Institutional Constraints on Authenticity in Teaching
[A shortened version is published in Authenticity in Teaching [New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education,No. 111, ed. Patricia Cranton]. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Fall 2006. 51-62.] PDF on the Jossey-Bass site, at <http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/112777998/PDFSTART>
In Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach (1998) there is a story which offers some profound insight into what we might mean when we speak of authenticity in teaching practice.
For twenty years Professor X had tried to imitate his mentor's way of teaching and being, and it had been a disaster. He and his mentor were very different people, and X's attempt to clone his mentor's style had distorted his own identity and integrity. . . . Professor X's story gave me some insight into myself . . . early in my career, I too, had tried to emulate my mentor with non-stop lecturing, until I realized my students were even less enthralled by my cheap imitation than some of my classmates had been by the genuine original. I began to look for a way to teach that was more integral to my own nature, a way that would have as much integrity for me as my mentor's had for him -- for the key to my mentor's power was the coherence between his method and himself. (p. xx)Palmer's point is not that lecturing is a bad idea -- indeed, a fundamental assumption of his story is that it's possible that great teachers can use lecturing almost exclusively (in spite of the common argument among theorists of teaching that lecturing is always a poor choice). What is central here is that the teacher in question had, somehow, failed for twenty years to realize that the way he was trying to teach was incongruent with his own habitual ways of thought and proceeding; that it was inconsistent with what we might call his personality.
This is not to say that it was dishonest. What it was, one might argue, was inauthentic. That's not an obvious term here. Let me explain.
There are, of course, challenges involved in agreeing on what we mean by "authenticity" (as Dr. Johnson remarked about the difficulty of defining another difficult term, "poetry": "Why Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is").
What authentic means as people normally use it is elegantly phrased (amazingly enough) in the Merriam-Webster collegiate dictionary:
AUTHENTIC, GENUINE, VERITABLE, BONA FIDE, mean being actually and exactly what the thing in question is said to be. AUTHENTIC implies being fully trustworthy as according with fact or actuality (authentic record).Cranton and Carusetta (2004) have argued, however, that it is more than "the expression of the genuine self in the community"; that authenticity involves as well both critical self-awareness and "knowing and understanding the collective and carefully, critically determining how we are different from and the same as that collective" (p. 8).
I would suggest, on the basis of the extensive treatments of it by Cranton and Carusetta (2004) and others, that authenticity can usefully be thought of not as "honesty" but as coherence. This coherence or congruence needs to be internal, of course (does what I'm doing match what I believe?). But is also important that it be external (to what extent is what I'm doing consistent with -- that is, it acknowledges and respects, but doesn't compromise with -- the mores, structures and constraints of the situation I'm in?). Cranton and Carusetta cite Taylor (1991), for example, as being highly critical of the modern ethic of authenticity which contains the notion of self-determining freedom where individuals make judgments for themselves alone without external impositions. A colleague recently told me that when he teaches he sees himself as projecting a part of his personality, and deliberately making it, and himself in that situation, larger than life. "That's not honestly me, though, is it?" he asked. "If I were to make myself that sort of person at a coffee reception, no one would want to be near me. It's situational." Authenticity, like every other element of human behaviour, does not occur out of a social and institutional context.
It's important to bear in mind, as well, that it is not necessarily the case that authentic teaching is better teaching. It is of course entirely conceivable that a profoundly self-consistent and context-consistent teacher might be lacking in crucial skills, might not have a sufficient understanding of her field, or in some other way fail to touch, influence and shape students' understanding. Contrariwise, though perhaps less obviously, it is possible to imagine teachers who are carrying out what they see as the demands of the situation unreflectively -- where their actions, as Jarvis phrases it, are "controlled by others and their performance is repetitive and ritualistic" (115-16; quoted by Cranton and Carusetta p. 8) -- but, in a given context, have by any way of measuring a consistently powerful and positive effect on students' learning.
