June 13, 2015

Expertise and educators: Teachers make a difference

If you care about teaching, stop what you're doing and read Joshua Beatty's CAPAL 2015 paper, "Reading Freire for first world librarians." I had seen others tweeting about how great this paper was but hadn't had a chance to read it until now.

I can't really even count the amount of exclamation points I wrote all over my printed-out copy. There are a lot! We talk about a few things regarding critical pedagogy that have had me feeling conflicted. I wasn't sure how to put my uncertainty into words. Conversations regarding teacher authority, students-as-teachers, and borderline disdain for outcomes have had me feeling like "hmmm no" but not entirely sure how to express my hesitation clearly. And when I say "we," I mean librarians, teachers, and higher ed faculty who engage in discourse about critical pedagogy, but also sometimes those more informal discussions in our #critlib chats. And this is certainly not uncommon, a hashtag to talk about umbrella topics does not automatically imply there is monolithic agreement and a shared politics/approach/philosophy. This is why these conversations are great, because it's a safe space to talk about these things. I just haven't been able to fully articulate my disagreement about these issues until reading this paper.

So without repeating everything he says, essentially, the point is that first world librarians have been interpreting Freire incorrectly. Most of us--myself included--have only read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was written with a very specific time period and population in mind and does not apply to Western classrooms (especially in the U.S. education system). Beatty points out how "Freire believed that North American teachers had conflated the concept of authority with the concept of authoritarianism. For Freire, the difference was essential. Authoritarianism was opposed to the existence of freedom, and is illegitimate. Authority, in contrast, was not opposed to freedom, but necessary to it" (p. 6).

The teacher's authority comes from their knowledge of the subject matter; but as Beatty explains, Freire realized in our misreading of his work that in rejecting authoritarianism, we wind up rejecting the teacher's authority... the thing that is actually needed for reaching freedom. And when we reject the teacher's authority and focus on this idea of teacher as just a guide or facilitator and not an expert with authority, we are actually causing harm to both the students and the teacher.

How this causes harm to students: Teacher authority is thinly veiled behind this idea of a classroom of shared power, which is just not in existence. Problem-posing in truth would be to acknowledge the authority of the teacher, to discuss it and be aware of it, instead of pretending it doesn't exist or making it seem like it can go away. I have never fully abdicated my authority as a teacher when I am doing instruction, feeling that I would come across as insincere. I wrote a blog post previously about TMI and student retention, and how trying to appear as if on the same level as your students is not helpful to teaching. I had included a couple YouTube clip examples in the post that have seemed to disappear, but this one can illustrate the idea here from Kids in the Hall, He's Hip. He's Cool. He's 45! The dad is trying to act like his authority is invisible by being "cool" and imposing no limitations on his son. He "doesn't care" about restrictions such as curfew and even goes to offer his son a joint with his cool man stance on the couch armrest. But the son clearly sees through this facade, not taking his dad seriously, as if he's a joke (well, he literally is):

This is obviously an exaggerated example, but I think it is disingenuous to frame a classroom as hey we're all the same, teacher, students.... even though I have the authority to grade. Also, there really are right and wrong answers in a number of cases. Dialogue is important, though. Facilitating is also important, but not at the expense of denying the expertise of being a teacher.

How this causes harm to teachers: I have written about the identity of librarians, the identity of librarians specifically as educators, and presented on how incorporating critical pedagogy into information literacy education can help transform our image. What Beatty is saying in his paper ties directly to this issue inherent in women's work and female-dominated professions having an expectation for service work and caregiving. Caregiving and warmth is essential to a degree in successful teaching, as we recognize the human component necessary for learning (affect), but positioning teachers--and librarian teachers, a double-whammy--as simply guides or facilitators or helpers, we are reinforcing a renunciation of authority, respect, and the need for individuals (mostly women) in these roles. We can have authority without being authoritarians. We can be experts and strategic educators who use learning outcomes (especially as formative assessment) while also working with students to realize their own knowledge and interests via dialogue and bigger picture learning.

I have found somewhat of a clash between educational psychology / instructional design principles and critical pedagogy when considering design, outcomes, and the role of the educator. I was so glad to read Beatty's paper to help me realize exactly where I felt uncomfortable with this conflict and why it existed. He talks about a lot of other great things like the idea of neutrality, the importance of collaboration with faculty, and neoliberalism + educational technology... you should really read.

And so, if anyone really can be a facilitator or a guide or a helper, then who needs us? Freire's notion of laissez-faire education would be realized. Teachers make a difference, and we can use our authority to help students learn.