Monday, July 26, 2010

Is teaching work? Is learning?

I don't mean to be asking nonsensical questions here, but the more I think about what work means the more I wonder whether teaching and learning, as we usually practice them, are work.  Here is what I mean.

By one standard both teaching and learning are work--people get paid to teach (and receipt of pay is one measure of work in capitalism); people put in substantial effort to learn (and the application of effort to a challenge is another measure of work).  Work is happening.

But there is uncertainty about teaching, learning, and work in society.  Take for example those people who teach on the side because they simply love to teach.  Ask them if teaching is work, and they are likely to say no, that teaching is a pleasure, and therefore not work (dissatisfaction with the effort being another sign that something is work rather than, say, leisure).  Or ask the critics of schools of education if teaching is work, and they are likely to deny it, suggesting that developing content knowledge is real work; while pedagogy is merely an effort to gussy up a natural human skills with a scientific patina, or to indoctrinate students with "progressive ideologies".

Learning is equally suspect.  Our system of education traditionally puts learning before employment, or put another way, before work. And the opportunity to learn is sometimes sequestered from work.  Students leave school because they have to work to afford it.

Why does this matter?  Because uncertainty about the status of teaching and learning impedes our ability to know if they are happening, and happening well.  For example, if teaching is essentially a pleasure for the teacher, then how do we judge its value?  What would allow us to say that a four-hour lecture is less effective than four hours spent otherwise?  Or if learning is work because it is essentially effort, then why bother to have such a thing as a class?  Why not just give students tasks and wish them well?

At the risk of sounding like a fan, I want to suggest that Shop Class as Soulcraft has a lot to teach about the ways in which teaching and learning are work.  The most intriguing to me is the notion that work has a particular telos--an end to which it points.  In the case of motorcycle repair it is to get the bike running as if it were new--to "fill the measure of its creation" to borrow a phrase from my religious tradition. (For a great poem on this notion read Zbigniew's Herbert's "Pebble."
                     by Zbigniew Herbert
                     The pebble
                     is a perfect creature
                     equal to itself
                     mindful of its limits
                     filled exactly
                     with a pebbly meaning
                     with a scent that does not remind one of anything
                     does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire
                     its ardour and coldness
                     are just and full of dignity
                     I feel a heavy remorse
                     when I hold it in my hand
                     and its noble body
                     is permeated by false warmth
                      - Pebbles cannot be tamed
                      to the end they will look at us
                      with a calm and very clear eye
                                       Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz
Now I know that essentialism has been on the outs in academe for a long time.  But many people, including academics, point to experiences where they felt that they had discovered a bit of their essences as human beings--the characteristics that make them who they are at this time.  And it seems to me that if we want to understand teaching and learning as work then we need to attend to those moments where teacher and learner together come across experiences where they jointly discover bits of who they are and truths about how the world works.  To push a bit further, I want to suggest that neither teaching nor learning can achieve their teleologies without the other.

Mark those moments that seem like the times when understanding has emerged. ;If Crawford is right in Shop Class then they are the rare moments when work happens.  The rest of the time we might be engaged in labor, or effort, or struggle, or leisure, but we haven't yet done any work.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The geography of extra work

This has been a season for thinking about extra work in higher education.  We are hiring adjuncts for fall--many of them in the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business are executives who also teach a course or two.  At the college, nearly every adjunct also has another job (or two, or three).  New projects that pop up have to be taken on by existing employees--it is too late to do searches for fall (hence my second job as Interim Dean).  Faculty are finding projects to supplement their incomes--consulting, facilitating meetings, joining new initiatives, etc.

Though these types of extra work are disparate, they share two characteristics.  First, they all use pay as an incentive to encourage people to take on work that is not in their main job description.  A small point to be sure, but one that is increasingly common in higher education, where a little bit of pay is the central form of encouragement to try new things.

Second, when people talk about this type of work, they always use a geographical metaphor.  They are doing work "on top of" their regular assignments.  Or they are doing the additional work "on the side." Or they are picking up work "here and there."

What does this connection between geography and work mean?  It seems to indicate that whatever our jobs, we conceive of them in space--the assignments in a geographical relationship to each other (as opposed, I guess, to temporal relationships or relationships based on priority.)  It also means that this extra work is just that--extra, not part of the core of what we do.

I am particularly intrigued by the use of the phrase "on the side."  It has had negative connotations. Consider, for example, the way we say that an unfaithful spouse has a lover "on the side" or the connotation that side-work is secondary. But the phrase is getting some rehabilitation in the call for faculty to move from being "Sage[s] on the stage" to "guide[s] on the side." In that use of the phrase, being on the side is a good thing, something that allows others (students) to take responsibility for their work.

I wonder if there is possibility in that use for all of us who take on work "on the side."  It is worth asking whether there is anything in the view of work encapsulated in "guide on the side' that suggests how we can do extra work.  Perhaps as work moves more to the side the person responsible must be more facilitative than directive.  Or perhaps where several people are working on side projects, we would be wise to follow the model of collaborative work on the internet, where, to use Clay Shirky's phrase, we contribute from our cognitive surplus to projects of which no one is in charge.  Or it could simply suggest that the more work we do on the side, the less centered our work is, for good or ill.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What about work?

