Discovering the power, in and for my own context, of ideas drawn from early childhood education, from research on language development in children and second language learning, from composition and rhetoric, from empirical studies of literary reading, from semiotics and linguistics, has led me to the conviction that all language learning is fundamentally the same process. How we learn does not change in principle from the time we're learning, as infants, to use language to be persons in families, to the time we're learning, as adults, to use language to be persons as members of professional communities and the larger society.
This is related to what is perhaps, on reflection, the most consistently central idea in my practice: a commitment to dialogue. I am concerned with the ways in which, in my own teaching and that of others, oral and written language has a tendency to become a matter of display rather than exchange, of exercising power rather than inviting others to share, compare, triangulate, and exchange ideas, values, and understanding. As a teacher I have consistently tried to create situations in which language can be dialogic. By that I mean language that is formulated and understood as being a response, and expecting a response, to other language, and that serves authentic, mutual purposes for both reader and writer (or speaker and listener). In my view, traditional term papers and examination essays do not readily afford being so understood, and the attempt to find and devise other genres has been central to my teaching. One result of this has been that my students are put in rhetorical situations where their reports of their learning are not directed at me, but at others in the class who do not already (in the writers' view, at least) know what they've learned, and need or want to. I think of this as placing meaning at the centre of language practice. It is by doing this that we achieve the miracles of language learning that happen for infants in their first few months of life, and by doing it that students can best learn to use written language effectively for their own purposes. In practice, these ideas have shaped my development of writing-based "collaborative investigation" courses, in which students' learning is exchanged with others in writing rather than encapsulated in texts to be evaluated by an authority.
A richly developed literacy is, I believe, the most important tool we have for thinking, reflecting, creating a culture of knowledge and being part of that culture of knowledge. This commitment has led me to led me to the use of writing in new forms -- for example, to participation in the invention of "inkshedding" (socially embedded or transactional impromptu writing) as a pedagogical and a professional strategy, to the use of my own writing as the primary vehicle by which courses are explained and assignments made, and to the ongoing creation and exploration of electronic contexts in which student writing can serve the intellectual and social needs of students. My long-term interest in technological tools like photocopying and microcomputers and computer networks and, most recently, the interactive potential of the Internet and the World Wide Web, has been driven by this desire to find ways to make it possible for writing and reading to be authentically dialogic for the students engaged in them. My publications and workshops in recent years have arisen primarily out of this pursuit.
Almost as important is my long-standing commitment to maintaining an active dialogue between theory and practice. What I'm doing with students and in classrooms affects what I read and how I read it, what conferences I attend and what I bring away from them, and, conversely, what I read and hear and understand has consequences for my practice. If my theory and my day-to-day practice are in conflict, as they almost always are, I am uncomfortable and dissatisfied. At present, for instance, I am engaged in a struggle to reconcile the inconsistencies between what I believe about the destructive effects of extrinsic rewards and the way in which classroom activities are framed and constrained by such rewards. What this means right now is that I am radically reshaping the nature and function of evaluation in my courses, moving toward a collaborative and reflective model which attempts to mediate between the external demands for useful and meaningful grades and the internal necessity for students to be acting in response to intrinsic motivation. Outlines of some of the ways in which I am addressing this problem are available in the extensive course descriptions students receive at the beginnings of all my courses.
In general, it is my attempt to make the fundamental process of evaluation explicit and automatic, and circumscribe my own role in the process as narrowly and clearly as possible. I've said to students for some years that if they do what I ask of them and don't learn, that's primarily the fault of my design, so I feel comfortable assigning basic grades simply for work completed. I also believe that the assigning of grades by authorities undermines student's ability, or disposition, to evaluate their own learning, and so for grades functioning as designations of excellence, I ask students explicity to describe that learning -- in part by an ongoing "learning journal" and in part by a summative "learning reflection" at the end of a course. This means, I hope, that it is possible for students to avoid the alienating effect -- so persuasively described by Alfie Kohn, in his Punished By Rewards -- of having their work regularly graded, and yet retain a system of creating marks that is at least as reliable as more conventional systems.
Another long term pattern has been my commitment to independence for my students. What I wish for them is that they come not to need me -- not, indeed, to need classrooms and formal instruction at all -- in order to learn about academic and intellectual matters. I am deeply suspicious of my own eagerness to be the centre of classroom conversation, to engage students in dialogue with me and thus to put my authority and knowledge directly at their service. I think this fosters dependence on authority, both for knowledge and understanding and for validation of knowledge: it tends to produce citizens unused to judging the importance or value of their own work or that of others, and, even more, unused to making decisions about what's worth doing and knowing. What this has meant for my teaching has been that I try to find ways to efface my role at the centre of the process, to help students attend to the world outside the classroom, and to each other, rather than to me as primary discourse partner.
