Teaching Tuesday: Radical Hope

Like many people I’m pretty worried and anxious about teaching this fall. Not only am I teaching a new class, but it looks like I’ll be doing it in a pretty unprecedented teaching environment with social distancing, much reduced classroom capacities, and a much greater reliance on online teaching. 

In an effort not to feel overwhelmed, I’m reading a bit on teaching and trying to think very deliberately about how I frame my classes. This weekend, I read Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto (University of West Virginia Press 2020). While the book didn’t necessarily tell me anything new (and it didn’t necessarily feel particularly radical to me), it did reinforce a few ideas in my head and it was short. There’s always something to be said for a useful short book.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Learning is Hard. At the beginning of every semester, I remind myself that learning is hard. Our brains do not want or enjoy being rewired. It takes time and concentration. And it usually involves failure and frustration. Whenever I try to learn something new, I find myself regularly pushing square pegs into round holes, almost uncontrollably making the same mistakes over and over, and deliberately looking for shortcuts and workaround to avoid understanding a new idea fully before trying it out. 

In college, we often do little to make learning easier. Each semester students encounter a mishmash of different expectations, methods, and topics. Even when courses have similar goals they’re often expressed in different — discipline specific — ways. Moreover, we ask students to make connections across diverse courses encountered over four or five years to reinforce key concepts which are often relatively ill-defined. Consider “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” and “the ability to read and write.”    

Because learning is hard, students do what they can to resist it. In some cases, this resistance is subtle, and amounts to little more than avoiding challenging concepts or issues. In other cases, it can be bold and disruptive: missing deadlines, confrontational classroom behavior, or simply checking out during class. 

This is all complicated by the fact that college costs have continued to rise, the promised (and often economy) value of a college education is frequently pushed into an uncertain future, and students themselves endure a barrage of criticism from “the kids these days” to questions about the politics of campus life, work ethic, and emotional durability. In short, college life in the 21st century is stressful, frustrating, and uncertain. 

Gannon’s book reminds us that teaching and learning can, and, in fact, should be a hopeful enterprise. As faculty, we need to find a way to approach our classes that embodies a hope not only for a successful outcome (whether manifest in some kind of assessment or in practice), but also for an encounter with students that communicates this hopefulness. 

Second, this book isn’t just an expression of optimism or an aspirational manifesto. Throughout Gannon offers practical examples of how sharing a commitment to hope can create significant change in our classrooms.

My biggest take away was that hope provided the basis for a shared sense of agency. By treating students as collaborators in the learning venture and ceding some of the authority that our institutional position gives us, we make ourself visibly willing to learn from our students. By subjecting ourselves to the humbling experience of learning (in public no less!), we acknowledge that learning is hard and this offers a compelling invitation to our students to join in a shared struggle.

In this context, the flipped classroom represents more than asking students to do encounter content at home and then come to class to discuss it (that is flipping the context for learning content). It also involves flipping the locus of authority in the classroom and giving students the authority to act as teachers. 

Finally, this involves more than just a willingness to demonstrate our own learning in the classroom (and with it making the pain of learning new things visible), but also doing our part as teachers to mitigate some of the more frustrating elements of the learning process. 

Of particular interest to me was ways to making a syllabus more legible to students. Some of the suggestions offered by Gannon were minor. For example, he noted the tendency of traditional syllabi to be impersonal documents full of institutional language and formal and legalistic statements. As anyone who has rapidly clicked through end users licensing agreements that use this same language, it’s easy to understand why syllabi are frequently ignored or read in only the most cursory fashion. In the place of institutional language, Gannon suggests that we adopt a more conversational and personal tone. Not only does this present learning as a shared, personal experience, but it also softens the barrier between the faculty member and the students. By changing the character of the syllabus from one of compliance to one of aspiration, we open the door to creating a hopeful middle ground of shared expectations. While this may sound like touchy-feely eduspeak, I actually buy this. I think that creating a middle ground between instructor and students is vital to for any teaching and this involves distancing ourselves from the institutional trappings of power.

Along these lines, I offer two little concluding thoughts.

First, it almost goes without saying that this fall semester will be clusterfuck on most university campuses. My institution struggles to maintain a consistent institutional framework for teaching and research in the best of circumstances with administrative turn over, ambiguous policies, and unclear and unenforceable mandates.

While this might feel like a disaster waiting to happen, I’d suggest that this situation actually makes it easier for us to build rapport with our students. The absence of a strong and consistent institutional backdrop to our classes means that both we and our students are in this together. We have to figure out a way forward to ensure that some meaningful learning happens. The university will not guarantee that.

Secondly, I do wonder how much of Gannon’s book presents a distinctly male perspective on building a classroom based on radical hope. His willingness to share authority with students and his ability both to enforce standards and communicate expectations almost certainly relies on his outward appearance as a conventional figure of authority. I found myself thinking at various points whether I would have embraced some of the techniques he explores my first few years teaching. I also wondered whether they’d be appropriate for colleagues who often have their own vulnerabilities that invite certain kinds of student resistance in the classroom. 

This is not meant to undermine Gannon’s central point, but to simply observe that this book, like most manifestos, is a point of departure not a destination.

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