school reform without revolution? (longish)

Eric Crump (wleric@SHOWME.MISSOURI.EDU)
Wed, 4 Sep 1996 23:50:29 -0500

Jeff sez:

We can talk, we can feel good, we can do what we can do in our classes and
our committees, but because we can't control relations of power outside
those venues [hell's bells, I didn't know we could *control* them
within!] we should back off the idealistic bit, not go out on small limbs
that wobble and creak in the political breeze.

On Wed, 4 Sep 1996, Jeffrey R Galin wrote:
> But, as soon as we pretend to empower by
> decentering, or booting grades, or doing whatever else we might decide,
> we have offered false hope to our students and to ourselves. I'm saying,
> lets be realistic about what we can accomplish and not set ourselves or
> students up for failure elsewhere.

In a minute I'm going to agree loudly with you, Jeff. But first I have to
offer some resistence to this call for caution. Prudence makes me nervous.
It is ok in small doses, but it's downright dangerous if we use it to
protect ourselves and our students from disappointment and failure. Taken
too seriously, it plays into the hands of every status quo in the county.

See how that works? I'm sure you do because you're pretty astute about
this power stufff. If we quiver in the face of *assumed* consequences
(even if they are realistically quite likely), we've saved the
institutional self-protection forces the trouble of having to maintain its
comfy hierarchies of power. The job is done by the trembling worker bees.

i'm not arguing for kamikaze teaching. There's a difference, though,
between actively pursuing opportunities to stir things up and playing
safe. Safety is the biggest risk of all. It protects us from participating
in change.

In fact, I'm secretly *hoping* my students will be very disappointed with
the classes they subsequently land in. I hope they not only are discontent
but will grumble within earshot of the professor. Is this unethical of me?
Not by my ethics. Students deserve better learning environments than they
get most of the time. Professors who do not hear complaints are not likely
to change (some who *do* hear complaints do not change, I know). Docile
students appear to be happy students. Basking in all that wonderful
Knowledge. Quiet. Obedient. Or fulfilling expectations by grubbing for
grades. But students who question the standard teaching product can be
forces to be reckoned with. Forces of change.

What if they fail (by which you mean get pooor grades because they think
they can get away with curricular disobedience)? Obviously I don't think
grades mean all that much, or at least not nearly as much as we've
believed they do. For one thing, I kinda doubt students are going to go
from their often thorough belief in the system to rioting in the classroom
after one semester hanging out with one nutty teacher. I doubt most
teachers have that kind of power over students.

But inasmuch as we may *influence* them and inasmuch as critique of the
grading system might cause some students to rethink and react, perhaps
spending less of their time and effort clutching at those blasted grades,
I'm for it. GPA's may fall, but educational experience may be all the
richer for it.

> Calling attention to these relations
> and how to massage them seems like an awfully good place to start. If
> that means experimenting with no grades had having students study the
> implications of that gesture, then the act has meaning. If we are the
> ones deciding that grades are limiting, and we take it upon ourseles to
> dispense with them wihtout inviting students to explore the implications,
> then we are playing the same old game again. We know what is best for our
> students and we feel good about it. It is a matter of control.

Here's where I will cheer you on, Jeff!

That's what I've tried to do, for what it's worth. I agree that it would
be a disservice to simply use teacherly authority to yank grades out from
under students without consulting and conspiring with them. Maybe not *as*
bad as using teacherly authority to confer grades upon the without
consulting and conspiring with them (the default mode of our entire
educational system), but certainly not much better.

Like quite a few teachers these days, I write along side students. (I've
offered to write *with* them, to join their writing projecs, but so far
nobody's taken me up on the offer and I'm sure not going to barge in
uninvited.) So last fall, the first semester I tried the shift to
self-evaluation, self-grading, I wrote about grades. Constructed a suite
of MOO rooms around the them. Held a sort of Tuesday Cafe-type session in
the rooms as my project presentation. Got into a brisk debate with a few
students who held strong views that could be plotted along a range of
points in the pro/con continuum. that way, the issues were not only
presented to students, but they were invited to participate in the
conversation about them.

And as I've noted before, I don't make self-grading some sort of absolute
mandate, either. It's simply made the default process. I offer to create
assignments, criteria, and grades for any student who requests same.

You're right. It *is* a matter of control. But more important: It's a
matter of choice. Students should be empowered (no apologies for the word)
to make informed choices in the classroom. If the system insists that I,
as teacher, am the only one with the power to determine the range of
choices and if I'm expected to lead them to 'correct' choices, then I
don't see much I can do but *impose* choice.

Contradiction? Naw. Paradox? yeah, but paradoxes are kinda fun.

If I respect the system, with its ingenius builtin protections against
change and choice, then those things will never stand a chance, and
learning will never stand a chance.

--Eric Crump