Select an item by clicking its checkbox
The Other Side of Pedagogy: Lacan's Four Discourses and the Development of the Student Writer
Date Reviewed: May 15, 2015
Readers of T.R. Johnson’s ambitious The Other Side of Pedagogy: Lacan’s Four Discourses and the Development of the Student Writer will find some unexpected juxtapositions: Ouija boards and zombies side by side with Hannah Arendt and Keith Richards, student writers jostling with hysterics and narcissists. From this amalgam of unlikely characters, Johnson’s more conventional thesis emerges: contemporary education lacks a sense of its goals, other than a vague notion that student development means initiating students into a loosely-defined ideal of the academy. Johnson suggests that we can rescue ourselves and our students from this stagnation by recognizing what has been there all along: the pulsing unconscious, the unbidden and ultimately irrepressible system of desire that we all carry around with us but like to pretend we do not. This evocation of the unknowable and uncanny is what mobilizes Johnson’s playful evocation of high and low culture.
Johnson posits a model of student development based on Lacan’s famous lecture series of the late 1960s. Student writers, Johnson argues, move through four stages, as articulated by Lacan in his theory of the four main types of discourse. In the first two stages, the discourses of mastery and of the University, students are passive receptacles of teacherly authority, their unconscious ideally repressed and their prose, when they can write at all, “empty mimicry” (133).
The last two discourses are where things get really interesting. The third discourse is that of the hysteric, whose appearance is “a singularly disruptive performance . . . wreaking havoc with the conventional, lockstep procedure of the bureaucracy, as when Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One, when asked what he is rebelling against, responds ‘Whaddya got?’” (195). Here, Johnson offers a useful reframing of the problem student, the eye-roller, the note-passer, the interrupter. Instead of understanding these students as impediments to classroom coherence, Johnson casts them as paradoxically more advanced than the good student who always has the right answer. These disruptive students are engaging the unconscious when they exceed and unsettle the roles prepared for them, the social assumptions about who and what they ought to be. However, like Keith Richards writing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” in his sleep, the hysteric cannot control his or her discourse, but rather “stumble[s] in a narcotic dream from one summit to the next” (188).
The final discourse is that of the analyst, a discourse marked by humility, openness, and equality. To explain this discourse, Johnson imagines a class in which students and teacher listen carefully to one another and thus arrive at unexpected and unplanned places, a class in which students write papers that put multiple texts in conversation with one another to see what emerges. These students and teachers harness the unconscious to the extent that they are engaged in dialogue with the other. If we seek to sustain these productive engagements, we must realize that “the aim of our courses is ultimately to teach our students to love – specifically, to love working and playing with words and texts and ideas, and, through these, to love each other, the wider world, and the ideal of justice, more and more and more” (207). These are inspiring words, and perhaps the most evocative explanation I’ve ever heard of why pedagogical practices like service learning and community engagement – which court unexpected moments of empathy and, ideally, writing and thinking that resonate beyond the self and the stale loop of teacher-oriented writing – are so critical to breathing life into our institutions.
One of Johnson’s most powerful contributions in this book is his insistence on seeing students and teachers as complex, embodied people who bring the fullness of their selves and their unconscious desires with them into the classroom. Throughout, I found myself recognizing myself and my students, and recognizing myself in my students. Johnson’s appeal to our fullest personhood allows him to think of pedagogy as a way of understanding people interacting with people, ideas with ideas, and not as a goal-oriented assessment task.
Yet, while Johnson’s unpacking of Lacan’s four discourses is illuminating, the way he frames them as a linear developmental schema – something, he acknowledges, Lacan never intended – is at odds with the more associative, recursive nature of the unconscious itself. That is, for a book that delights in the juxtaposition of high and low culture, its structural principles are over determined, as if Johnson is trying to contain the very unconscious he is unleashing.
Finally, Johnson’s book fits squarely into a recent trend in composition studies: the urge to retell the history of the field to highlight a neglected thread that, when exposed, could reinvigorate our teaching. Indeed, Johnson spends the first half of the book detailing an exhaustive history of psychoanalysis’s second-class status in the history of writing pedagogy. Byron Hawk’s A Counter History of Composition (2007) and Donna Strickland’s The Managerial Unconscious in the History of Composition Studies (2011) are two examples of recent books that do something similar, turning to psychoanalytic theories of desire and repression to get at what is unknowable, almost magical, about both the activities of writing and of teaching. Johnson’s text is an imaginative and welcome, if sometimes unwieldy, addition to this new canon of writing pedagogy.
