Re: easy authenticity

Jeffrey R Galin (galin+@PITT.EDU)
Mon, 19 Aug 1996 10:52:20 -0400

Among the things that Eric wrote the following is most revealing:
> Sure it'll fail. It fails for me, too! Students choose topics poorly,
> some don't seek help they need from me or their classmates, some are
> nearly paralyzed by freedom and don't do *anything*. There are lots of
> pitfalls.
> Good pitfalls. Good failures. Almost everything that happens in this
> situation is an opportunity to learn and grow, if not to improve skills and
> performance. I'd rather people do both (learn and improve performance) but if
> I a choice has to be made, I'll take the former any day.
> Conventional classroom practice, which offers each student a reasonable
> chance of reasonable success by simply following orders, creates a facade of
> success.

Yes Eric, all of these are pitfalls of what you proclaim as an "easy" way
to teach. I'll add: convincing a department chair that compositions
courses really aren't service courses and that they really don't serve
the other disciplines (which we would like to believe but know it is only
partially true); making this same argument to deans and provosts
who disperse the money for educational reforms like computers etc.;
explaining to other faculty that what students really need is freedom so
that they will learn to be better democratic citizens; convincing
students that grades really don't matter that much . . .

Your "easy" Eric is not easy. This is exactly my point. To teach with
little structure is much more complicated than to teach a highly
structured class. What I read in your personal attack of me is a general
rail against structure, against institution, against control. It is
important for us always to question the structures and to find ways to
help our students not be trapped by them. But utopian rhetoric won't
make the complications go away. This is all I am saying. You too often
simplify institutional complexities in the name of revolution, a discourse
of which I am highly skeptical.

Most of the time, revolutionary discourse is primarily
oppositional discourse that works to unsettle the established order only
to replace it with another form of equally oppressive order. In Orwellian
rhetoric: freedom is incarceration, chaos is order, easy is hard. If I
have learning anything from my historical work, it is that we must be as
skeptical of oppositional rhetoric as the very system it seeks to
overthrow. The majority of the time, opposition defines itself in
relation to pre-existing structures, which in turn traps the opposition
within an epistemology that it seeks to overthrow. for an intriguing
discussion of how such debates and power structures work, take a look at
"Power and Empowerment" by Helene Moglen in _Woman's Studies Int Forum
(vol6. no 2 pp131-134, 1983).

I am not warning poor souls who attempt to follow your lead (as you put
it). In the wake of your rush to chastise the system, however, I am
calling for a more critical view of utopian and oppositional rhetoric. It
is worth acknowledging how complicated it really is to be innovative
within a system.

BTW I am willing to teach in whatever mode I think will best serve the
students. This means that I'd throw out everything I've learned or done
previously if I found a system that was best. But this also was an
earlier point I made. There is no best system. There are teachers who
can make sentence structure a successful focus of the class. This
doesn't mean I won't keep trying to find the best system that works for
me within the specific classroom contexts I find myself.

Finally, you wrote:
Although it may take more prep time to develop syllabi and
> assignments and criteria and to grade papers, etc. and therefore may seem
> more difficult than the approach I describe, I think in some ways it's much
> easier. Everything is neater, nailed down. You can create the appearance of
> success by forcing all the students to jump the hoops you set up. Some will
> be unable or will decline, but overall, the facade is assured.
> OK. I've let slip. It is hard. It's hard to established expectations when
> conventions (which produce automatical expectations) have been left behind.
> It's hard to deal with the uncertainty and sometimes panic that students
> experience when the person they thought would tell them what to do
> won't. It's *awfully* hard to assess what progress has been made because the
> whole approach is aimed at addressing intangible and long-term qualities. And
> it's hard to resist the feelings from within that come from long
> indoctrination as a teacher that relinquishing control is bad, is an
> abdication of responsibility.
. . . . . . .

> So I make it sound easy (it is) when really it's terribly hard (it is).
> To Jeff I would only say that if I made it sound *only* easy, I
> apologize. And I would add that difficulty is, of course, no reason not
> to do it.

Finally, yes, we agree. There is "no reason not to do it." But lets not
fool ourselves or others about how much work is involved. I just got off
of the VU distance learning conference after about four weeks of listening
to distance ed professors from all over the world confirm this very point.
They are so overwhelmed with the extra work of on-line contact that they
can't find ways to do it all without tripling their time commitment. That
kind of investment better not just be a shot in the dark. We'd all burn
out in three years otherwise.

Here's to a rousing conversation.