Conditions of work

I’ve been struggling with this teaching/learning journal because it feels like judgment and so it feels like I need to write perfect little essays, which for me is a disabling frame of mind. But that’s not what it’s for – it’s a rough field journal. So I’m going to try to get over that feeling. In the meantime, here’s an overelaborated post by the ideal standards of the genre:

I’ve been reading a report on gen ed reform (pdf) originally produced at Portland State University. It’s got the merits of being research-based and giving a glimpse behind the curtain of the reform process. One of the really important drifts of it (this is in 1994) is the contrast of an exposure-to-content gen ed model and an orientation-to-learning gen ed model, with its corollary contrast of consuming knowledge and producing knowledge. Very roughly speaking, in the first model content is the input, in the second it’s the output of a class. (Of course it’s almost never that simple in practice.) Another really important drift of the report is that students ‘get’ a gen ed that involves them in improving their learning and thinking skills, while bitterly resenting a gen ed that feels like a bunch of arbitrary content hoops they have to jump through.

Today I started my two gen ed World History classes on the orientation-to-learning path. Our topic this semester is ‘conditions of work’, and we began today with Nzinga Mbemba’s famous letter to the King of Portugal, from the early 16th century. We were in a circle, as usual, about 25 students per class. Warmed up by taking roll for the Registrar, played with names a little bit to relax the mood, then asked them to open the book. On the first page of the reading several things were going on, so we did some meatball epistemology: what are they? An editorial introduction consisting of skinny context; a section of questions for reading; a source citation for the document; and the start of the letter itself. How might it matter to notice these distinctions – doesn’t ‘the book’ just say things?

We (that is, the five or six easy talkers in both sections and I) got pretty quickly to the perspective-shift between primary and secondary sources, which allowed us to talk about perspective, bias, and the ‘God’s eye view’. Since we’re all limited in our scope, where’s the truth? Some of it is in each perspective, they said, so we agreed that improved truthiness comes from bringing diverse perspectives together. So primary sources have privileged direct access to bits of the truth, whereas ideally secondary sources are working synthetically with bigger chunks of it.

So if that’s true, why didn’t Reilly, the expert editor of the volume, just tell us everything he knows? Why did he stop at two skinny paragraphs? Why are we reading this rich but undeniably partial source? Well, from the pedagogical quotes in the syllabus we’d talked last (the first) week about Confucius’ suggestion that good teachers give students one corner of a subject and expect them to find the other three themselves. Not just the content but its mode of acquisition is important – being told makes dependent learners, figuring things out makes independent learners. But also: even though his expertise gives Reilly’s understanding a real multiperspectival authority, he’s still neither omniscient nor personally experienced in his field (he has never been an early 16th-century King in Congo). When we join him in the direct investigation of the past we add further breadth and depth of perspective, and help to correct for the limitations of his own point of view, however well informed it may be. We are all in this boat together.

But what’s the payoff? After all, no one in the class is going to get laid, get a job, get a better car, or play football better because they know something about the Congo five hundred years ago. This is knowledge we have no interest in; we don’t care about it. It doesn’t remind us of us.

Well, maybe we’re just curious. But more compellingly, what happens when we try to figure out our own lives? We get bogged down in the myopia of overinvolvement. Our feelings get all jostled. Our prejudices hem us about. Apparently, caring and being interested are not reliable guides to quality knowledge. Maybe we can practice the skills of analysis on something we don’t care about; something in which we have no interest. And then we become people who can figure out stuff for ourselves, reliably and responsibly; which, I suggested, is how college education makes you somebody suited to the kind of job where you make your own decisions rather than obeying someone else’s orders.

In each section this all took about 45 minutes and we had about 20 left to look at the document itself. That was very, very interesting but I’m running out of brain for the day so it will have to be another post.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Of cabbages and kings | Attention Surplus

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