Peer Education Reflections


Wishing I had saved my first draft which Squarespace deleted for me when I clicked “post,” but I would also like to have a nice hot glass of that Moroccan tea – green, with a lot of mint, and tons of sugar, too hot to hold, served in tiny glasses. It’s the way I started every day this past week, just arriving home yesterday. A bit jet lagged, but ready to teach and work this week back in New York.

This past week in Rabat, Morocco I led my mostly-annual workshop with the students of ILCS Rabat on public speaking, argumentation, debating, and the art of getting your opinion and ideas out to an audience of others. I really like thinking about it and have been slowly making it better over time. This week was particularly good and I think I know some reasons why. This post is a reflection on peer learning – something that gets a lot of flak. Never really seems to go well, and it seems like amateur hour when you do it in a classroom. These tips might help incorporate it better in other teaching situations.

What we did this time was I had my students who were teaching prepare lessons with partners in order to teach 90 minute(ish) lessons on different things that we set as the subjects that need to be taught. We shared all these documents and then talked about them a bit. The students mostly worked together on it and there was very little intervention on my part with the lessons.

This post is going to get confusing because I have my students from my Debate program teaching, and there are students from ILCS in Rabat who are learning. I prefer the Friere nomenclature of “student/teacher, teacher/student” but don’t want to sacrifice clarity on what it was that we were doing and why I think it worked well. I’ll try to be as clear as I can about who I am discussing without doing any disservice to the idea that everyone is in a position to teach and learn, simultaneously, in the classroom, until some authoritarian professor comes in and screws it all up.

Here are the reasons in no particular order why I think this time worked well:

Lots of Time to Plan

We set up what we would teach and who would be responsible for planning it out pretty early. I’d like to do it even earlier next time, and maybe set up a loop with the Debate Society here to test out our material. There should be little difference in what we teach as good argumentation, debate, and speaking between our society and others who could benefit from such teaching. The focus on competitive success makes a big cleave between what one would teach to real debaters and what one would do for outreach. I thought the students who would be teaching needed time to put together what they might want to teach, and that was essential. There needs to be time for reflection and planning in any teaching, and consideration by those who would be in the role of teacher as to what they would like to do. I think most debate workshops skip over this, and feel their role is mere description of the steps to success as opposed to setting up a site of inquiry and practice.

Teaching in Partners, Not Alone or in Groups

A lot of peer education puts the student who is teaching as a solo figure before a classroom. This invites the class to use their well-worn comfortable techniques of judgement as to whether the knowledge is valuable. It invites thinking that knowledge comes from a sujet suppose savoir, some person who is also knowledgeable, and transmits it. This usually winds up making peer teaching ineffective since the signs of value from the students’ cobbled together rubric doesn’t work – here’s someone rhetorically performing as a peer, not as someone who is a professor. The rubric will score them low. Partnering them up with another peer though throws this ideology a curve ball: The traditional site of knowledge is no longer easy to determine. Knowledge exists somewhere in between these peer educators, and perhaps it is a bit harder to evaluate. The thinking that the class does about what is worth knowing and what is not also helps the content achieve a new level of interaction. I think that teaching in groups is not going to catch this benefit either, as more than two is read as a presentation, which is not as interactive as teaching. People can participate or not in the presentation, which is a very stable and stagnant form of address. But two peers trying to communicate the ideas of debate or argument to a class used to either group presentations or professors lecturing will be more engaged precisely because there is no comfortable place from which to draw a straight line from the knowledge to the subject of that knowledge (or vice versa).

Active learning is not Extra but Central

Debate is always active learning, but we never really talk about it. Pretty weird. It’s a shining example of what active learning can and should look like. I think we don’t talk about it because debate remains colonized by the sportifiers, who see the only role for learning in debate is to learn how to be better at winning tournament debates in a very particular format of debating. Although students who regularly participate (or have regularly participated) in tournament competition often slip to tournament norms in their teaching, this can be prevented by having most of the lesson oriented around the students actively doing stuff – speaking, working together, and presenting. The ultimate active learning class would be arranged around re-iteration – there would be work, presentations, evaluation, then rework. I think we had a great peer learning environment because we punted most of the class time to the class to speak and engage with one another while the students who were teaching provided prompts, group and individual guidance, and critique and evaluation at the end. In the classroom, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student, until the authoritarian who loves to discipline shows up under the title of “professor.”

