I’ve been thinking about Sheridan Blau’s The Literature Workshop for a while now, because I’m slated to create and teach an advanced graduate course in pedagogy in the spring, and I’ve been looking for approaches that would give more experienced teachers some new concepts and practices to use when they return to the classroom. The emphasis on the “advanced” pedagogy comes from my experience that most texts on higher ed teaching seem designed for beginning instructors. Texts like Jim Lang’s On Class or McKeachie’s Teaching Tips do this job very well, but they have almost nothing to say to the teacher who already knows how to face a class on the first day of the semester, plan a syllabus, or grade a paper, but would still like to improve her teaching in specific ways.
In other words, once we get past our existential fears of facing students and acting as authority-figures, how can we identify and work on the things that still trouble our work in and out of the classroom? Unlike the fears everyone experiences in their first years of teaching, these problems come at us in very specific ways throughout a semester, and will continue to visit us semester after semester, if we cannot find good solutions.
Compared to the worries of beginning teachers, the problems faced by experienced teachers are both very concrete and frustratingly difficult to overcome, since they often involve working between contradictory pedagogical or professional principles that need to be maintained simultaneously. How to provide better feedback, without losing oneself to a stack of papers every other week? How to lead discussion more effectively, given the unpredictable mix of passivity and self-display your students might demonstrate? How to design better assignments, if you feel that your current assignments are only reinforcing their worst writing habits? And so forth.
One of the Literature Workshop’s virtues is Blau’s decision to honor the experience and practitioners’ wisdom of the English teachers he addresses, whether these are teaching in secondary schools, community colleges, SLACs or research universities. This stance derives from the book’s origins in the National Writing Project at UC Berkeley, and its founders’ decision that its professional development would present “pedagogical ideas to colleagues largely in the form of demonstration lessons that model actual classroom practices, and then in reflecting on those demonstrations and their origins as a way of drawing a rationale or theory for practice from the demonstrated practices themselves” (15).
This characteristic integration of practice, reflection, and theorization into a recursive process honors the NWP motto of “teachers teaching teachers,” and it avoids the typical professional development scenario where teachers have to sit through lectures by outside experts or consultants who often have no concrete experience with the types of teaching being done by their audiences (17). The danger of this kind of top-down, tone-deaf “professional development” is that it often comes from administrators or staff who have never, or no longer, face the same daily teaching challenges that faculty do, and who therefore lack credibility. For this reason, NWP presenters like Blau only present on strategies that they themselves have practiced and refined in their own classes for an extended period of time. Convincing experienced teachers to do the uncomfortable work of reexamining what works, and acknowledging what doesn’t work, in their own teaching requires the “teacher who teaches teachers” to have some insight into the potential difficulties of such a process. For this reason, the credibility of this kind of teacher is essential for the process to have any lasting or deep effect on its audience.
There are two interesting consequences of this experiential approach to pedagogy: the first is that the kind of generic “universal teaching manual” for a particular kind of class or discipline (along the lines of McKeachie or Lang, as good as they are) seems impossible, since even the most dedicated innovator will be working in a relatively restricted curricular area. In other words, the experience grounding a particular faculty-member’s teaching strategies will remain bound up with the type of school, student, discipline, course, and curricula that gave it a context to begin with. This is by no means a bad thing, but it does mean that any account of teaching is deeply contextual, and requires that context to be understood in order for its lessons to be learned and implemented in a useful way.
The other consequence is that Blau’s version of English literary studies remains, in his words, “anti-theoretical,” in the sense that he is most interested in encouraging students in his introductory literature courses (and in his graduate courses for English Education students) to read and discuss literary works–at least initially– in their own terms. He encourages his students to pursue their own lines of inquiry without having to be lectured in historical or theoretical contexts beforehand, and allows theory to “break out” (in Graff’s terms), when “agreement about such terms as text, reading, history, interpretation, tradition, and literature, can no longer be taken for granted, so that their meanings have to be formulated and debated” (5).
The result is not that theory is denied or disavowed, but that it does remain tacit, external, and undeveloped until students themselves can be brought to understand the implications of their own interpretations and interpretive debates. This approach to theory, which makes eminent sense given Blau’s own teaching audience and courses, means that Blau’s work has less to say about other kinds of work in the English major, particularly historically-, theoretically-, or research-based-work in more advanced courses. However, I still think there is much to learn from Blau in terms of eliciting responses from every level of student, and especially in leading discussions and designing assignments. I’ll discuss these in another post.