The Dialogic Imperative

Recently, a good friend who teaches at another university called me. As a young professor in the ‘60s, he won teaching awards before leaving academe. He has continued to teach on and off since then. No matter how experienced one becomes, every new class is a new teaching challenge, and dialogue with colleagues about teaching is an ongoing part of academic work. As an alumna of the Div School, I have been happy to watch the Craft of Teaching program develop over the past three years. It serves many purposes, but perhaps the most basic one is a ritual of initiation into dialogue about teaching.

My friend’s problem? The students in one of his classes weren’t talking much, so it was hard to get a discussion going. What to do? He wanted to tell them why discussion was important, and that an education bereft of it is a kind of failure. He wanted students not to memorize and spit back, but to make their own connections to the figures on his syllabus. To do that, they needed to create a discussion.

In only the past two weeks, I have had many discussions with colleagues – in the department at Texas State, by phone or e-message with friends at other institutions, and now in the vast and chaotic world of social media – about teaching. A student asked about extra credit; should I arrange it or not? Why did this class so widely misunderstand what I said, or thought I did? Will anyone read if the reading doesn’t come with a graded task? How can I address serious problems in student writing without everybody shutting down? Will we be replaced by software that “delivers” “content”? And so on.

The conversation about the reticent class stood out because it poses a meta-pedagogical problem. My own inclination is to explain to students why something is important. Trouble is, one can’t just tell students to have a discussion. Even an eloquent statement of its importance (and I think those are valuable) may replicate the structure of students passively listening and not-reflecting, not-talking. Nor is this just about silence versus speaking in class: not all talking is intellectual address to a topic.

“They probably don’t know how,” I said.

It’s not easy for me to understand either. Reading is dialogue with text, and class is dialogue with others and the text. It’s second nature to us. I don’t remember learning it. For many converging reasons, we have, and you will have, many students whose unconscious pedagogical model is that the instructor gives speeches or power-points that conceal mythical creatures called “the answers,” and students must find these and pick them out of a line-up (multiple-choice tests). So if we try to explain why discussion is important, or ask them to support their claims with evidence and reasoning, many of them really don’t know what’s going on.

I suggested that my friend start with a question for which they could draw strongly on their own experiences, and then ask a follow-up that invited them to reflect. (Yes, my suggestions were more specific, but you don’t need to know this syllabus.) In other words, break it down into smaller steps, with each step contributing to eliciting discussion. Even so, those steps have to be the student’s action. At some point, the student has to balance on the pedals and push. We can respect their agency, but we cannot compel them to use it.

As with class discussion, so with teaching itself: one can’t just tell people “Here’s how to teach.” Description has its place, but it’s the beginning, not the end. Perhaps even before the descriptive task, one must enter dialogue – with one’s prior education, with one’s own teachers, with one’s peers and colleagues. For me, this wider dialogue encompasses and supports the dialogue of any particular class.

I am always thinking about teaching, but my focus is usually on the same level as my friend’s question: how do I address this particular challenge, this term, in this class, this week. When Dean Mitchell invited me in June 2012 to lead a Dean’s Craft of Teaching Seminar that Autumn Quarter, it prompted me to reflect on a deeper level and over years of classroom experience – and to think about what a group of Divinity graduate students might find useful. That is, the invitation and visit prompted a dialogic cascade. I would not have put things together in the way I did if no one had asked, and that day’s dialogue, in turn, folded back into my teaching.

The Craft of Teaching Blog is a further branch of the project’s dialogues. I’m grateful to the committee for inviting me to do this, and to Brandon Cline for conceiving it. I hope that it can forge connections that are implicit in the Craft of Teaching program but need a form for fuller realization: connections across CoT sessions, connections to resources beyond the scope of single discussions, and connections between current Divinity School students and alumni. Maybe it will put you in touch with that friend to call when you need fresh ideas on the ongoing dialogue of teaching.

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