Actively Create Regular Space for Reflection

Every night at dinner I tried to make sure to ask, “What’s going on that we all need to know about?” or “Are there any issues going on that we need to address in the classroom?” The group was open to critique and also understood teaching to be a cooperative art, as opposed to the mastery of transmitting material to others who don’t want it (a popular interpretation of teaching I hear regularly). This was part of the long preparation of course, but at these meetings students felt empowered and comfortable enough to speak up and say what bugged them. A universal concern was that we speak too fast for people learning in a third language, and we need to give them more time to translate and prepare for their presentations. One student expressed concern about exercising authority over a class that was distracted – there was a need to return to the group to cover something else or deal with a question. I was able to bring up Freire’s famous quote that the democratic teacher gives up authoritarianism not authority in the classroom, because it would be unethical to let students choose what to attend to or not without experiencing, or hearing it, first. Another issue was ethos in the classroom, which we discussed a bit as well. But for the most part, it went great. Such space is essential to identify the potential problems in the classes for sure, but on another level it identifies teaching as a fungible art, something that is fluid and more a practice than a certainty. Such an identification is essential for getting teaching right.

Remove the Teaching Authority from the Classroom

The temptation to watch all this play out in the classroom after thinking about it for weeks and anticipating how well your students will do is a real struggle. But when peer teaching is going on under the gaze of the professor, everyone contorts their behavior to please the professor instead of themselves. I stayed out of the classroom as much as possible. Grading and planning other events helped a lot with that for sure – there are a lot of things I must do all the time, but I could have easily justified putting them off to watch the students teach. The presence of a teaching authority in the class, even if you are there for critical/assessment reasons, means everything will act for you in the way they think will please you. Eye contact of everyone is on the authorized teacher. Every small move you make is read as containing answers to what must happen next. Instead, leaving the classroom creates a situation where the students (all of them) must decide how to identify and judge the activities and interaction as valuable in the service of figuring out what is to be known and how to know it. Furthermore, who says being present in the class is the best way to assess what goes on in there? I could have the students who were the class speak with me or perform for me to assess how well things went. I could ask the students who taught for their reflection. There is also the risk of simplistic journalism, where being present and observing reveals what’s really going on. Proximity to an event doesn’t make you a better subject of knowledge, just a different one. Discussing the value of that difference is much more vital than simplistic presence, the root of up to 30% of some students’ grades at the university these says. How easy is it to construct an epistemically powerful alternative?

That’s all I have so far – there’s a lot more to say but now that I’ve spent twice as much time on this post as I needed to it’s time to catch up on the rest of the day! I just wish I had some Moroccan pancakes.


Last Day

I feel like I just posted here, but clearly that's not true. Being here makes the time slip by so quickly. I'll sit down to do a simple task like grade or read something and hours will fly by. We'll arrive at the school for our teaching day and it will be 2PM before I know it. I hope the Moroccan students are experiencing the program a bit slower than we are.  I regret not finding or forcing the time to update my thoughts at the conclusion of each day.

Aside from a lost (stolen?) phone, things have gone great. Probably one of my better programs overall. There are no judges, no teaching of format, no ballots, no wins, no losses, and no problems. 

The tournament vernacular, a Burkean "trained incapacity" whispers here and there in the teaching of the students, but it's nowhere near as terrible as it could be. Mostly we are discussing arguments, positions, places, institutions in the world where controversies circulate. We have built in a lot of speaking, but several of the students have approached me to ask for more opportunities to practice speaking. I think this is a good sign.

Starting to believe that the best debating of the late 19th and early 20th century is going to be the best debating of the early 21st. Seems to me that this could be taken further - the debate club, or debate team, could be the "literary society," a very old school organization that has all but disappeared from the world, and is clearly extinct on American university campuses. These clubs were gatherings of intellectual-leaning students to share ideas, debate, argue, speak, and hang out together. They sound pretty good given the lack of intellectual development opportunities on our campuses. The salon is the old/new debate club. I think that attention to the local, campus community is a lot more valuable than spiriting away 4 people to argue about a topic to an empty classroom at 9AM on a Sunday. 

These thoughts are mixed in with my reading, which I have found time to do even though I don't find time to write. I think it was Sergio Pitol or some other Mexican writer (perhaps even South American) that said, "Reading is more important than writing." Never believed it, and I also never thought it was important to make these sorts of judgements or differences, but today I'm in strong support of this enabling quote. 

