Fun and Fear in Experimental Teaching
I’d like to write about a moment from “A Vision of Students Today,” the video that outlines the mismatch between the education students receive and the world they live in. (To summarize the video, our education system relies on greatly outdated forms of learning to prepare students to live in a largely digitalized world. Specifically, college education relies on large lecture classes—average size of 115—which assign mostly irreverent and unread reading to students. While the video doesn’t mention it, I’d guess that this is more common at large public institutions, which cater more to people of color and other underrepresented groups than at elite liberal arts schools, which cater more to affluent white people.) I’m interested in the 3:20 minute mark when students held up signs to argue that filling out scantron test sheets doesn’t help prepare learners to deal with war, ethnic conflicts, and many other issues. I couldn’t read all the signs students held, but I’d guess that some of them said things like sexism, systematic racism, unequal distribution of wealth, police brutality, and other structural inequities. I’m interested in this moment because I found it both thrilling and terrifying.
I found it thrilling because it is exciting to think that education can tackle these issues. There’s a sense of possibility, hope, and even fun when people align themselves to combat overarching, structural problems. Some might argue it is frivolous or glib to suggest combating serious and fatal issues like racism or police brutality could be fun. But I think fun can be a powerful motivator. It can unite people and bolster participants when work is hard. Fun is a source of change in Unflattening. As Sousanis observes, it is hard, and ultimately impossible, to identify totally with a person from another race, gender, and background. As he writes, there are “boundless perspectives” different from our own (89). Yet, his art has a playful spirit that shows it can be fun, exhilarating, and joyous to try to imagine what those other perspectives are. The imagination and fun can help people see new ideas and new possibilities. The comic form is perfect for Sousanis to express his sense of wonder and possibility that comes from thinking differently about each other and our institutions.
The students in the “A Vision of Students Today” capture that sense of fun. Many of them try to appear dour, mimicking the boredom common to the lecture class. But as the camera moves around showing the students’ signs, there are occasional smiles—students breaking character to acknowledge that the cooperative work of building a structure to combat inequality (in this case that structure is the google doc + the youtube video to inform people of the issues in college) is fun and exciting. I am also thrilled to think our collaboration in this class could provide a structure for us to improve our own teaching or institutions.
Yet, I am also nervous. As Cathy pointed out, intro level teachers are often the youngest and most inexperienced. At least in English, the intro level writing classes are often staffed by adjuncts—disproportionately women and people of color. While it is truly fun and exciting to see the possibility of change, I worry intro teachers will be charged with correcting centuries of racism and systematic abuse. After all, intro teachers are the first institutional face students meet. They have an added duty to present a progressive, student-centered face to the incoming first-years. Yet this seems unfair, and it makes me nervous. It is a labor issue: it is unfair to give already overworked adjuncts the responsibility of reforming intro classes to make college better. Again, many of these intro teachers are minorities, which suggests an unfair, racially driven division of labor. It is also unfair to pile on work. This brings me back to my beginning point. The idea that classrooms and teachers can work to overcome such entrenched inequality is both thrilling and scary: thrilling because of the hope of progress; scary because—my goodness!—what a mandate to have my intro writing class substantially engage with war, ethnic violence, genocide, and the history of slavery.
It is a very tough place to be. And it emphasizes the need for small, manageable acts we can perform in our classes. No class could possibly answer the history of slavery, but a class could incorporate small techniques to realize the needs of students in all their diversity. At the risk of sounding like an apple polisher, this is why the four pieces of advice in Cathy’s Hastac blog are so important. They are fun ways to collaboratively build a more equitable class, and they are not so large or labor intensive to overwhelm the teacher. Along those lines, I wish that Guinier had dug a little deeper in her opening AP physics anecdote. I thought that could have been an excellent place for the teacher to engage the students in a profitable discussion. Why are you so proud of your SAT score, the teacher could ask. Why is the SAT so important? What causes the different range of scores? What qualities does the SAT really test? To deal with these structural problems we need to find tiny openings to engage with students, but not be overwhelmed.