What authenticity in teaching does guarantee, however, I would argue, is the potential for growth and change, and the possibility (indeed, the likelihood) of experiencing, confronting and dealing with discomfort. Parker Palmer's teacher was stuck -- as the rest of the story makes clear -- in a way of teaching which did not suit him, and which he could not change until he recognized its lack of connection with his own internal priorities and preferences, nor indeed until he recognized that that kind of internal consistency was imaginable, desirable and attainable. Parker offers as the simple premise of his book that "good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher." It seems to me easy -- and dangerous -- to read this as recommending a rather simple commitment to personal honesty as the sine qua non of good teaching. But thinking about this from the perspective afforded by the concept of authenticity allow us to see this "identity and integrity" as an idea complicated in ways we don't often consider. What is particularly important is that such a perspective invites us to consider the way this integrity is afforded and constrained by the situations teachers find themselves in -- most centrally, by the institutional context.
When I talk about teaching with colleagues at conferences or over coffee, a common refrain of the conversation regularly has to do with what makes the job difficult -- what institutional constraints, for instance, faculty labour under. Such complaints are often dismissed by university administrators or representatives of the wider public. It's easy to say (because it's true) that postsecondary teachers in institutions like universities and colleges are far less constrained than their colleagues in the schools and the community colleges. Comparing the freedom enjoyed by, say, a full professor of eighteenth century literature with the onerous obligations dumped on a fifth-grade teacher in any public school should, it would seem, preclude any whining about constraints by the privileged denizens of the ivied halls.
It remains true, however, that university teachers -- like everyone else -- live and work in situations in which our choices are radically constrained, often in ways we're not even aware of. I used to dismiss as rationalizations my colleagues' explanations that they thought some teaching idea a great one, but that their circumstances made it impossible to try it. The dean would never stand for it, they said, the department chair would veto it, the students wouldn't go along with it. I argued, for example, that in fact no one was going to force a tenured full professor to give a final examination and count it toward some arbitrary percentage of a final mark, even though the university calendar mandated such a practice; or that lecturing less than the required 150 minutes a week was not going to bring the wrath of the Dean down upon them -- that, indeed, as I discovered in a short sojourn in administration, the wrath of a Dean is a singularly ineffectual tool.
I still believe that, but I have changed my mind about the power of institutional and situational constraints, and have become much more aware of the potential such constraints have -- especially when they are not consciously recognized or explicitly stated -- to shape our behaviour and prevent us from acting in ways that are consistent with our own most important priorities, and, further, to hide from us by habituation the extent to which our behaviour has ceased to be consistent with our own fundamental convictions.
There are a multitude of ways the conditions teachers work in shape and constrain what they can do. Some are very obvious; for example, physical constraints like timetables, classroom configurations, enrolments. Although such constraints are often taken as givens -- whether a class meets three times a week for fifty minutes, twice for 75, or once for 150, for example, was not, at least when I began teaching in university contexts, usually seen as under anyone's control, nor was the configuration of the classroom. And while in some cases (traditionally, for example, composition courses or seminars) explicit control over enrolments is exerted, in most cases class sizes are seen as a matter of waiting to see what happens and coping. Similarly, physical classroom configurations have only recently, in my experience, been considered to be anything one had much control over. Whether the room had fixed seating, ranked auditorium rows, or (rarely) movable tables, was a matter rather like the weather, except that fewer people talked about it.
Unlike teachers in schools, whose physical space is explicitly part of their teaching, and who by default "have" classrooms which they set up to support their own teaching priorities, university teachers commonly are assigned whatever is appropriate -- usually determined by enrolment numbers, by an impersonal administrative process. In my first decades as a teacher, the physical space -- the nature of the seating, for instance, or the layout of the room, not to mention the availability of chalk- or white-boards, bulletin boards, etc -- I worked in was simply a given, to be coped with like a blizzard or exulted in like a few weeks of balmy sun.