John McPhee's Draft No. 4 I thought was going to be a much different book. I'm happy with it, but it's just a bunch of vignettes about different stories he wrote and how he approached the order (dispositio) of the story. This seems somewhat boring, but it turns out that organization serves as a site of invention for the story. The question, "What is this about?" is answered in the way that chronological events are presented in a non-chronological way. It's really helpful for the drafting of a speech I'm working on at the moment, and the help is welcome but unexpected. Not sure about the total book (I'm only halfway through) but I'm pretty sure it's going to be all good. He is someone who thinks of writing as a craft where you are building something out of available parts in a context that you don't have a lot of control over. In this way it seems like a natural offshoot of the book Shopclass as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. 

Finally started Ghetto by Mitchel Duneier and over 40 pages in it's a great book. Reading it under the guise of assigning it to my senior seminar course in the spring. Not going to work - the book is great but doesn't get into the issues I need it to, at least not for a while. It does seem to have some application as he starts off with the great tease that the Ghetto is an example of scholars not looking at an event or a moment properly in order to draw conclusions from it. He details the history of the differences of the ghettos by region, time, and state, and pretty clearly shows (so far) that there are huge distinctions ignored by scholars. Might be relevant for a class on research method or on epistemology but seems like a lot to get there. We have other things to read and do too.

Ok so I wrote this post and tried to add images, no dice. The internet wants to fight me all the time here.

Just lost the post and had to retype it from my notes. That was great. In between then and now I walked around in the 40C heat looking for the post office. I'm a bit wiped out. I wonder if this post would be better with the images? I think this might be the primary reason, besides business, that the blog stayed pretty quiet this week.


Over Time

Had a great day today but nothing really exceptional happened. Taught and talked with colleagues. An alum came by and we caught up. Worked on arguments and thought of myself as very lucky to have a lot of great people involved in our debate program. It's good to watch others teach and speak about something you've been in since you remember thinking. I remember that moment of realization so clearly when I was fourteen - the moment of, "oh, I can move other peoples' minds around by disagreement." I don't remember how I used to think before I started to think about debate. I also remember reading and writing notes about every page of the NTC CX Debate Handbook a classic text that probably doesn't teach anything I do today about debating but at the time I considered it a really special book. 

Departing to Morocco tomorrow to teach debate again in that great country. I am reaching a point where I feel like it's time to pass the teaching of this art over to someone else, but the economic realities of the university make this impossible. I have no desire to see the program disappear, and a lot of desire to alter it in big ways. It's just a lot of labor at first before everything becomes normalized. I look forward to some good conversations with friends and some good food while there. I am also very excited to watch my students teach. I always get something good out of the experience.

Speaking of labor, I have to decide what books to bring. I really should only bring 2 although I'm sure I could read three while there. I don't plan to do much sightseeing as I've seen everything a bunch of times. So maybe 3 books. The trouble is the weight - gotta keep it light. I just recieved John McPhee's new book about writing and I want to continue my trajectory on historiography with Shlomo Sand's Twilight of HistoryI also need to start getting ready for the spring term, so I need to read Mitchell Duneier's new book Ghetto to see if it's a good read for the senior seminar on Rhetorics of Epistemology (definitely assigning Sidewalk again) as well as a book about the limits of consciousness as told by octopus researchers. I also need to re-read Ranciere's book on Disagreement since I plan to talk about disagreement as a major theme at my upcoming talk for  I want to pull some of the better quotes and my notes on my previous reads don't really have what I want to include. Maybe I should bring post-its. I saw a colleague's note-taking method involved a lot of them. I called it "mobile marginalia" and I really like the idea. I am sure I have a few lurking around here somewhere.

So you can see the trouble I'm in. I think that I should bring McPhee, Ranciere, and maybe Duneier. That should do it. I hope I can stick to the plan and not throw my back out or something with a ridiculous set of books. Throwing in some of the copies of London Review of Books that I haven't read yet should be good. Gotta start on that list of books that I'm going to have the university pick up for me for being a part of the mid-career writing group. Also I often forget I have a really nice Kindle reading device with hundreds of 2 dollar books on it. So I should stuff that in an open sleeve of the bag as well. 

Speaking of which, the new backpack rocked it today. Feeling much better about carrying stuff around in Rabat with it (and on campus it worked like a dream). It has a lot of pockets and I'm happy about that. More to come in Saturday's blog about it after I race through CDG with it to catch a connecting flight.

