Sunday, November 16, 2008

Thoughts from the Chalkface

I teach two courses at UCD; comparative politics and a general course in development studies. It is at times an entertaining experience, at others deeply satisfying and then again there are moments when I truly fear for the future of a world left in their hands. As you all know I am not at all prone to hyperbole (or sarcasm) so believe me when I tell you that the youth of the nation, are an hilarious, engaging and maddening lot .

Generally it's like talking to a group of hung over statues. I ask a question. They look at their shoes (almost uniformly Uggs and Converse). I rephrase my question. They look at their shoes. I show them the graph that shook me to my left core (the hockey stick with GDP per capita for the year 0 to now). They look blank. I say 'This is the single most important graph in economic history!!'. They look blank. I spend an hour explaining Sen's theory of famine to them and then ask who agrees with Sen's interpretation. No one puts up their hands. I ask who disagrees. Two hands go up. I tell the rest - over a hundred people - that they don't have to have to answer with a clear yes or no - the purpose of education being to raise you to a higher level of confusion. They look confused.

To try to lower my blood pressure and prevent the early onset of heart failure, I at times try to focus on the comedic aspects of teaching, for there is entertainment a plenty. Sometimes when I stand in front of them I feel that if I didn't actually know that they were real people I would think they were actors in a mockumentary playing caricatures of themselves: the preppy debater, the bleached surfer dude, girls with the fake tan that is different shades of orange on their face and legs, rugby players who look like they've been inflated with a bike pump and the Chloe Bartlett Browns who are all berets and smart boots. I mock, but it suits my rather dehumanizing sense of humour that they all so neatly fit into their boxes. Which leads to the none-too-challenging game of guess the box when it comes to marking their essays. Which led in one instance to an entertaining moment when, in response to the following sentence - 'One has decided to analyse the following European states...after which one will conclude' it took all my self restraint not to write 'Are you...the Queen?' But perhaps my favourite quote was when a student, in a Brangelina moment for the Enlightenment thinkers, referred to one John Stuart Marx (and what a power couple that would have been). In fact at one fell swoop he had brought together the thinkers who embody the two ideals that western thought has always struggled to reconcile - freedom and equality! Or course when I gushed about this to him he looked confused and, I'll confess, just a little scared.

This is not to say that there are not moments that are really satisfying and when you feel that in some small way you have got through to them. One such incident happened this week. We were doing an exercise that involved role playing the outcome of the 2005 German election where they had to represent the 5 main parties and simulate coalition negotiations with each other and they just came alive. After half an hour of negotiations that slowly escalated in energy and decibel level, it culminated in cries of 'We want education! And if we don't get it we're walking pal'. They were of course referring to the education ministry but I chose to see it as an unconscious plea for erudition. It came down to two potential options - a grand coalition between the SPD and CDU or a grand left alliance between the SPD, Greens and der Linke. The choice for the SPD was clear - power (in the Grand left alliance) versus stability (in the grand coalition). The three members of the SPD weighed up their options. The Left party shouted 'We'll compromise on overthrowing capitalism if you give us Social Welfare!'. The SPD retorted 'Yeah but you're a bunch of losers'. I chastised them for unparliamentary language and asked for a vote. One goes for the Left Alliance, another for the grand coalition and the last girl, with the whole class hanging on her words, eventually goes for the Left. The Greens and the Left erupt into cheers and the course of German history is reversed.

And at times I find that I actually learn something from them. In doing the same exercise with a different group we began talking about the Irish parliamentary system, which in some structural ways is very similar to the German one: two large parties and a number of smaller ones. But here a grand coalition between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, though it would be by far the most stable, is never even on the table as an option. I asked them why. The obvious answer is history. They represent the lines along which opinion divided over the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the civil war but as time has gone on, the differences have become less distinct. This was as far as my thinking had ever progressed on the matter. But they raised some important points. From the point of view of the parties, going in together, given that they have no really meaningful policy differences, would only serve to highlight this fact and undermine their claims to being fundamentally opposed. Like a Republican in a balaclava and a thug who just likes to knee cap people standing next to each other in a line up (to pick a loaded simile). And from the perspective of the electorate, having two large parties who never consider going into coalition together at least guarantees (in theory) a more forceful opposition and the opportunity to alternate governments more decisively. After the last election and Lisbon, my faith in the Irish electorate had diminished considerably, but these students put forward thoughtfull points that made sense of something which I had never fully understood before.

Although Joyce said that the universal is contained within the particular, I don't want to engage in that most Irish of qualities; parochialism. At the moment when a paradigm has been shown to be flawed, the universal need is for big-picture, blue-sky thinking. It is a moment that begs questions of academia and universities about the ways in which they train people to think. For this crisis is the result of the failure of an ideology, a failure of thinking. And before that failure came the failure of critical thinking. Although there were many who warned about the dangers of unfettered markets and unbridled capitalism, not enough people were asking questions, weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of different paradigms and thinking critically - in other words doing the things that universities are meant to be training them to do. There are of course so many reasons why we are in the mess we are in and I would not have really learned anything from my 17 years of education if I did not admit to the complex, polyvalent nature of reality that rules out any easy, single faceted answers. But I do feel that one part of that solution is to teach the youth of the nation and the world to think more clearly, to ask more questions and interrogate their reality more rigorously. We need to expect more from them and put in the resources and effort to match it. Even if, for those of us teaching them, it means laying aside the comedy and taking them seriously.


