The Balancing Act

My usual pedagogical style is heavily discussion-intensive, largely because my whole notion of teaching is that my job is to bring people into encounters with complex and challenging material and then to help them to develop a defensible "take" on that material. I don't care so much what people do with the material that I force them to read and discuss; I care mostly that they a) read and discuss that material and that b) they develop positions that are grounded in close readings of the texts and theories in question. And that they can defend themselves when pushed to do so, either by me or by other members of the class.

This works remarkably well when dealing with philosophical and literary works, all of which are rich enough that close textual reading generates multiple defensible interpretations. In that case we can read things as a group and then grapple with them publicly and privately. If there were final answers, then such grappling would be somewhat beside the point -- in that case, my thought is, why not cut to the case and present the punchline right away? Why make people work so hard to get to a place that I already know that they're going?

Once we get outside of complex literary and philosophical works, I find myself performing a delicate balancing-act, since there's just not enough ambiguity in more straightforward works (such as most social-scientific books and articles) to fuel such intense discussions. It's not all that hard to figure out what Waltz or Keohane or Wendt are saying in most of their works; at any rate, it's a lot easier than figuring out what Kant or Hegel are on about. So what I'd like to be able to do is to simply move to the second-order discussion -- who is right, which theory tells us the most about the world -- and not spend much time at all on the first-order discussion about what so-and-so author said. Especially since it's not that hard to determine.

The balancing-act comes in that I want people to develop and promulgate their readings on their own. I don't want to do it for them, even for relatively straightforward works. But I also want to make sure that everyone's on the same page before the conversation goes further. So I have to balance the potentially deceptive "discussion" about what the author in question said with the real discussion about what we are supposed to do with what the author said. Thus far this semester I feel like I've done okay, although not fantastically; sometimes I come out of class feeling a bit like I was "fake lecturing" (i.e. holding a discussion that I knew the outcome of in advance) instead of facilitating a genuine discussion.

It's not helped by the fact that both of my courses this semester actually have material that they are supposed to communicate to people (the layout of IR theoretical debates, and how one conducts interpretive and relational research). Most of my courses don't have learning outcomes that can be so easily specified with reference to some body of information, and as such they don't call for the same kind of careful balancing.

One of the ways I am doing this balancing is by podcasting a few lectures outside of the normal flow of the course. I am thus giving myself a few specified locations to simply "have my say" about some issue or topic, and freeing class-time for the more important task of helping us (myself and my students) to wrestle with questions and problems. But even then I have to continually watch myself, lest I slip into information-distribution mode during class time. The subject-position of standing at the front of a classroom lends itself only too easily to such a role; the expectations, voiced or otherwise, of many of my students (like students everywhere -- it's what students are trained to do from a very young age) that I will provide them with knowledge and insight and answers provide additional pressure.

It's tough, but I wouldn't be comfortable doing it any other way.

No comments: