The Quest for Relevance: blog post for 2/17/16
This week’s readings provided a wide variety of ways to think about how institutional structures of education can exist to perform many different a social functions–from indoctrinating Native peoples into the fear of Satan, to designing reading for women’s colleges that will prepare students “to be an agreeable companion for a suitable man,” to elevating students’ culinary complaints to the level of multi-cultural activism–and once again I am drawn towards the question “What (and whom) is the institution for?” and more specifically “Who decides?” In this post I will pursue these question in terms of how they are situated within the increasingly dominant ‘consumer’ model of higher education, and begin to ask how this model encourages a kind of “student-centered” approach that appears to be more concerned with avoiding potential lawsuits than it is with avoiding reproducing authoritarian structures.
I was immediately struck by the assertion made by one of the students in Mike Wesch’s short video “A Vision of Students Today” that only 26% of the readings she had been assigned were “relevant” to her life. What, I wonder, is the criteria through which she has decided what is/isn’t relevant? The question of relevance is important for all educators, as it is one of the determining factors in whether or not students are engaged and attentive during class, and an important factor in what students will retain after class is over. But this particular idea (expressed explicitly by Welsch in his TEDx talk on the same theme) appears to imply that if a student believes that only 26% of their readings are “relevant” then this indicates “a 74% failure rate.” For me, this raises the question “What constitutes ‘success’ in higher education?” Is a ‘successful’ course design one in which students’ own sense of ”relevancy” is paramount? and if so, should educators adopt a policy across the curriculum in which students’ own individual / subjective / emotional inclinations are allowed to determine the scope and design of college courses?
If, in the neoliberalization of higher education, students are the “consumers” and teachers are the “service providers,” and if we believe the customer-service protocol that “the customer’s always right,” then perhaps we have no choice but to supply the demand for “relevancy” by kowtowing to whatever interests students today. This, I imagine, puts educators in a difficult (and perhaps even fatally defensive) position, given that students are now in a position to mobilize around their “interests” with unparalleled ease, while they are not necessarily always the best judges of how these interests fit into the larger scheme of what higher education is capable of.
As Hua Hsu points out in his article “The Year of the Imaginary Student”, “The logic of virality that governs life on the Internet has given student activists a sense of common struggle, as well as the means to escalate their grievances with relative ease,” and while this often a positive step towards empowering students to participate and have a voice in the structures that govern their lives, there is also the fact that not all such mobilizations are positive and empowering for all. Hsu continues: “Identity politics…are no longer solely the province of minorities who have been pushed to the margins. The same ideas about inclusivity and belonging that spark campus revolt also underlie the narratives of grievance and decline animating supporters of Trump and the Tea Party.” Must we then, as educators, cower before demands for “relevance” even when they are oriented around narrow-minded and repressive world views like those of Trump and the Tea Partiers? Is not one of the essential functions of higher education the challenging of students’ preconceptions and inherited understandings in order to foster productive debates and the advancement of knowledge? Can the quest for relevance in the classroom transform a pedagogical focus on students’ investment in their own education into a quest to avoid discomfort and/or lawsuits?
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt assert in their cover story for The Atlantic “The Coddling of the American Mind” that the “Socratic” method of teaching critical thinking functions through “encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them,” and they note that “such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.” They conclude that the quest to avoid discomfort through mobilizing for mandatory “trigger warnings” (a “student-centered” principle that I believe is similar to the principle that courses should cater to students’ already-established sense of what is “relevant”) allows well-meaning students to unwittingly damage their institution’s ability to carry out this essential training in critical thinking, and it may even provide a counter-productive example of how to operate in the world, since this kind of protectiveness essentially “prepares [students] poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong.” Lukianoff and Haidt conclude that “If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond.” Engaging conflicts is an essential part of all progressive action, but I am concerned that letting students dictate what is and isn’t “relevant” to them will be akin to letting them maintain their preconceptions unchallenged, and it may even foster the belief that the experience of challenging one’s own preconceptions is antithetical to getting the best educational “service.”
In his article “6 Principles of Critical Pedagogical Course Design,” Sean Michael Morris challenges the notion that academic writing must absolutely maintain certain tedious and stodgy standards at all times, and he makes the assertion that “Perfect grammar shakes no one’s hand, gives no hugs.” While I am fully on board with the notion that allowing and encouraging non-standard or informal writing expands the bounds of what constitutes academic competence in a more progressive and inclusive manner, one might ask if shaking hands and giving hugs is becoming necessary to pedagogy, and whether this emphasis on student comfort ends up de-emphasizing other potentially “relevant” or even vital aspects of education simply out of fear of producing discomfort.