Jane Addams in the Classroom
Date Reviewed: April 23, 2015
This book’s eleven essays propose ways in which educators might apply Jane Addams’s approaches to education and community engagement. Each essay offers a historical examination of Addams’s writing or work, followed by lessons in the practical application of her efforts to “socialize democracy” (13). With the exception of two Jane Addams Hull-House Museum affiliates, all contributions come from high school and university English instructors. Their general approach, however, applies to all educators, including those in religious studies and theology. As Petra Munro Hendry proposes, Addams’s work can inspire us to understand “teaching as a form of social ethics” (48).
The book’s central message emphasizes the need to listen to and understand the experiences and worldview of one’s students and community. Concluding that the intellectual approach of our educational system fails to meet the needs of most citizens, Addams designed an “experiential, participatory learning” environment for the diverse immigrants of Chicago (62). She believed that accepted methods of cultural and social improvement for the working class merely reinforced the distance between social classes. Contributors to this volume interpret her approach as a challenge to teach social justice and engage the diversity of students’ experiences. Essays by Lanette Grate, Susan C. Griffith, and Erin Vail recount their successful classroom efforts to engage their students with local social justice issues, using Addams’s method of allowing current events to guide their work. Jennifer Krikava argues for the necessity of balancing the goals of outsiders (like standardized testing) with the need to equip students with skills that will enrich their future lives. Darren Tuggle agrees, demonstrating the benefits of reciprocal learning through his program that acclimates high school students to college life while providing learning experiences for university students training to become teachers. In these ways, educators address the unique needs and experiences of their students while simultaneously introducing them to the necessity of engaging their community and its social needs. Lisa Lee and Lisa Junkin Lopez explain how administrators can facilitate these processes through community programs.
David Schaafsma and Todd DeStigter frame all these approaches as contributions to Addams’s efforts to “support democracy” (17). Retaining such a consistent focus unfortunately resulted in considerable repetition – several authors drew similar meaning from Addams’s account of the “Devil Baby,” for example. Greater variation and critique of Addams would have expanded its contribution and my confidence in the book’s historical interpretation.
Schaafsma and Hendry’s essays offer sound critique, however, of current scholars and Addams’s contemporaries who dismissed her work and narrative-style writing as “sentimental” and “nonscientific” (190). The reformer’s methods reflected her ultimate point: dictating social change from a distance is undemocratic and at best ineffective, if not damaging. Reformers and educators must reject the dichotomy of benefactor and subject to embrace the contributions and participation of all people affecting a relationship, including those extending beyond the immediate contact. We can all use a reminder of this lesson, and this book suggests how to apply it to today’s educational system.
For the Love of Learning: Innovations from Outstanding University Teachers
Date Reviewed: March 26, 2015
For the Love of Learning: Innovations from Outstanding University Teachers is a compendium of thirty-six essays which describe various aspects of innovative pedagogy. The essays were submitted by educators who have received recognition by the United Kingdom’s prestigious National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS), that is designed to recognize excellence in learning and teaching in higher education. Many of the essays describe the results of projects funded by NTFS grants. As Bilham makes clear in the introduction, the collection is an attempt at inspiring fresh and creative approaches to the challenge of shaping students through education.
In many ways, this is a collection of case studies as much as a collection of essays. The contributions focus on the description of pedagogical tools which the author has used successfully. None of the specific examples elicited apply directly to the disciplines of theological and religious studies, but the educational theory and the spirit of innovation which lay behind these specific practices are readily transferable.
There is a consistent call to engage students, which rests on the supposition that an engaged student learns better, and is retained. Several strategies for this type of engagement are presented. Essays 1 and 9 advocate for the involvement of students in the production and presentation of new content. Essays 11 and 27 suggest the employment of problem-based learning models, in which students seek out their own answers to real-world problems often with limited interference from the instructor. Essay 15 argues that humor in teaching can boost engagement when treating particular difficult or confusing topics.
