Teaching, Learning, and Resistance

This morning we were supposed to meet to discuss more of M. Weiner’s Learner-Centered Teaching. Revised Edition 2013, but a little blizzard has interrupted our regularly scheduled program. Since blogging headquarters remains unaffected by the trivialities of weather, the show must go on!

If I recall correctly, we were planning to talk a bit about resistance to learner-centered approaches. As readers of this blog know, I’m pretty interested in resistance in the student ranks and Weiner’s book provides a short survey of the causes of resistance to “innovation” in teaching. 

To my mind, resistance occurs in three different ways, and much of this happens because of the tendency in contemporary academic life to displace the relationship between knowledge and learning. My observations here do not, necessarily, undermine the validity or effectiveness of these various displacements, but they do, I think, shed light on occasions where students resistance is likely to happen and perhaps even elucidate its causes. 

I’ll explain more below.  

First, students resist bodies of knowledge that they see as unimportant. This is painfully obvious to anyone who has taught an introductory level history course.  We regularly confront students who find the idea of learning history intrinsically unimportant for their future as managers, occupational therapists, engineers, or nurses. On the one hand, we can’t blame them for this critique; it is ubiquitous in the media. Many question the values of the liberal arts in our contemporary economy.

Faculty play into this, of course, by explaining to our students that history might not be their thing, but it does help them develop “transferable skills”, “critical thinking”, and “information literacy.” In this context, a series of rather bankrupt catch phrases for “education” displaces the disciplinary knowledge foundational to history. It is hardly a shock that students find this ruse disingenuous no matter how much passion faculty muster for the elegance of a transferred skill or a critical thought. We might even go so far to present the old cherry that “we’re teaching you for jobs that haven’t been invented yet” or rattle off a series of well-known figures with history backgrounds. Students are justified in resisting this disjuncture between disciplinary knowledge, educational goals, and their future plans. If history is merely a vessel for these other kinds of skills, then students should have a say over the medium in which learning happens. The displacement of empty learning goals for disciplinary knowledge authorizes this critique and mocks our pained attempts to reduce disciplinary knowledge to mere method. 

Second, students resist approaches to teaching that they see as trivializing learning. Much of learner-centered teaching involves slight of hand. Faculty engage the students in co-authoring their learning environments with the hope that such coauthoring will help the students master a set of faculty-dictated learning goals that invariably include methods, processes, and content. Again we see a strategic displacement. The course goals and teaching methods are set by a faculty member who then, within rigorously defined limits, allows students pick their own path through the course. Student resistance tends to occur along the seam of displacement where the more clever students refuse to choose their own “punishment” and defer to the teacher. The most common example of this comes in the simple question from the student to the teacher: “what options would you choose?”

This subversion of learning-centered teaching approach both announces to the teacher that the limits of student authority are known, and questions the legitimacy of a technique designed to obscure authority in order to co-opt student energy for the goals of the class.

Finally, students resist approaches that run counter to the practice of deskilling faculty and disciplinary knowledge. Over the past two decades, academia has embraced whole-heartedly “audit culture” as a tool to deskilling the academic workforce and undermining the primacy of disciplinary knowledge. From the standpoint of management, this turn against disciplinary knowledge parallels the rise in Taylorism and scientific management principles. The goal is to transform faculty from engine that drives higher eduction, to interchangeable cogs in a machine. By emphasizing the universal character of teaching and learning, faculty become interchangeable and the university trades disciplinary knowledge for the teaching of skills as I have argued in point one. In other words the displacement of authority grounded in disciplinary knowledge to that grounded in terms of employment authorizes students to act as consumers and to defend their rights. We’ve all experienced this kind of resistance as faculty members.

In this context, student resistance represents both a recognition of their authority in the classroom as well as the displacement of faculty authority from particular, specialized knowledge to teaching skill. In this place, student resistance supports the growing power of the assessocracy and metadisciplines like SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning). While I am tempted, in my most cynical moments, to see student resistance in this context as anti-faculty, when I critically reflect, I tend to see student behavior as part of the larger transformation of higher education away from artisnal practice and toward a model of 20th century efficiency. For my blog post today, I am more interested in recognizing that student resistance developed along the rifts created by the displacement of authority grounded in disciplinary, academic knowledge for that grounded in our position – however tenuous – on the assembly line.

The goal of my post today is to identify the location of student resistance within our discourse of practice in teaching and learning. Resistance seems most likely to occur in places of weakness where our imagining of the world has flaws and inconsistencies. I identify these were moments of displacement where we say one thing and do something else or have a foot planted, none-to-firmly, in two mutually exclusive discourses of authority.  


  1. vincentoreilly March 31, 2014 at 8:52 am

    How can it be otherwise when faculty share with their students the premise that a college education is only some sort of advanced job training. I know that I sound like the proverbial broken record but the best – perhaps the only valid – argument for studying the liberal arts is that knowing stuff is fun. Properly presented that should appeal not only to arts majors but to any student who wants to climb to the top of his chosen industry. There they will find successful friends whose feet are set securely on their chosen ground but whose evenings are spent with some non-fiction book, an art film, or a concert, or associating with like minded individuals over wine and cheese. By the way, this renaissance view is just as true for academics who view their own “industry” as all important even where said industry is painting or literature or the mechanics of writing instead of engineering or marketing.


  2. “Faculty play into this, of course, by explaining to our students that history might not be their thing, but it does help them develop ‘transferable skills’, ‘critical thinking’, and ‘information literacy.'”

    When used effectively, these are only the hooks to get them to buy into the course’s value enough to participate. After that, instructor passion has to take over. In my limited experience, students come out the other side of the course surprised by how much they enjoyed the content, how much they value the content they have learned.


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