It's clear, however, once you begin to think about the consequences of such circumstances for teaching, that they -- and other considerations -- have powerful consequences for the extent to which a teacher can work consistently with her own internal priorities, intentions and values. A teacher whose personal priority requires extensive individual consultation with students, obviously, needs to find a way to deal differently with classes enrolling hundreds of students. One whose deepest need is to explain clearly with diagrams is likely to be radically hampered by a room with inadequate visual display capabilities. One who sees engaging students in group processes around shared tasks or enterprises as central will need to deal with the constraints imposed by a fifty-minute class schedule (and similarly, one who lectures will find a three-hour evening class a particularly difficult challenge). Obviously, in such cases a teacher forced to teach in a way which does not fit her priorities either has to rethink those priorities (this is not always a bad thing, incidentally) or simply cope -- a consequence which can lead to a long-term unconscious acceptance of inauthenticity as a condition of employment.
At least as obvious are other institutionally-structured constraints, such as explicit rules about course conduct, mandated course descriptions, textbooks and outlines. These are not simply difficulties to be worked around, but can constitute serious challenges to authenticity. A university rule which says every class must meet for the full stipulated time, or take up topics in a certain order and for a given time, or work with the designated chapter of the textbook at a particular juncture, can of course be coped with somehow. You can, for example, address the issue explicitly in class. Such rules nonetheless retain the power, over time, to distance teachers from the values they hold central. To think of the conditions around such issues as ones which are not so much decided as pre-existing, matters to be accepted as intrinsic conditions under which one works, is to move toward handing professional responsibility over to unidentified, distant administrators, and to push aside considerations which may be fundamental to your beliefs about learning and teaching.
Other institutional limits are less explicit -- equally important, but perhaps not quite so obvious as constraints: the systems of general curricular statements and structures, and the "credits" and : "marks" which implement them. Consider, for instance, a curricular structure which places a course as a prerequisite for another course or program with explicit demands say, a second year course in a scientific discipline which presumes students will have intimate knowledge of a particular theory or problem, one which an individual instructor in first year might think of as peripheral or see as an interruption in a learning process. This can force a teacher to choose between what she might think a poor learning strategy, involving introducing an idea before students are ready for it, and a better one for example, taking time to build a foundation for the idea -- which will have unfortunate consequences for her students. Again, many such constraints are regularly dismissed as endemic to the entire teaching situation: of course universities have responsibilities to ensure that there are ethical and intellectual structures in place; mandated textbooks and course outlines can be seen both as protections for the university and as aids to instructors, offering at best an irreplaceable set of guidelines to help shape teaching, and at worst a crutch for underprepared teachers and a usable tool for defining inadequate teaching. That such issues are a fundamental part of the teaching situation does not mean that they do not have potentially unfortunate consequences and implications for the teacher's authentic practice.
Related, but perhaps even less open to interrogation, are fundamental institutional issues such as the elaborate structures we've built around credits and marks. Of course, it's regularly argued when the issue is raised that we have to have marks, that the system would break down if students had nothing to work for and we had no way of evaluating them -- for them, for each other, and for the world at large. Our institution could not survive without a system of credits, so that we can track what students have taken, establish structures of requirements that everyone has to follow and that can be transferred from one context to another, and that are commonly understood.
For example, one might be forced to recognize that the institutional expectations around what constitutes an amount of work and learning appropriate to, say, a three-credit university course make it impossible for a teacher to avoid telling a brilliant student who has not completed an independent study that she'll have to be satisfied with her own learning as a reward, because there's no room in the agreed system of credits for her work to be included (at my own institution, for example, there are three- and six-credit courses and no provision for anything else). One might hold the belief that a learner should be allowed to drop out of a course at any time without penalty (without, for instance, incurring a failing grade on her transcript which would lower her grade point average), but in fact be working in the almost universal situation where the institution's structures require either a passing or failing grade.
Or one might believe in what a colleague at a conference called "root beer grading" ("A and W," she explained; "you either get an A or you withdraw without penalty"), but never in a long career find an institutional context which allowed you to practice it.
For a teacher committed to the principle that paid work is inauthentic work, as outlined in Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards (1993/9), for instance, the fact that each student expects to be rewarded with a mark, decided unilaterally by the teacher, creates a situation in which one's actions are necessarily in conflict with her beliefs. To continue in such a situation for years is either to continue to be profoundly uncomfortable or to make the adjustment, to get used to it, to forget about it, and to become a teacher working in conflict with one's own fundamental values without knowing it
How does one achieve authenticity in a situation like that? It's easy to say that simply recognizing and acknowledging the inconsistency should be enough, but over time it's difficult to avoid developing calluses on the more sensitive parts of your identity.
