Re: school reform without revolution? (longish)

Jeffrey R Galin (galin+@PITT.EDU)
Thu, 5 Sep 1996 15:10:08 -0400

On Wed, 4 Sep 1996, Eric Crump wrote:

> 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.

Eric, no disagreement here from me. Skepticism can always be mobilized
into a binary position and a defense of the status quo. But that is the
easy critique of a cautious position, just like calling the radical
position utopian and thereby reducting its complexities and
accomplishments. Lets put aside the poles for a minute. Neither safety,
nor total radicalization seem to be at stake here. What is at stake are
the ways in which our students negotiate standards, requirements,
disciplinary knowledge in reading and writing, and take responsibility for
their own learning. Implied in these stakes is their ability to draw from
our classes the abilities to negotiate these things after they leave us.
Now this is a mighty tall order in 12 or 15 weeks, especially since most
of them leave our classes (in large schools any) not to see another class
smaller than 50 for another year or so. Even in smaller schools, other
disciplines are not necessarily so concerned with helping students massage
the system.

With thse stakes in mind, you ask:
> 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.

I would actually put it differently, "what if WE fail?", not them. What
if our practices do not take into consideration what students face after
our classes? What if a student moves into another writing class or into a
work place without the critical abilities I mention above? Generally,
(though I hate to admit this), not a lot results. Employers and other
teachers have been lamenting the inabilities of their employees and
students for so long that they have come to expect problems. We would
only be contributing to thse expectations, at least the logic goes.
Unfortunately, we educators fail our students more often than any of us is
comfortble to admit. If nothing else, the computers and composition
community is stading at the cusp of understanding these failures and is
taking the hard road to rethinking our practices.

On the other hand, when we fail our students, we fail our
individual students and ourselves, right. If we profess a social mission
and then don't worry when our ideals don't make it possible, we end up
undercutting our own authority, our own values, and our own rationale for
teaching as we do. Furthermore, the more we contribute to the negative
image of higher education as our students move outward, the more we have
likely hendered our students more than helped them.

Unlike you Eric, I know that grades have profound affects on
students and in the world beyond our classes. I don't care to defend the
positivist grounding of our educational system, but neither do I take it
lightly. A short example might help here. My first year in college, I
took an introduction to psychology course. The profesor was an arrogant
sort who often made comments in class that didn 't jibe with my ways of
thinking. He decided early on that he did not like me. I asked too many
questions. At the end of the term, I had an 82 average, one tests point
(not semester point) from an 83. He decided to make 83 the cut off for
a B, so I got a C for the term. I was furious for all sorts of reason,
not the least of which I identified about 6 test problems over the course
of the term that were either poorly worded or had multiple answers. He
would not hear anything from me. I told him I was going to talk to the
dean. He said I'd get a reputation for being a grade grubber and a
trouble-maker and therefore should not challenge the grade. I still can't
believe how he intimidated me that day. I didn't contest that grade
becasue of what he said. I would have won for sure otherwise (yes, I am a
competitive person--surprised, huh?). I can't belive that I STILL hold a
grudge agaist this man, irrational as it is. My point is Eric, grades are
not to be taken lightly. When they are, even with the best of intentions,
we can hurt our students in many ways. As I have said before, our
strongest responsibility in this profession is to our students. On a side
note, here also is an example where grades were motivating for learning.
I went on to take 30 more hours in psychology, despite Dr. Gross.

All of this was to say that caution is a means of
self-questioning. One can certainly overdo it to the point of incapacity,
but as I said, none of us are talking about this level.

Finally, you said:
> 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.

Yes, Yes, Yes. Choice is essential, but of course I disagree that it
generates empowerment. choice matters because it invites students to
invest themselves (back to the real discussion). Choice can have the
effect of demonstrating our willingness as teachers not to dominate
everything that students do andproduce. This is not empowerment, but
simple psychology. people generally work best in situations where their
input is welcome, at least in the US. And, as you have suggested, the
choice to ask for assignments and grades, enables students in your classes
to avoid the helpless position of submitting oneself to the whims of the
teacher who happens not to believe in them, within a system that does.

And yes, paradoxes are fun. More learning comes from them than most else
I think.


\ Jeffrey R. Galin
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