Cracking Open the Curriculum

Cracking Open the Curriculum

“‘I hate it when you talk like this . . .’

‘I merely observe that this is a quantum Universe and, as such, what happens is neither random nor determined. There are potentialities and any third factor–humans are such a factor–will affect the outcome.’

‘And free will?’

‘Is your capacity to affect the outcome.’”

~ Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods

I challenge you to look boldly at today’s curriculum. Hold it in your hands, as every educator should, and peer into it. Just below the surface lies a labyrinth of possibilities. Its architecture is Deleuzean in concept, manifest folds upon folds. Curriculum is nebulous, expansive, recursive. As educators, we must do more than expect critical engagement from our students — we must model it in our efforts to change, modify, and adopt new learning practices. An educational system emerging from the demands of an industrial nation begins to crack in the light of post-industrialism. New literacies arise; epistemologies change. We must enter the labyrinth despite the minotaur.

In the deepest recesses of academia, we find ourselves still heavily influenced by the pervading capitalist culture informing our learning communities. This is damaging. Economic gain and critical pedagogy are too frequently at odds. The academy has become, among other things, a place to produce certified experts each designated to complete their commercial task(s). When in this model, then, does the student get to consider the system itself? We cannot afford to leave it unexamined. Consider this: we work, shop, eat, and live in a society where much of our produce has lost a significant portion of its nutrient value through generations of poor crop management, yet we gloss over these details in historical narratives that recast these losses as advancements in efficiency and industrial progress. I, for one, feel alienated from the primal necessities of life, hidden somewhere behind the well-stocked supermarket shelves. Upon reflection, however, I realize that many of these commodities have visited much more of the world than I have. Without well-developed critical thinking skills, our students will come to depend on — and reproduce — this historical narrative just as the current economy depends on and reproduces these crops.

Crack open the curriculum. Ask questions. Contest everything. History isn’t as it seems and education does not need to reproduce these narratives. Don’t, under any circumstances, present a subject with finality and always explore the possibilities. There are courses in health and economics, yet I don’t know where the food in my pantry came from, or how it got there. The process is embedded in global economies of scale, labor politics, and technological innovation, among others. Why, then, do we so often learn of such subjects in the abstract? I sometimes see school as an absurdity. Empower your students through project-based learning opportunities. Have a student track, as best they can, a product from farm to table (Slow Food USA has a great video describing the implications of industrial farming). It’s frightening, yet more frightening that I have yet to see these concerns addressed in today’s curriculum. A family of five can live off a ⅕ acre plot with a little help from the local community, as the author of The Urban Farm Handbook does (in one extreme case, Urban Homestead produces 6,000 pounds of organic food annually on 1/10 of an acre, as described in this interview). The brain and the mouth are not so far apart as they appear to be in the curriculum. There is no good reason a ten-year-old should be dependent on an authority to bake a loaf of bread. The all-too-Western narrative of capitalist progress hides the alternatives. Crack it open. Ask difficult questions and you will find communities dedicated to solving them.

The classroom is fraught with contradictions in praxis, the educator’s desired ideology appearing distorted and fractured as it emerges into methodology.

For example, we often tell our students to think critically. Yet, strangely, these students are frequently required to produce this so-called “critically acquired knowledge” in traditional academic forms without question and without resistance. It’s true, many writing prompts are provocative and written with the intention to inspire clear, dedicated thought to a meaningful topic. The form, however, is prone to slipping beneath the radar. I spent my undergraduate years mimicking the voice of my professors, secure in the knowledge that their authority wouldn’t guide me astray. Despite having learned how to talk like an academic, however, I still hold a lingering suspicion that something went just a little too gently, as Dylan Thomas may have it, into that good night. Why the fifteen-page papers? Why the three-hour seminars quoting, too often, dead white males? Do not let a single assumption sneak by unexamined.

We challenge our students to be reflective. Yet, perhaps counterproductively, we give them final grades on assignments. The idea that our ambitions, when we (or our students) take on a project, have an end goal is problematic in that it has an ending. Reflection and revision are great ways of suggesting that “end products” are not completions that are to be filed away, but rather, checkpoints at which it becomes graded (in school) or published (as essays are, including this one), but by no means an end point. We produce living artifacts, especially in a digital and post-industrial age. The ultimate achievement of a document shouldn’t be its publication (or its A+ from the teacher), but rather, the moment at which a future thinker takes that work and remakes it into something else.

I know these systemic absurdities exist because I’ve seen them, I’ve experienced them, and I’ve been part of the problem. I’ve asked questions while instructing that I knew what answer I wanted to hear. That’s not critical. I’ve managed (or rather mismanaged) peer-review sessions, hoping that my students would correct errors, by which I fear I meant any point of departure from the Western academic paper style. Again, far from critical. And, sadly, I fear my grades have, more than once, marked the end of a project, rather than encouragement to keep it alive. I challenge today’s student to push through the natural barriers of the classroom and the grade book’s insistent cry for completion and finality. Continue in the tradition of the young Romantics (Shelley, Keats, Reynolds) who fought to be heard early. Continue in the tradition of Gertrude Stein and her Saturday evening salon and form communities of knowledge that are rhizomatic, endless, communal.

