Monday 27 May 2013

Do No Harm Part II: Avoid Irony

In Education, sometimes less is more

I used to teach a course on Public Speaking.  It took me three years to figure out how to properly organize and deliver the course.  I think I finally did it right in the third year.  The trick was to abandon my teacher ego (a subject for a future post), get out of the way, take care of administrative and secretarial necessities of the course, and allow the students to perform and to educate each other—as much as I could (which was never easy for me).  A majority of the students who took this course were from the Faculty of Education and consequently destined for careers as educators.  One message I passed on to all the students, especially those planning to become teachers:  avoid irony. 

Every Joke has a victim

This is very complicated advice because if you ask students to list the five features they appreciate in teachers, a “sense of humour” is bound to appear consistently in the list.  (Here is another issue that I suspect teacher training programs never deal with.  Are there any education courses out there on “how to be funny”?)  At the core of any “joke” there is bound to be some form of irony and a victim.  I will try to avoid giving one of my three-hour lectures on the subject of irony, but if you are curious you might look at Linda Hutcheon’s book, Irony’s Edge and/or Paul de Man’s “The Concept of Irony” in Aesthetic Ideology.

Verbal Irony means saying what you don't mean

Verbal irony is saying one thing, but you really mean something else quite different.  The lowest form of verbal irony is the most familiar:  sarcasm.  A teacher being sarcastic with students is trying to be hurtful.  Unacceptable, but that is only part of the problem.  Irony by its very nature is always ambiguous.  No matter how clear or obvious a teacher might think s/he is being when being ironic, the fact is a number of different messages are being transmitted to students at the same time, and individual students are going to have to figure out which message is the right one.  Whatever message they choose, they are going to be wrong because the “real” meaning of an ironic statement doesn’t exist.  Irony is deliberately confusing; it does not transmit clear, singular meanings. If you ask someone what an ironic statement “really” means they are bound to be wrong.  According to Linda Hutcheon, the question would be the same as me asking you what this picture “really” represents.

If irony has to cross languages or cultures there is an exponential increase in the possibility of its being grossly misinterpreted.

Faced with verbal irony, you are never supposed to ask "what do you mean?"

Verbal irony can be quite innocent and lighthearted or unintended or very aggressive.  The problem is we can never know, with certainty, which.  Let’s try a case.  You arrive at work one morning and your colleague says:  “you’re looking sexy today.”  If your colleague is old and creepy, you begin to contemplate your sexual harassment suit; if young and attractive, you flash your brightest smile and strike a pose.  However, there is something in your colleague’s tone that puts a question mark in your mind.  (With irony, tone is everything.)  Does your colleague really mean that “you are looking sexy” or is the colleague being ironic and therefore intending another meaning? So, of course, you ask with an earnest glare: “What do you mean?”

The Multiple Meanings of an ironic utterance

We’ve all been there, so we know the answer will be something like:  “oh nothing,”  “just kidding around,” “don’t be so serious,” etc, etc, dodge, evade and duck (or is it a rabbit?).  Now you are left to try and figure out what your colleague really meant and, of course, the more you think about it, the more the number of possibilities expands.  The least likely possibility now seems to be that you are looking sexy this morning; your colleague earnestly thinks so and said so.  You enumerate the possibilities.  You had to get dressed in a rush this morning, missed the bus, etc.  Your colleague is telling you that you look a mess, or at least below your usual standards.  Option two, worse still, you are the least sexy person in the office and everyone knows it.  It is a big joke to describe you as “looking sexy.”  Or maybe the message is quite the opposite; it’s that you are trying too hard or you have overdone it and gone too far.  Your apparel is, in fact, too sexy.  You’ve gone passed sexy to slut/pimp. You are inappropriately dressed for the office.  At the same time, you infer that your colleague wants to initiate a “sexy” conversation with you.  What’s that about? 

Hopefully you are beginning to appreciate the problem.

What teachers say matters

Contrary to popular stereotypes, students are affected by what teachers tell them.  Moreover, there is a pretty good chance that the most passive-aggressive student in the room is also the most thin-skinned and insecure.  Imagine you are a student and your teacher is in the habit of being ironic.  Not only has your teacher confused you with multiple messages that you are unable to decode, but some of those messages, as far as you have been able to figure them out, are personally insulting and hurtful.  Your teacher on the other hand is thinking that s/he has such a great rapport with students that they have a fine time joking with each other.

