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POST #14 :: Learning as an Expression of the Face

One of the many gratifying moments in teaching usually occurs during a particularly hectic week of the quarter. (Come to think of it, every week is a hectic week.) Anyway, this moment often takes place in conversations with an individual student outside of the collective enterprise of the working classroom, which has plenty of gratifying elements of its own. We could be talking about anything: details of a lecture on Heisenberg, the racial imaginary in Justice Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, or occult elements of MLA citation. It doesn’t really matter what particular dimension of the course we’re discussing. What matters is that two people are engaged in a legitimate dialogue, face to face, outside of the cavernous lecture halls or the somewhat more intimate shoebox classrooms and other spaces of institutional instruction. There is something about the synchronous, material nature of an instructor and student both making the time to confront each other in moments of dialogic supplement that is conducive to learning in a way that few things inside the lecture hall or classroom can be. For a number of reasons, it is also, of course, the least common encounter between instructors and students. Its value and rarity, and some of the reasons for each, deserve some attention.

If there are other primary virtues to the Socratic method for us today, they have less to do with rhetorical mastery, logical constructions, or the articulation and dismantling of specific arguments, and more to do with the fact that as method it depends so much on dynamic, intimate, embodied conversation as a precondition for learning. Of the many, many things this generation of students is losing, the possibility of spaces and opportunities for individualized discussion might not be the most important one (the countless socioeconomic barriers, as well as the full corporatization of the university, would rank a good deal higher), but it’s still another loss to add to the tally, and another marker of the vanishing commitment to legitimate higher education in the United States and elsewhere.

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What exactly is a conversation between a teacher and a student, and why does this seemingly antiquated mode of communication matter so much? First, it can accomplish several things. A student and I will be talking one on one as a kind of supplement to the collective classroom discussion. There is something that he still doesn’t quite understand about what I said, or what his assignment is, or how he can begin to make sense of a challenging text. He’s concerned about his perceived lack of knowledge, worried about his grade, worried about being perceived as deficient. He has mustered the courage to confront his teacher and seek out additional spaces for discussion and clarification. Sometimes — not all the time, and in some seasons not even all that often, but sometimes — the back-and-forth of a live conversation between two people actively listening to each other and working to understand one another and make sense of their own statements and ideas for the other person produces a moment of genuine clarity. And something happens at that moment. A commingling of comprehension, insight, hesitation, and confusion, if not exactly of enlightenment or epiphany, the expression on the student’s face in that instant seems to indicate that it is as if the student has seen something that had already been sitting there in front of him for ages, invisible, suddenly becoming clear all at once in its majesty. At that moment, it dawns on him that he had already possessed within himself some presentiment of this knowledge, some foretaste or foundation for accessing it in this moment of minor epiphany. He has not discovered the World or God or something profound in itself, but he seems to have latched on to something tangible and strange in his mind; and a tangible thought, seen as a new and fresh arrival in the mind, is a glorious thing. This is not a romanticized notion, but is a ruthlessly pragmatic gratification. A student in this circumstance is actively thinking and seeing himself as actively thinking all at once. This is a task that far too many students have seldom experienced, and which far too few instructors can find the time or space to cultivate.

I remember the flip side of this too: being a student and getting over my fear of talking with a professor only to discover that in most cases they were incredibly excited to talk with me. They genuinely appreciated the fact that I seemed to care enough about what we were doing in their class to seek them out. Inevitably, those conversations (then and now) lead to a garden of forking paths. Only some of those paths are worth exploring, but all of them are, in that moment, promising and new. This is as likely to happen in the mind of the teacher as in the mind of the student. For this reason, this also disrupts the model of education they and we have so often inherited, where the teacher is acknowledged as the wise sage and the student the mere recipient of knowledge. Education is one avenue for helping people recognize that sometimes you need to talk with someone other than yourself in order to get at some nebulous and foreign thing that is already inside you. The largely private and isolated act of research, when set against the indisputably public nature of teaching, often cannot afford these same pleasures.

Heinrich von Kleist recognized something of this in his “On the Gradual Formation of Thoughts While Speaking”: the nagging sense that thought is not anterior to communication, but that communication in fact generates thought. In the U.S. version of The Office, Michael Scott has made a kind of art of it as a way to survive life in the twenty-first century managerial class. He employs it when his boss David Wallace asks him to describe his management strategies. Michael, of course, possesses absolutely no thoughts on the subject: “Sometimes I’ll start a sentence, and I don’t even know where it’s going.” We speak not because we know, but in order to arrive at some condition of knowledge in the process.  This is already a problem, however, since in today’s organizational logic of mass education, opportunities for actual dialogue continue to erode. The wonders of the digital age may open up all kinds of real and virtual opportunities for discussion in one sense or another, but this is all a kind of superstructure, where the base continues to depend on greater and greater control and regulation of student input and outcomes, and is formulated to extract the maximum amount of labor from the instructor at minimal expense.

