Nobody Likes a Know-It-All

Notes on the Effectiveness of Vulnerability

Now here’s something that I know will be anathema to many teachers. If a teacher who models academic best practices outside of the classroom also wants to model inside the classroom, that teacher must put himself or herself in a position of vulnerability.

Teachers who have been through formal training programs will have been told a thousand times not to do exactly this. They are told that they must establish themselves always as a figure of authority. They are told that they will need this authority in order to shepherd their class along a pre-planned path towards an identifiable goal, and to present themselves as masters of content knowledge who are thereby deserving of intellectual credibility.

For modelling purposes, though, I think this is a bad way to go about things. What is the use of modelling behaviour that normalises reading literature for students if students can’t also develop, through modelling, the habits of mind that are necessary for maximising their engagement with literature outside of the classroom? How, in other words, can teachers in the classroom model the comfort with uncertainty and the persistence of analysis that are necessary for reading and appreciating unfamiliar works of literature?

There is no way for a teacher to do this if his or her default classroom persona is that of the expert, the authority, who has already read the literature and done the readerly work that students are now expected to do without a model to cue them into how they might go about it. There are, however, a few simple things that teachers can do to step down from the pedestal of authority and show a little vulnerability — to model for their students what the thought process might look like when a normal adult with a private passion for literature comes face-to-face with a work that he or she has not yet mastered.

Unplug PowerPoint

First, abolish all reliance on PowerPoint, Keynote, and any other slideshow software that fixes a path of thought so that it arrives at a predetermined and unalterable selection of very specific points to be made. As Andrew Smith recently pointed out in The Guardian,

[PowerPoint’s] enthusiasts claim that it emboldens nervous speakers and forces everyone to present information in an ordered way. To an extent, both contentions are true. But the price of this is that the speaker dominates the audience absolutely. Where the space around and between points on a blackboard is alive with possibility, the equivalent space on a [PowerPoint] screen is dead. Bullet points enforce a rigidly hierarchical authority, which has not necessarily been earned. One either accepts them in toto, or not at all. And by the time any faulty logic is identified, the screen has been replaced by a new one as the speaker breezes on, safe in the knowledge that yet another waits in the wings. With everyone focused on screens, no-one — least of all the speaker — is internalising the argument in a way that tests its strength.
Its coding/marketing roots are intrinsic to its cognitive style, being relentlessly linear and encouraging short, affirmative, jargonesque assertions: arguments that are resolved, untroubled by shades of grey… [and] fonts must be large, words few, and thus slides many. In the face of such a procession, we switch off, because nothing is being asked of us.

In predetermining an analytical path through a work of literature, slideshow software nullifies the possibilities of thought that are intrinsic to the open-ended inquiry that readers must negotiate when approaching an unfamiliar work. It’s not possible to model this sort of negotiation by exposing students to an analytical process that is bereft of undetermined possibilities of thought.

Accept the Unforeseen

Second, before or in concert with teaching literature to students, teachers should ask their students to find a work of literature that the students think the teachers should be taught. I always invite my students to hunt around for a short story or poem that isn’t on the curriculum, that I’ve never read before, and that I’ve sometimes never even heard of. Next, I have them bring it into the classroom — a request that begins the collapsing the boundary between the academic and social spheres — and I download it onto my iPad. I connect my iPad to a projector in order to beam the students’ chosen works onto a screen and then I use a fantastic app called Explain Everything to annotate the text with all my observations, queries, insights, and — most importantly — my uncertainties, as I read through it for the first time in real time. Students very quickly get the idea: this is what it looks like for a reader to read something in which he or she has no prior interest or expertise, this is the open-mindedness that must be brought to the activity, these are the analytical questions that must be brought to bear on the work, and these are the fruits of appreciation that can be enjoyed from approaching it with this frame of mind.

Let the Students Teach

Third, as advocates of project-based learning know well, students are far more likely to acquire and retain both knowledge and skills if they learn through practice rather than instruction. This is true, of course, when the practice in question involves the planning and completion of a project. It’s also true, though, when the practice involves not receiving knowledge in a classroom but bringing knowledge to a classroom, and especially to a teacher.

In my classroom, I rely on the Socratic Method something like ninety per cent of the time and as such I often adopt a persona that I think of as “the idiotic enthusiast.” He’s a brash, sometimes even belligerent guy, but he has a bottomless passion for literature — and indeed, he is far more fond of literature itself than he is fond of the students he’s addressing. Most productively, he doesn’t know everything about literature even though he thinks he does. This leads him to make broad, sweeping judgements of particular works, and to follow lines of logic too hastily to reach appropriate conclusions, and even to overlook key elements of literary works or to plainly misunderstand them. In other words, he is a vulnerable man, perpetually at risk of being wrong-footed by the very people he presumes to instruct.

But this is precisely how he instructs those people. He guides them from behind rather than from in front, using his mistakes, misapprehensions, and misconceptions to create conversational spaces in which students can offer corrections to his analytical claims . These spaces elevate students to the position of teacher, and their corrections immediately putting their knowledge of literature into practice instead of acquiring it through notes copied down from a board. All the while, the actual teacher remains vulnerable, which is to say that he really remains a learner, and it is by thus orchestrating and openly demonstrating his willingness to learn that he uses his classroom to model the attitudes and behaviour necessary for reinforcing successful reading practices outside of its four walls.