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Anne Dalke's picture

Core and Periphery: Re-locating Ourselves @ the Center

Alice initiated our conversation by asking why we chose the role of teacher and learning (through the Teaching and Learning Initiative or elsewhere): What (understandings? skills? challenges and difficulties? questions? changes) come about as a result of this choice?

Ibraham, Carol and Tom all spoke to those questions, describing the learning that has taken place outside the classroom as they work one-on-one with students: realizing how easy it is "to forget what I was told, and asking to be told again"; of learning to adjust to radically different time schedules; of moving from the perimeter (where one sees a different perspective, "looking in") to the center of campus, where others might be walking by; of "getting away from the intellectual" and "going into the domain of the physical"; of the "remedial work of getting back into our bodies"; of incorporating a "whole philosophy that goes on here, that I don't understand"; of "learning outside the instructions you are given"; of the "gift exchange" that initiates a TLI; of being invited to different events on campus, and realizing all the ways in which we might be connected with one another. Many of these stories were about "not finishing," not "going as far as we wanted to"; they were "stories of incompleteness, where the outcome was in doubt."

Discussion began with the question of whether, given these descriptions of a different kind of relational learning, "we actually need the books and classes part" of Bryn Mawr. Do we really need to master the classics before developing our own stuff, stepping off from what has been done and expanding on it? How important is it for a teacher to ask students what they are looking for, to find out where people are before starting a program of study with them? Conversation turned to the phenomenon of students saying they "don't know how they are doing" (if they aren't given grades), the likelihood that--unless we center in our own journeys--we will all continue to think that (because of age, training, location in the college hierarchy) we are on the periphery. No one thinks they are @ the center.

This may be particularly true for our students, for whom so many key choices have been made by others. As time goes on, we hope they can become increasingly independent, and able to choose for themselves what it is they seek, and pursue it. If they are not centered in this way, they will feel overwhelmed by, and have no way to distinguish among, the available choices. There may be a correlation between knowing oneself and the ability to choose. Being disassociated from ourselves affects how we perceive our choices.

Being convinced that all our choices have consequences can also make us feel stressed. It would be great if we could engage in more of the sort of choosing Mark described two weeks ago--making choices without thinking about the consequences: choices that feel more "embodied" than compelled by our reflecting on them. There is a difference between learning that is externally motivated by what others tell us we "should" know, and choosing to learn what we want. Students have "not chosen the barometer that measures how they do"; they go through cycles of "exploding choices," then narrowing them down.

Books are a relatively recent invention; learning went on before they existed, and has gone on since without them. Perhaps they negatively influence our sense of how we are doing. When we are making something material, or performing something physical, "how we are doing is evident in what we are doing"; but in book work, what we know might not be so clear. "We don't know what we don't know." This might be key to our shared sense that we are "all on the periphery": the idea that "someone else has to be the judge of our progress," and books may well contribute to that sort of judgment. A "good job" then becomes relative to what others do, and we are inhibited from thinking of ourselves as teachers; we assume that we are only learners.

Perhaps there is a difference, in self-reliance, between those children whose parents "smile @ them because they get it right," and those whose parents smile "because they really enjoy the kid." We can also learn, however, by "brushing up against one another" (think of what Religious Life might learn this year, by sharing their space on Cambrian Row with the Theater Program--and vice versa).

We are failing, so long as our students look to us to know "how they are doing." Giving too many instructions--or offering a review of what is "great"--can have this effect. There are at least two standards here: how much one can learn, vs. looking for others' judgment of where one is, in relation to others. The process is incremental: classroom teachers should be inviting students to make free choices, and students should know that they will not be judged by the choices they make, which should be personalized in their own terms.

However: grades matter. They represent our ability to do work, to produce, to think. Perhaps we need to make a different kind of success--that which is inherent in the performance itself, rather than in others' judgment of it--more modal. Or perhaps that analogy, of winning and losing, doesn't really work, either: faculty can't "win" @ the work they do, for instance; they must keep on struggling.

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