Several of the essays advocate refining the nature of assessments. For example, essay 13 argues that if constructed well, assessments can be an important educational tool serving to teach not just to assess learning. Essay 17 identifies several problems with current models of assessment: they often do not measure the types of thinking that the course requires, or reflect the ability the students develop as thinkers through the course, or consider the fact that all students are different. Essay 18 discusses the benefit of formative assessment, which seeks to encourage deeper thinking and correct misunderstanding early in the educational process, rather than penalizing students at the end of the course, as summative assessment often does. Essay 33 argues that assessment can be viewed as a means for enhancing the employability of students. While none of these essays provide answers to the problem they do provide important conceptual steps forward to aid faculty in thinking through the design of learning experiences and strategies for assessing what has been learned.
Finally, the impetus to spend time developing the employability of students is a point well taken (see Essays 4, 24, 27, and 31-26). In many American universities there is an increasing emphasis on the acquisition of job skills – making sure college and university courses contribute to student employability. This trend directly impacts the teaching of theology and religion.
In conclusion, this volume is a tremendous resource for someone looking to enliven their teaching. It is not a roadmap to an innovative religious studies course, but it highlights proven pedagogical approaches which are shaping the lives of students in the United Kindgom, and are worth considering for anyone who takes the task of education seriously.
From Entitlement to Engagement: Affirming Millennial Students' Egos in the Higher Education Classroom (New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 135)
Date Reviewed: February 19, 2015
“How bad has it gotten in your class?” the first article’s author asks. “Students eating steaming plate lunches, kissing passionately, conducting loud phone conversations, playing video poker?. . . Asking to be excused from class to barbecue chicken at the go-kart track for a radio station where the student interned last summer?” (7). If these examples sound even remotely familiar, you may find this issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning helpful. This volume addresses the challenge of teaching millennial students, born between 1982 and 2001, who are often labeled as coming to higher education with an attitude of entitlement that can frustrate professors.
The first three chapters explore the theory behind this volume. The first two chapters reframe the concept of entitlement by reflecting on the structure of higher education classrooms (chapter 1) and seeing the psychological vulnerability of students (chapter 2) as an opportunity for ego engagement – a process that the editors describe as “productively affirming student’s egos” to offer “new opportunities for deep learning and ever-strengthening intellectual rigor” (2). The third chapter is an empirical study that explores how students feel they deserve entitled treatment in higher education.
The second cluster of articles explore practice and application of reframing entitlement into ego engagement in specific areas. Chapter 4 explores ways to construct a syllabus that invite student engagement proactively, and chapter 5 lays out several practical suggestions professors can utilize to conceptualize their pedagogies. Chapters 6 and 7 provide case studies of actual classroom assignments that engage millennial students’ egos successfully: chapter 6 describes an assignment that immersed millennial students in discipline-based political activities to foster positive ego engagement and chapter 7 describes an assignment that engaged students in narrative pedagogy through digital storytelling. Chapters 8 and 9 explore ways to engage students through already existing classroom practices. For example, chapter 8 provides specific insights about engaging students through technological gadgets and provides practical suggestions for teaching. Chapter 9 explores ways to engage students before and after class periods to affirm their egos. The rest of the three chapters explore ways to engage the moral sense of millennial students by involving them in social justice issues and student-directed goal setting. The author invites faculty to consider their own reactions to student incivility as possibly a response to a professor’s bruised ego ? an over-dependence on official authority based on position rather than on their ability to help students learn effectively.
While graduate level professors may experience students’ sense of entitlement less bluntly than is described in some of the articles, I have sensed in my own teaching that the vocation of religious leadership tends to attract people with a sense of self-importance that poses challenges similar to those described in this volume. What the authors conceptualize as ego engagement is a model for empowering students who appear to be aloof to the subject matter but who are seeking meaningful engagement that leads them to deeper growth. From Entitlement to Engagement offers practical advice for fostering creative teaching that meets students’ psychological needs and motivates them to find growth through their own learning tasks.