Other characteristics of the postsecondary teaching context which pose challenges for authenticity in teaching include many policies and practices intended to promote "good teaching": university guidelines on teaching, structures for evaluating candidates on the basis of teaching for employment, promotion, tenure, awards, etc. Like many of the other pressures on teachers I've mentioned, these cannot be characterized as negative: indeed, many universities are justly proud of the progress made in recent decades toward properly valuing teaching as part of a university's central mission. It is important to recognize, however, that such measures and policies can have unintended and damaging consequences for individual teachers. Structures for evaluating teaching, particularly mandated and summative teaching evaluation forms, can create situations in which teachers are impelled to adopt strategies inconsistent with their own deepest values, or can have an impact on the context of teaching which alters the actual effect of their practice.
One often-discussed example is the effect of mandated course evaluation forms to be filled out by students at the end of a course, generating "ratings" which can be used by promotion and tenure committees, and sometimes published. Leaving aside questions about the validity of such strategies or the reliability of the numbers generated, it is often noted that young teachers in disciplines depending on challenging deep-seated assumptions among their students find that pursuing such challenges can generate a good deal of discomfort among the students, which in turn can generate result in "low numbers" on the teaching forms. Similarly, teaching practices which render students uncomfortable -- a common example is "group work," which students used to the agonistic, individualistic practices of most school contexts often object to -- can pose a serious problem for a teacher threatened by the use of the ratings numbers in her tenure portfolio or her application for a job elsewhere -- paradoxically, often a job at a university most explicitly concerned with hiring good, committed teachers.
A more general way of stating one aspect of this problem, as Cranton and Carusetta (2004) have observed, is that the usual institutional guidelines used to evaluate and promote "good teaching"
most often provide principles, guidelines, strategies, and best practices, without taking into consideration individual teachers' personalities, preferences, values, and ways of being in the world -- the ways in which they are authentic. The assumption underlying this approach is that what works well for one teacher in one context works well in general, for all teachers in all contexts.Social constraints
The explicit expectations of good teaching expressed institutionally often reflect what is perhaps the most powerful of all constraints under which teachers labour, and the one that has the most potential to extort behaviour which is inauthentic. Such overt statements, it might be argued, simply make explicit a number of other issues which are almost never seen as constraints at all -- indeed, are rarely even seen. The social assumptions around the role of "professor," for instance, among colleagues, students, and the public, have powerful influences on what you can do, even though you may not regularly attend to or be conscious of them. Expectations about what happens in class sessions are built into the language we use to talk about them -- regularly, for example, teachers (and others) still do call them "lectures," even if what happens isn't lecturing at all; and people hired to conduct them are often still called "lecturers." Or "Professors": indeed, a colleague of mine once remarked that just as we expect students to study, we expect professors to profess. As has been often noted, our conventional language around our work refers to a "teaching load" (though never to a "research load"), and professorial positions are often described exclusively in terms of hours of teaching required per week -- by which is invariably meant contact hours, or lectures. Such language "frames" -- to use George Lakoff's (1987) useful term -- any discussion of teaching, or indeed, any instance of practice, in terms which, invisibly, may exert pressure on a teacher to work in ways tending inevitably toward what we have to call inauthenticity. The tacit shaping of thought and speech facilitated by such discourse affects students' assumptions about, and expectations of, teachers in profoundly important ways. It's easy to say -- again, because it's true -- that an important part of a teacher's job is to confront, make explicit, analyse, and alter such assumptions and expectations. But in important ways we are like fish in a position to have to "deal with" water: keeping the presence of these elements in consciousness is, in practice, virtually impossible, not only for our students but for ourselves.
