelations) became”experts” in recognizing Biblical references–once I encouraged them. Such references are more subtle in some sections of the book than others. It made for lively class discussions. Enjoy!


  2. Mazel February 3, 2013 / 3:04 pm

    Wow–great job explaining what “we’re going to have to fight for.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we might fight for these things in the bureaucratic trenches. For example (and speaking of “reductive stereotypes of the work we actually do”), can we find a way to express, in the form of “Student Learning Outcomes” listed in an institutional syllabus, the complexity and fullness of what it means to “become better readers and critics”? At my college, SLOs carry a great deal of bureaucratic weight, being used, e.g., to ratify what I consider to be some highly questionable forms of online delivery. The argument is that, as long as two courses address the same SLOs, they’re equally good. But of course this is wrong. It’s basically the reductionist fallacy: just because two courses can be reduced to the same list of SLOs doesn’t guarantee that the courses are of equal quality, no more than the fact that a human being can be reduced to a list of chemical constituents guarantees that every concatenation of the same chemicals is a human being. The whole is more than the sum of the parts and all that.

    A decade or more ago, at the start of assessment movement, when the faculty in my department first required to articulate the official SLOs for our courses, we did so with the understanding that the little lists we came up with would only be used for limited purposes of programmatic and institutional assessment. We were assured that no one would ever make the mistake of reducing the fullness and complexity of a course itself to its SLOs. But those assurances have since been completely forgotten, and now we find these lists being put to all kinds of inappropriate uses, including their use as justification to “automate, commodify, and depersonalize” our courses. So as I said I’ve been thinking of ways to revise our SLOs in ways that allow them to do what I want them to do, but not what I don’t want them to do–to work for the good guys but not for the automators, commodifiers, and depersonalizers. It isn’t as easy as it seems.


  3. cbjames February 3, 2013 / 3:14 pm

    Two things: In my gut, I believe that the movement towards on-line universities is almost entirely about money. I hear lots of talk about bringing the university to the masses, etc., but it rings hollow in my view. If on-line courses were intended to be a money-loser, then I’d be able to believe it. I think we have this notion now, the to be educated is to be employable and to be employable is to have completed certified course work. I don’t think any of this is true.

    In response to Mazel above, and to your post as well, I think this new focus on SLO’s is a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Those of us in elementary and secondary education have long been the test mice for professors in education departments at universities. One thing those professors have done, over the last couple of decades, is move their research towards a model that produces quantifiable data. We’ve labored under the consequences of this for many years now down in the lower grades. That this same model should find its way to the university level comes as no surprise to me.

    As a nation, maybe as a world, we’ve decided that education is a science when its not, its an art.

    Thanks for an interesting, thoughtful post this morning. I hope you all enjoy The Road and Cranford. I think they’re both terrific.


  4. Jo VanEvery February 3, 2013 / 6:45 pm

    This post is so rich. I agree with your comments about electronic delivery and so on. However, I also noticed something else in what you wrote.

    “I have no experience of, and therefore no expectations for, what ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’ about these books for students: what will be the sticking points? what will get them fired up? what will I discover, as we go along, that I need to know more about?”

    The first time you teach a particular text you will teach it well. However, this also suggests that the experience of teaching it deepens your own knowledge both of the text and of how best to teach it to students. Like good wine, your teaching matures.

    This seems to be important in debates about the increasing use of short-term contracts in HE to deliver courses. The vast majority of those short-term teaching contracts are for 1 semester or perhaps 2. And those teachers are often not hired until very late in the game reducing the time they have to undertake other preparation. But even with appropriate lead time, the fact that they are often teaching texts for the first time, and have little opportunity to develop their teaching based on experience is important.

    We need more tenure lines (or other more secure, longer contracts) precisely because teaching benefits from this recursive process that you hint at in the opening.


  5. Rohan Maitzen February 3, 2013 / 8:21 pm

    I really appreciate these thoughtful – and thought-provoking – comments.

    Stacey, that’s an area, too, where I need all the help I can get from my students, as I do not know the Bible well myself. You make me think I should be very explicit about inviting those with more expertise to pitch in about this.

    Mazel and cbjames, we are not that far along the “SLO” path, though there was a phase when the university implemented something called a “Skills Transcript” and we had to identify which skills our courses trained students in so that they could display an itemized list of things like “critical thinking” or “writing.” I’ve written a couple of posts before about these “skills”-based approaches (here about undergraduate studies, and here about the same arguments applied to graduate programs). But I hadn’t really thought about that kind of thing in this context — because in 2010, the conversation was still mostly about education in the classroom. It’s not that I don’t believe we teach skills, but the “learning outcomes” people in the humanities have in mind so often are not the ones the quantifiers are after.

    Jo, that’s a really important point. Cumulative experience does mean that teaching something for the first time is not the same as just winging it — but there are huge benefits to building on specific experience. Another point I’d make is that I’m also not afraid to take risks in my choice of readings and assignments, and I have the luxury of time (because I’m not, for instance, shuffling between teaching gigs at different locations) to work up new material on a regular basis.


  6. Amateur Reader (Tom) February 4, 2013 / 1:03 am

    Oh, thanks! Is anyone going to go read those? Maybe I should get rid of some of the typos.

    Cranford is so much fun – what lucky students! The butter and string passage alone – “Small pieces of butter grieve others.”


  7. Andrea Kaston Tange February 7, 2013 / 2:24 pm

    I particularly like the point you make about professors serving as filters: it is deeply easy to do a Google search on any work we might choose to teach in class, but it takes a lot of experience, practice, and knowledge of many relevant issues to decide which TWO of the thousands of hits that might be returned will be most worth time in class or most valuable for framing an understanding of the text thoughtfully. This is, of course, a skillset we begin to teach when we teach students how to do research, but the proliferation of information on the internet has not necessarily made their jobs easier, in my opinion (though they often presume that the .04 seconds it takes a hit list to be returned means their jobs are much much easier than in pre-electronic days). This is really thought-provoking.

    Also, enjoy Cranford. I find it’s great fun to teach.


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