(For the next while I am trying a new approach to this blog.  Each Monday I will post on a particular theme for the week.  Any posts that follow during the week will expand on the theme; the following Monday I'll write about a new theme.  Trying to put a bit of organization to my writing here, in hopes that it eventually adds up to something in addition to discrete mini-essays on learning...This week's theme is Work.)

With all of the attention higher education gives to getting graduates employed, it is astonishing how little interest we have in work. By this I mean simply that it is rare for an institution to help its students consider what work is, how it shapes human beings, and how it gives meaning to life.  I cannot think of any college (though I am sure there are some) that requires courses about the meaning of work, only a few campuses that consider the learning that comes from employment while in school, and only an handful of business programs that attend to the questions about justice, human fulfillment, and the social good that emerge from the way that employers structure work.

This issue is on my mind for several reasons.  I've spent the past 18 months on a task force working to connect student employment at Westminster to the college's learning goals.  Our hope is that every student who works on campus will have a job that leads to learning, and that that learning will be of value to the student.  My wife's job currently requires 14 hour days and weekend work, with almost no consideration of the toll a workload like that takes on her, us, or the quality of her work.  And I have been asked to take on a major additional assignment at the college, serving as Interim Dean of the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business, an assignment that raises questions about my ability to complete good quality work while maintaining the balance and clear-sightedness that might make it possible to do that work.

Our inattention to work is not for lack of meaningful content to study.  The meaning of work is a core concern of many major religions (right livelihood in Buddhism; the notion of a holy day of rest in Western religions); assumptions about it undergird Marxism and Capitalism; the topic is more universally experienced by students than anything except sleep.

What is more, the recent economic downturn has pushed the meaning of work to the fore of American culture.  I had lunch last week with two former students, honors graduates of the college, recipients of graduation awards, perhaps the two most civically engaged students I have ever known.  Neither has full-timer permanent work.  One works temporarily for the state doing field biology; the other takes tickets at the local aviary.  Work is a huge issue for them--they both have large amounts of student debt, but they both also want to live decent lives and be part of the human conversation rather than structuring their lives around their jobs.  And on a more abstract level, the problem of work is at the center of some of the most influential books published in the past year--Rework and Shop Class as Soulcraft among them.

I don't have any idea about how to insert (or is it re-insert) the study of work into the curriculum.  But it seems that if faculty, staff, administrators, and students do not take up the questions that come out of work seriously then our institutions are failing our students, and we are failing ourselves.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why are we still asking if it is OK for someone to choose not to attend college?

In response to my last post Bryce Bunting wrote the following:

Crawford's ideas got me thinking about the current push to increase accessibility to higher education. Everywhere you look these days there is a new online college, community college, or for-profit venture that touts its ability to increase access. 

Is there any danger that the rhetoric of organizations like KIPP ("every single person in this room is going to college") and the oft-heard message that college is the best path for everyone, will devalue the role of the crafts in society? If Crawford is right and certain crafts can provide the financial security and cognitive fulfillment, should we be so concerned with getting everyone to college? Will there come a time when a college education doesn't lead to good jobs and meaningful work and we'll end up wishing for more mechanics and skilled repair-men?

I can't answer Bryce's questions with any certainty.  It seems that the future Bryce imagines is a possibility; on the other hand, the "a college degree will be essential to the employment possibilities of every American" seems equally likely, especially given the way that the educational, economic, and political establishments have lined up behind that view.

But Bryce's question raises another question that I would like to take a shot at: Why are we still asking if it is OK for someone to choose not to attend college?  There are two answers, I think, both rooted in America's cultural ambivalence towards history.

First, we have to ask that question because our discussions are haunted by the history of discrimination in American education.  More particularly, this discussion is haunted by the way that progressives created  a tiered educational system where the children of WASP families were encouraged towards university while the children of Jews, Blacks, Latinos, plus women were encouraged to pursue the trades.  (For a compelling history of these actions, take a look at Diane Ravitch's  book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.) In our history, then, the argument that certain young people ought not to attend college is always linked with our history of racism and sexism.  

Second, we have to ask because of education's commitment to serve the progress of the nation.  There is of course an irony here: that in a decentralized educational system the aims of education are nationalist.  But that is indeed the case.  Again and again educational leaders have shifted the curriculum and mission of education to pursue whatever the "future" held.  At one time in the 1800s our future looked like a future of tradesmen, and so schools and universities set out to teach students the trades (hence the land grant colleges and universities, which originally were tuned to apply science both to agriculture and to mechanics, hence the "A&M" schools.) But since at least WWII the future has not be a future of tradesmen but of managers, knowledge workers, engineers.  And so that perceived need, driven by the Cold War then and by our obsessive fear that we are falling behind our global competitors today, means that any call for students to learn trades is a call for an America that looks backwards.  

Since neither of our major political parties is concerned with tradition, and since key sectors of government, the media, and business are convinced that the future is one of technology (as if there is only one future...), studying the trades appears to be as useless as studying history.