Every teacher, for example, is subject to the virtually universal expectation of students that her language will be evaluative -- and summatively evaluative. The classic example occurs in moderating class discussions, where the teacher's standard move to promote further thought about an issue -- "Yes. Anyone else?" -- is interpreted by the student as actually meaning, "No. Wrong." As an English teacher, I have been aware for many years of the way in which marginal comments on student writing are read -- regardless of my intentions -- as rationale for evaluation. "I don't understand" is understood not as an invitation for explanation, or a recounting of a reader's experience, but as a brick in an incremental evaluative structure, equivalent to "bad." Though of course it is possible that any given teacher, over an extended period of time with a given student or class, might be able to alter this first, and fundamental, character of the relationship, the tacit presumption that the teacher's fundamental role is an evaluative one remains a "default mode" against which one must unremittingly struggle. Or which one gets used to.
In a presentation at a writing conference in 1994, Janet Giltrow and Michele Valiquette reported an impressive study of conferences between writing centre tutors and students, exploring students' understanding of and reaction to, marginal comments by instructors. Almost universally, what the tutors reported was massive misunderstanding and repressed anger. This anger was based on readings which understood comments that (to an observer) seemed clearly non-evaluative as negative evaluations, which heard inquiry as sarcasm, and which took helpful advice as unilateral condemnation. Even when the commentary was not actually negative or sarcastic -- as too much was -- students expected that the discourse register was not one which would occur in a dialogic situation, but in a one-way evaluative one.
More recently, Dias et al. (1999) have demonstrated the ubiquity of this response to teacher language, in noting that in one professional context after another, recent graduates experience profound difficulty in learning to accept commentary on their written texts as anything other than summatively evaluative -- a rationale for an unsatisfactory mark. That such discourse mismatches are common in educational situations is not surprising, though I think it takes some close attention to realize just how common they are.
My own way of characterizing this is to say that the teacher always has a megaphone strapped to her face: every utterance is magnified by the power relationships inscribed in the classroom. It is no accident that a recent -- widespread, and growing -- fad in elementary classrooms has the teacher wearing a mike which is connected to a classroom amplification system. The elevation of the teacher's voice out of a conversational context is only slightly exaggerated by this technological device. Every utterance is pushed by that megaphone (whether literal or figurative), toward becoming (and toward being responded to as) categorical -- that is, as monologic discourse. One of the reasons so many teachers embrace, as a pedagogical strategy, the "everyone has their own truth, and all are equal" assumption is that it is so difficult to leave room for the student's independence of thought after you've said, "sorry, I'm afraid that's wrong." Allowing that any opinion is okay "as long as you can defend it" leads seductively to endorsing the kind of naive relativism William Perry (1970) identified as at best a way-station on the road to intellectual maturity, and inadvertently making it into a tempting haven.
The postsecondary student's expectation of "Teacher" is, in general, that the Teacher will decide what is to be learned, will have the correct information, will know the appropriate theory, will take the right approach -- will be the source of truth, at least in that context: and, further, that the teacher's fundamental job is to make sure the student has the right information, the right theory, the right approach, by judging the student as right or wrong. Such a model of what teaching is, of course, does not match the model held by many -- perhaps most -- teachers, but it is remarkably persistent, and remains a pervasive source of mutual incomprehension. Such specifics arise from a widespread social norm having to do with what a "Professor" is, of course. This is where, to be authentic, individual teachers often need to separate themselves from that socially defined collective.
Its very persistence is a powerful force militating against authenticity: as with all these persistent constraints, it is very easy to ignore the incomprehension and slip into a comfortable, tacit acceptance of it as an unavoidable consequence of the situation we're all in -- and at the same time very difficult to maintain the contrary stance, to continue to assume, and talk and write as though you assumed, that the teacher's discourse about the student's work and thought is authentically dialogic.
What makes this such a challenge is precisely the persistent universality of this model of teacher-student relations. Every student, every class, arrives with these kinds of expectations. This is perfectly reasonable, of course, as it's based on their consistent experience with educational institutions. Because of this, forging a more dialogic frame for classroom discourse is a task which not only is never complete, but has to be begun anew with each student, each class, each semester.
