New name, new look

I have been trying to come up with a new name for my blog for quite awhile now. Finally I arrived at something I am happy with: You’re the Teacher. The backstory is personal, but the name fits beyond that as well.

The story [revised Feb., 2013]

When I was in graduate school, working on my PhD in Philosophy, I was given the opportunity to teach a few courses on my own, as opposed to only being a TA for someone else’s courses. I vividly remember my very first day teaching my own course. It was an aesthetics course, which was a fairly new area for me. That, plus the fact that I was walking into a classroom for the first time as “the” teacher, meant I was more than a little nervous.

I walked into the room for the first time, put my things down on the desk at the front, and looked out over the room. Just a few students were there already, but as soon as I had put my things down a student in the front row said, incredulously, “You’re the teacher?”

Now, I had worked hard to dress differently than my usual grad-school garb, and thought I looked pretty professional. But I was clearly young, nevertheless. And could my apprehension be read that clearly on my face, in my body language? All I did was walk in and put my books down.

In that one question, the student encapsulated all my first-time-teaching fears: I’m the teacher? Really? Whose crazy idea was this? Can I really do this?

I don’t remember what I said in reply, but hopefully I was witty. Probably not. Flustered, more like.

The familiar “imposter syndrome” continued with me for the next couple of years, as I taught more courses on my own while still a grad student. Perhaps not yet having the degree makes a difference–you know you are still somehow in training, and the students view you as such. Whenever students would question interpretations I was giving of the texts, or criticize my arguments, I took it as a personal challenge to the fragile authority I was hoping to build in the classroom. I felt that to be a good teacher I had to be an expert, and if I couldn’t fulfill the picture of an expert as the one who knows more than the students, then I wasn’t doing my job as a teacher.

I don’t know exactly how all this changed. I can’t pinpoint a moment at which I realized that a better answer to that first student’s question would have been: “No, you’re the teacher.” Or better: “Yes, and so are you.”

The more I attended workshops on teaching and learning, and began to read the literature on the scholarship of teaching and learning, the more I realized that I wasn’t doing students any favours by always acting as of I were the expert and attempting to provide all the answers (with the emphasis here on “attempting”). I needed, rather, to provide opportunities and the skills required for students to learn how to teach themselves and others. I could give them things to read and structure courses such that they must, alone and/or with their peers, work to create meanings, provide interpretations, figure out what is going on and whether criticisms are required. I wouldn’t necessarily disappear as the expert entirely, but I would stand aside more and be a resource for questions and advice.

Where I am now

Some of what I am aiming for now is inspired by Problem Based Learning, Inquiry-based learning, and Team Based Learning. I have also been thinking quite a lot about Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (discussing the theory of “universal education” of Joseph Jacotot). Indeed, I thought about calling this blog The Ignorant Philosopher, but: (1) most people wouldn’t get it and think I’m being cheekily self-denigrating, and (2) I don’t actually live up to the idea of being an “ignorant” teacher–I still engage in explication, still act as an expert. I have to think further about whether I should continue to do so.

In addition, in the first part of 2013 I have been involved in a “connectivist” MOOC (massive, open, online course) called etmooca mooc on educational technology and media. (My blog posts on this experience can be found under the category “etmooc.”) Through this experience I discovered just how powerful learning can be through connecting with others–through writing and commenting on blog posts, participating in conversations on twitter and social networks like Google+, and more. I have learned more from the other people in the course, and the conversations we have in these media, than I have through the “instructors” or those who give the archived “lectures.” And that’s a big part of the point of etmooc–to get people connected so that they can continue to share, discuss and learn together long after the course is finished. We are each teaching, and learning from, each other. That is the sort of atmosphere I’d love to develop in my courses.

While doing a web search to make sure that I was not choosing a name that was already being used for a blog or something else, I came across this post by Karl Fisch, from Sept. 2010: “Who’s the teacher? You’re the teacher.” In it Fisch talks about a TED talk by TED founder Chris Anderson, called “How web video powers global innovation.” This talk is about what Anderson calls “crowd accelerated innovation,” wherein change, innovation occurs through exposure of information to large groups of people, through web video. The basic idea is openness of information, which allows multitudes of people to contribute to development of knowledge, culture, technology, etc. Anderson gives the example of dance and sports (unicycling), where watching others perform allows people to see new possibilities and add innovations themselves. He also discusses JoVE (the Journal of Visual Experiments), a peer-reviewed, online video journal showcasing techniques for scientific experiments. This allows others to learn and replicate (and alter) them more easily, rather than waiting for published papers and then trying to figure out how to do the experiments through reading about them.

Towards the end of this talk, Anderson talks about education:

Now, is it possible to imagine a similar process to this, happening to global education overall? I mean, does it have to be this painful, top-down process? Why not a self-fueling cycle in which we all can participate? It’s the participation age, right? Schools can’t be silos. We can’t stop learning at age 21. What if, in the coming crowd of nine billion … what if that crowd could learn enough to be net contributors, instead of net plunderers? That changes everything, right? I mean, that would take more teachers than we’ve ever had. But the good news is they are out there. They’re in the crowd, and the crowd is switching on lights, and we can see them for the first time, not as an undifferentiated mass of strangers, but as individuals we can learn from. Who’s the teacher? You’re the teacher. You’re part of the crowd that may be about to launch the biggest learning cycle in human history, a cycle capable of carrying all of us to a smarter, wiser, more beautiful place. [emphasis added to the original transcript]

This, of course, is where Fisch gets the title for his blog post. And it fits with my own burgeoning views of teaching and learning.

I’m the teacher, and so are you.