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Gender, Experience, and Knowledge in Adult Learning: Alisoun’s Daughters
Date Reviewed: March 14, 2016
Institutions of higher education can treat the life experiences of adult learners as raw student material – material that requires expert educators to transform it into knowledge. Elana Michelson questions hegemonic tendencies in higher education that often perpetuate dualism of mind versus body as well as dismissive attitudes about the value of embodied knowledge. Her argument that “professional discourse concerning experiential learning remains rooted in the disembodied Enlightenment knower” rings true in theological education as well as other areas of scholarship (38). When claims of knowledge need to be authorized in some way, the process of authorization is always embedded in power relationships. Michelson elucidates these relationships through her examination of institutional assessment of life experience for academic credit. Her book serves as a window for surveying epistemological issues of trends in higher education.
Academic scholars continue to question the legitimacy of learning from experience. Michelson traces the history of the program Assessment of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL), as it originated from liberal educational ideals responding to needs of returning war veterans after World Wars I and II. College equivalency assessment and training programs met needs for “both relevance and access” (103). Similar programs were generated globally with changes in educational multiculturalism and class mobility. The need for systems that evaluate experiential learning in order to assign academic credit and professional credentials continues to be furthered by globalization. Michaelson examines more recent developments in APEL as it responds to corporate and technical pressures on higher education.
Michelson enlists Alisoun, the wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as a memorable symbol of the canny, shrewd, embodied insight that stands in contrast to the orthodox knowledge of formal scholars and clerics. The figure of Alisoun creatively questions gendered polarities of body versus mind in the history of what counts as knowledge. Alisoun’s critique of the church’s leaders has a persuasive force while questioning textual authority, misogynistic attitudes of the priesthood, and orthodoxy’s monopoly on interpretation. Michelson beautifully illustrates her argument connecting tales of old wives like Alisoun with M.M. Bakhtin’s symbol of carnival as metaphor for the “transgressive possibilities of experiential learning” and “subversive knowledges” which may pose challenges to the economic and political structures of formal education (189).
Although Michelson does not address theological education directly, religious studies programs and theological schools with programs in field education and contextual learning will benefit from her study. Authorization for ministry is changing rapidly. Consider an applicant for a Doctor of Ministry program who does not have a Master of Divinity degree but has decades of pastoral experience. Experiential knowing may be valuable, but how can that value be assessed? Unfortunately, people seem capable of failing to learn from their experience, so explicating the processes that facilitate learning from experience requires more study. Institutions of higher education or authorizing bodies who oversee workplace competencies must assess knowledge in terms of preparedness to practice professional tasks. Michaelson’s study would be stronger if she directly addressed specific examples of practical challenges of assessing the worth of experiential knowledge in consistent and fair ways. However, her book makes an important and timely contribution to the discourse on learning theory and will be valuable to those in religious studies and theological education, especially regarding intersections with critical-race theory, queer theory, and feminist theory.
Meeting the Transitional Needs of Young Adult Learners (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, Number 143)
Date Reviewed: February 4, 2016
Part of the series “New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education,” Meeting the Transitional Needs of Young Adult Learners is the first entry to address young adult learners in thirty years. As such, it is a welcome contribution to the series, as well as a valuable resource in its own right. Faculty teaching traditional undergraduates, as well as those in continuing and adult education roles, will find much of value here.
The terms “young adult” and “youth” are used across the essays in the volume, though without a single common definition. Generally, “young adult” refers to individuals from ages eighteen to twenty-five, though with some flexibility on both sides; adult education may begin at sixteen, as Davis notes (chapter 6). Chapter 1, by Joanna Wyn, introduces several key concepts that recur in subsequent chapters. Wyn offers a nice overview of the scholarship of youth transitions, new adulthood, and age. She argues that the “metaphor of transition” — a frequent feature in discussions of young adulthood — should be replaced with a “metaphor of belonging” that emphasizes relationships and connections (9).
