Friday, November 22, 2013

Second Cup—Dark Matter: Dark Teaching—and The Dance....

Those of you who know me--and the one or two of you who read my blog--know that most of the time I find myself perplexed. My life is that way.

Recently on NPR: It was Halloween, so NPR was being cutely relevant. Dark matter; dark energy: clearly a Halloween story, right? I heard talk of dark matter and energy. The speaker said that we can measure these so we know they exist but we have no idea what they are. He also said, we know the universe is expanding; we can measure it. But we have no idea why or where or how.

I think the entity called “The Faculty” is like that. We can measure it, weigh it, hear it. We know such an entity exists but are unclear about why or how—and to think about where it is going might be an argument for astrology. I think now that I’m being cutely esoteric. One thing that seems to be true of The Faculty is that is innately conservative, even though it would describe self as liberal; this is measurable. An initial instinctual response to nearly anything is to step back, question, assess, and doubt the efficacy of any new thing. Especially if that new thing requires change. Especially if that new thing is set before it by another entity—The Administration.

When this happens, a fairly predictable and measurable mechanism kicks in: The Resistance. The Faculty is certain that (a) it cannot be a good idea because (b) it did not come from The Faculty and (c) it did come from The Administration and (d) has not been fully vetted by The Faculty and, therefore, (e) needs more Time.

Another factor about The Faculty is that it will deal with this new thing, often, in ways that it would never allow The Student to behave. For example, rather than speak its opinion carefully and clearly, it passes around essays written by other people (often faculty from another academic institution) with a note to read this because it is pertinent. Rather than speak its opinion forthrightly, it speaks in the back alley, to the ally, in the parking lot, and, strangely enough, over the Internet. Rather than speak its opinion passionately and openly, it speaks it fearfully, sensing conspiracy (by The Administration), in a place called The Department Meeting. It is often silent in the public space it inhabits from time to time—The Faculty Meeting (oddly enough a meeting designed for public discourse but often relegated to a business agenda consisting of The Committee presenting its Report). In The Faculty Meeting, it is given to whispering what it thinks is a clever bon mot to its ally. When The Faculty does speak, it often utilizes faulty logic, rhetorical tools it does not allow its students, and poor grammar. If it writes on the board or on PowerPoint, it often can’t spell.

On the other hand, The Faculty is also the opposite of all of this. The Faculty is capable of amazing thoughtfulness and creativity. Sometimes blow your socks off creativity. This is especially true if it is galvanized by a driving vision, often a moral vision, by significant relationships, about what really matters.

Currently, such a discussion is underway at The College where I sometimes teach. The Administration invites The Faculty to provide a means for a disenfranchised student (and I do think this is an appropriate way to describe The Student) to attend The College. The invitation, which the faculty thinks has not been fully vetted, is to make use of the Internet as a means of providing online education for The Student. The primary response, as I understand it, is negative because of something called “Presence.” The assumption on the part of The Faculty is that one cannot be present to The Student on line and that something distinctly and qualitatively special about education at The College is lost.

While I agree that something often amazingly distinctive takes place in The Classroom (and the halls, cafeteria, Grind, perhaps even the restrooms) of The College that can be understood in terms of relationships and Presence, I do not agree that Presence cannot be found on the Internet (at least my own experience suggests otherwise).

Further, I don’t know that anyone has yet proven it one way or the other. There is a range of assumptions operating here and these assumptions need to be ferreted out and tested. I know the risks of the Internet. I’ve listened to Sherry Turkel’s Ted Talk, "Alone Together." I get that. It is an important cautionary tale. It is likely, however, that such conversations took place in the chapter houses of Cluny and Wells after the word about movable type reached them. I also know the power of unreflected assumptions—at least this is what I teach my students: they are very powerful and empowering and disempowering.

It does not follow, however, from all of this that the imaginative and creative and thoughtful Faculty of The College cannot find a way to address this. I think it should. I think it should be an “industry leader.” I think it can.

There was a time when the only way to think about higher education was geo-centric. If you want a certain kind of education (and a certain pedigree), you went to a certain somewhere—to a Location. In that Location, you “got” an education. When I was a student, “presence” was not a classroom question; knowledge acquisition was and the source of that was The Professor at the front of the room. Now it is a question, and I wonder, even, what we mean by Presence?

