Friday, April 13, 2012

Observations on an Academic Culture

I started working on an M.A. degree in February 2011, and now I'm a fourth of the way done. I've taken three week-long intensives on campus and am in my third online classes. If I were an undergraduate that would make me a "sophomore" - so maybe I only know enough to be dangerous!

One thing I've noticed? How seriously my instructors tend to take their work and position.

The upside is that they really care about their work and put a lot of thought into it. They do their best to keep up with their fields (though a number of dynamics are working against them in that regard). They want to see their students master the material they are trying to impart. Those things matter to me, and I'm grateful.

There are, however, (did you guess?) a couple of downsides. At least they seem like downsides to me. Perhaps I will come to think differently about these things as time goes on. If not, well, I think I can live with these things. A few negative examples won't kill me either. I may come away from this experience not only with some fresh ideas on how to teach and work but also some ideas about how I don't want to do things.

1. Books: I'm surprised how often my instructors base course readings around their own or their cronies' publications and neglect of time-tested or original sources and more significant works. I think if I were a professor I'd stay away from interpretive textbooks all together and either teach my own stuff in the classroom, or assign it as reading, but not both; I'd want to make sure my students were reading other sources. That way the students get the benefit of a diversity of voices - especially those that have more authority or experience than I do. Surely these guys aren't just trying to sell their books and build their careers? That might sometimes be the case. I think it usually goes back to well-considered conviction, though, not ego.

2. Papers: I'm surprised how often my instructors give very narrow assignments; often they assign and encourage students to echo and defend the instructor's point of view rather than stating and supporting any other. Sources, structure, and conclusions may be dictated from on high. On one hand, detailed instructions help a student to know how to "succeed" in their classes; on the other, this seems to violate some of the key tenets of education - to stimulate critical thinking as well as recognize, respect, and draw out insight from within the student.

My interaction with graduate students in other schools led me to expect more tolerance for differences and more sparring. Though I know that can be silly and unpleasant too. Perhaps I would have found more room for diverse views in a school with fewer Fundamentalist influences. Chris finds some of this rigidity at his school as well; not in every class, but enough to be disturbing. It's not always from the conservatives, either; last term he had classes with a man I might call a more creative thinker but who required his students to jump through his own set of hoops.

To keep paying and making time for this kind of thing for years and years - and to be tolerant toward these men who do not seem to realize that they work for us, and not the other way around - it requires students to develop a healthy level of patience, persistence, and humility. Some of it may not prove to be useful to a particular student, just as I've never used what I learned in my high school math classes. Part of growing up is going to class and doing the work anyway. You know, I can do that. But I continue to wonder if there's a better way.

When it comes time to turn in assignments, instructional styles that are so much more teacher-directed than learner-directed sometimes require us to do what Chris calls, "writing for an audience of one."

Yikes. In the world where I live most of the rest of the time, that would be wrong. Bad stewardship. Requiring a mature, professional person to do something that is just to prove they can jump through the hoops, that isn't practical and authentic and can't be "applied" somehow, that's practically a sin. Given how often I've run into this in the academic world, I think they must see it differently. Perhaps they have goals for what they want us to "get," and their assignments are meant to draw us through a process of coming to the same conclusions - to demonstrate that we "get it."

That's an expression that should be used cautiously, though. When I hear those words on anyone's lips (including my own), I cringe a bit: "What conservatives/liberals don't 'get' is..." "My kids/parents just don't 'get it,'" "I wish more churches 'got it.'" Let's not be people who are quick to believe that someone who doesn't think like we do or care about what we care about must not understand. Maybe they understand your idea but just don't buy it.

3. Control: I'll confess I don't "get" the attitudes toward ownership which I'm encountering in academia. Again, the world I live in most of the time is pretty big on giving things away freely, in hopes that someone will take them and run with them. Several of my professors and Chris's claim to be pouring into us so we can influence others, patting themselves on the back for their positions equipping the next generation of leaders. Yet they continue to hold tightly onto "their material," slapping copyrights all over everything and guarding their teaching material closely (lest we take it and give it away to someone else without proper attribution and explanation). Sometimes the result is we don't even get to keep the material for our own use. My attitude is more, "Why would I be taking your class if I didn't expect to use this?"

It seems particularly ironic when the instructors locking down course materials so tightly are teaching about things like how to catalyze a movement that will sweep the world. Hint, guys: you've got to give up some of your control. Didn't you just teach me that?


The choice to continue our education through conservative American Christian seminaries brings a certain kind of nonsense that is both like and unlike the nonsense available in a big pagan university, a more cutting-edge (and unaccredited) training program, or some other setting. I don't regret the choice. I'm getting a lot out of this. But I do see its limits, already.

I'll try not to throw around that word "nonsense" too lightly. There's still a lot I don't understand, and I don't want to leap to conclusions about someone else's reasons or motives. As one of my favorite anthropologists puts it, "If our impression of another culture is that it ‘makes no sense’ then we can be sure that we are not making sense to them either."

I have decided to buck the system a bit, though. So far without many ill effects. I've learned to ask what I want to get out of my classes and invest my energies accordingly - not as dictated. This has brought a little flack from frustrated professors: "I expected more from you here," "please, don't write so much there..." So far I've been able to keep enough balance on these things to get what I want to out of these classes and also get my A's. We'll see how long that lasts.


Randy said...

hmmm. Sounds like we may have had similar experiences from our last class together. That professor is in the midst of a dust-up in his mission over methodology, and it reflected in his teaching and grading, I think.
Lesson for us - don't be like that when the time comes that we teach in an academic setting

Megan Noel said...

"These men" ? have either of you taken classes from women? and were things any different?

Marti said...

Randy - yes, each one of my profs has said or done something admirable, and something... forgivable. Their foibles really are exposed in an intensive, I think.

Megan - I've had six classes, all taught by men. But Chris has had at least one woman prof in his program. I'll ask him.

Marti said...

Chris hasn't read this blog post - he mostly stalks me on Facebook :-) But when I told him a little about it he mentioned that =most= of his profs have been quite humble. The current ones, perhaps to a fault. And two of his have been women.