Indeed, many of the following chapters take up this call for an emphasis on relationships and belonging. Chapters 2 through 8 follow a basic model of identifying a specific community, reviewing the literature, data, or relevant theoretical work relating to that community, and concluding with suggestions for instructors. Thus Brendaly Drayton (chapter 2) introduces and theorizes cultural difference, with special attention to ethnic difference and the experience of young adults positioned in multiple cultures. Drayton encourages instructors to use texts from a range of cultures as well as collaborative learning practices. Rongbing Xie, Bisakha (Pia) Sen, and E. Michael Foster (chapter 3) offer a similar introduction to “vulnerable youth,” a broad category that encompasses socio-economic disparities, mental health, welfare, and involvement with the justice system. Noting the problem of youth who “age out” of social services, they call on educators to be informed and competent allies for vulnerable youth and to provide social support. Jessica Nina Lester (chapter 4) makes a similar argument with respect to “youth with dis/ability labels.” The pedagogical emphasis in these chapters is on the affective and relational, encouraging instructors to engage beyond course material. Steven B. Frye’s contribution addresses young adults in faith communities (chapter 5). Instructors in confessional contexts may find his insights helpful; in other contexts, less so.
The final three chapters are the work of the editors, C. Amelia Davis and Joann S. Olson. Davis (chapter 6) discusses adult education programs as they serve young adult learners, and offers some helpful suggestions for strengthening these programs. Olson (chapter 7) takes up the transition from school to workplace, arguing that educators can intentionally create classroom and school experiences that prepare students for, and ease the transition to, the workplace. She also offers a number of useful examples, including discussing class assignments. A final chapter by Olson and Davis (chapter 8) offers a concise overview of key themes from the preceding chapters. This is a valuable collection of essays, which much to offer all educators working with young adults.
Swimming Upstream: Black Males in Adult Education (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, Number 144)
Date Reviewed: January 16, 2016
What person of sound mind would make a conscious decision to swim upstream against the current of turbulent waters? The correct answer is “probably no one.” Swimming upstream requires not only excellent navigational skill but perhaps, more importantly, demands that one possess the tenacity and spirit of a survivor. That is precisely why the metaphor “swimming upstream” is so appropriate in describing the plight of scores of African-American men who elect to enter and succeed in higher education (1).
Swimming Upstream: Black Males in Adult Education is one volume in the series entitled: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. This anthology is intended “to make space for the experience and voices of Black men in the canon of adult education literature, to promote a critical assessment of institutional policies and practices, and to foster awareness and involvement among adult educators” (89).
The format of this book is well-suited for academic settings. Each essay is preceded by a short introductory paragraph. At the close of each chapter the authors provide a robust list of reference sources that should prove helpful for students and educators alike.
The first chapter discusses the impact of race and racism in the American adult educational system. Chapter two addresses myths and stereotypes employed to depict Black men and their influence on educational attainment. Chapter three explores the reasons for entering adult basic education programs and the role of gender identity. The topic of high school equivalency is discussed in chapter four. Chapter five addresses young Men of Color and engagement in adult learning. Chapter six is concerned with college reentry for African-American males. Chapter seven addresses the sobering topic of Black male college study following a term of incarceration. Chapter eight discusses military veterans and access to the GI Bill to pay educational expenses. The final essay, chapter nine, culminates with a call to action for educational practitioners.
Understanding context is critical. In recent years a growing constituency has emerged that believes society has entered a post-racial or “colorblind” era. They advance the proposition that one’s race or ethnicity has no bearing on one\'s ability to survive and prosper in modern America. I strongly disagree with the post-racial theorists but recognize that it would be helpful for books like Swimming Upstream to squarely confront the legitimate concerns of post-racial proponents. In so doing one hopes that individuals on both sides of the argument will ultimately reach a consensus that the mission of ensuring equal educational opportunities for every individual remains a struggle that must still be waged today. Swimming Upstream moves that discussion forward with compelling statistical and anecdotal evidence.
