maryellen weimer and the literature of teaching literature

Because half my work this term involved co-directing a center for teaching excellence at UH, I just presented a talk about CTEs and organizational learning at a conference in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) in Statesboro, GA.

My argument was that teaching centers play an important role when they help faculty and academic units organize more effectively around instruction.  In the same way that universities are just beginning to grasp the full complexity of student learning, teaching centers help make visible the struggles  of faculty in their own learning process, as they work to improve their own teaching.

This presentation, along with a book by Maryellen Weimer about SOTL, has given me some thoughts about the new collection on literature and assessment edited by Laura Rosenthal and Donna Heiland.

Both books address the relationship of disciplinarity to broader problematics of teaching and learning. Weimer, for example, is interested in developing a stronger, more credible literature of teaching, with more robust connections between practitioners’ narratives and the more academic genres of higher education research (which often deploy social science or at least quantitative methodologies).  Weimer tries hard not to impose a hierarchical relation between the two, but she seems uncomfortable with the affective or narrative components of much of the practitioner, first-person accounts of teaching (e.g., “how I improved my teaching with X”), largely because of the unabashed advocacy of many of these writers.

To make this scholarly literature more accessible as well as more credible, she would like those producing first-person accounts to look beyond their own disciplines and journals, and to conceive of their own teaching in a broader context. And, indeed, I think that faculty in the various departments and disciplines often forget how much our students resemble one another, whatever their majors, simply because they come from the same general population.  That is the virtue of addressing the “horizontal” university, the university as it is experienced by students, parents, and the neighborhoods and regions surrounding the school.

Rosenthal’s and Heiland’s anthology, however, insists just as strongly on the need to maintain a contextual and disciplinary perspective when confronting the problems of learning about learning.  They write: “In keeping with our hypothesis that the tools of the discipline are the best ones to exploit in assessing the learning intended to take place, we have focused on the literary figuration of the sublime, which is above all a way of trying to understand the ineffable.”  In other words, if learning takes place within a particular domain and context, why should one abandon the terms, traditions, practices and procedures that give learning its meaning in that context?

Yet putting it this way only begs the question of what, precisely, students in literature classes are learning if they are taking classes in the sublime and the ineffable.  And what is the difference between an introductory and a senior course on the sublime?  I suspect that literary scholars could draw up the respective syllabi more easily than they could explain the differences between the two to researchers in other fields.  And it seems harder for literary scholars than others to agree upon the fundamental terms (i.e., the “pedagogical content knowledge”) that would enable us to teach basic and advanced courses organized around distinctively literary topics like close reading, literary periods, or histories of particular genres.

Ultimately, I think that the moment we recognize the multidimensionality of learning, we must also accept the notion of the multidisciplinarity of knowledge, along with the notion that no single discipline or method has privileged access to what people learn or how they learn it.

At this point in time, the “vertical” university of the disciplines, as these are constructed, aggregated, reconfigured, torn down, or recreated at an organizational level, have become the only means we have to confront the full complexity of knowledge.  And literature and literary knowledge–because of their unique emphasis upon the non-generalizable detail, the ineffability of experience, the rhetorical stance, the affective dimension of knowledge, the value of the first-person point of view, and the serial, narrative aspects of language–all these features of literary studies allow it to serve as a place-holder for the forms of experience that do not fit easily within other disciplines’ epistemologies.  But probably the best place to begin the work of comprehending both perspectives, the vertical and the horizontal, is by looking at what happens in the literature classroom.


2 responses to “maryellen weimer and the literature of teaching literature

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Thanks for this interesting post. Weimer’s book looks interesting; I’m putting it on my wish list! It sounds to me that it would do a lot of good to make teaching conversations more in line with general scholarly expectations. Along those lines, one of the most interesting benefits of working on assessment at my campus has been learning about how people in other disciplines think about their goals. On the model of scholarship: just like reading other articles on the novel you’re writing about helps you bring your own reading into focus, so learning about other kinds of classroom issues brings the same perspective.

  2. Dave Mazella

    One of the tensions in Weimer’s work is between the desire for a more scholarly-looking and “grounded” literature of teaching, and her awareness that much of what happens in classrooms is simply not captured by a single disciplinary approach. There is also the very real issue that many experts in higher ed research attain their expertise precisely by abandoning the practitioners’ point of view, and therefore lose sight of the particular techniques and contexts that would makes this scholarship easier to read and use; practitioners, of course, have their own forms of myopia. But the failure to align the practitioners’ writing with the conventional research means that there are very real possibilities of dialogue out there, waiting for the individuals willing to work together on some kind of common project.