In my own teaching, for example, for many years have I have tried, every term, to make it clear to my students that I don't accept notions like the following, and that this has profound consequences for the way my courses are conducted:
In one way or another, I would argue, every teacher is in this position to a lesser or greater extent, and the problem is always to find a way to negotiate between these conflicting demands in a way which allows the teaching practice to remain coherent (that is, in the terms I stipulated at the outset, authentic). That the situation may never be "solved" is, I have argued, not a bad thing: a continuing commitment to authenticity, to an ongoing negotiation between theory, practice and context, is the best possible way to ensure continuing growth and change.
A recent experience in my own teaching raised a number of these issues for me, and may help in making clear how they can present themselves in particularly challenging, and potentially productive, ways. In presenting this episode, I should be clear, I am not suggesting that the teaching methods and theoretical assumptions underlying them are appropriate to others. I think, though, that they bring this process of negotiation among conflicting demands into relief.
Let me begin with some background. For a decade, I have been involved in team-teaching a first-year cross-disciplinary 18-credit hour learning community. The three of us most centrally involved in this particular section of the program have called our section "Truth in Society," and as part of our offering student first-year courses in English, Religious Studies and Sociology, have organized, each year, collaborative student investigations of particular historical episodes in which, as we define the criteria, people's fundamental beliefs were challenged or changed. The idea is that by conducting an investigation of the episode, coming to an understanding of the beliefs and assumptions at stake, and presenting that understanding to the rest of the class, small groups have an opportunity to learn many of the things we want university students to know and understand -- about libraries, writing, scholarship and research, critical reading and thinking -- as well as encountering the ways in which the three disciplines involved in the section might address the issues.
Having agreed on criteria and methods for making decisions about events, we give students the power to make their final choices about which events are worth studying. In the ten years of the program events or episodes have ranged from the fatwah issued on Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini to the Salem witch trials, from the Scopes trial to the visions of Bernadette at Lourdes to the Brixton riots. In recent years one of the strategies for identifying such episode has been to ask the students, in their reading of current articles in journals, to watch for references to appropriate historical episodes (to make research more practical and useful, we established that the event had to have occurred at least twenty years ago).
In the fall of 2004, a member of the class found an article called "Why the Vietnam War Still Matters," which had appeared in a journal called In These Times. She reported on her reading on a public Web site, and among other things noted a reference to the author supporting John Kerry "for taking a stand and telling the truth in 1971 after coming home from Vietnam." Others read her report and wondered what exactly had happened in 1971 (remember, these students had not been born then). Through a process of discussion, Kerry's testimony in 1971 became a candidate for an investigation, and a group conducted what we call a "feasibility study" to determine whether the event was a good candidate for a fuller investigation. In our "prompt" (we organize the course by distributing written documents which explain what we think should be done, and why), we said this, in part:
Your feasibility report will, however, include more than a working bibliography. It will also include a written assessment of whether or not the event is a doable one. You will need to sit down and consider what the event itself seems to offer in the way of opportunities for us all to understand how beliefs and assumptions get challenged and changed. And you need to consider this both from the perspectives of those involved at the time, and of people who came along later, who refer back to the historical events for their present purposes (like the author of the original article).The two students commissioned to assess the feasibility of the investigation reported with an unqualifiedly positive recommendation:
This topic would make an excellent topic of study. The event itself would be Kerry's address to congress, made in 1971. This testimony was part of a much larger testimony called the "Winter Soldier Investigation." This investigation refers to the conduct of the US in the Vietnam War. Kerry, a decorated veteran, returns from the war and instead of speaking in support speaks out against it. Kerry claimed that as many as 150 decorated veterans were, decorated for war crimes.This recommendation carried the day, and the event became one of the four which groups were formed to investigate and report on, with the aim of helping the rest of us understand how, in this case, people's opinions had been challenged or changed. The hope of the three of us overseeing this process was, of course, that in the process of investigating the event, there would be rich opportunities for the students to learn, with our tactful intervention, important things not only about the sources and tenacity of beliefs in 1971, but about how they themselves come to accept beliefs, and how their own beliefs might be changed.
One of the things the five-person group conducting the investigation were to do was draft what we called a "descriptive overview" of their event. Their overview, we were concerned to see, exhibited some slippage from the original focus (this is, of course, common in such investigations).
