Scholar Activism As Practice

All learning at all levels starts within the student. It ends there, too, but the start is what concerns those of us who teach. When the learning doesn’t start with the student, the student never becomes fully engaged; what results is a smorgasbord of sampled bits without cohesion. The fundamentals aren’t mastered for that primary fundamental, the student herself or himself, has never been connected to the rest.

Last night, I was reading over a syllabus for a graduate seminar in scholar activism made available by Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin. Under “Expectations and Goals,” she writes this:

I expect you to take direct action to promote your own learning in this class. You are enrolled for reasons that are both clear and unclear, and you’ll discover more about your own objectives as we move through the semester. All I require of you is honesty and commitment. Be honest in your writing and speaking in the course, and commit to thoroughly interrogating the material. Do the reading and come prepared to engage with each guest. Be present in class, always. If your commitment wavers, we will all feel it and I will ask you about it.

There are a number of key components for any course, here. One is that a student never comes in knowing what he or she really needs to get out of the class. The personal point of the class comes clear to the student, one hopes, through the process of the term (sometimes later, though, even years later). Students are neither educated consumer nor simply consumers of education. They are learners, and that comes from within.

Goldrick-Rab’s graduate students are, likely, already motivated to learn; their professors don’t have to bring them to commitment to the process—or shouldn’t have to. Commitment should be expected, only to be addressed when it falters.

Another key component (and this connects to the first) is that matter of objectives. Objectives are not something that can be imposed on students. Yes, we teachers have objectives for our courses, but these need to be sub rosa. They should never be more than a tool for the teacher for use in helping students form their own objectives (ones related, of course, to those of the teacher) and meet them.

A third key component is “honesty.” Over recent years, we’ve reduced honesty to “academic integrity,” which has come to be little more than a specified set of regulations and procedures. Real honesty covers everything from one’s intentions in taking the class (I know someone, believe it or not, whose class was enrolled in by a student who wanted to do nothing more than destroy that professor) to one’s attitude toward fellow students. It’s not simply a matter of citation and avoidance of cheating.

There’s a large dollop of “scholar activism” in that simple paragraph—and a direct challenge to David Horowitz, Anne Neal and all of the others (Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, for example) who want to see education as assembly line, narrowing it to simply skills development.

Goldrick-Rab recently came to national attention through her own scholar activism. She is doing what all of us should, turning what could only have been an unpleasant experience into an opportunity for learning—for herself and her students. The seminar is built around guest speakers, all of whom are involved in scholar activism, and student projects will center on other contemporary scholar activists. Everyone is going to learn through this process.

I can imagine someone saying, “That’s fine, for someone teaching a graduate seminar at a top research institution, but it’s just not possible for me.” My point in quoting Goldrick-Rab’s syllabus is that, on the contrary, it is quite possible. Different students and student groups start and different places, but the pattern Goldrick-Rab presents takes account of that. The teacher certainly needs to pay close attention to the students, even modifying a plan in light of new information on jus where the students are, but the general pattern can remain.

Except in the matter of guests, I could have used Goldrick-Rab’s words in the syllabus of my summer Technical Writing course, just ended. These students, upper-level undergraduates, were tasked with creating documents, websites and presentations meant to help incoming students make a successful transition to college. “Think about what you now wish you’d know when you started at City Tech. You’ll begin your research there,” I told the students. They did a remarkable job and we used some of their material for New Student Orientation.

I’ll use something of the same message next week, when I first meet my First Year Composition students. The starting place will be different, but that message, take control of your own education, will be the same. Most of us teachers will be doing something similar, no matter the levels of our students.

Outside of our universities (and schools, for that matter), however, we’re still mired in the idea that students are simply consumers who can pick items off the shelf and wear them. Our politicians believe so, and try to make it so by restructuring our colleges and universities (and schools) into neoliberal corporate entities, not sites of learning. They think that, just as you set sales goals, you can set educational ones. Just as everything in business, these days, is reduced to a quantifiable bottom line, they argue, the same should be true in school.

The art of educating is difficult, for the learner is constantly changing and so is the teacher. These changes come about in the classroom, yes, but also in the world around it—and the process of learning has to take that into account. Each course, even each individual class meeting, contains its own subjectivities. If these cannot be addressed, there will be no success, not even in the “hard” sciences or mathematics. Wasn’t it a mathematician, Kurt Gödel, who argued that no system can be, at once, consistent and complete? To me, that’s a warning against inflexibility—in any classroom.

I will be interested in finding out more about Goldrick-Rab’s class as it unfolds. It will end up being different at the end than it was envisioned at the beginning—but that’s how any good class should go.

The students will certainly be learning. The professor, too.

Update: Dr. Goldrick-Rab had planned this course before coming to such public attention in July. She is a long-time activist scholar and this course is the natural outgrowth of her work, not something put together at the spur of the moment.

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