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Summary of 3/31/06 Discussion
with Kelly Strunk

"A Case Study: Praxis III"

One in a series of Stories of Teaching and Learning

Participants: Anne Dalke (English/Gender&Sexuality), Jody Cohen (Education), Ellie Esmond (Civic Engagement), Natsu Fukui, Paul Grobstein (Biology, Center for Science in Society), Xuan-Shi Lim (Psycholgoy), Janique Parrott (English), Mary Riggio (Clinical Developmental Psychology), and Kelly Strunk (GSSWR & Praxis).

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?"
(Rabbi Hillel; qted. in Paul Rogat Loeb, "The Call of Stories,"
Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time)

How can we do praxis without creating a dicotomy between field work and academic course work, between working for others and working for self?

When Kelly was in graduate school, she made good use of a methodology in social science known as "autoethnography," which involves overlaying theoretical concepts on one's own experience to achieved a multi-layered, integrated account. To get her thesis approved, she had to lay out its methodology, explaining in particular the limits and biases involved in including oneself in a study (in this case) of her own work place. Kelly proposed that we ask our Praxis III students to engage in the same process: learn to articulate the theoretical pedagogy of community-based learning. Students wanting to design a Praxis III course often come in with an idea about an internship, not a course. With the "why" being left out of course development, it becomes difficult to think about Praxis III as an integrated process.

At this point in the development of the Praxis program, Kelly is not providing students with a methodology; there is no support for their understanding how they might integrate field and class learning. Students need to be able to rationalize and explain why they will be using a particular field site for a particular course, how they can actually make an internship into a course. They have to have something they want to learn, which they can express in the form of learning objectives (not in the form of proving a theory). They need to think about something they've already studied, and how it might apply to the field work. Sometimes ideas for a Praxis III come from other courses, sometimes from experience.

Perhaps the relationship between autoethography and the need for an articulated methodology in Praxis III courses is closer than the simple "parallel" Kelly suggested. The logic she developed to explain why she used autoethnography in her thesis could be used to integrate the two sides of Praxis work. The Praxis program has a real struggle getting students, faculty, and administrators to view their offerings as rigorous academic courses. A theoretical justification for doing fieldwork is needed. There are also doubts about the biases inherent in courses that draw on experiences directly related to the student, questions about courses which use more qualitiative than quantitative data. There is a need to better explain community-based learning, to report the statistics that show why it is important. It generally has four components: a list of learning objectives; a reciprocal relationship (among faculty, field site, and student); a grounded theoretical element (the research of Freire and Dewey on the civic, democratic process of education); and a student's own final reflections.

Looked at skeptically, "autoethnography" might be seen as a contradiction in terms. So, too, might "community-based learning." To address the perceived problems of personal bias and lack of academic rigor in such courses, we need to attend to the potential dissociation between local experience and generalization, to the skepticism about work that is done in a particular context, rather than in a general mode. Conventional ethnography uses the methodology of participant observation, in which the self is relatively removed from from engagement at the site. Autoethnography, by contrast, draws on experiences directly related to the student. It then works with and applies those experiences to some other activity. This is what prevents autoethnography from degenerating into "simply personal experience." It is "not autobiography, but autoethnography"; it involves stepping back and looking @ what's happened, working with a faculty supervisor to develop a relevant reading list, viewing personal experience through lens of theory.

Kelly has found herself unable to adequately prepare students for their Praxis III experience: she is now averaging 15 students a semester, and their projects are quite various. How can students be encouraged to become more "reflective practitioners"? So much of Kelly's work now is "triage." Some examples of Praxis III projects include a mural for the newly revived Women's Center (based in community-art education, it involved gathering feedback in community meetings and researching the history of the women's movement, as well as actually designing the mural and organizing group painting sessions); providing phone counseling @ the Women's Law Project; assisting a district attorney. The latter examples raise the question of how community-based learning differs from an internship. Why is it sponsored by the Office of Civic Engagement, rather than by Career Development?