In 1971 John Kerry, a spokesman for the VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War), stated that the United States was guilty of war crimes committed during the Vietnam war. He basically summed up the findings of the Winter Soldier Investigation, which proved that heinous war crimes were committed against POW (soldiers and civilians). John O'Neill, who has been attacking Kerry since his speech in 1971, is now an active member of the swift boat veterans which is a group of Kerry's sea mates from the Vietnam war. This group was formed by George Bush during his campaign for the 2004 Presidential elections. We are planning on looking at both sides of this story and studying how people have come to believe what they do.At this point in the course students are working in independent groups, meeting with one of the three teachers when it seems appropriate, and reporting to the rest of the class on their work at intervals. They are also posting the results of their individual research on Web sites, which allow others to read them. As we watched and offered what advice we could, it became apparent as the group worked that the increasing reliance on material found on the Web was leading them to see primarily sources arising in the context of the current election campaign in the United States, and that the dominant voices in those sources were those of the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans," a group organized primarily to raise questions about John Kerry's war record.
Though where we could we tried, as persistently as we could, to suggest that other sources and other strategies might be helpful, we believed that our primary goal was not to ensure that the students came to believe what we thought was "the truth" about the Swift Boat Veterans, but that they would have the freedom to conduct the investigation in the way they thought best. Our conviction our commitment to the process of learning led us to believe that to intervene aggressively would turn the investigation from one in which they were pursuing understanding into one in which they were trying to do what would best please the professors. In the event, although at various times each of us involved raised questions about why the students were accepting as reliable certain Web sites or discourses, the Swift Boat Veterans were as effective with our students as they were, simultaneously, with many American voters.
The culmination of this process is that each group produces a bound book, which is read by everyone else in the class and then "launched" in a group presentation and discussion. The conclusion of the final report of this group was, almost predictably, that John Kerry was unfit to be President of the United States. Our repeated attempts to help them be aware of the ways in which their own views were being challenged and changed, and especially my own attempts, as a teacher of rhetoric and persuasion, to help them see that the sources they were increasingly relying on were tilted in a certain direction, were unavailing. The five students were focused on building a coherent document and absorbing their sources into it.
As a teacher, this outcome challenged my convictions in a number of ways. What was most important to me as I watched the train rumbling down the tracks toward this conclusion was my own sense that the conclusion was simply wrong: my own reading led me to the conviction that the "Swift Vote Veterans" was an organization created for the express purpose of disseminating a distorted picture of John Kerry's war record, and had little to do with the testimony before Congress in 1971. But in our post-mortem over the Christmas holiday, as we prepared for the second term of the course, the three teachers agreed that to have done more to steer the investigation would have been to violate our own convictions about the best way for students to learn: that the short-term outcome, a misconception about a historical event and a document which bought into a propaganda campaign, was far less important than the long-term lessons about autonomy, independent learning, and public responsibility that the students had the opportunity to learn by being given their head.
I remained, however, troubled by questions which don't seem to me to have easy answers. How to intervene in such process without becoming someone you don't want to be? How easy is it to become that person, point out the sources that were ignored and the voices that were silenced, direct the students toward the publications that questioned their conclusions -- and, at the same time, forget that it wasn't what you wanted in the longer run? The choice is often Hobson's: it's the rock or the hard place. As often with issues that are at bottom ethical there's no neat, either-or answer.
There's no easy way out of this kind of situation -- perhaps, in fact, no difficult and challenging one, either. It's possible to say, as I have said to myself, that it's necessary to remain conscious of the problem, to preserve the discomfort, to avoid allowing awareness of the disjunction between ideal and real to fade -- but there's no guarantee that this particular oyster's discomfort will produce a pearl.
More generally -- and not at all incidentally -- it's important to be clear that constraints are not bad things. We cannot be without them, and they help us shape our actions. As Robert Frost remarked, "You have freedom when you're easy in your harness." But you do need to be aware of the existence and nature of that harness, and to be conscious of the ways in which it enjoins tasks and limits flexibility and consistently, regularly, inexorably invites us to be conscious of our own need to retain our authenticity.
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