Ira Shor started speaking without an introduction. The clock rolled to 1pm, and in deference to gathering crowds, scrambled trains, and usual protocol, the organizers were waiting a bit to get things going. But Shor, who said wasting time was one of the worst things you could do, just got going. This made me terrifically uncomfortable–he’s speaking without prior authorization! I can’t listen without a proper cue to begin!–which, in the end, is part of what’s required if we’re going to become critical teachers.
Alycia Sellie gives a great run down of Shor’s talk on her blog, so I’ll just pull out a few things that interested me from the day.
I was glad to hear Shor talk about discourse as a material force–what and how we talk about things in the classroom makes us subjects, and altering that discourse can significantly change the subjects that are produced. In other words, I might be vested in making myself a high-status professional academic, which requires me to talk a lot and use heavy words like discourse. Or I can be vested in making myself some other kind of subject, one who enables more, talks less, and listens a lot. I think there’s a cost in critical teaching that this helpfully points out–if we’re marginal in the academy as librarians (and I feel like I am, for sure), we risk making this more true by backing away from the production of truth statements in the classroom. Maybe. Or maybe we can do that discursive work in our publications and leave it at the lab door when we go to teach. There’s a tension here that I’d like to tease out a bit, especially as someone who falls in love with high-status discourse, and believes in the necessity of complex languages to explain complex ideas.
Shor’s a composition teacher, and much of what he had to say related directly to what we do as library instructors, reaffirming for me that the strongest connection between our practice and our pedagogy might be mined from the literature of composition studies. The difference being that the composition teacher gets a class for an entire semester, has a chance to cultivate power-sharing and multivocal learning groups. We get students for a session, maybe two. So I continue to struggle with how or even whether the insights of critical pedagogy/teaching apply in that fifty minute block. Robert Farrell, coordinator of instruction at Lehman College, offered up the argument that we absolutely can have the kind of dialogic engagement Shor talked about if we let go of the demand to teach every last technical skill and embrace the conversation. He said he starts classes by asking “Why are you doing a research paper?” and lets the answers to that guide up to half the session, an approach that sounded very interesting to me. (I often begin with a question like that, but give it two or three minutes before diving in to database particulars.) Is that something you could do in your sessions, or would you risk the wrath of the classroom faculty, or would you fear, as I might, that students would not learn the necessary skills to complete their assignments?
Though the crowd was smaller than I expected, the level of interest and engagement with these ideas was incredible. I had so many interesting conversations, about apprenticeship models in higher ed, database searching as demystification, about dialogism and faculty collaboration and mash-ups and agenda-setting, about how reinvigorating it is to take critical ideas and think them through our library instruction practice. Super-thanks to the folks at LACUNY for pulling this together, and I’m excited to keep the conversations going.