Humour is a double-edged sword

It may not sound like it from this blog, but humour is an important part of my lecture style, my teaching in general and my personality.  I absolutely believe that teaching by example is the most important kind of teaching, and where teachers most often fail.  (I am convinced that if they were giving a lecture on “The Importance of Punctuality,” a number of my colleagues would show up late—and would have trouble understanding why that was a problem!)  Nonetheless, I have certainly been guilty of irony in my classes.  I have tried to mitigate the potential damage by warning students that I tell jokes (or at least relate anecdotes and recount comic examples) for two perfectly justifiable pedagogical motives:  The first is that I am illustrating a point in a fashion that I hope will make the point memorable (and I beg the students to remember the point I was making and not just the joke).  The second motive is that looking out across the room I can see that everyone is on the verge of falling asleep.  Whatever significant knowledge I was hoping to get across at that moment was DOA, so I might as well stir the room with something random with the hope of rekindling curiosity and concentration a few moments hence.

Comedy and ironic distance

However, tell yourself any two jokes that you know well, and chances are they both involve a victim.  Stories are funny because someone is or does something foolish or something unfortunate happens to them that makes us laugh.  We need a certain distance from these characters in order for us to laugh at what befalls them. Northrop Frye calls this distance “ironic” in his categorization of the modes of literature.  We cannot be too close to the characters, too sympathetic or concerned, or the joke won’t seem funny.   Generally, we feel superior to the characters in a joke or funny story.  

Cuckoos and cuckoldry

In late medieval humour the most common theme was cuckoldry.  A cuckold (just to remind you, because it is not a word often used these days) is a husband whose wife has sex with another man.  (There is no equivalent term for a betrayed wife, but the etymology isn’t quite as sexist as it sounds.  The origin is the cuckoo bird which was known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests.  The implication is that a cuckold suffers not because his wife has sex with someone else but because he might unknowingly end up raising someone else’s offspring. People who have seen the movie but not read the novel will likely not recognize the intimations of betrayed masculinity—as well as insanity—in the title One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  In more contemporary times, until the recent ascendency of political correctness, the “victim” was usual a gendered or ethnic or regional or class stereotype. 

Teachers:  are you ready to be the butt of your own jokes?

If you are going to “be funny” with students, you have to ask yourself:  what is the relationship between the victim of your humour and your audience?  One way you as a teacher can be sure you are not going to victimize someone with your humour is to make yourself the victim.  I do on occasion make myself the butt of my own jokes, but this is not a gambit I recommend for any teacher who may be having concerns about maintaining status, respect and proper decorum with students.  If you observe stand-up comedians these days, self-mockery or at least putting themselves in the role of the “dumb” character is a common strategy.  It is also worth noting that the word “irony” derives from the dissembling character in ancient Greek comedy called the eirôn who appeared to be inferior and unintelligent but would triumph over the braggart in the end.

"No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teachers leave them kids alone"

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Do No Harm

"Do no harm"

It was always my intention and ambition as a teacher to honour the basic tenant of the Hippocratic Oath:  “Do no harm.”  It sounds simple enough, and I assume most teachers feel as I do, but for people with sadistic impulses the classroom must seem like a tempting playground.  Since the oath was intended for doctors, much of what it proposes would not apply to teachers, but even some of its tenants like honouring gods and mentors, not using a knife on patients, and not providing abortions seem odd promises even for ancient Greek doctors.  On the other hand, the proscription of having sex with patients or revealing their confidences could and should also be applied to teachers with their students.  (These proscriptions, in my mind, go hand and in hand, and will be discussed in a future post.)

"Spare the rod and spoil the child"

But I’ve never been able to get passed the basic “Do no harm.”  It is a burden and a challenge for any teacher once you start thinking about it.  Are all your students better off because of the experience of having been taught by you?  Have you ever hurt a student?  As a student in the 50s and 60s, I certainly witnessed a great deal of corporal punishment, but those were the days when a sadistic streak was considered a necessary requirement for high-school (and even elementary) teachers.  Even the enlightened educator of today is likely to have done some harm or injury to a student without ever being aware.

