Teaching as Attitude: The Staying Power of John Dewey

My thoughts on the relevance and power of John Dewey, just in time for Labo(u)r Day.

Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

"Example is notoriously more potent than precept." —John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916)by Daniel Richards

We have all heard of John Dewey.

The native of Burlington, Vermont, (1859-1952) has been on U.S. stamps; he protected academic freedom by co-founding the American Association of University Professors (AAUP); his articulation of inquiry undergirds most student-centered and service learning teaching approaches; he was one of the foremost contributors to the development of (despite his disdain for the term) Pragmatism, perhaps America’s greatest contribution to philosophy; and he most likely occupies a full shelf in your university library, having written copiously for over sixty years on pretty much everything, from education to politics to anthropology to social psychology to aesthetics to ethics to communication. There is perhaps no one more prominent within the American educational consciousness than Dewey.

But do we really know John Dewey?

Writing from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, Dewey is usually—and rightfully—associated with thinkers from a wide variety of…

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Assessing Blogs

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The Professional Writing Online course I teach asks students to craft a blog that positions themselves as a niche specialist in their industry or field of choice. The objective for the students is to learn about digital ethos in a social media environment by actually practicing it themselves.

Great. Fun. Blogs. These blogs are instantiations, equal parts their envisioning and my structuring. That is, while the students chose the content of the blog and the ends to which they were put (i.e., research blogs; blog for their small business; academic “expert”; etc.), they are in many ways the result of what I think a strong blog is: an aesthetic instrument (in the Deweyan sense, of course). These blogs are social tools: they are virtual artifacts stemming from personal motivation (read: obligation) and have an attached social function. Yet, they are also artistic expressions, the result of a series of aesthetic design choices on behalf of the student. These artistic pieces, occupying public space, serve a function. In many ways, blogs that have the exigence of professionalization (Middlebrook) blur the lines between art and instrumentalism, embodying both an explicit social function and digital tool as well as being the result of design choices to be experienced in publics.

But if you think the amount of fun I had with this assignment resided in theorizing blogs from a pragmatist perspective, you are wrong: it was assessing that was fun and, of course, challenging. Many question arose: How do I assess a tool that is both a written document and a design document? Can I hold my students responsible for the design choices they have made if I am teaching this project in the context of a professional writing course in which students, from outside the classroom, must learn the technical skills of WordPress blogs in 5 weeks or less? How do I assess blogs in such a way that communicates to the students that these blogs are envisioned as artistic creations that have a social obligation to serve a function (ends determined by the student) in publics? Here’s the rubric I came up with.

Politics of rubrics aside, the fact of the matter is that I needed a concrete way to communicate to students, with whom I did not have the privilege of meeting face-to-face for 2.5 hours a week, the nature of a blog and what a strong blog incorporates. I’m not sure I did this right, but my rubric, highly specific to the project outlined above, is my best effort to make sense of assessing blogs that have the distinct purpose of professionalization.

John Dewey, the Hipster

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Perhaps it is beneficial to think in terms of the agency of Latourian “missing masses” not so much in terms of the agency things initiate upon us (thereby perpetuating a tried anthropocentrism) but in the relationships things have together outside human experience. Think of it as the Bechdel Test for non-human things. In Experience and Nature, Dewey makes it clear that we should not be so naive as to think that when we turn our back, things cease to form relationships with other things. Tools not only have relationships outside of our own, but Dewey even goes so far as to say that these relationships are primary:

A tool is a particular thing, but it is more than a particular thing, since it is a thing in which a connection, a sequential bond of nature is embodied. It possesses an objective relation as its own defining property. Its perception as well as its actual use takes the mind to other things. The spear suggests the feast not directly but through the medium of other external things, such as the game and the hunt, to which the sight of the weapon transports imagination. Man’s bias towards himself easily leads him to think of a tool solely in relation to himself, to his hand and eyes, but its primary relationship is towards other external things, as the hammer to the nail, and the plow to the soil. Only through this objective bond does it sustain relation to man himself and his activities. A tool denotes a perception and acknowledgement of sequential bonds in nature. (123)

This passage disrupts the tendency for readers of Dewey to see him as overly anthropocentric and it is actually in this passage that we can see Dewey responding to Morris Cohen’s criticism about that same topic leveled at him in Problems of Men (195-6). Dewey wants us to recognize that humans are but one bond in this long sequential series of transactions marked by continuity. Things/objects are literally “acting out” on their potentialities in the process of inquiry, and this oftentimes gets hidden behind the fact that it is happening during the act of experience. But just because a human is using a hammer and that hammer is known through experience does not mean that the hammer and the nail do not have a separate relationship when the human turns around or when they operate outside the realm of human experience.

Dewey, always a perennial champion of experience, should not be interpreted through such a delimiting lens by assuming that his philosophy focuses on the primacy of human experience.