What Did You Learn In The Real World Today?: The Case of Practicum In University Educations
Date Reviewed: February 19, 2015
Henriksen’s edited volume, What Did You Learn in the Real World Today, is a collection of sophisticated and philosophically-grounded essays that shift pedagogical foci from how we teach to “what is learned” and “how is it learned” (18). The dense essays are divided into three sections. First is knowledge, learning and practice; next is the role a student’s body plays in learning and constructing new knowledge; finally, there is problem-based learning (PBL) and practicum. The Danish Aalborg University Press funded and published the project and the specific case studies (five of the eleven chapters) do reflect a public Norwegian graduate engineering program. That said, the essays, particularly in the first and second sections, have much wider relevance for re-thinking teaching practices in any discipline from the perspective of learning. They convincingly argue that applied understanding “in the real world” generates new knowledge that beneficially challenges and reshapes the theory and tradition we teach in our classrooms.
It seems odd that a book promoting practicums and problem based learning is so thoroughly steeped in philosophical theory. But this is precisely the point. The essays here challenge the presumed “theory-practice dichotomy” (for example 23, 35, 53-4) by engaging the philosophical discussions of Aristotle, Dewey, Gadamer, Freire, and Bourdieu with case studies on practicums. The discussions of “techne, epistemi, poiein,” and so forth, break open the categories of “knowledge” and “learning” in fruitful ways (28-9). Student activity thus mediates thinking and being (40). The authors advocate for problem-based learning (53) that engages each student in a dialectic of dynamic knowing and doing rather than a direct transfer of static knowledge (what my students call “regurgitation”) through the “banking model” (54). This is a post-modern, and even a post-rationalist (chapter 4), exploration of learning. By challenging the primacy of theory over practice, of thinking over doing, these essays seek to integrate the whole student into the learning process (such as “Embodiment as the Existential Soil of Practice” by Thøgersen, 69-80). Indeed, the concept of learning as transformation is palpable across all of the essays (5, 23) and includes aesthetic and ethical dimensions of learning (58-8). This is helpful thinking for Liberal Arts institutions that will appreciate the argument for how and what students learn as grounded in the moral aspects of techne and phronesis rather than the more abstracted (from “real life”) episteme (60-1).
Henriksen introduces the project in chapter 1 and alternates between philosophical theory in one chapter and concrete case studies in the next. Chapters 2 (on “epistemology, learning, and practice” and 3 (“the logic of practice”) are the philosophical grounding for Henriksen’s case study on an engineering practicum in chapter 4. Learning is not absorption and “reproduction,” but is instead the “production” of knowledge that comes through the engaged learning of the practicum (19). Chapter 5 then lays the next philosophical groundwork (what is the role of the physical body in learning) for the case study in chapter 6 that examines body language and spatial relationships in medical consultations to evaluate the use of electronic health records in Danish hospitals. More technology renders the physical presence of the patient irrelevant. Chapter 7, perhaps the weakest chapter, connects Dewey’s “process of inquiry” with Gadamer’s “hermeneutics” to describe how a student locates herself in a professional (“swampy”) context and negotiates solutions using both practical and theoretical tools. Chapter 8 offers support for this solution in the “real-world-on-campus” case study from the Aalborg Problem Based Learning model. Chapters 9 and 10 respectively evaluate PBL by analyzing student “employability,” the role of the university engaged in the world, and the success of Aalborg’s PBL model in multiple European contexts. Further integration and incorporation of the practicum into university curricula demands a dialectical conversation between case studies in the field, classrooms, and campuses so that theory and practice are mutually reshaping one another.
In the final analysis, What Did You Learn in the Real World requires effort, not only to appreciate the threads of the philosophical conversations, or the (mostly) northern European educational contexts, but also because the English phrasing is rough and not intuitive for native speakers. That said, although Scandinavian engineering programs are quite remote from U.S. seminaries or even undergraduate Liberal Arts institutions, the bulk of these essays open fascinating conversations about learning, knowledge, and engagement of the whole person – student and teacher (à la Freire) – in both study and practice. In other words, the deep wrestling with antecedent philosophers and pedagogues to articulate what students learn in practicum and how students learn it has much to offer our collective thinking about engaged learning in diverse institutional contexts. It becomes quite clear that “how we learn” does and will have consequences for what we learn, and especially for how we construct knowledge.