Bob King: You know, Tom, as I say when we speak about 2 Live Class at conferences, in some ways this whole thing began with a phone call from me to you, but in some ways it began earlier. I was teaching a course at Guilford College - an institution that could be called "historically Euro-American" based on its overall enrollment percentages - in their Education Studies Department. The course I was teaching was called "Historical and Contemporary Issues in Education," and was in many ways a variant of the garden-variety "philosophical and historical foundations of education" courses that can be found in most education programs in most colleges. I had taught the UNCG version of the course - entitled "The Institution of Education" - several times while I was a graduate student there, and found myself in a similar situation at Guilford College: namely, here I was, a Euro-American instructor once again teaching a course centered in many way on issues of race and class, to a group of students who were mostly middle to upper class, and predominantly if not overwhelmingly Euro-American. I was tired of it.
So the initial history is this: I asked one of my then-colleagues at Guilford College if it was okay with the department if I tried to connect my course up online with a similar course at NC A&T or other HBCU (historically Black college or university). I had already been teaching online for several years, and in part I was hired on as interim faculty at Guilford College because of this experience (as you know, this was a mixed kind of blessing; to an extent the department and school were actually quite negative about the use of technology in education, so I was, let's say, welcomed with reservations). But anyway, the department at Guilford supported the idea of connecting my class to another, similar class using online discussion and web publishing.
So. . . the phone call. As you know, my initial contact at NC A&T works in the instructional technology realm, and when I briefly described to him what I wanted to do, he did not hesitate in recommending I contact you. You were interested, we agreed to meet to do some initial planning, and - it just occurs to me - we probably didn't hear the sound of the butterfly's wings flapping at the time, churning up the weather system that would eventually result from this initial beginning, but we might could have heard it if we'd had the ears we now have for it.
So how did it look from where you
sat at the time?
Tom Smith: I don't recall much about the initial phone call. I do recall receiving a message that somebody named "Bob King" from Guilford College had called. It was December I believe and we were just finishing up with finals. I had turned in grades and was finished for the term when I called you back. I remember that you pitched your idea for a collaborative class and I recall that I was game to try it. It was cold and wet the day we first met at Guilford College. The new science building was just a skeleton then and there were so many white people on campus that I actually felt out of place. Later, in the midst of kicking around ideas and drinking coffee, I talked about my students doing I-Search Projects and Charles Sanders Pierce.Bob: Now that you mention it, I remember that we did talk during our first meeting about how you ran a pretty traditional framework in your classes. I can remember being surprised about that, since nothing in our conversation about education in general, or about your research, would have suggested anything structured on your part. I think this theme played out in the differences between the two courses during the semester of 2 Live Class: you were making a transition and bringing that particular group of students along. We did make good use of some pieces of your structure: the idea of presenting paradigms and then personalizing it -- "well, are you a positivist or a constructivist?" -- really worked to get things started.
I think it was then you introduced me to the idea of a threaded discussion. Frankly, I didn't have clue one what a threaded discussion entailed but I wasn't against the idea because I had always required that my students write weekly one page SEED Papers on any topic in the world. My goal with SEED Papers was to enable my students to write. Since then however, I've abandoned SEED Papers because it wasn't
social activity. SEED Papers were limited to communication between students and myself. SEEDs were a private communication not public. This term, I'm running a threaded discussion in each of my content courses.
As for the Guilford campus, I can remember feeling strange my first few times there myself. Not so much because of there being so many white people, since most of the places I've gone to school or worked have been predominantly white, but because it seemed like I was walking around in the 18th century in ways! Email and phones at Guilford seemed in part superfluous because it is a small residential college where people were able to just walk over to someone's office or room and talk face to face. I had not experienced that before. My high school had nearly three times as many students as Guilford College does!
I can also remember being surprised to find out when I called you that you were white (of course now I know you are not -- and this here would be an opening for you to explain this fact). I suppose, putting one and one together -- the surprise I initially felt about the structured-ness of your courses and the surprise that you didn't appear to be Black -- makes some sense. You spoke to me early on about how traditional in many ways A&T was. Where I was thinking or might have expected widespread cultural critique on the T's campus, you told me this was not at all the case.
Some of this perhaps goes to the conversations we've been having lately about the relationship of religion (select few saved ones) and education (select few saved ones again) in the Black community.
Okey doke, this wanders all over the
map. Now you go...
Tom: I guess I don’t consider myself white because I don’t believe in the concept of race. That concept is to Newtonian for me. Besides that, most of the people with whom I am in contact on a daily basis are not from the dominant culture, except for you.Bob: Well, change is what we got, and boredom was not a factor for me anyway. One of the memories I have of the class – a memory that may have not come out clearly in the narrative -- was how intense it was for me as an instructor. During the first month, when we were really opening the class up to input from students and not supplying any directives, we were catching some heat. One of my hypotheses about participatory education I have is that by allowing and welcoming students into active partnership in the educational environment there is considerable risk of being attacked. If students have, in effect, been caged up for 12 to 14 years there is considerable risk in opening the cage. I guess it seems to me that there is considerable anger just below the surface of even the most successful students when it comes to issues of power. I think what we did successfully was turn this reaction and this anger into subject matter. But this was not initially an easy turn. I remember the class meeting that you came to over at Guilford just to see if I’d be strung up or not!