We sometimes place the blame for the rarity of such moments of intellectual discovery on student apathy, but in some cases apathy has nothing to do with it. Alongside the overworked instructors, today’s students have been trained since early childhood in a long and arduous process of rote learning, exam fetishism, grade-obsession, dispiriting banalities, and empty promises of future success and happiness. As a result, some of them are under the impression that they not only can’t spare the time or energy to seek out these occasions for conversation (they are working while trying to graduate in normative time, after all, before their thin bit of funding dries up), but that doing so wouldn’t really be all that helpful. I know this because I, like many of my colleagues, have spent years of my life engaged in just such discussions, and we often discover that students are surprised not only about what they’ve learned in talking with us one on one, but that it was even possible for such a thing to occur. They seem stunned to discover that conversations about intellectual things can actually lead to new ways of seeing. They had not yet known that this was worth fitting into their overburdened calendars, and that is partly the fault of the individuals and institutions that have trained them in docile, passive modes of instruction and knowledge-retention.

Assessment and quantitative measures are critical. They have their place and their value. But beyond our assessment mechanisms some residue persists. Outside of the specific things they are calibrated to measure, it’s often difficult to pin down exactly where, how, or why some other species of  learning happens. In my field in particular, the breadth and depth of these mechanisms is profound and staggering. It’s also occasionally overwhelming and contradictory. We are able to track modalities, syntax, thesis construction. We can identify participial problems, tense shifts, crumbling structures, and arguments submerged beneath the detritus of run-ons, fragments, typos, and colloquial phrases. When you’re a teacher you generally possess enough confidence to determine that some elements of what you do with all of this on a daily basis actually ends up producing some concrete form of ‘education’ with legitimate value for students. We can point to specific markers of development and be proud. This is one of the many things that keeps teachers teaching: the confidence, pride, and value they derive from their ability to teach students modes, subjects, forms, techniques, skills, and ways of seeing that those students may not have been able to learn otherwise. It is such a basic accepted fact of the nature of education that we sometimes forget just what a radical and necessary act it is. And it takes place a million times over, every single day.

To define education in these traditional senses is to make efforts to see thinking happening. This is why writing assignments, discussions, and tests have become the traditional markers of assessment in contemporary accounts of educational value and policy. Writing is one method of giving material shape to thought, as are discussion, conversation, or debate. While they have a certain value, tests are inefficient and limited measures of doing the same, sacrificing depth and richness in many instances in the service of institutional logics of efficiency, thereby translating student knowledge and instructional practices into market language that is somehow taken by many to be natural, data-rich, and sufficiently sophisticated to ascertain quality (and thus valuable and quantifiable in a marketized sense). I have spend many years involved in all facets of teaching: lectures, discussions, homework, group activities, grading, testing, writing, revising, curricular design, and more. Actual learning occurs in each of these pedagogical spaces: sometimes substantial, profound, enduring, and even valuable in the broadly ethical as well as the narrowly commodifiable sense. But it seems clear that another privileged space of learning occurs in the intimate setting of an individual, face-to-face conversation: in the follow-up to class discussions, outside the lecture hall, in individualized discussions in office hours or elsewhere. It is here that the teacher can also see a different kind of thinking happening, often impossible to mark but real, and real in an immediate, productive, and enduring sense. The problem is that this mode of learning is not even remotely scaleable. In the actuarial terms that dictate so much of contemporary institutional life, such encounters are essentially ‘valueless’: no matter how much is to be gained from those encounters, the discussions themselves cannot become a factor in the calculus of assessment. We will happily acknowledge their existence and value, but they are seen to happen outside of the proper spheres of education more than being seen as absolutely central to it. They persist in spite of, not because of, institutionally supported modes of education.

Like so many other wage-earners in the era of globalized capital, teachers often don’t have the luxury to indulge in such pedagogical fantasies, even if they believed in them. They endure long commutes from slightly more affordable districts. They struggle to balance their work lives with the slivers of life outside of it that remain for themselves, their partners, their families, or a thousand other obligations and interests. They work feverishly to accomplish an array of challenging goals, laboring to educate vast throngs of under-equipped and often unmotivated students and doing so with minimal resources, funding, stability, or bargaining power. Like every other worker, they are constantly on guard against the precarious conditions of their employment in a culture that has absolutely abandoned its investments in educating and training its own populace in critical thinking, multiple literacies, and critical citizenship. They are as agile and intelligent and hard-working as any other class of workers in contemporary society. Their wages and benefits and voices are suppressed even as the institutional and social demands on them increase. In this kind of environment, can we really expect them to give any credence whatsoever to arguments for cultivating supplemental spaces of intellectual, individualized, meandering discussion? It would seem impractical, if not altogether foolish, to do so.

Under these precarious realities, it would make no sense to offer any kind of call for this kind of activity as essential to pedagogical practices, or to offer strong defenses of its intellectual value, so I won’t. Instead my only objective in this particular moment is to consider what else is being lost in this ongoing drive toward the dismantling of the project of higher education, humanistic inquiry, and critical thinking. Our fights must be for representation, employment, recognition, and empowerment. But it is equally critical to enumerate and describe every other kind of thing that is in danger of being lost, as all of these are in the age of technocratic mass education. In the relentless drive to extract maximum profit at minimal institutional expense,  the idyllic leisure of a long two-person conversation is becoming yet another casualty of the long struggle to educate in a humane and meaningful fashion.

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