January 20, 2021
From PM Press
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By Mark Leier

This
is a dangerous and deeply disturbing book for those of us who teach
at post-secondary institutions. It is dangerous because it forces us
to face the growing corporatization of colleges and universities.
These institutions have always abided by the rules of prudent
business. They have tended to the accounts and allocated resources
and taken instruction from their political and business masters. But
over the last forty years college and university administrators have
consciously and eagerly adopted the aims and objectives and means of
the corporation. Students are considered customers, and the
institutions compete with each other for market share, or, in
admin-speak, “bums in seats.” Since the goods offered for sale
are more or less interchangeable, like Pepsi and Coke, the
competition is based instead on branding, advertising, and dubious
rankings. Students are also considered products, and producing more
units profitably means reducing labor costs. The work process—courses
and instruction— are prefabricated and routinized and intensified,
with larger and larger classes. Teaching is mechanized, with
multiple-choice exams marked by electronic scanners, “student
response systems,” or clickers, and online courses. Labor itself is
contracted out, with instructors, many of them women and people of
color, part of the precarious gig economy.

The students “produced” on the assembly line
are carefully monitored for “quality control,” and so students
are increasingly scrutinized for plagiarism and cheating. Students
must submit their papers through plagiarism detection software
companies, and instructors are given complicated instructions for
monitoring exams. At my university, instructors were advised to use
Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon principle” and watch students from
the back of the room, not the front. This would, the memo continued
confidently, reduce cheating, since students could never be sure they
weren’t being observed. That an 18th
century idea for prison reform could be seriously promoted as an
innovative pedagogical tool says much about the culture of university
administrators. Apparently, they are unaware, or pretend not to
understand, that a society gets the criminals it deserves. Instead,
they create more and harsher penalties—my university invented a new
grade, that of “FD,” for “Failed for Academic Dishonesty”—as
they ignore their direct responsibility for the conditions and
pressures that lead to the problem they hope punishment will solve.

Instructors
too are often complicit in the depersonalizing of teaching and the
infantilization of students. Some are forced to go along as they
scramble for precarious jobs and cope with crushing workloads without
the support necessary to resist. Others are eager to assert their
power over students. This was brought home to me when a tenured
university instructor saw that the book was geared toward diverse
adult learners and scoffed, “this book is irrelevant; our students
aren’t adults.”

George
does not suggest we treat them as if they were adults. He understands
they are adults who have reached the age of consent, voting, signing
contracts, and being tried in adult court. If it comes to it, college
and university-aged people will most assuredly be sent off to kill
and die in war. While instructors and administrators ignore this,
George insists, calmly, confidently, and with much experience, that
it is best place to start our teaching and learning. That wonderfully
simple and profound point is subversive and dangerous, because it
forces conscientious instructors confront the hierarchy and the
command and control structure of the corporate university.

This
is a disturbing book, because it calls on us to reject our assigned
roles as assembly line managers. It calls on us to stop relying on
our hard-won expertise and command of content to demand authority and
attention. Instead of starting with ourselves, we start with the
interests, needs, experiences—the expertise—of the people we’re
working with. Giving up the privilege we have in the classroom, our
authority, our expertise as masters of content, can be deeply
unsettling. Haven’t we invested time and money and earned the right
to be called doctor and professor, a right to some respect based on
what we’ve learned and love and want to share? That’s the
reaction of the middle-class intellectual, middle-class by role in
the corporate structure, if not family background and income. But
democracy is messy. Having people speak and argue presumes equality.
That means giving up the authority of our syllabus and content. This
book invites us to recognize that, and it is uncomfortable.

The
book is largely based on George’s experience working with
activists, who have come together to train with him. As a result, the
book assumes that people want to be in the classroom. In our world of
pre-requisites, mandatory courses, large class sizes, propaganda
disguised as education, this is rarer and rarer at the college and
university. This indifferent disrespect of the institution forces
people to adopt the weapons of the weak, and the fawning “keener,”
the passive-aggressive student, the vanishing student, and the
student rightly suspicious of the power imbalance of the classroom
make it clear that is much more interesting to study subaltern
resistance than to have to work with it! But the book has techniques
and ideas to help us overcome these survival mechanisms and negative
expectations.

They
are much different from the “hot licks and cheap tricks” we often
look for to help our teaching: the new icebreaker, the fun group
exercise, the innovative assignment. They are different because they
are all grounded in a democratic, radical, subversive pedagogy rather
than classroom management. Easy to adopt and use, these techniques
have edges that provoke and challenge and push us all to learn and
grow.

A
final warning about the book. As midline managers in academia, one of
the functions of instructors is to de-animate conflicts, both in the
classroom and in society. This is summed up in the field of labor
relations, in those few places that still have unions and contracts
and grievance procedures, with the mantra, “work now, grieve
later.” Nothing must be allowed to stop production! As a result,
many of us think our classes are successful when conflict doesn’t
arise, or we when quell it quickly and peacefully. But democracy is
messy. Having people speak and argue on matters that affect them
personally is often uncomfortable for us and for our students. As
instructors and facilitators, part of our job is to embrace conflict
instead of smothering it while ensuring people are safe and secure
enough to take chances. This means giving up the authority of our
syllabus and our mastery of content to respect the people we are
working with. This crucial part of emancipatory pedagogy inverts the
marketing device of “experiential learning”—come to University
X for the experience!—and puts the lived experience of people at
the center of teaching. It has less to do with people listening to
our voices and more to do with encouraging people to find their own
voices. “Student-focused learning” becomes something people do
themselves, not something that is done to them.

And
so this dangerous and disturbing book is also an exciting and
challenging book. It gives us the chance for real creativity, the
mutual creation of real knowledge, as well as the tools to empower
people. It is filled with wisdom and joy; it is unsettling and
restorative; it offers hope and trust and vision. I can’t think of
better qualities for a book on teaching.

Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Adult Learners

Back to Mark Leier’s Author Page




Source: Pmpress.org