an ethic of learning (teaching goals)

for a grant application

I had to outline my “teaching goals” for a grant application, I’m sure I will have to do this many times in the future. I have also done this before, but I do not have a standard document: while there is consistency over time, the presentation shifts – hopefully becoming clearer while providing situated information on how I might fit with the people, styles, ideals, and goals of each potential opportunity.

  • to model agency
  • to cultivate skills of critical phenomenology
  • to reduce the fear of risk
  • to find creative solutions to conflict
  • to prepare for competition and increasing interaction
  • to bring attention to relationships (processes of relating)

Target = Learning (Teaching Goals)

Teaching is intertwined with learning: communication theory, sociology, and quantum mechanics all inform us that the interaction produces “reality.” “Meaning” is always a co-production: “teaching goals,” for instance, represents a professional ethic while also reinforcing historical power structures. The phrase conjures an institutionalized ideology of authorization and dispensation. Confronting the implications of language use – our very own talk – is the cumulative (and hopefully on-going) accomplishment of my pedagogic inclinations.
The main task I set for myself when I am teaching is to model agency so that students can learn by example. To act as an agent while teaching is double-edged: I try to maintain balance between

a) the authority of my role and the limits of the institution to constrain my freedom in the role, and
b) the power to unsettle students’ assumptions about the usual structures and expectations of a college classroom.

I want students not only to discern the difference between structural power and individual agency, but also to develop awareness about how to work constructively with this distinction given the peculiarities of their own particular life.

By deliberately embodying agency, I convey an attentiveness to self that elicits heightened self-awareness from students. The personal is thus contextualized as a reflection of the social, bringing the interplay of status and identity into immediate relevancy because the concepts are grounded in our shared social interactions. These maneuvers enable recognition and reflection on the ways features of personal biography interlink with roles granted or imposed by history and circumstance. In other words, I seek to cultivate skills of critical phenomenology, so that students can increase their perception and comprehension of the complex historical forces that bound – and bind – everyone’s supposedly-separate actions with the actions of others.
I justify my ambition along the continuum of time, accepting myself as one among many with the passionate desire to shift humanity away from the vise of violence. Although not a direct curricular component, keeping the complexities of time and timing in mind is a constant practice. Developmental trajectories are unique for each individual: people simply know what they know at any given moment. And, each moment is an opportunity for change. Learning, by definition, is a change in the state of one’s knowledge. The trick of timing is to identify when the potential for change aligns with the contingent conditions that enable realization. Attuning to these subtle juxtapositions is a matter of experimentation. Consequently, I work to reduce the fear of risk. As much as I feel compassion for varying shocks of recognition, I also exercise the conviction that we are capable of finding creative solutions to conflict.
Ultimately, I see my role as a teacher as one of strategic coordination with the learning needs of students projected into the future. College education today must involve much more than topical competence; it must prepare students for intensive competition and increasing interaction with people holding different worldviews and mindsets, premised upon as-yet un-invented technologies and un-diagnosed needs. Depending upon the subject matter, I can be more or less overt concerning the relationship between the content of the course (its specified objectives and subject matter) and the relational process of learning – i.e., working – together. The relationship between content and process, however, is always present, even when undiscussed. Every classroom composes a particular global microcosm. Each lesson conveys messages not only about the subject but also about the normative orientations held concerning the place or position of that subject within large cultural and institutional systems. Success within this participatory paradigm is measured by the extent to which I am able to bring students’ attention to the relationships, rather than conceiving of facts and phenomena in isolation.
Accomplishing such a shift would be a cultural achievement, hence not something I generate on my own. To this end, I recognize the necessity of institutional support and the essential willingness of students to cooperate. The tensions of un-learning inherited habits-of-thought and customary modes-of-interaction in order to enable new ways of relating is an uncertain tightrope from which to launch projects of domestic and transnational social justice and global peace. We need a lot of practice! The small contribution I offer are stimulating courses that sustain dialogue throughout, inclusive of all the dynamics that arise, as a means of instilling respect for the power of discourses that we create together to generate substantial progress on the long road of human life. On the basis of such respect, we can more effectively collaborate to invent and institutionalize economic and political mechanisms that promote the life chances of every person on the planet.

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