Dangerous Classroom Assumption One

Teaching online has me thinking about the assumptions we make about the classroom and what happens there.

I still have a classroom, but it is distributed. The classroom and the class is a state of mind that can be constituted through various means. My students invoke themselves as part of the class when they are working on assignments, reading, or participating in group chat. But there’s not a physical space for them to enter and become the class.

One of the biggest assumptions we make when teaching is that the people entering the classroom are empty, or lack knowledge. They are missing something and they have come into this room in order to get it. They get it from us. We are responsible for giving them something they don’t have and they need.

That last line might be the only good assumption that we can make as teachers. The rest of it is a function of the class sitting there together, facing you, there for the sole purpose of being in the class. These assumptions about the location of the students and the physical space are extremely dangerous.

The first of these dangerous assumptions is that the students arrive empty-handed. We believe them to arrive to the classroom because they lack something or because they don’t have something. What this means is that we are supposed to supply it. This ignores the lived experiences, attitudes, and thoughts that the students arrive with.

This is throwing away a resource that can be used to educate. Assuming that the students know nothing is a favorite trope and source of complaining by teachers, which is a strange irony given that teaching is supposed to increase knowledge, according to these same people.

It’s dangerous because it indicates to the students that teaching is a pedantic sham, a power grab, a demonstration of authority, the practice of one-way flows of power. Assuming the students have nothing to contribute to your classroom or your lesson that day is to assume they have had no experiences with your subject that sparked a question, thought, or a general curiosity.

Everything we teach you can encounter, and probably have encountered, in daily life. I’m referring to all courses offered at the university. To assume that this is first contact is to engage in the rhetorical performance of the pedant.

This discounts the educational experience for students. They read the scene as an expensive hazing ritual that they have to engage in, or a puzzle they have to solve to make the arbitrary gamemaster happy in order to get their degree. Many students have been indirectly taught through this assumption that teachers are disconnected from reality, that school and the classroom are irrelevant, and that they just have to get through it in order to get a degree. We’ve taught them this by making the mistake of assuming they don’t know.

What about assuming you don’t know, and approaching the class this way?

What about asking the students to say what they believe to be the principles at play in the issue?

What about placing the readings on-par with student narratives (i.e. they all have the same level of credibility)?

These will be hard to get going as the students will immediately smell a trap and become reticent. They have been burned too many times by mistaking a question meant to prove the teacher’s superiority and student inferiority as authentic curiosity. One has to build that trust up again and avoid cynicism, sarcasm, and the like, and avoid the teacher tropes of talking about “stupid people” in the world or conveying a political opinion as “the most obvious thing.” You are inadvertently beating up on their friends, family, previous mentors, and loved ones. They assume they will be next.

The students are participants in the class not recipients of the teacher’s discourse. They are investors and co-creators in the space. To assume they are there because they are missing something is to have the worst read possible on the classroom (besides that small fragment of professors out there who think they are ‘too important’ to be teaching). Nobody enters a classroom to get something; they enter because they have to in order to live the life they imagine they want. WIth that in mind, they are probably thinking about a great many things. See if you can get them to share. As the teacher, your role is to make connections, develop, and push things around. Relationships and associations are not the delivery of essential content, but are the essential content. The idea that if students don’t get something there’s no teaching is the logical endpoint of this failed assumption.

This all will come together at the end of these posts in my favorite metaphor for teaching, that of encounter. The classroom as the clearing in the woods, the first contact of rich traditions of different societies, the dinner party of strangers, there are many other ones you can come up with. Rhetoricians are lucky; we have tools and practice for “audiencing” (Crosswhite) groups of people and bringing forth the intersections of lived experience and identity they share in order to give them the opportunity to be persuaded, to think again, or to feel differently about a subject. It’s too bad that rhetoricians are the least likely to do this in their classes. Just look at our embarrassing public speaking books. If the assumption is going to have to be that students come in with materials and experience that can help make the class, this one is easiest - they’ve spent days and days of their lives pleading with others to agree with them, and will continue to do so. As will we. As will I, here.