I think we are in a paradigm shift and, like all paradigm shifts, it is demanding and disconcerting—even painful. It seems to question the role of The Faculty. But The Faculty is always learning to think about what it does in very different ways. I know this has been my journey since returning to The College. This is—and is NOT—the place I left nearly two decades ago. Nowhere is that clearer to me than each time I walk into The Classroom: I have to be a different kind of teacher than I was when I left here. I think I am more present today in the classroom than I ever was during the 23 years that I taught here. I have to discover ways to be more “me” than I was before. I had to figure it out, and I am figuring it out. I talk with some of The Faculty; I read; I watch and listen. I talk to The Student. I set aside my assumptions—or, at least, suspend them in order to spend time in critical reflection on those assumptions. The fundamental assumption that I am still working on is about who am I in this classroom.

But I cannot conclude that it is simply and unequivocally true that Presence is only possible face-to-face. What do we mean by that word, anyway? I think it follows that I will have to ask about that assumption again—who am I in this virtual classroom? How am I present in this virtual classroom?

Why should I?

I think there is a moral imperative involved—at least, for me. I would frame the question this way: Why should I keep the distinctly mission-driven (faith, life, learning) vision and practice of higher education through The College unavailable to The Student who is otherwise unable to access it? Why should only The Student who can drive or walk or travel on Tri-Met be considered and The Student who cannot drive or walk (or travel the distance) be excluded? As I have recently asked my student, I think we need to ask ourselves about the common good. It seems to me—perhaps I’m guilty of hyperbole or even argumentum absurdum—but if I decide to not walk down this street, I may be making a decision that takes away an opportunity, does harm to the common good, and maybe even reduces my qualitative effectiveness—even my presence—in the classroom.

I think there is an educational imperative involved—for me. I would frame it this way: Why should I resist (refuse?) teaching (fill in the blank) in a new modality any more than I would refuse exploring how to adjust a class to allow for other new technology or new information? We make these decisions all the time, don’t we? Some of us say, no phones. Some of us say, use your phones. Some of us use smart boards and some of us use markers on smart boards. Some of us engage with our students via Facebook and some of us encourage students not to use it. We are always adjusting our syllabi, aren’t we? There is always a discussion about the canon, isn’t there? There’s always a conversation about methods, right?

I think, at least for me, there is also a personal imperative—one, frankly, this is more on my mind in my seventies than it was in earlier years. I would frame it this way: What am I afraid of? Am I afraid of being pushed aside, that is, replaced by new technology and new modalities? Am I afraid that I will not be able to figure it out or make it work? Am I afraid that I just don’t “get it”? Am I afraid that I will have to change in some more substantive ways than simply adapting to new functionalities?

Now, it may be true that The Administration has not properly included The Faculty. I honestly don’t know about that; I’m an outlier regarding most of these discussions. (Although I did just recently see a document that suggests this has been on The Faculty Agenda for a long time—an approved policy and philosophy statement about how online education would occur at The College.) But is that sufficient reason to walk away from the exploration of what might well be a “brave new world” or what might be the opportunity “to go where no man has gone before”? I think not.

Now, what does this have to do with dark matter and dark energy? I am continually impressed by the humility of science, a humility that is reflected in its willingness to look ridiculous in what it posits. Just look at the graphic I’m including; I mean really?

It’s a graphic that says, “Oh my, there is so much I don’t know. Dark Matter/Energy is there; I can measure it; but that’s all I know. But I’m not stopping: I’m going to put this graphic out as one model of what might be—and call it “dark” (the substance of comic book superheroes). There’s so much I don’t know—perhaps I’ll never know. But that’s not going to stop me.” I wonder why we can’t just name this “new” thing “dark teaching” (since most of us, when we’re really honest about this alchemy we call teaching, think it’s a wonder bordering on the miraculous that we ever teach anything). Let’s just put it out there and go to work to see if there is a paradox at play here: presence and distance are both, after all, the dance we dance in the classroom all the time with out students, with ourselves, with the subject, and with life.

Is the dance any less awkward or graceful in the “real” or “virtual” classroom?

I say, I want to dance.

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