In 1903, the late W.E. B. DuBois prophesied in The Souls of Black Folks that the problem of the twentieth century would be the “color line” – the invisible yet palpable line of demarcation between Caucasians and African-Americans that was often characterized by overt discrimination and bigotry. More than one century later the question of whether “Black lives matter” is, in my view, a logical extension of DuBois’ central thesis. It can be argued that Swimming Upstream may unintentionally serve to remind us that certain remnants of the issues raised by DuBois remain unresolved today. For some readers this will speak to the relevance and timeliness of Swimming Upstream.
An average book informs and a good book intrigues the reader. But an excellent book sparks self-reflection and may even compel one to act in new and bold ways. As a college instructor I routinely survey students to ascertain why they decided to embark on a college education. The primary responses from students generally, and African-American males specifically, are: “I want to make my parents proud of me” and “I want to set a positive example for my children/siblings/family.” Those learners confirm what I have long known to be true: that given equality of economic and institutional opportunities, African-American males have no less potential to achieve academic and vocational success than any other segment of the American population. College study may not be right for everyone but it must become accessible for anyone. Arguably that is the controversial and exciting rationale for Swimming Upstream. It is an excellent anthology that serves to affirm our collective belief in the basic humanity and intellectual capacity of every individual.
Please indulge this low-grade rant. I believe the notion of “safe space” in adult classrooms is un-interrogated and oversubscribed. The question is … Safe for whom? Well-intentioned teachers, in wanting students to attempt deep conversation, wrongly presume adult students need to feel safe in order to effectively learn. Rarely is it ...
Teaching Adults: A Practical Guide for New Teachers
Date Reviewed: December 1, 2015
Ralph Brockett has spent his career on the leading edge of adult learning theory and practice. He is widely published, a master in the classroom, and – having been inducted into the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame in 2005 (among other accolades) – has earned the respect and admiration of his peers. In Teaching Adults: A Practical Guide for New Teachers, Brockett takes the posture of a caring mentor to provide a succinct and accessible introduction to the dynamic field of adult learning. His style is conversational, his expertise evident, and he is clearly most interested in helping to equip you, the teacher, with very practical advice for teaching adults in a wide variety of formal and informal learning contexts.
Teaching Adults is written for a variety of readers. Brockett suggests an audience that may include a professional tasked with offering a training session in her field, a layperson asked to teach an adult Sunday School class, and a scout leader needing to orient a cadre of adult volunteers. In addition, the book is applicable to those who may not primarily think of themselves as teachers, but who nevertheless spend a fair amount of time teaching – such as ministers, social workers, and health care professionals. Further, higher education professors and instructors will find this book valuable. As Brockett rightly points out, these educators are not always equipped to meet the unique needs of an ever-increasing population of adult learners. Finally, this book can benefit graduate students in the field of adult education, helping to further define and map the foundational concepts of adult learning.
Teaching Adults is organized around a simple formula: effective teaching leads to successful learning! To illustrate this, Brockett weaves together (1) seven essential attributes of effective teachers and (2) four keys to effective teaching. To describe the qualities of effective teachers, Brockett continually reinforces seven characteristics: trust, empathy, authenticity, confidence, humility, enthusiasm, and respect. Attending to these essential qualities has a distinctive impact on the success of an adult learning event. Similarly, the four keys of effective teaching (know the content, know the adult learner, know about teaching, and know yourself) help to steward learning for maximum transfer and impact. Especially helpful in processing these concepts are the end-of-chapter “think about it” exercises and focused listings of additional resources.
Teaching Adults is an accessible and valuable primer. New and seasoned teachers alike will find practical resources for honing their skills, whatever their educational context. As a basic, introductory text, this book is not peppered with citations and endnotes; however, its bibliography serves as an essential reading list for those new to the field of adult learning theory. I would venture to suggest one drawback: despite its focus on new teachers there is a noticeable lack of discussion of new and emerging learning modalities (such as online environments). The concepts from the book are certainly applicable to all forms of teaching and learning, but an explicit mention of how these could be worked out in the online environment would have reflected the educational learning experiences for many new teachers and learners. The book does contain a self-made remedy, however. The end-of-chapter reflection questions provide teachers from any background with the implicit wisdom needed for addressing the diverse and ever-changing landscape of teaching and learning.