philosophy of education
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The “I” That Teaches - A new video project that invites senior scholars to talk about their teaching lives. These scholar-teachers candidly discuss how religious, educational, and family backgrounds inform their vocational commitments and, also, characterize their teaching persona. From the vantage point of a practiced teaching philosophy we get an intimate account of the value and art of teaching well.
We begin this series with an interview with Dr. Victor Anderson, Vanderbilt School of Divinity. The title for this project comes from a lecture that Prof. Anderson delivered at Wabash College.
Click here to watch all episodes of "The "I" That Teaches" on YouTube
Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative
Date Reviewed: August 11, 2017
Renee Hobbs’s collection of personal narratives from leading thinkers in digital and media literacy is not only a fascinating foray into the field; it also presents various authors’ stories of encounters with dominant theorists across multiple disciplines. Sixteen authors from a myriad of academic disciplines (philosophy, education, communication studies, language and literacy, media studies, and fine arts, among others) spanning a number of occupations (professor, writer, teacher, director, and more) write out their intimate interactions with the theories and theorists (McLuhan, Heidegger, Bakhtin, Barthes, Foucault, Postman, Dewey, and others) that shaped their scholastic and personal lives. Each contribution in this collaborative work is a self-reflection, a collage made up of sundry parts of theory, experience, and practice. This collection started with Hobbs’s desire to unearth the historical origins of media literacy and trace the complex genealogy of media literacy. Hobbs diverges from the traditional historical treatise, in form as well as in content, by soliciting personal narratives from contributors, asking them to search out their intellectual grandparents, to map the DNA of the theories that shaped their lives and their work. While the subject is fairly standard, the vehicle (personal memoir) adds a compelling nuance to the investigation. If we take Marshall McLuhan at his word and the medium is, in fact, the message, then Hobbs’s collection is not only an exploration of media literacy but is also an embodiment of it.
Although reticent to endorse one orthodox definition of media literacy, Hobbs describes media literacy as “the knowledge, competencies, and social practices involved in using, analyzing, evaluating, and creating mass media, popular culture, and digital media” (9). Media represent any form of communication and literacy, the ability to decipher said communication, and reaches far beyond the bounds of print. And media literacy, according to Hobbs, invites a deeper exploration of important issues concerning “heightened critical consciousness,” “the social nature of representation and interpretation,” “the dialectic of protection and empowerment,” as well as “the role of art in the practice of civic activism,” to name only a few (9). It is clear that development of media literacy is crucial not only for sustaining a world economy, connecting global communities, and engendering personal enrichment, but also vital for the creation of informed and engaged citizens.
The whole collection is engaging and picking favorite contributions is a difficult task. However, I found David Weinberger’s description of his college-age identity crisis, subsequent nihilism, and profound encounter with Martin Heidegger’s concept of “Dasein,” intriguing and not a little humorous. Weinberger’s view of life and language (and therefore media), as inherited from Heidegger’s philosophy, emphasizes the inherent shared nature of media. Cynthia Lewis’s chapter explores media literacy via the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin and provides another example of the shared nature of media and how, as Bakhtin emphasized, “the word in language is half someone else’s” (78). Lewis succinctly summarizes Bakhtin’s view of language as “foundationally dialogic, intertextual, and heteroglossic” (78). Lewis also relates how her familial connection to Rabbinic Judaism’s love of dialogue, her suspicion of authority and institutions, her research interest in discourse analysis, and her role as a teacher of workshops on critical literacy brought her to love Bakhtin’s view of language as infinitely nuanced and beautifully complicated.
Although previously familiar with Heidegger and Bakhtin, the work of Jerome Brunner, a cognitive psychologist, and scholar, was completely unknown to me when I picked up this book. In Hobbs’s chapter, she relives the three times she encountered Bruner’s work: as a child, in graduate school, and when she actually met Bruner - and how this fortuitous encounter led her to create this book. I am personally enamored with the role that narrative plays in personal and communal lives so Hobbs’s synthesis of Bruner’s view of people’s personal life stories as constructed, culturally shaped “variations on the culture’s canonical forms and stories” speaks to me (192). As I experienced, Hobbs’s collection about media literacy performs the function of media literacy as it explains the higher functions of media literacy.
I highly recommend this collection for anyone interested in the reflexive relationship between scholarship and the personal (faculty, administrators, graduate students, academic advisors, and lay people alike). Although not a primer text on theory, this collection, by utilizing the lens of personal experience, makes an engaging text for those with even a moderate interest in theory and literacy.
