by Dennis Selder
As a newbie teaching nights at Southwestern College, I was lucky to run into a guy named Steve Kowit. We both had three-hour classes on the same nights of the week, and our breaks occasionally coincided, and we’d talk. If there is any group on this planet whose viewpoint I trust, it’s the poets, and that is what Steve Kowit is. So when he spoke, I was listening. One night Steve said to me, “You know, Dennis, my best times teaching are when the class just has an ordinary conversation.” I could kind of relate to what he was saying. In truth, I wanted to be the guy actually saying this same sort of thing, given that I had been deeply affected by Paolo Freire as a grad student, and I was eager to de-center authority away from myself and let that “ordinary conversation” happen. But a true meeting of minds is a tough state to achieve in a classroom.
Undoubtedly, Steve had a knack for it (not to mention lots of practice). My mom, in fact, had taken a class with him at San Diego State years before, and she told me without any hesitation that he was the best teacher she ever had. At the same time, my own attempts at sharing authority were met with frequent resistance from students and disapproval at worst and neutrality at best from course evaluators. The truth is that teacher evaluations at the community colleges where I get assignments don’t have a way to talk about the quality of conversation in a classroom. As one chair writes, she expects teaching at her community college to be “highly planned, highly structured, carefully-scaffolded, highly student-centered, integrated Reading and Writing instruction.” This list of intensifiers doesn’t seem to equal anything approaching normal conversation. Oh well.
Still, I think Steve Kowit’s observation is worth heeding and striving for. And so you can imagine my pleasure when I found a recently published work that has helped me improve on my attempts to share authority with my students and give them a go at interpreting and creating meaning in the classroom. This book, published in 2012 by Susan Jean Mayer is entitled Classroom Discourse and Democracy: Making Meanings Together. In it, she integrates classroom research from different fields and clarifies concepts that have made application of authority-sharing in the past difficult. For instance, instead of the ambiguous yet often touted “student-centered learning,” she reframes the concept as “student-led learning,” (italics mine), which is already much easier to understand and imagine organizing in one’s classroom. Of student-led learning, she notes: “Here, the teacher’s role is not to familiarize students with the established thinking of experts, but rather to enable students’ meaningful participation in culturally established forms of knowledge building”(85). In other words, Mayer suggests giving students the opportunity to develop their own sense of authority. And then she goes into the specifics of how to apply the student-led idea, including even showing transcripts of actual conversations resulting from the practice. This semester, I am applying her ideas—I think to good effect. Furthermore, I was also able to mount a better argument with my students to persuade them about why they should have a go at taking authority in a classroom.
As part-timers, we are often too busy and overworked to read and consider this sort of thing—I read Mayer over the winter break—-but given that there is so little institutional support for our professional development, and that the huge risk we all face is the mechanization and deadening of our teaching in the face of ongoing deadlines, too many students, and McDonald’s-style teacher evaluations, it’s incumbent on us to seek out these gems such as Mayer’s and find ways to apply and experiment with them in the classroom. The result of these efforts, I will wager, is that you too will saunter out of one of your classrooms during a break with the same happy expression—and I’ll admit it, swagger—that I observed, running into Steve Kowit by chance in the hallways on autumn nights at Southwestern College.
You can follow Dennis Selder on Twitter at @erasmusonline