Administrative Discourse Eliminates a Teaching Discourse

My last post was about the difference between an administrator and a teacher, and how easily those things elide into one another. After reading some comments on it, I was returned in my mind to my days as a high school teacher in Texas. Thinking about those days reminded me of an older idea, an idea that the goal of administrative rhetoric is to crowd out, freeze, and shut down an alternative rhetoric based on teaching as the governing discourse of the institution. This is done through substituting the tone of institutional rhetoric for the tone of communitarian discourse.

There are deeper connections here, as I suspected there would be somewhere in the recesses of my thinking. I once was a high school teacher, and there is a very compelling communitarian rhetoric that high school administrators use to get you to feel guilty about not joining them in the paperwork empire they are trying to construct. For most school administrators must secure their position by creating some perceived value to their position. I would say most school administrators are using their current position to be promoted to some other position, or they are satisfied (and surprised) that they were able to nail down the job they have, so they try to justify their position’s vital role through the creation of a lot of extra work for the teachers.

They co-opt communitarian rhetoric by establishing the work they are doing as benefiting the entire school and all students. They honestly believe most of what they are saying since they conceptualize the school and the students as the same thing on a plane of statistics about graduation and state test marks broken down on every metric you can possibly imagine. You can see exactly how any identity intersection is doing on a test or with graduation or what have you. The forms, the work that is created for teachers to do as administrators, is conceptualized as more important than teaching since it is broad, easily visualized, and applicable to every possible identity that the students could have.

Contrast this view with the act of teaching, which is generally out of view, difficult to enumerate or craft into statistics, very personal, very contextual - it has a very quick expiration date (most of what worked one day with one class will fail with another class on that same day or later). It’s often a product of time, attitude, and moment - and the teacher’s practice in the art of catching the situation and responding with a “teaching attitude.”

This is tough to do and requires a lot of energy and attention. Such things are eroded by dividing teacher attention and reducing teacher energy by refusing to give them the time in their teaching situation (class period, classroom, course, etc) to practice this art. Teaching, under the dominant discourse of the administration, is the opposite of “teaching” since what is productive and valuable for the school is determined by the co-opted communitarian rhetoric based on visibility, intersectional statistics, and ease of categorization into numerical values.

This is how the teacher is made to feel bad doing the work of teaching instead of doing the work of the school. Effective teachings difficulty in being pinned down or measured, its personal nature, its hard-to-replicate effervescence in the moment with the particular student and class makes it hard for others who were not present in the classroom to appreciate it or even name the value of it. Often presence in the classroom doesn’t capture it either.

The obsession to measure teaching through communitarian arguments based on things that are easy to count covers up the elided claim that what is good for the school is good for the student. There can never be a “good for the student” without teachers who are encouraged to disappear into the eddies and pools of the current and address what is swirling around them now. We would do good to encourage those who have an affinity for the art of grappling with uncertainty and making something good out of it for those joining us downstream.

It’s a hard rhetoric to fight. Where I work, professors regularly assign large papers and constant journaling and quizzing as if the production of texts was direct evidence that a class was worthy or challenging to the students. We are so panicked about how good teaching is determined that we latch on to the administrative rhetoric of the institution as a metaphor for our students. We replicate the paperwork nightmare that is placed on us under the language that this is for the benefit of all of us. We tell our students this is beneficial - a dodge from the harder question of determining what, in an hour long class meeting, would actually be beneficial to do.

There is no comfortable rhetoric of what good teaching looks like outside of being a strict adherent to the administrative, productive, institutional model. This is comfortable because we have tons of papers to grade and tons of work to chide the students for doing poorly. It makes sense to the rest of the world what teaching is when it looks like this.
What about a rhetoric of uncertainty and indeterminism? What about the teaching rhetoric where what is focused on is potential and creativity rather than progress and mastery? What if the total sum of the elements of the course was not a boundary, not a soccer field one must run around in until exhausted, but a diving platform, a place where one can prepare oneself to leap off, twist however they want, and safely enter the water, emerge, and contemplate doing it again? Questions of metaphor, how to represent in rhetoric a situation of uncertainty and instability, are difficult yet productive for a teaching discourse that exists on its own terms.