Say that ten times fast. In the fall I’m teaching a graduate course that’s intended to prepare students for using technology in the high school English classroom. I’ve taught it before, but it’s always been quite a stretch. I know the tech. I understand pedagogy in higher education, and I can discuss the relationship between new media and English Studies. However, I know virtually nothing about secondary education. It’s not my field, and it’s just one more thing I don’t have time for. Thankfully, this semester I’ll be team-teaching with my colleague, Karen Stearns (who recently defended her dissertation at Syracuse–congrats Karen!). English Education is her speciality, and she has a real passion and interest in technology. I think we’ll make a good team.
That said, I will admit to struggling with the definition and purpose of English Education. Fortunately, it is not my field and so I usually limit myself to stuggling with the definition and purpose of Professional Writing. But thinking about this course has put me in this frame of mind (as has the Lanham book).
It seems to me that one of the questions of English Education is whether one prepares prospective teachers for institutions as they currently are or as they might be, should be, or will be. Arguments to do the former give you the following:
- high schools teach New Critical approaches so we should focus on that
- high schools drill grammar for test prep so we should do that
- few high schools have much technology, so technology is a secondary concern
I could keep going, but you get the idea. Essentially, preparation for high schools as they currently are is an argument for the status quo. Obviously it is also an ideological argument. I have no idea what "high schools" are like. I’m not sure how such claims are established or verified. To me, they are more political arguments than anything else.
On the other hand, preparing students for an imagined, predicted, or idealized institution has its problems as well. Clearly students need to be successful in the real material contexts they will face as teachers; they also have to negotiate the ideological terrain of institutional politics.
It would strike me that students need a critical understanding of the ideological function of education. They need to recognize how schools hail and manage subjects, how literacy instruction serves class interests, and so on. They need to understand, despite popular narratives, that schools are not instruments of revolutionary social change; they are tools of managed social growth.
In this context, they can learn New Criticism and grammar and classroom management strategies as elements of how institutions serve their ideological function.
They can also learn rhetorical strategies for negotiating these institutional spaces. From my perspective, there is a clear division between pedagogy and the ideological capture of teaching within schools. Let me note that I do not see the former as more free or as revolutionary or subversive. It is simply a matter that I see pedagogy as a material event, an activity involving bodies, information, and technologies, while the latter is the (partial) apprehension of that event against an ideological (lesson) plan(e).
Unfortunately, this is what makes English Education (from my perspective) such an immense curricular challenge. Not only do you need to understand the materiality of language, its rhetoricity, its cultural history, its ideological valences, and so on. One also must address pedagogy: a theory of cognition, of consciousness, and learning.
Of course, such matters have long been the concern of rhetoric, even if others disciplines have come along to claim various slices as their focus. Rhetoric and pedagogy are quite inseparable. And it gives us these lessons (among others) via Lanham.
- Lanham teaches us the value of toggling between looking through and looking at.The type of education I’ve been advocating here is the "looking at" variety. One must understand the audiences and rhetorical-cum-ideological purposes of teaching, along with the strategies and figures used to acheive these purposes.
- Curriculum is an attention structure that can be designed for multiple rhetorical purposes. Perhaps high schools do teach close reading and descriptive grammar. However, one can also teach students to look at these structures, to give a voice to the disdain and suspicion they rightly feel for their education.
- High schools are obviously starting to feel the heat of technology. Educators and politicians have reacted by squeezing their grip more tightly. Brilliant. No really, that’s exactly what they should do…because preaching technological abstinence will work far better than telling kids not to have sex, try drugs, or listen to that god-awful racket they call music! But it doesn’t really matter if the high schools our students end up in have technology or not. It doesn’t matter if the students are on the wrong end of the digital divide at home. Regardless of local technological conditions, our economy and politics, our entire culture, are going digital. I would suggest that secondary teachers face an ethical imperative to address this fact. But then again, I would suggest the same of postsecondary teachers.
Bottom line regarding this class I’ll be teaching. It’s nice to teach students the tools of new media production. It feels practical, but it really isn’t. The tools will be totally different in three years. Learning the tools might do three things, in increasing order of importance:
- Provide a starting point to keep running and staying current if they choose;
- Give students the confidence with technology to learn on their own down the road;
- Help students recognize that new media really does mean thinking about and practicing communication in a significantly different way than print culture that will affect nearly every profession
Of course this last one is crucial for a generation of teachers who will lead us from a discipline founded in print to one mixed with emerging technology.