Student Apathy, Saving the Milquetoasts

Writing teachers are familiar with student apathy. Over the years, each “movement” in composition studies has had its own response to this issue: Emig and Britton asked students to engage in the expressive and poetic; Bizzell and Cooper extended the discursive acts of student writing beyond the classroom; Berlin celebrated but also lamented when students realized they were very much part of the oppressive institutions they were critiquing. In this vein, I ask: How can current writing teachers respond to supposed student apathy towards civic engagement without relying on using technological artifacts as mere “entertainment”?

In his recent TED talk titled based on his co-edited book Local Motion, Toronto-based Dave Meslin redefines political apathy not as some sort of internal syndrome, but as a complex web of technocultural barriers that actively reinforce disengagement. Barriers, Meslin suggests, that manifest through societal narratives of involuntary “heroes”; uninformative political coverage in the media; and impossible City Hall documents. If we view Meslin’s call as a challenge and not an excuse, then I contend that writing teachers can benefit from Meslin’s redefining of apathy.

I’ve been thinking about how (non-learning management system) course websites can serve an integral role in shaping a social environment aimed at overcoming barriers to engagement. In many ways, course websites can serve as the hub of a student’s understanding of a given subject: students collect resources, view content, and even contribute to this one given site.  As such, how we craft course websites could potentially re-shape student habits and associations. John Dewey, in The Public and Its Problems, shows the importance of developing habits in citizenship.

“Faculties of effectual observation, reflection and desire are habits acquired under the influence of the culture and institutions of society, not ready-made inherent powers.”

Apathy, or the lack thereof, is not an individually-based phenomenon; rather, political motivations stem from the shaping of particular kinds of environments. Course websites shape technocultural environments that value certain habits over others. These aesthetic, political, and educational spaces require a careful thinking through of design, purpose, and particularly features, all of which have ramifications in the group habits we are developing  in students. Our students are not milquetoasts, drained of all political purpose. Our students are motivated individuals whose experiences revolve around the encountering of a series of actively discouraging barriers for political engagement. I wonder if our construction of course websites, if done with Meslin’s redefinition of apathy in mind, could act as agents against these active barriers discouraging political engagement.

Dewey and Cross-Nationalism

The deep purpose of Dewey’s philosophy of education may be said to be the infusion of social meaning and relevance into the learning activity that places in school and the replacement of the individualistic and intellectualistic organization of these activities by the style of cooperative inquiry which he held to be at the heart of democratic social practice. (Olafson 185)

It is beyond ironic – it is unfortunate – that John Dewey is cast as one of the forefathers of modern American higher education and yet the practices of students in higher education today are so divorced from his original intentions. Well, for the most part.

Dewey’s idealized version of the American educational system is one that viewed higher education as a tool of transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, a tool that transmits the accumulated knowledge and skills that would allow students to actively participate in “social” life as engaging members of society. Education was about transmission of social, real-world competence.  This is why the findings of David Foster’s study comparing the roles of student writers from a cross-national perspective are so disappointing (albeit not all that surprising). Foster’s qualitative methodology (interviews, institutional analysis, discourse analysis) of comparing the roles of American and German student writers is appropriate given his goal, which is to identify the degree of agency, control, and preparation of student writers across cultures. If Dewey’s goal was to model educative practices after “real-life” social situations, and this entailed preparing students with the necessary skills that would make them capable of engaging in civic life, then Foster’s findings that the institutional (“deadline-based”) constraints of American higher-educational systems limits this degree of agency and control is indicative of how America is failing in living out Dewey’s mission (utopia?). Our institutional constraints are impeding upon the students’ ability to “unfold from within.”

That being said, Dewey did write at a time when capitalizing “Great Society” was not really that bad of a thing. His educational models, political philosophy, and system of ethics all depended upon a heightened sense of nationalism – fervent, fervent nationalism – that assumed common morals, beliefs, and goals in a unified society. Developing the aims of education is much simpler when there are more cohesive relations among citizens. Now, teachers are not teaching just Americans with goals of bettering the localized community; teachers are teaching students from South Korea, India, Egypt, and most complicated of all, Canada! These students, as shown in Erin Krampetz’s thesis “Writing Across Cultures and Contexts,” draw on different expectations of audience; Krampetz ultimately shows, also through qualitative research methods (transcripts, writing samples, interviews), that cultural factors such as background impact student writing processes the most. How can we teach writing in the Deweyan model of education when the conceptions of writing, and thus rhetoric, and thus action, is so diverse in any given classroom?

Perhaps it is the presence of multiple senses of nationalism that education functions well (?) as merely the transmission of practical skills that are oftentimes divorced from “real-world” life systems. Dewey did not think education was just the transmission of social bodies of knowledge, but that education was so interconnected to social life that they really were not separate at all – education was not preparation for life, but life itself. However, this mission becomes unlikely when the experiences and expectations of students are so diverse so as to render betterment of social communities non sequitur. Perhaps a study like this would allow international students break free from the iron cage.

Works Cited

Olafson, Frederick A. “The School and Society: Reflections on John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education.” New Studies in the Philosophy of John Dewey. Ed. Steven M. Cahn. Hanover, NH: The University Press of New England, 1977. Print.