Sunday, August 15, 2010

The basics: About this blog, and me.

Since this is a new blog, I thought I would start out by describing it and myself. I think setting a kind of 'tone' in the first post might help me to frame the rest of what I write here.

A bit about me, to set the context: I'm a graduate student, an international transplant (from New Zealand to Canada), and I've lived in four Canadian cities, in three different provinces. My degrees are in three 'disciplinary' areas (Communication Studies, Linguistics, Education), and my education history is a long and somewhat messy one that I won't recount here. I've worked variously as a fast-food jockey, an ESOL teacher, a scrap-yard cataloguer, a dishwasher, a researcher, a graphic design assistant, and a census-taker. I've also participated both as volunteer and paid worker in quite a few elections (aided in campaigns, worked on election information distribution, registered voters, acted as scrutineer, assisted Returning Officer, etc.)--since well before I was allowed to vote.

These days I'm working on a PhD and I have a teaching assistant position each year. Though I haven't yet taught a whole course myself, I've taught more than many PhD students at my level, since I started my first TA position when I was still an undergraduate. My grad school teaching experiences have also been a bit more diverse than the norm--I've been fortunate enough to work with different courses every year (sometimes in different departments), including in the teacher training program run by my "home" faculty. Working with teacher candidates is rewarding because of the very real and direct challenges they face in their own classrooms during practicum, which foreshadow what is to come later in professional life. The discussions have a kind of relevance and immediacy to them that can seem absent with first-year undergraduates. Still, it's a different experience working with the younger students, and it's rewarding in other ways.

There are probably a number of things about the way I try to work--as a writer/researcher, as a teacher--that will bleed through to this blog, just as the questioning I bring to my research also comes into the classroom when I'm talking with students. Teaching, and reading, have taught me that I have broad interests and a pretty tangential way of thinking; so I've learned to keep relating things back to a theme or to some common question. And one way in which I like do that is to return to the discussion and definition of key terms and basic concepts. In tutorials I've tried to emphasise asking fundamental questions, the answers to which often seem “obvious” but which tend to help demonstrate how the "easiest" question can turn out to be the toughest one to answer.

This kind of questioning is more than just an exercise devised to provide fodder for course grades. My feeling is that if underlying, often apparently "only" philosophical, issues are not debated and fleshed out, then the overall direction of teaching and learning and also of our theorising and policy-making, will be uncertain and/or skewed. There will be a lack of solidity to the proposals, and no cohesion around the principles. We want a "knowledge economy", but we don't know (or bother to define) what "knowledge" is. We talk about increasing a nation's economic worth by raising the number of post-secondary graduates it "produces"--but we don't question the reduction of civic participation to numbers of degrees earned. We want children to "learn", but only if this learning shows up in the results of standardised tests. We demand “evidence” of progress, efficiency, and effectiveness, without wondering about what it is that we allow to “count” as proof, and who defines it.

When these fundamental concepts are left un-discussed and undefined—as well as un-critiqued—outside of scholarly journals, the scaffold of common understanding on which politics and policy should be built becomes biased and superficial, and is weakened at its base.

Being critical is about more than just talking about what’s wrong; eventually we must be able to propose solutions as well. This will mean learning how to work with people whose views we may not share. For this reason I think we also need to cultivate an environment of mutual respect for discussion.

That's a difficult task. I know that naturally, there will always be some perspectives with which I agree more than others (and some that to me are just egregious). For example I tend to be anti-marketisation, because looking at the effects of that particular trend in governance is part of my academic work--and I haven't seen much evidence of its 'success' (depending of course on how you define that term). But that doesn't mean I won't try to have a reasonable debate with someone who is strongly pro-market; without that kind of debate, we can't solve policy problems and we certainly can't delve deeper into the core issues that drive governance decisions. And it doesn't mean that I'll argue blindly for some other viewpoint, since I'm still unsure about what the "best" answers are to the challenges of our current context. I have no problem admitting that. But I try to resist the binary options that are so often placed at the heart of political debates and the programs they support or attack.

That's partly why I'm doing a PhD--not so I can bolster my pre-formed opinions with a credential, but so that I can try to understand the situation (in its often stultifying complexity) and make a contribution to improving it. Perhaps it sounds ambitious, but surely it's a project in which we all have a role to play, as educators, students, intelligent and informed commentators, and engaged members of society. Surely we all have a stake in whatever 'solutions' are chosen, which makes the quality of debate all the more important. If we can't talk across--and beyond--our differences, then small, ideologically-driven factions will be more likely to gain influence over government and policy-making, something Canadians are already starting to recognise.

Learning how to understand others’ points of view, working to negotiate reasonable compromises across differences, thinking critically about language and information, allowing multiple forms of evidence and experience to inform our conceptualisations—these are all broad skills that will be necessary for us to cultivate if we are to resolve the great social, political and economic dilemmas that will confront us in the coming decades. Education will play a role, but that role will depend on whose idea of “education” is prioritised and mobilised through policy and governance.

I suppose talking about the context of what I write here has ended up leading to a rather lengthy ramble on the importance of education for the future of our species—a predictable message after all! I can only hope I’ve at least couched it in interesting terms.