"You've just been wasting my precious time"

Under the rubric “do no harm,” I also find myself asking if I have ever wasted my students’ “precious time.”  (Hope you get the Dylan allusion . . . Zimmerman not Thomas.)  If your answer to this question is that if students weren’t in your class, they probably wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile anyway, then you shouldn’t be teaching.  The human instinct is to learn.  No matter what environment you put a human being into, the human reaction is to satisfy curiosity, to try and learn something.  (Have you noticed that when people talk about “drug education” or “sex education,” what they mean is teaching young people not to take drugs and not to have sex, even if this "education" means spreading misinformation?) My biggest preoccupation with educational systems is that so often they seem designed to ensure that students learn less rather than more. The frequency with which I encounter educators who have tacitly surrendered to this conclusion shocks me.  The school is a prison, outside the school is a jungle; the only debate seems to be about which one is worse.

The Best way to spend three hours and learn something

The most typical scenario within which I taught was the three-hour lecture.  It’s a tough question to ask but I did ask myself:  Is my three-hour lecture the best possible way these students could be spending their time?  They could be at home in bed catching up on three hours of much needed sleep.  Making love.  Reading a book.  Browsing the internet.  Making progress on a challenging video game.  Day dreaming about the future.  Taking care of loved ones.  Having a conversation.  Exercising.  Taking a walk.  Watching a blockbuster movie that cost 40 million dollars to produce.  Inevitably they would be learning something, even if it were only about each others’ navels, or how easy it is to waste 40 million dollars.  The 40-million-dollar blockbuster movie-- that was my competition and I always thought I had the advantage because I could use a film in my class, but no Hollywood producer had requested my skills as a lecturer.   Actually, that’s not quite true.  When I requested a 16-dollar budget so that I could show six minutes of Romeo and Juliet in a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from the DVD version of Shakespeare in Love, my request sent shock waves through the department, the faculty, the library and upper echelons of the financial administration.  The department did not have a “pedagogical budget,” but a section of the library agreed to purchase the DVD if I promised not to show it to students (no, I’m not kidding), because group showings would, according to the library, contravene copyright law.  The moral of the story is that if you want to “do no harm” to students, if you want to teach well and insure that they learn something that sticks with them in every class, there is a pretty good chance that you are going to have to break somebody’s rules to do it (the subject of another future post), not to mention forking out the cash to buy your own DVDs.

Triggering past traumas or helping the healing?

I remember once having the privilege of teaching a class that was small enough that I could invite students to introduce themselves in the first class.  One of the students explained that he had only recently discovered that he had been an orphan, had been adopted, and that he had met his biological family for the first time over the summer.  It was a striking revelation; one that stuck with me throughout the course.  The student was very upbeat, but it seemed obvious to me that he was still processing his recent discoveries.  The problem for me was to suddenly realize that every second text on the course I was giving seemed to involve an orphan.  The infant Oedipus is left on a mountain top to die, but survives, is adopted, and returns to Thebes unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother in the process.  Earnest Worthing is left in a hand bag at a train station and grows up not knowing his own identity.  And, in the short story, “Who am I this time?” by Kurt Vonnegut, Harry, the central character, is a brilliant actor but is incapable of developing a “real” personality or social life because he was a foundling.  I remember hoping that the texts would prove beneficial to him, that they would give him the opportunity to consider the significance of being an orphan from a distance and from varying perspectives, maybe allow him to laugh about his orphan-hood, or consider himself lucky that he was no Oedipus.  In fact this idea, the possibility of a distanced and even disinterested or ironic perspective and the opportunity for calm reflection on the world’s and one’s own personal problems became for me, however unfashionable, a justification for the study of literature.

