So, today, June 7, 2013, I’m sitting in my big rose chair and continuing to re-read Parker Palmer’s To Know As We are Known/a spirituality of education. I first read this book in 1989 and have read it a few times since—often at one of those junctures in my life when I’m wondering if it is time to hang up my spurs. As the one or two readers of my blog know by now, I’ve begun the seventh decade of my life and continue to experience a sense of living on the sidelines. With some consistency, I think, well, really, maybe I should just pack it in. So, I go back to the Palmer well to be reminded, again, of what really matters.
I’m reading Palmer’s conversation about teaching to truth—truth in the sense of “troth”—entering into a relationship of trust and faith in which mutual learning takes place. My soul deeply resonates with this; my whole being over the last decade or more has been shaped in the direction of community, mutuality, journey, relational connectivity as the contexts for learning. I’m pretty sure that Palmer and this book are what began the awakening in my life to something more than and greater than teaching to knowledge as fact. I’m moved by this writing and want to with even greater intentionality move in this direction.
At a break in reading, I check my email. There I find a message from the department chair. There is a Humanities Department meeting coming up. The agenda for this meeting is set by a call from the dean for the department to work on a new DOE requirement: “Time on task.” The task the department (and, consequently, each of us who teach) is to “think about their syllabi…to calculate the average time, the average student would need to complete assignments in a given week” (emphases are mine).
I’m not sure how to express the dismay this calls forth. I said to myself, “Self, really, is this what it all comes to? Is this really want it comes to—teaching as audit?” Maybe I would respond differently if I were reading something other than Palmer’s little book.
What in the hell is an average student? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Average implies that some will take X amount of time; others will take much less than X amount of time; while others will take much more than X amount of time. Maybe if I could find an average student (does that mean we teach to C?), I could give him/her the work, time him/her, and set my standard. Really?
Does this not raise questions about integrity? Is this necessary because teachers lack integrity? Because students lack integrity? Because our assignments lack purpose? Because we’ve been co-opted to a way of thinking and talking about education that sounds more like accounting and hoop-jumping than learning? Because we are really unwilling to make the deep change that Palmer calls for? Because we don’t know how to talk about learning, we talk about doing averages. Does this not raise questions about what we’re really about? (Echoes of Ken Robinson’s mantra about the assembly line nature of education are bouncing about in my mind.) Are we saying to a student that if he/she spends this amount of time on an assignment she/he will get an average grade?
Read these words from Palmer:
To know something or someone in truth is to enter troth with the known, to rejoin with new knowing what our minds have put asunder. To know in truth is to become betrothed, to engage the known with one’s whole self, an engagement one enters with attentiveness, care, and good will. To know in truth is to allow one’s self to be known as well, to be vulnerable to the challenges and changes any true relationship brings. To know in truth is to enter into the life of that which we know and to allow it to enter into ours. Truthful knowing weds the knower and the known; even in separation, the two become part of each other’s life and fate. (Palmer, p. 31)