Students spoke about their experiences (or anticipation) of doing Praxis III work. It is often hard to see "how theory applies to reality"; it often seems to describe only what "should" happen, not what actually does. Perhaps it would be useful to think about the academic material the way we think about the manual that comes w/ the t.v.: we look @ it only when something doesn't work; then we search for an idea we can try out. Reading theory might be thought of as equivalent to that t.v. manual; it's nice to know that a manual is available if needed. It's also nice to know that you don't have to read the manual first, in order to watch t.v.! This might be a handy way to think of professional literature in general: it's hard to take it seriously, unless it relates to something one is pfutzing around with oneself. Part of the problem professors create for students in traditional courses involves their "handing out t.v. manuals--but no t.v." They ask students to "learn to drive without driving." You can't actually learn from reading a textbook: if you are actually pfutzing around w/ a frog brain, and run into difficulties, then you can use the textbook to find an explanation. Even people like Freire and Dewey, who are writing about reasonable ways to learn, write in prose that is difficult to read. (No wonder people don't do the reading.) But some students like reading textbooks, because they give a lot of examples and equations. Like manuals, theories and equations can make things very clear.

When a student works with children, however, she "never uses the theories," she just "goes with her intentions." "Each child is so different; theory can't apply." (That's a theory!) "I really can't apply everything I learn in an education course to a class." "I never think about what I've read." But it probably "gets absorbed and informs the reaction." "I feel like I know why, on a gut level. I'm not thinking theoretically, but just acting from feeling." Students "think" that theory is something they think about, that they're not using it if they don't think about it. But the way the brain is organized, theory has to influence how you think about things. Effective academic education depends on what we have thought about affecting our feelings. In the moment, although we may not be thinking about what we have thought, we are acting more effectively based on what we have read. In reflecting afterwards, we can see how we pulled from different orientations without making a conscious choice to do so. This is a great way to think about learning in general.

Sometimes, when we are trying to apply theory, we are really just expressing our own feelings. But we can't say (to the parents of a child we're working with, for example), "I just feel like it." Theory can be very useful to argue with. If we are trying to persuade someone else of something, we may need to translate our experience back into theory. But this should not involve just shoehorning our experience into something we learned prior. Rather, the theory should informed by our experience. We need always to be asking if the theory fits our experience. The opposite is also true: studying theory can change how we feel about things.

This is what really should be said about Praxis III courses: they may not start out with theory, but they should expose students to some theory, and they must end with students generating theory themselves. Learning has to reappear as theory. Students need to not get bogged down in the personal (as can happen in Women's Studies classes, for instance). There is something very powerful in "thinking about your personal mattering." But you also have to "get out of the personal box." The personal is "not just personal." "The personal is political." With Praxis III you can pull from many different places, to get outside the box of disciplinary thinking. If you play it back and forth, between personal experience and theory, you can use theory to develop feelings, and use feelings to go back to theory. This "opens up both inside and outside sources." It gets you out of the personal box, and out of the discipline box.

A very cool thing about Praxis III is that you don't have to have a syllabus. Readings may emerge as the semester proceeds; maybe a novel will speak to what is going on at a field site. Usually, we don't know what the syllabus should be til about halfway through any course. Sometimes it can be a problem that we know too well where a syllabus is going. Some students like to have theories. That's what we are asked to do, in school: to learn a theory, then apply it (example: an intro biology class). Experiments never match what we study, so we try to match it up, to rationalize it. We have to do it right; there is a certain kind of form. In a community space, I don't have to rationalize. If I write what really happened, if it didn't match the data, I can still come to a conclusion.

It's interesting to talk about why theories don't work--and why. For instance, in the current class on data analysis in GSSRSW, gender is never presented as either/or; it always appears on a continuum. Why then do we create data output that locates gender in two blocks? Why, when data crunching, does either/or become significant?

In education classes, the range of settings are very different from one another--and the range of application is huge. We often find ourselves wanting a controlled experiment. Here's the clean way to talk about that: Each time a theory doesn't work, we can remind ourselves that there was one point where it did. For somebody, some place, it worked; what was that context? What does it mean for it to work? We still need to see how qualitative research could be used more in experimental studies and academic fields. There is value to hearing people tell their stories, trying to bridge them. People don't see qualitative research as valuable: "it's just hearing from others, not really seeing the people." Education is under pressure to take on the paradigm of achievement; the need to measure achievement is strong.

Kelly closed the session with a reflective activity that had been used in a Haverford course on "Women, Medicine and Biology." It involved a "narrative therapy process," in which one student answers a series of questions put to her by another, and her responses are broken down by two sets of observers. The first records what she is saying, the second how she is saying it. They report back and draw some overarching themes. Looking at them together, we can begin to see what was happening, and how thinking takes place, socially.

This conversation continues in the on-line forum for "Stories of Teaching and Learning, and the storytelling will resume in person on April 21, 2:30-4:00pm in the Multicultural Center Living Room, when Linda Caruso-Haviland and Gail Hemmeter will lead a workshop on their "CSem I: Performance and Self."

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