Paul said...

Time for a scientifically biased rant now. For me modern university is a degree factory! The skills that students acquire are mainly skills directly related to, assessing the aptitude for and carrying out, future employment. For those lucky enough to have avoided this "academic" experience, well done you are in the minority ;)
Simply, critical insightful questioning doesn't necessarily make for a better "worker" or lead to a better standard of living. Only as far as asking a question like:- Should that computer be on fire? does.
In the mathematics courses I teach students minds are set on exams which examine the functional ability at carrying out a particular process, a statistics regression, differentiation, matrix algebra. Understanding, or any kind of engagement with the concepts is the last thing on students minds, a how-to cookbook is much more the order of the day. This isn't a good thing but is it avoidable?
Essentially people use tools all day everyday without understanding how they work, university courses really just seek to give people the minimum skills necessary in order to use them, the people who design the "tools" will go on to do PhDs or private sector research. Modern 3rd level is more and more just about equipping (who ever knew equipping had two p's) people with the "toolmanship" they need to work in the modern knowledge economy, not asking them to ask questions about these tools/ideas/theories. That's my take anyway.

p.s. Freedom and Equality are irreconcilable in a functioning society - Sen's Theorem of Minimal Liberalism. Arrow's Theorem can also be interpreted along similar lines. I think in our particular situation this could boil down to the fact that "intellectual freedom" in the sense of everybody being taught to ask insightful questions may not lead to a Pareto optimal distribution (i.e. their time may be better spent learning mundane "skills" that give them more positive benefit). I mean to play the devils advocate completely here, who wants to think when thinking leads to Emily Dickenson? (Please feel free to slate my Junior Cert level knowledge of English Poetry) ;)

Michael said...

Up to the late 1960's no more than 10% of Irish school leavers went to university. When I went to UCD in 1973 this was finally beginning to change as the impact of 'free second level education' worked its way through the system.

Has Irish society changed profoundly in the period since? Yes. Has the fact that a far greater proportion of Irish people, and especially women, had access to and acquired a university degree influenced that change? It surely must. Can one claim that securing a degree was of itself the principle cause of this change? No. But it was very definitely a contributary factor!

Now that so many more people do actually acquire a degree means inevitably that both the individual and collective impact is qualatively different. But rather than criticise this fact, surely those who run and teach in our universities should be seeking ways to enhance the experaince for studnets? Such as by striving to find new and innovative ways to impart knowledge and doing so differently?

In the Google era that surely has to include at least trying harder to explain the underlying reasons why things work, not merely imparting the facts of how they do? A class that starts 'you can find my notes on the Web so now were going to do something different' (as the Blog relates) would surely more consistently engage a higher % of the class than traditional 'lecturing'?

Finally what happened to University as a 'experiance'and not just a place you got a degree? I have many very positive personal memories of my time in UCD (agreed not always from the lectures or library!), and some truly long term friendships. Indeed only last Saturday it was a friend (now of 35 years standing) I met in UCD who called and asked if I was interested in going to the All Blacks match. I was indeed and even though we actually hadnt met for a few years it was no problem to pick up where we left off. Friendship is not necessarily a skill you learn in 'collidge' but it is a valuable life long assest that going to univeristy provides many more oppertuniutes to acquire than most situations in life.

Sus said...

Unlike the two interesting and insightful views expressed above, I just wanted to remind you of one of the more recent UCD stereotypes that you neglected to mention: the girl who carries her chiuaua to lectures, wears sunglasses on her head(even in winter) and dreams of being just like Paris Hilton.

I may not have believed she existed until I saw her in the Orts block.

Rebeca said...

A few more students´ anecdotes collected during my teaching time last year: Nokia is an international organisation; the Roman Empire fell in 1648.

Jenny SS said...

Michelle and all - I loved this blog and the comments.

I'm torn between a fear of being intellectually snobbish and a distaste for having to 'communicate from my audience's point of view', which seems mostly to mean dumbing down. I'm sure Freire could help us here with his notes on slowly raising critical consciousness by creating a space for the expression and valuing of the 'knowledges' of those we deem to be 'students', and helping them to position them in broader social and political contexts. But then he was talking about the oppressed, not the future oppressors that one could say frequent Belfield.

And still, he had no notion that perhaps his idea of raised consciousness might be something inferior to the grounded knowledges with which he was faced in class, in the same way we all have little space for allowing ourselves to really learn from our students or audiences.

So, I suppose I'm saying I feel we should be more refelxive and self-checking, especially as our own intellectual is contingent on mostly priviledged backgrounds (in terms of education being valued), even when we are faced with chihuaua's in the lecture hall.

Typical Irish move - just when the conversation reaches sophisticated heights, someone has to try to cut it down.