A Matter of Living the Mystery
By Parker Palmer
Good teaching is an act of generosity, a whim of the wanton muse, a craft that may grow with practice, and always risky business. It is, to speak plainly, a maddening mystery. How can I explain the wild variety of teachers who have incited me to learn--from one whose lectures were tropical downpours that drowned out most other comments, to one who created as arid silence by walking into class and asking, "Any questions?" Good teaching cannot be equated with technique. It comes from the integrity of the teacher, from his of her relation to subject and students, from the capricious chemistry of it all. A method that lights one class afire extinguishes another. An approach that bores one student changes anothers life. Faculty and administrators who encourage talk about teaching despite its vagaries are treasures among us. Too many educators respond to the mystery either by privatizing teaching or promoting a technical "fix." The first group uses the variability of good teaching as an excuse to avoid discussing it in public--thus evading criticism of challenge. The second group tries to flatten the variations by insisting on the superiority of this or that method of subtlety. In both quarters, the far-ranging conversation that could illumine the mystery when we think of it as a "black box," something opaque and impenetrable that we must either avoid or manipulate by main force. Mystery is a primal and powerful human experience that can neither be ignored not reduced to formula. To learn from mystery, we must enter with all our faculties alert, ready to laugh as well as grown, able to "live the question" rather demand a final answer. When we enter into mystery this way, we well find the mystery entering us, and our lives are challenged and changed. Good teachers dwell in the mystery of good teaching until it dwells in them. As they explore it alone and with others, the insight and energy of mystery begins to inform and animate their work. They discover and develop methods of teaching that emerge from their own integrity--but they never reduce their teaching to technique. I want to share a few reflections on the mystery of good classroom teaching, whether in large lecture halls or small seminars. I want to name some of its challenges, and suggest some responses, without treating it as a "problem to be solved." Only by doing so, it seems to me, can we enlarge the community of discourse that might encourage more and more of us to teach well. The Transaction Called Knowing
The knowledge we deal with in the classroom has not only a content but also a characteristic way of imaging the transaction been the know and the known. In the present "canonical" Debate over what knowledge we should teach, more debate over how we gain knowledge would help if good teaching is our aim. (In fact, a hidden conflict among diverse modes of knowing continually confounds the debate over which texts merit full canonical status.) The academy has been dominated by an objectivist image of knowing that holds the knower at arm’s length from the known so that "subjective" biases will not distort our knowledge. This image of knowing both reflected in and conveyed by our dominant mode of teaching, which, as Dewey said, turns education into a spectator sport. Students are kept in the grandstand so they can watch the pros play the knowledge game but not interfere with its "objectivity." Reformers have railed against this pedagogy. It makes learning passive and joyless, and it turns too many educated people into spectators of life itself. But many efforts at pedagogical reform have failed because the problem cannot be solved on the level of technique alone. The performer-spectator classroom to simply a faithful rendering of the objectivist epistemology. If the last word in knowing is to keep subjectivity at bay, then the last word in teaching will be to keep students off the field. More engaging way...