Romanticizing suicide

I live in an area where the second most frequent cause of death for young people is suicide. This fact certainly got me thinking about the number of literary works I have taught which romanticize suicide. Romeo and Juliet is the most obvious and influential example. Actually, our unwitting romanticization of suicide was brought home to me when I was teaching Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's novel tells of a near-future dystopia in which young women were required to become birth mothers for powerfull, infertile couples. In the middle of a classroom discussion of the novel, one student, a bright and always charming young woman, announced very earnestly to the room that she would never accept to live in the circumstances which the Handmaid was enduring. No doubt, in her mind, the student was simply sharing her feelings, but at the same time she was implying that suicide was the right thing to do and criticizing the central character, the Handmaid, for her decision to survive--a decision which Atwood makes explicit in the novel. Since that day, I have found myself repeatedly arguing against the grain of certain literary works, or at least popular interpretations of those works, which present suicide as the logical and even heroic consequence of dramatic events. While I think I have demonstrated sound pedagogy and sound interpretations of the literary works by demonstrating how fictional suicides are to be interpreted as misguided, short sighted and cowardly, I can't help but think of all the years I taught these literary works without stopping to say the obvious.

The Tipping Point

Yes, I know perfectly well, as do you, that no-one is going to go and commit suicide because they read Romeo and Juliet, but I wouldn’t want anything I taught or said to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I didn’t want to be the butterfly that caused a hurricane (yes, there is a future post coming on pedagogy and chaos theory).  I also believe, as Malcom Gladwell underlines in The Tipping Point, that “the people who die in highly publicized suicides—whose deaths give others ‘permission’ to die–serve as the Tipping Point in suicide epidemics” (224).  By the way, if you see a sign that someone is contemplating suicide, call 911.  It sounds obvious, but people don’t do the obvious.  I understand why . . . perfectly.  The first reaction is that if it were true, someone else would call.  Then you call, and you feel foolish, because of course you really don’t know, in fact, the more you think about it you become convinced that the person really isn’t seriously contemplating suicide.  You will tell yourself that you sound foolish, hysterical.  911 will ask you questions that you can’t answer.  But 911 will take your call seriously.  The police will respond.  When it’s all over, the student will tell you that it was all a big mistake.  You will never be able to say you prevented a suicide, but your student will thank you anyway, and praise you because you were the only person to react.  So call 911.

Honouring confidences

While I calculated and hoped that the study of literature would have a salutary effect on individual students, I repeatedly found myself stymied and second guessing myself as I tried to anticipate how a particular student might be affected by what I was teaching.  As I write these words, I find myself on the verge of breaking the oath which this post is intended to promote.  I don’t want to tell tales about my students.  But in order for what I write to be useful, meaningful and credible, it must be grounded in lived experience.  I intend to be discreet, and consequently somewhat vague, even though I know perfectly well that the salacious details might make for more interesting and credible reading.  I certainly would not want this blog to “out” any of my former students or reveal personal information that could be traced back to a particular individual.

Talking about rape and guilt and trauma

The instances I am thinking about, for example, would include the student who met me in the corridor outside the classroom to apologize for missing the previous class because she was testifying in a rape case in which she was the victim.  My lecture that day was centered on the rape scene in Streetcar Named Desire.   Over the years students have told me about their breakups, their unwanted pregnancies and abortions, of being battered by spouses, the suicides of friends, their struggles with depression and schizophrenia.  I am still haunted by a young mother’s story of how she was responsible for the death of her child.  A Rwandan student’s accounts of her father and sisters being murdered, her mother hospitalized and her brother in a refugee camp simply left me numb.  Knowing that these students are in my classes didn’t change what I taught, but it made me careful, reflective, and aware of what I was saying and how it might affect or be hurtful to a particular listener—and still I can remember the times when students told me I had not been careful enough.

Sometimes "caring" is all we can offer

Of course, there is no solution to the problem I am pointing out (unless you have an answer), except that it prompts the general counsel to be careful.    I have been told that I bring the problem on myself, because students recognize that I am sympathetic and willing to listen.  It has also been suggested that I allow myself to be conned.  I always assumed that students were telling me the truth unless I had proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” to the contrary.  That presumption of innocence, that trust, always served me well in my relationships with students.  It's effect was, in my experience, almost invariably, mutual respect.  The idea that a student might be conning me to gain my sympathy never disturbed me because it was always my intention to be as understanding and generous with students as possible—no special pleas were necessary.   On the other hand, my conscious generosity was only possible because in every course I taught I would set up a substantial variety of methods of evaluation.  In my experience, if you give students ample opportunity to gain or lose marks, they will over the course of time determine their own grades.  I consistently attempted to set up my evaluation structure so that my sympathy could not overwhelm the outcome. 