Using Evidence of Student Learning to Improve Higher Education
Date Reviewed: September 16, 2015
Increasing skepticism regarding the value of traditional grading, mounting student debt, and low degree completion rates has led to escalating pressure on North American universities to provide evidence of assessment of student learning. Beyond standard letter grades, it is claimed, there are methods that can provide tangible proof that students are – or are not – learning (Astin, “The Promise and Peril of Outcomes Assessment,” The Chronicle of Higher Education). Ideally this information assists universities in shaping the “new normal” of higher education (2). This new normal, the authors argue, often imposes assessment from above; as a result, many university faculty are either apart from assessment-measuring or are excluded from the conversation regarding why additional assessment measures might be needed and how to use the information once it is gained. This latter point is the focus of this collection of essays, Using Evidence of Student Learning to Improve Higher Education. Written with various assessors in mind – from faculty to governing boards (12-17) – the essays are all rooted in the authors’ collective desire to make assessments consequential (20); only by putting assessment data to work for the institution will the data be made meaningful.
Kuh and Ikenberry, the principle co-investigators of the project (xiv), organize the topic of student assessment as a tool for the advancement of higher education into three helpful modules. After an introductory chapter that highlights the need for university campuses to move from compliance to active ownership in the assessment process (1-26), the collection is divided into three parts, each of which contains articles that pertain specifically to the various constituencies. “Part One: Making Assessment Work” (27-96) is comprised of three chapters. Hutchings, Kinzie, and Kuh’s “Evidence of Student Learning: What Counts and What Matters for Improvement” (27-50) highlights the variety of assessment methods as well as their respective strengths and limitations. This chapter reminds the reader that whether or not the vocabulary of “assessment” is employed, faculty are always engaged in the process of assessing student learning through assignments, surveys, exams, rubrics, and portfolios, even if not all recipients of this data consider it as such. This is a helpful chapter for religion faculty who might struggle with questions about how to assess student learning in a subject often fraught with individual meaning and significance and that stands quite far, by comparison, from a student’s relationship with other subjects (such as algebra or physical education). According to Kinzie, Hutchings, and Jankowski, an essential – and often neglected – second step in the assessment process is making use of the data. In “Fostering Greater Use of Assessment Results: Principles for Effective Practice” (51-72) and “Making Assessment Consequential: Organizing to Yield Results” (73-91), the authors carefully distinguish between “doing” assessment and “using” assessment; beginning with a brief history of the process, they trace effective use from the microcosm of a single course to the macrocosm of an entire institution. In particular, they emphasize that the collection of assessment data and its use must ultimately fold back on itself, closing the continuous loop of evaluation that ends with the next question: “What was the impact of the change?” (71).
Methodically similar to the first section, “Part Two: Who Cares? Key Stakeholders” (95-182), draws a valuable line in assessment-use analysis through four chapters. Casting their net quite widely, authors Cain, Hutchings, Ewell, Ikenberry, Jankowski, and Kinzie collectively affirm that faculty assessment is at the heart of educational development, assessment impetus must shift from exterior motivation to interior, and that assessment must be supported at all levels of the institution. For the past three decades, Kinzie, Ikenberry, and Ewell conclude in “The Bigger Picture: Student Learning Outcomes, Assessment and External Entities” (160-82), external bodies have been imposing assessment data collection, much of which has consisted of a bare minimum of electronic catalogues; while this external interest is warranted, those who benefit most by harnessing evidence of student learning are those who stand closest to those being assessed: faculty.
The final section, “Part Three: What Now? Focusing Assessment on Learning” (183-236), addresses two noteworthy elements of assessment projects: the weariness that plagues faculty who often face overwhelming demands for greater and more evaluation of their profession, and ways in which assessment results can be shared with appropriate constituencies. While Kuh and Hutchings’ “Assessment and Initiative Fatigue: Keeping the Focus on Learning” (183-200) highlights strategies to avoiding the inevitable fatigue by suggesting that faculty share the burden of assessment, that short-term projects be considered, that clear links to campus learning goals be identified prior to the work beginning, and that the work of assessment be balanced by scaling back other tasks. While the final chapter, Jankowski and Cain’s “From Compliance Reporting to Effective Communication” (201-19), focuses on the definitions and use of transparency in the successful relation of assessment data, the multi-authored conclusion, “Making Assessment Matter” (220-36), both summarizes the current context of assessment in North America, and offers thoughts regarding emerging trends and forces in higher education.
The American Academy of Religion White Paper, “The Religion Major and Liberal Education,” rightly claims that assessment in religion, religious studies, and theology is challenging due to a variety of important factors, including the constantly evolving nature of the discipline, the interdisciplinarity of religious studies, the lack of accrediting bodies to supervise content, and the ambiguity regarding career paths for graduates in the field (https://www.aarweb.org/AARMBR/AARMBR/Publications-and-News-/Data-and-Studies-/Teagle-Study.aspx). Nevertheless, religion, religious studies, and theology departments must face the challenge of assessment initiatives the same as any department; on a purely pragmatic level, it would be helpful to face the challenge of assessment with the valuable essays provided in Kuh and Ikenberry’s collection.
