By James Christopher Head, Ph.D. Candidate, The Graduate Center CUNY
Hello out there.
How are you?
Who are you?
What interests you?
What do you find meaningful?
If you could make this space amenable for things you find meaningful, would you find it more engaging?
If you could use this space to pursue your interests, would you?
These are some questions that interest me and compel me to spend much of my time thinking about pedagogy. They are some of the questions that inspired the pedagogical approach that I presented at the 2017 Pedagogy Day conference at the CUNY Graduate Center. I will briefly discuss the approach near the end of this blog post.
These questions also provide some insight as to why I hesitated in writing this blog post. Several times over the past few years, GSTA leaders have asked me to write a post for the GSTA blog, and throughout that time, I have never found the idea appealing. The fact that I grew up in a pre-internet world probably has something to do with it, but I think my aversion to blogging, more likely, relates to some relational practices inherent in the act – some that I do not find very alluring, and some that I do not understand. I’m sure someone could educate me as to why I should embrace blogging, but I don’t think this kind soul would be relating to me, but rather, to a hypothetical you. They might even write a blog post about it: “Why you should embrace blogging.” I would prefer a dynamic conversation based on mutual respect and some shared sense of purpose. I would hope that the ethical commitment to avoid de-facing the other as much as possible (see Levinas, 1969), and to honoring the otherness of the other, could be operative in our interaction – at least by me.
I have, quite often, had the misfortune of operating in spaces where the questions at the top of this post were not asked – classes where I was rendered passive, organizations where I was manipulated, jobs where I was exploited. I do not find these types of spaces – and the relationships they engender - appealing, and have little desire to replicate them in my pedagogical practice.
I have also been involved in spaces that allowed me to negotiate how I would be in the space. For example, when I was a senior in high school, my art teacher allowed me to film and edit a skateboard video for my cumulative assignment – provided that the project incorporated principles I learned in class. I put more care, effort, and love into that project than anything I had done in any class up to that point. Since then, I have tried to take the lessons I learned while engaging in that project and apply them to other relational spaces – other classes, other jobs, other organizations. I have found that the more I am able use these types of spaces as sites for the active construction of meaning – or for the active negotiation of how meaning could best be made – the more productive I was, the more I felt compelled to participate in whatever function the space was intended to serve, and the more I appreciated my experience.
These experiences influence a pedagogical approach I have been cultivating for years – one in which I structure courses in a manner that facilitates students’ pursuit of meaning-making projects and their negotiation of course parameters. In brief, this approach is grounded on structuring courses as self-reflective qualitative research projects and builds upon the notion that the reflexive and reflective engagement in iterative, interpretive processes that foreground analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are central to both the production of qualitative research and the facilitation of deep and meaningful learning. In other words, this approach transforms the institutional requirement for comprehensive assessment into an occasion to do meaningful pedagogical work – namely, the facilitating of meaningful modes of engagement, the cultivation of deep thinking and writing, and the development of useful analytic skills. This approach rests on a relational reorientation of conventional course designs. Instead of structuring courses around statements like “In this course, students will learn X, Y, and Z,” this approach prioritizes questions like “How can students use this course to engage in projects that stoke their passions, cultivate their talents, and scratch their intellectual and existential itches?” and “How can I, as instructor, best aid students with their projects?” That is to say, this approach is grounded in pedagogical accompaniment, and encourages students’ active construction of their learning experience. This type of learning, I think, has a practical utility for students that extends well beyond our time together.
At the Pedagogy Day conference at the CUNY Graduate Center on October 27th, 2017, Joshua W. Clegg and I presented this approach in more detail. In so doing, we demonstrated how we have applied this approach in our courses. For example, we discussed how we structured one class around the production of autoethnographic research projects in which students examined their experiences as they navigated a powerful social institution. Throughout the course, students engaged in a variety of research practices (establishing research questions, designing a study, gathering data, conducting an analysis, writing a report, etc.) that they developed in relation to a topic of their choice. These practices helped students develop research skills, but also facilitated post-formal critical thinking by creating opportunities for students to engage in those practices. In describing how we have applied this approach, our intent was not to distribute pedagogical technologies, but to invite others to adapt this approach for their own purposes – to engage in a negotiative process that facilitates students’ engagement in negotiative processes. That is to say, we aimed to share and work with an approach grounded in structuring courses around relational practices more in line with dynamic conversations based on mutual respect and a shared sense of purpose.
Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity (A. Lingis, trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University.