Related to this is my belief in the importance of active learning. I wish for my students that they come to know -- more, that they come to act as though they knew -- that learning isn't something that happens to you, but something you do; that it is not a noun, but a verb. It is also something that you must learn to choose to do. The idea of disposition (as in a "disposition" to do something), which I have drawn, like much else in my teaching, from the work of early childhood educators, has become increasingly central to my reflection and to my practice in recent years. I hope that my students, as a consequence of my courses, are in the rest of their lives more rather than less disposed to read actively, critically, and widely, to reflect on their experience, to take risks as learners, to care about ideas.
More generally, I have a growing belief in the importance of long-term fundamental change, rather than the acquisition of skills and knowledge which can be tested in the short term, as the central goal of my teaching. As a teacher I am always aware that what I do can never be effectively or convincingly measured. Indeed, what I do has consequences -- if it has consequences -- that can be perceived not immediately, or after thirteen or twenty-six weeks of classes, but only years and decades later. My hope as a teacher is not that I will change a student's behaviour so that she scores better on a test at the end of a course, or writes a better term paper. My hope is that ten years from now I will find students of mine reading, with engagement and enjoyment, texts they wouldn't have read otherwise; attending the theatre because they love it rather than because it's a social obligation; using writing as a tool for solving their problems, persuading colleagues, presenting themselves in social contexts; demonstrating a disposition to learn, when appropriate, how to discover information and deepen their knowledge by exploring the records of discourse preserved in libraries and archives.
Obviously, such changes are difficult to observe, both because they are long term and because the usual measures aren't appropriate. One device I regularly use to assess the effectiveness of my own practice is the discursive portion of the usual "course evaluation" procedure. Although I have little confidence in the relevance to my methods of the numerical ratings in various categories, what students write in the discursive sections has been -- and continues to be -- powerfully influential in my practice. Much of the length and detailed nature of the statements about learning, and learning reflections, in my course syllabi, is the result of student comments which suggesting that there were students who did not fully understand my methods, or what I thought constituted learning. In the last decade or so I have, almost every year, expanded that explanation and given more attention at the beginning of courses (and as they progress) to explicit attention to my goals and methods. In the English section of our interdisciplinary Truth in Society course, for instance, I ask students to read the department's statement of curricular goals and to reflect on their learning according to the categories laid out there, and to participate in the creation of a curriculum responsive to those goals.
The importance of collaboration is an idea which seems to run through my career as well -- not only in my scholarly work and publication, which has regularly involved deep and productive and (at least for me) profitable collaborations, dating back to my journalistic work in the late sixties and early seventies, and running through my collaborative work on the Inkshed conference, my empirical research into aesthetic reading, and more recently my work on the rhetorical, professional and pedagogical potential of the Internet. It is worth noting that the idea that we learn best when working together on common projects has become central to my teaching practice over the past decade, and although I am not a partisan of traditional "cooperative learning" pedagogies, all my teaching for the past decade has had collaboration, in some form (usually mediated by writing and reading), at its centre. Most immediately, my collaboration with the other teachers involved in planning and conducting the Truth in Society section of the Aquinas Program since 1993 has afforded a level of collaboration in curricular planning and in day-to-day teaching (and reflection on practice) that has been profoundly valuable to me.
Finally, my practice is shaped by my belief that there is a profound difference between authority and power. In a classroom, power is the power to mark, the power to disapprove, the power to promote, to award credit and to further or hamper careers. A teacher has power, and cannot ignore or abdicate it -- but it is not, I believe, fundamentally beneficial to learning or education. Authority, on the other hand, is earned, and must be re-earned every time a teacher encounters a new student: authority is situational, is always open to question, and is the basis from which a teacher can act as an example, as a mentor, as a guide, and in turn -- because students can be or become authorities -- learn from and be guided by students.
It has taken three decades for me to learn that there is no significant difference between learning and teaching. All authentic language is dialogue, as Bakhtin has said: all learning occurs in the social context of dialogue, and thus becomes teaching as it is learned. We learn in order that we can teach; we teach in order to learn. As I have learned that, I hope that I have also taught it. Chaucer says of his Clerke, "And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche." I can think of no higher praise.