Teaching Excellence in Higher Education
Date Reviewed: June 16, 2015
There is a loss of confidence in college education today that is arguably unmatched at any point in modern American history. Government officials and the general public express concern about the goals and directions of higher education and the degree to which its institutions succeed or fail to meet the needs of society. Business leaders and state legislatures charge that our colleges and universities are overpriced, underperforming, and unaccountable to the public. Moreover, the modern institution of higher education faces declining growth and increasing operational complexity; meanwhile, costs continue to soar and resources become ever more difficult to secure. Indeed, the role and very definition of higher education has changed significantly in recent years. The focus now is on issues of relevance, applicability, and preparation for working life outside the academy’s protective walls, and difficult questions are being asked about cost, efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness.
One educator, however, in a heartfelt culmination of a lifetime’s devotion to the classroom, offers a vision of education in the deepest sense: “a vision of what education is for in an existential, not merely an instrumental, sense” (4). Marshall Gregory’s posthumous Teaching Excellence in Higher Education is a beautifully written, insightful, humorous, and jargon-free reflection on pedagogical theory and an ethical vision for teaching as it should be, not necessarily as it is. “Excellence,” too-often a vapid buzzword deployed in the literature on higher education today – suitably vague as to commit to nothing, really – is anything but lifeless with Gregory’s masterful handling. The book, edited by his daughter, Melissa Valiska Gregory, associate professor of English at the University of Toledo, after the untimely death of her father, Harry Ice Professor of English, Liberal Education, and Pedagogy at Butler University for many years, reads like a teacher’s memoir, tracing the way he came to think about his students, his vocation, and his vision for education over the years. “Excellence” for Gregory is the “‘extra’ burden of helping students become the kind of citizens, neighbors, voters, spouses, parents, and general thinkers who play all of their life roles with judiciousness, thoughtfulness, and the ability to endure cognitive dissonance, ambiguity, and complexity” (18). A tall order indeed, but anything less, he insists, “is merely the training of expertise.”
While higher education has acknowledged for some time that it is woefully deficient in teaching young graduate students to teach, Gregory takes this concern in a refreshing direction, not simply as a matter of classroom mechanics (protocols such as classroom management, syllabus design, testing, grading, and so forth) and the structures of our disciplines; rather, he digs deeper. Our training as researchers and scholars, Gregory argues, have obscured what we, as educators, really need to know in the classroom. He offers the seemingly startling claim that our individual disciplines are, in effect, beside the point; they are, rather, a means to something far more complex. Teaching excellence, he suggests, depends on our awareness of the difference between the intellectual content of our disciplines – the subject matter of our courses – and what he identifies as the “background issues” of ethical dynamics: “The deepest kind of learning is the learning that makes persons desire not some particular thing or some particular doctrine, but instead makes them desire to become someone different – more self-aware, more autonomous, more self-critical, more judicious, more thoughtful, less impulsive, and less in thrall to the clichés of their day and moment” (61). His is a vision informed by cognitive psychology and by the lasting wisdom of the humanist tradition itself. Gregory does this by coupling (re-coupling) intellect with ethics: “The ‘who’ that any of us is ethically is in large part a function of the ‘what’ that any of us knows intellectually” (79). Ethics, in other words, is not something to be grafted onto our teaching, as in statements of classroom conduct for students and guidelines for ethical behavior for faculty; rather, it is part of the very ether of the classroom experience, “running in the background like software code” (6). He sums up this negotiation quite nicely in a set of unspoken questions students ask of teachers and teachers ask of their students: “Are you honest? Are you kind?… Are you sensitive and fair, or are you a selfish pig and an insensitive butt head” (82). The ethical demands on teachers are many, and they are exacting dispositions: “open mindedness, creativity, curiosity, intellectual flexibility, civility, making good arguments, having a nose for evidence, making defensible judgments, and so on” (75). But these demands for ethical commitment – fairness, respect, charity, and civility – are not, Gregory reminds himself as well as his readers, some Hallmark card version of classroom kumbaya. They are defenses, in a sense, in the struggle against a notion of education as narrow utilitarianism and credentialing. It is not that those who have entered the profession with some genuine sense of vocation are unaware of these principles; rather, the disciplinary focus and scholarly commitment to content have obscured them, or trained teachers not to pay them much mind. The reclaiming of “excellence” for higher education is, for Gregory, a teacher of teachers, the performing of an “authentic, autonomous, thoughtful, socially responsible, and morally defensible life” (113).