But yes, the School of Education at A&T is very traditional and the structure of classes reflects this notion. The Social and Philosophical Foundations course that I have taught since coming to A&T is a two credit hour course. I see students for 50 minutes twice a week. It’s a factory setting and that structure has made it very difficult, if not impossible to do anything “off the wall.” Still I’ve managed to sprinkle non-traditional teaching within that framework by requiring that students do stuffed based in the writing process such as I-Search Projects and SEED Papers. In 1993, when I started out as a brand new assistant professor of education, I didn’t use a text, instead doing a lot of paradigmatic stuff with students. My goal, as always was to break them out the viewpoint that teaching was nothing more than delivery of information. I caught flack for this and began to use the text but still tried to push students so that they could see different worlds.
At the time we hooked up, I recall that I required my students to do ten SEED Papers via email, and do I-Search Project with their research being displayed on a student constructed website. But I did the text as well, lecture and regurgitation. Frankly, I was ready for a change as I was bored.
On the other strand, I think I understand what you mean about the concept of race, and indeed what you’ve said explains your position: you seem to recognize the concept of culture, and consider yourself to be Black in a cultural sense. I think this also goes towards explaining our approach to 2 Live Class. We did not approach the issue of race head-on. We did, though, address the concept of race in its philosophical, historical, and social underpinnings. What happened, though – and I think this is pretty interesting – was that the class zeroed in on none of the above: they locked on to religion as the most compelling factor in culture.
In a way, this has keyed our most
recent conversations about how the structure of Christianity in many ways
mirrors or informs the structure of schooling. Getting into Harvard is
like getting into Heaven. It’s through some combination of good works and
grace perhaps, but what’s clear is that not everyone can get in. It’s the
selectivity part that seems to form a link between higher education to religion
in our society.
Tom: I don’t think the structure of Christianity mirrors the structure of public education. I think it is the structure. I really don’t know what the religious right is squawking about anyway. Put religion back into the schools. Hell, it is the schools. Perhaps not overtly but covertly for sure. Diagnose and treat is the anthem. In the Old Testament, God thought the world was going to hell in a hand basket so he/she/it sent fire, locusts, floods, etc., down. In the New Testament, same story only this time he/she/it sent Jesus. The teacher is god in the classroom, the principal in the school, the superintendent in the district, and the policy makers at the state and federal level. What’s their function? Diagnose and treat.Bob: “Diagnose and treat” is a good metaphor for capturing the prevailing logic. The contrasting movement towards an “ecological” view in education parallels, in some ways, the movement in medicine towards thinking about sustaining health rather than diagnosing and treating illness. It also parallels the broader environmental movement towards sustainability. We have to remember that the folks who “make a killing” and in the process despoil the environment are in some cases the same folks who will then turn around and make another killing by investing in environmental cleanup technologies. The same office that generates a new program in phonics – a new treatment – can often be the same office that generates a new program in whole language. The logic of diagnose and treat is a kind of lens through which such distortions are “corrected.”
Yeah, your class was ready to string you up that day. I remember it well. But you know what? Those students were actually talking about the kind of classroom/teaching they envisioned as their ideal. They were using the structure of that particular foundations class as a model for reflection. Yes, some of them (your critics) are teaching now and I bet they are running a traditional format while others (your proponents), if they are teaching, are probably running a class whose structure is similar to yours. Well maybe not similar, because you were promoting a mutual adaptive innovation, and so those students are struggling to find their voice and feel for teaching. In a system that champions conformity and minimal reflection on the nature of what we do in school, your proponents may have to tough it out for a couple of teaching years. If they remain in teaching that is.
The shift towards ecological views allows for the inclusion of contextual factors into analyses. We can now look at environmental health (including such things as office lighting, window space, etc.) as integral parts of personal health, not separate issues. An ecological view allows contexts to become texts, or at least allows a kind of tidal flow back and forth. When this happens we get a fuller view and a more complete analysis. Curricular or pedagogical innovations in schools can be, and I think usually are, pretty well undermined by such “contextual” things as the bell schedule and solitary desks. Even in your work at a university, you speak about how easily innovation can be undermined by a 50 minute block schedule.
For me one of the key indicators of a healthy ecology is variety or multiplicity, another is interaction. The variety of perspectives and institutions that informed 2 Live Class supplied one necessary condition. The interactivity that was at 2 Live Class’ center supplied another. Rather than “planning a class” (with all of its attendant instruments including a pre-determined syllabus) we, in effect, designed an ecology.
The connection to religious
traditions in all of this is that pre-patriarchal religions did not, as far as I
can reckon, separate meaning (text or significance) and material
(context). So, for me, diagnose and treat is a logic that only functions
if it is held within an overall logic of dichotomous separations rather than
dynamic interactions. The fact that even in popular culture we can even
have a conversation about sustainability and so on is perhaps to be taken as a
sign of movement. Yet similar “50 minute block scheduling” impediments
remain in this larger context as well. People who study the material
format of network news (for example Noam Chomsky does this kind of work) point
out how difficult it is to not have complex messages rendered ridiculous by the
time brackets on TV stories. McLuhan started this awareness perhaps, with
his famous quip “the medium is the message.” In a fairly direct way,
McLuhan’s formulation alludes to pre-patriarchal (or perhaps post-patriarchal)