It's smelled like rain all day but it hasn't rained yet. Just got another whiff of it through my open window. Feels great and smells great but I wonder where the rain is. Been thinking about my book project that is now several years old and nowhere close to the midpoint. Smells good, feels good - where's the rain? Surprisingly did some jotting down of stuff that should go in the conclusion today. Was feeling inspired by the arguments, style, and content of a book I just finished, Regimes of History by Francois Hartog. In the first 3/4 of the book it's like watching someone swing an intellectual Claymore around - he's taking on some big weapons and making some big moves, and it looks really hard, and it's graceful, and it's all about the smallest stuff that really makes it work. Near the end he is making some almost pedagogical claims about historiography but never goes there - he stays clear of the prescriptive and sticks to the descriptive and a bit of the normative. It was somewhat inspiring, so I wrote a couple of paragraphs just to see what would come out. I think the book is ready to come out fully now, as I am finally in a position where I feel like I have the confidence to write it. Unlike other projects, I hope this one follows me around for a while and people talk about it. It's going to be about debate, but debaters are not going to like it. I wonder who will like it? I might go for a Howard Stern approach and seek to be most popular and most read by people who despise me and what I stand for. Might work. Works well in academia accidentally, so I have a bit of support there.

Tomorrow, being a travel day, I have a clear calendar: A trip to the pharmacy for some last-minute items and snacks, then packing, listening to music, and then off to the airport around 3:30 in the afternoon. I have some documents to scan for the new LLC I founded and some notes and powerpoints to make. The scans may come, they may not. And planes are made for notes, wine, and the curious sense of being over a mile above the sea and not really thinking about it that much. Looking forward to getting underway.


School Trip

I even bought a new bag and took a photo of it next to an old computer.

I even bought a new bag and took a photo of it next to an old computer.

Cannot believe that there's only one more full day before I embark for another trip to Morocco. Debate has given me many things since I started following its path and teachings, but the thing that never fails to surprise me is intense familiarity with countries most people don't think about much at all. Top of the list? Slovenia and Morocco. 

It's been a while since I've been to Slovenia, but I'm sure I'll be returning there soon. Not sure when, but I can feel it. Morocco is a pretty steady trip these days. We started going in 2011 (I think) but it could have been prior to that. The trip is a peer-teaching learning lab. I think that's a good title for it. I bring some of my debating students and they teach the Moroccan students about speaking and advocating. We spend about 4 - 5 days doing this during the day, and in the afternoons/evenings we visit some historical/touristy sites of interest. It's a great time.

The real reason that I'm sitting here sort of shocked that I have to pack tomorrow night (more likely Friday morning as I'd rather read and write Thursday after class) is that I had a pretty great experience today at the mid-career writing learning community meeting. The short summary is: There's a lot to think about here, I haven't been doing this very well, and oh, my poor students. Just a bit more critical thinking about writing on my part would have gone a very long way. But that's not just a dig against myself. It's actually a very hopeful realization. If I can meet with some other bright folks and talk about writing and writing assessment for a few hours and get a dynamite critique of my own practices along with some ideas for my spring course, just imagine how good it's going to be by December. On top of that, just imagine how much easier it's going to be for me to help colleagues out with ideas in random brainstorming course-design sessions (which happen a lot more than you'd think). 

After our departmental assessment meeting I was feeling kinda blue. I was thinking that writing was perhaps the wrong way to go for assessing our majors. I thought that the problems our students had with writing obfuscated our ability to assess the things we were trying to look for in their work. I suggested oral assessment as an alternative. I still think there's a lot of room to consider orality and oral work in our courses - we do very little of it even in the rhetoric department - but it's not an either/or with writing. It's a false choice. Writing helps in the preparation of the mind and the person for what's to come. I think my biggest challenge is to move away from defaulting to writing as "final product" in my teaching. I need a new phrase for it, a new metaphor. Something will come. I would quote Sirc here but I have been doing that a lot lately, plus there's a pretty good critique of him I'm supposed to read sitting right here on my desk. 

The meeting today gave me something I haven't felt in a while on campus and that is hope for the future and the present. I think it's pretty easy to feel alone in your work as a professor. I also didn't realize how my view of the university is somewhat clouded by the comments I hear from students all the time. Students, since they are people, tend to talk about negative experiences more than good ones. If a professor is fantastic, that's expected - nothing to talk about. If they are super bad - everyone tells the story multiple times. There's a sort of false weight of negativity in my mind because I'm hearing the same story many times. That saturation is interpreted as multiple occasions but it might not be. I need a more critical ear when i'm overhearing/eavesdropping/talking with my students.