Objectivity matters

Am I saying that I was consistently objective and egalitarian in my treatment and assessment of students?  No.  In fact, I would say that teachers who are convinced of their own objectivity are very likely to be the opposite.  Perfect justice and objectivity are the sorts of things we must constantly strive for, all the while recognizing that they cannot be achieved.  I know it is impossible that I was absolutely fair in equal measure with each of the students I came into contact with but I also know that I always tried to be.   If we want to “do no harm” then teachers have to be diligent and confident enough to rigorously evaluate their students but, at the same time, self-doubting enough to question themselves and their tools each time that they do.   The student who has been given an inflated impression of his or her achievements and abilities may, in the long run, be as harmed as the student made cynical because the work is too easy or too hard, or the student whose self-esteem suffers because of a low mark or a failure.  There are no magical, “silver bullet” solutions to these kinds of challenges, except to recognize that they exist and to strive against the complacency, cynicism and fatigue that facing these challenges are bound to engender.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Time to Blow the Whistle

What does "education" mean?

Teachers, past, present and future, and students, it's time to blow the whistle.  Complaints and confessions are needed.  Name any problem--crime, depression (economic and psychological), sexism, racism, drug abuse, the breakup of marriages and families, etc, etc--and someone has already proposed that "education" is the solution.  Does anybody ever stop to consider what these specialists (politicians, administrators, sociolgists, ecologists, psychologists, pedagogues and functionaries) mean by "education"?

New myths for old

The world renowned literary theorist and educator, Northrop Frye, described education as the process of getting rid of old myths, in order to replace them with new ones.  Frye was a great believer in "myth," so his declaration isn't quite as cynical as it sounds.  So let me play the cynic, although as you might guess, like most cynics, I'm really just a slightly bruised idealist.

Education versus cognitive bias, ideology and prejudice

Everywhere I look at what passes for "education," I see one group of people trying to impose their thoughts and beliefs on another group.  (Liberal-minded educators will object to the verb "impose," but whatever verb you choose--"transmit," "share," "pass"--the end result is the same.)  "Education" too often means simply replacing one set of ideas with another set that the educator likes better. Unfortunately, whenever you ask someone why one set of ideas is better than another, you very quickly find yourself running in a circle, trapped in a tautology, exhausted by a conversaton that never quite takes place. 'My ideas are better because they correspond to my values.  My values are better because they correspond to my ideas.'

Critical thinking skills and postmodernism

Lots of university programs in the Humanities and Social Sciences pretend to have solved the problem by flashing "we teach critical thinking skills" on their web sites.  The sad truth is that much of what gets taught as "critical thinking" is anything but.  Far too often, what passes for "critical thinking" in universities is slavish, dogmatic adherence to the loosely reasoned ideologies of armchair socialist and armchair feminists.  (I speak as a socialist and feminist with a longstanding commitment to his armchair.)  But think about it, really, if there was any commitment to "critical thinking" in universities, would we still be forcing students to read the bogus diatribes of junk theorists like Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, Bhabha and their ubiquitous spawns as if they all made perfect sense?

Students cannot be called upon to effectively exercise critical thinking skills until they have amassed a bank of uncritical thinking skills and knowledge.  This is a problem that universities do not want to address, and which we need to talk about.

Dogma is the enemy of learning

Since this is my first posting, I guess I should explain what I think this blog is about.  It is dedicated to speaking openly and frankly about education without having an agenda or a dogma to defend.  Education is too important to be left in the hands of specialists.  Education is the passing on of knowledge, skills and attributes from one person to another.  It is carried on everyday by millions of people, many of whom have never thought of themselves as teachers or as students.  Its practices are as diverse, unique and personal as are the relationships of all those people involved in the process.  Our collective knowledge of the field is boundless.  Everyone has something important to contribute, if we have the courage to write the truth, and the respect and sagacity to read with an open mind.

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