Mark Edmundson has long influenced my thinking: he is one of the best of a breed of college professors in academic subjects who really think hard about good teaching practice. Conceptually he and Gerald Graff have a great deal in common: absorbed in academic controversy, excited about teaching the controversies, reflective about how to engage students in critical thinking and analysis. One of the first books I ever reviewed, in Berkeley’s East Bay Express in 1993, was by Edmundon, Wild Orchids and Trotsky; I remember writing he had captured some very interesting ways to provoke thinking and enliven a classroom.
Now this past week, a new article by Edmundson in the Times provokes us again. Geek Lessons, it is entitled, and he makes the case that good teaching must be un-cool; to be cool is to be “knowing,” and to be a good teacher, by contrast, we must challenge the knowing, we must embrace the act of un-knowing. “Good teachers, by contrast, are constantly fighting against knowingness by asking questions, creating difficulties, raising perplexities.”
Good teachers are unafraid to be eccentric, geeks, surprising. Recently, shadowing at Branson, I was delighted to hear a student describe the next teacher as “great, because she is really out there;” I observed that there are many reasons, including brain research on memory forming and retention, to think that surprising teaching is effective teaching. Quoting Edmundson again: “Good teachers matter because they can surprise you out of your complacency and into new views of yourself and the world. Or — and often this is just as valuable — they can induce you to struggle to affirm intelligently what you’ve previously believed in indolent, unconsidered ways. :
I am reminded here about Pat Bassett’s well known, and justifiably so, article that good education is counter cultural. Edmundson repeatedly in this article makes the case that good teaching is always shaking kids worldview up, pushing them out of conformity. “Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call “counterintuitive” but to the teacher means simply being honest….Good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar.”
Now, there are objectionable elements here in Edmundson. I am a bit apalled at his suggestion that a good high school teacher would act in such a way as to humiliate a “cool student” by tricking him into a misunderstanding in order to demonstrate how conformist he is. No good teacher would do this. He also, on the article’s second page, seems to rail against technological tools in the classroom, making him appear a bit of a Luddite. “Many teachers are afraid to ban computers from their classrooms. It will make them unpopular, unhip. ” The grounds of this complaint aren’t entirely clear, other than that students will use the laptops in ways other than what the teacher intends; I would suggest that that kind of concern reflects a bit too much of an embedded “teaching as transfer” ideology– that the students had better be spending their entire time learning listening to what the professor is teaching them. That isn’t good 21st century teaching– we use technology to empower students to construct their own knowledge more effectively, and hold them accountable for their product, rather than micromanaging their minutes in our classrooms.
The way he weaves his argument around, in and through an anecodote from the movie Almost Famous does nothing for this reader. I liked the film, a bit, and I appreciate the effort I suppose, but nothing about the story here really interests me.
But all that notwithstanding, I side with Edmundson in giving a great hurrah for eccentric, exceptional, alternative, questioning, and surprising teachers.