That isn't to say there aren't people who are problematic teaching a lot of things they shouldn't! But it's really good to be in a room with other professors who are humble, asking questions, realizing they don't have it right and might never get it right, and like the idea of knowledge being a cloudy process rather than having fixed boundaries to be filled. Quite a refreshing and really uplifting day. And all we talked about was writing assignments, assessment, and what our students get right. I was pretty sad when it was over and didn't really want it to end. But I do have a video that sort of shows the moment of the day where I was feeling very hopeful, and the whole campus seemed hopeful as well. I haven't felt that good in a while doing something on campus. Here it is courtesy of my amazing Snapchat Specs:

I suppose the thing that made me feel the best was that there are a good number of people who spend a lot of time thinking about how to best design experiences for students. I don't interact with these people as much as I'd like to, and I usually hear the dire stories from students or overhear the negative comments in the hallways. Perhaps it's on me which to focus on and which to make part of the story that I tell myself about my role at the university. It felt like a pretty lonely spot for the past couple of years until today. There are so few places that students perceive are places that they can demonstrate their value, have good experiences, and improve themselves, perhaps focusing on a better metaphor and vision for writing will increase those spaces. 

Writing a Post about Thinking about Writing

Tomorrow starts the Learning Community on mid-career undergraduate writing on campus and I'm pretty eager to hear what everyone has to say. I oddly feel pretty solid about my own ideas and points of view, which is unusual for me. I usually like to have a few questions to share but don't feel as strongly about my positions as I do tonight.

We did three readings for tomorrow's session: Melzer's Assignments Across the Curriculum, Chapter 2, Mya Poe's essay "Re-framing Race in Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum" and a study by Anderson, et. al. "How Writing Contributes to Learning." 

It's all really great stuff and it worked together in a number of ways on my mind. 

My first thought is: I am not nearly as clear as I could be that the students can achieve what it is that I would like them to do in their writing. I am pretty clear, I think, in what the assignment is. I'm also pretty clear that they are going to have to do a lot of work to get there. But I'm never clear that they, as hard workers, can achieve what appears to be a high standard. This is going to take some work. I also spent a lot of time on Monday reflecting on what a shit teacher I am after I attended an assessment meeting where it was pretty clear that I am bad at teaching actual, measurable, meaningful college courses as we went through my students' writing. I've written about what a shoddy job I did in that class, so no surprise. Plenty to think about there. This week is a week of reflecting on whether or not the university is the place for me. At least these readings gave me some handholds to try to scale this question. 

Secondly, the sad lack of creative, expressive, generative writing where students are creating and making something is pointed out, and how valuable it is for students to do that. Once again, the emphasis on skill-rhetoric, mixed with the harmful "Can I grade this?" assignment-framing question yields a bunch of work that is useless, unstimulating, and beneath our students' level. I feel really bad reading this stuff as I really thought a lot of my assignments were creative. But it seems there's a lot of work to do here as well. Again, another path up the question is revealed and I have some good handholds to help get a grip on what has to be done. 

The thing that struck me the most is the silly ban on phones and laptops that most faculty enforce here at St. John's while simultaneously lamenting the ability of students to make convincing, sustained arguments. If you change the audience you get a very different picture. Most of our students are politically engaged via hip hop music that is available online and discussed in forums on the internet, something Melzer identifies as possibly prolific in courses, but difficult to measure as it is never graded or treated as a very serious part of the course. This is where our students have a lot of resources for crafting good argument, style, and rhetorical savvy for particular audiences. Listening to a beat or engaging with a beat while composing/inventing something to say or write might help them activate resources on argument craft that they didn't know they had. I think hip hop is an overlooked resource for helping students understand that they already get how to make sustained, convincing arguments and how to evaluate them very well considering context and audience - the rhetorical situation.

The only hold up on this is the problem of teacher-as-examiner. Nobody that I know is going to want to give up this role. The desire for power - particularly disciplinary power- is everywhere among the faculty and the joy of exercising it over the students is a delightful privilege for a lot of folks who call themselves "teachers." I really think this requires a lot of strategic effort to convince a number of teachers that the students can craft good arguments in this weird(ing) way and evaluate them, but you won't be able to get it. Perhaps if the students were able to craft a textbook like project that supplemented the writing guide (or whatever the teacher assigns) this might help bridge the gap. It's a longshot though. I think the suggestion of including hip hop to show students they already get composition of argument just breaks apart on this barrier.

We didn't read Geoffrey Sirc, but I love his idea that Jackson Pollock transformed his relationship to art by placing the canvas on the floor. Art happened somewhere else when that perspective shift occurred. How can we put our assignments on the floor, or instruct our students to put Microsoft Word's horrific white abyss, cursorial eye flashing at us on the floor to say to it, "You will record what is crafted here; you are not the craft." This is the goal of improving college writing, to figure out how to teach students the confidence to speak to their laptops this way and to start composing like I am certain they can.