Finding the Classroom: Conceptualizing Reality in Higher Education
“Publics are asked to accommodate to an objectified ‘reality,’ marked off and demarcated in cost-benefit terms. It is reified, and ‘given’; we are all being required to sublimate our private visions and confine ourselves to what Wallace Stevens called ‘the plain sense of things’ (Greene 1964b, p. 502).
The sciences, perhaps now more than ever, are heralded as the keystone of knowledge. The language of science has saturated most academic disciplines. The phenomenon should not surprise us given our culture’s desire to quantify (and monetize) reality, as Greene suggests in the above [thirty-two-year-old] quotation. If one can count it, buy it, or sell it, it is “real.” As a result, the classroom has increasingly become a place where “accounting for” takes precedence. Some of this comes from the state and federal levels and is motivated by economic pressures. But, whatever the reasons, the change suggests that the academy is moving toward seeing the classroom, and the mentorships present therein, as a material enterprise: the basic presupposition of which is “that which can be observed is reality.” My fear is that, as we continue to conceptualize the classroom through this realm of scientific materialism, the intangibles of the classroom will vanish.
Within the materialist framework, the classroom focuses on only the quantifiable. Numbers and measurements take precedence over subjectivities. Pupils become statistics, research subjects, and even consumers. The instructor becomes a mechanism of institutional practice, placed in the classroom in order to teach predetermined material and, even worse, a vendor. Positivism cannot measure consciousness (an often ignored but devastating reality to materialist conceptualizations in general), so it has no interest in it. Individualized responses, personal narratives, the very language of subjectivity, is necessarily irrelevant. I agree with Lees that “[positivistic] paradigms…provide only a partial impression of human realities and … [limit] one’s ability to address diverse human needs” (My emphasis 55). Teaching within this model, therefore, cannot help students, as Greene writes, “understand the importance of perspective, of vantage point, when it comes to interpreting their lived worlds” (123).
Discussions have offered me one of the most effective ways to work against the materialist paradigm. I believe, like Greene, the classroom is a dynamic forum for understanding experience. During their college years, students ask the big questions (Where do I fit? Who am I? What do I want to do? What do I believe?). Traditionally, these questions have been associated with the “examined life,” the life of the mind, which has long been a goal of higher education. When we ignore these questions, we ignore the foundation of their development as both individual thinkers and citizens of a global community. Even within mathematics and the sciences, it seems to me that these philosophical questions are key. Perhaps it is as simple as asking the students, “What can you do with this knowledge?” or, better yet, “How does this knowledge help you understand the world?”
Sometimes I facilitate discussions during which there’s no destination, only exploration. In a literature class, this approach can lead to ambiguity. For instance, when discussing “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost, I have asked, “What does the narrator’s sigh indicate?” When teaching semiotic readings of culture, I have also asked, “What values do you see at work in pop culture’s celebration of the antihero?” These questions do not have “correct” answers. They cannot be verified or measured. There are only “better” answers, answers that the students can support (and, of course, answers that are more sophisticated than others). The risk is that conversation to explore these questions might be discursive, elliptical, or tangential. But, placing students in the realm of chaos within a classroom setting reflects the very process by which they begin to learn their own ideas. They start from amorphous places, “hunch” or “intuition,” and must work clearly to articulate their responses. While they are working toward articulating their ideas about literature and their experiences of the world, they are exchanging ideas with peers; they are essentially “writing” essays.
While the above example might work only in humanities English classes, there might be other ways of combating a purely positivistic approach to classroom reality—even within a science classroom(!).
- Creating a “meta-class” environment: I have accomplished this in several ways. I have discussed syllabus construction and policy at the beginning of the semester, even, at times, allowing students to help construct what they see as “fair” policies in the classroom. I have asked students to enforce their own penalties for late assignments. I have also asked students to help construct exams. More often than not, I am impressed with their test questions. I also think having discussions about rubrics (why is an “A” an “A?”) can work toward the same goal.
- Giving students a voice through journaling: A reflection journal goes a long way in helping students focus on the inward realities of learning. It also helps them see learning as more than a process of “memorization.”
- Using service-learning: This semester I have been a part of an interdisciplinary cohort model of learning. Working with three other disciplines, we have chosen a topical intersection. Each of our classes will have projects that challenge students to think in creative ways about drug and alcohol abuse in Fannin County. Over the course of the year, they will research the topic and volunteer in ways that attempt to address the issue. Having a social correlative of the classroom helps them see the importance of education within the community.
I do not think this is an either/or issue. I think both perspectives can help to conceptualize the classroom. My point is only that one approach tells only half (or a little bit) of the story. In a time when the emphases seem to increasingly move toward the mechanization of the classroom, it is important to remember the human elements, the relational aspects of teaching. It is also important to remember teaching’s uncertainties; it can be messy and confusing—just like the world. The classroom is not only desks, tables, lecterns, chairs, human bodies, and the numerical results at the end of the semester. It is a community of people, a place where subjectivities gather to discover meaning, to share varied experiences of the world while learning how to articulate one’s ideas about the world and oneself, inwardly and within social contexts. Carlo Rovelli, an Italian physics teacher, recently said, “Teaching in my opinion is not an intellectual thing, [sic] it’s an emotional thing. If it was an intellectual thing, you could replace teachers with books” (qtd. in Fox-Leonard). While I disagree that teaching is only an “emotional thing,” I do think we ignore that dimension, the inward dimension, at our peril.
Fox-Leonard, Boudicca. “A Lesson from the World’s Most Inspirational Physics Teacher.” The Telegraph, 15 Oct. 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2016/10/15/a-lesson-from-the-worlds-most-inspirational-physics-teacher/. Accessed 23 Oct., 2016.
Greene, Maxine. “The Art of Being Present: Educating for Aesthetic Encounters.” The Journal of Education, vol. 166, no. 2, 1984, pp. 123-135, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42742048. Accessed 20 Oct., 2016.
Lees, Patrick. “Beyond Positivism: Embracing Complexity for Social and Educational Change.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique, vol. 6, no. 3, 2007, pp. 48–60.