Standing before a body of students, there are times that I feel no matter what I do, I would continue to write and rewrite the same narratives of authority and academic tradition that I knew as a student. No matter what methodology I employ and despite my greatest desires to do otherwise, I still taught them, at a fundamental level, that they needed to pass my course in order to be successful in the future. I was a gatekeeper to the field of knowledge. Now, I realize, I should have taught them how to break down that fence; how to go around the gatekeeper; how, if you squint your eyes just right, there is in fact no fence at all. I should have taught them that knowledge is free and open to everyone and that it comes in infinite forms, and that “student’ and “teacher” are arbitrary terms constructed to generate a narrative of power relations between us. I should have asked them to share their knowledge with me.

Crack open the curriculum. It’s hard, and the education system doesn’t like it. It’s tough on the fences, they might say, and gatekeepers frequently mistake damage to the fence as damage to the field. There are sites of resistance, of course, both inside and outside the education system. There’s the occasional classroom where the ideals of critical thinking and reflection are met with due changes in practice and eliminating student/teacher dichotomies. There are makerspaces (like Makers and Jigsaw Renaissance in Seattle and my personal favorite, the DH Maker Bus) and and Free Skools (such as those in Santa Cruz, CA and Bridgeport, CT) where learners are not met by experts who, in echoing Spenser, claim they know the one true way, but rather by collaborators and a variety of perspectives. Today’s curriculum and pedagogy in formal school settings could do well to be informed by such movements, where the real world implications are always within hands’ reach of the student, and every student has an opportunity to be both a teacher and a producer.

No student should leave an academic program simply prepared to do whatever it is that program’s future job prospects page dictates. The rhetoric on even some of the highest ranking program websites, such as American University’s School of Communication, appear limiting. The students are expected to “explain, describe, and demonstrate” the roles of journalism. What happened to questioning, challenging, or disrupting the field itself? A program should not merely prepare students in terms of employability, as is so deeply desired by our society, but rather to critically reflect on their relationship to that body of work and provide them with the means of change from within it. Do not perpetuate the Grand Narrative. Open up, and I mean truly open up, spaces to share, contest, complicate, disrupt, break, (re)imagine, and collaborate. Do not expect, predict, or fear the outcome; experiment.

No student graduating with a degree in journalism should say, “great, now I can be a journalist,” but rather, “I now possess the means to define and redefine what it means to be a journalist; to not only enter the competitive marketplace and succeed, but also assess and challenge the marketplace itself and create new zones of journalistic inquiry where I deem it necessary.” The future must not merely (re)produce, but further, (re)imagine and (re)create.

This methodology doesn’t have to begin at the college level, and in many ways at that point it’s already too late. I work daily with underserved high schoolers within a historically low-ranking school district. Too frequently, these students have been fed distant, formulaic worksheets that deconstruct both the form and the importance of academic skills such as authorship and inference (high school teachers, you know it well: Topic Sentence, Concrete Detail, Commentary, Commentary, Transition Sentence, and Repeat). This isn’t critical. I teach on the peripheral of this system and am frequently met with unknowing looks as I try to instill the political importance and crucial autonomy inherent in these skills. The students view it as a hurdle — impractical and unfulfilling.

More often than not, they do not fully realize they are cultivating their own voice or even recognize that they are building an argument. I am met with not only the challenge of helping these students complete their daily assignments, but additionally deschooling the notions of determinism and oppression from their assignments. When a student says, “What do you mean an argument, I’m just writing what the paper was about?” I respond (with an appropriate variation of): “As a reader and researcher, you are actively (re)defining what the story is about. Your interaction with the text changes the meaning of the text itself.” There is little impact when I try to explain this, the ideas of form (“it must be done like this”) and compliance to authority (“but my teacher said”) are imbedded too deeply. The challenge of simultaneously schooling and deschooling a learner becomes increasingly difficult with each passing year.

In contrast, I work weekly at a private elementary school where I teach technology skills/programming to fourth and fifth graders. Due to a chance fluke in scheduling, I visit the school on Tuesdays though the students’ “tech time” is on Fridays. Regardless, I introduce new technical skills (actual pieces of code or a new platform/software, for instance) as well as project challenges, such as these, on Tuesdays. I talk for only ten minutes or so, and walk around asking questions and troubleshooting 1:1 the rest of the time (30 minutes). Here’s the best part: they still have time for technology skills practice and exploration on Fridays, but it’s peer-led. They use the new skills/platform they’ve been introduced to on the Tuesday prior, and play and hack the technology in every way their creative and collaborative minds can imagine. I hear and see the results the following Tuesday, in addition to adding on a few more skills. They will all code working videogames before summer.

While I cannot deny that technological skills lend themselves well to open, collaborative, and exploratory classroom dynamics, I want to suggest further that all learning does; whether you teach science or history, math or English, economics or foreign language, you will benefit from critically examining your curriculum and finding within it places for play and experimentation, and providing time for unguided learning. Crack it open.

The role of the educator can be understood in terms of quantum dynamics: each moment you stand before a group of learners, many possibilities exist, yet only one will emerge. The educator is a liminal space, allowing or disallowing connections between planes of knowledge and experience. Educators hold the power to perpetuate, acknowledge, critique, and/or disrupt the ebb and flow of what constitutes knowledge; educators act as both interpreter and incubator of cultural norms and expectations. We are a political force, for better or for worse. So be critical. Define and redefine pedagogy, examine curriculum, and choose content wisely because the one possibility that does becomes realized in the classroom may very well create the reality of today’s students.

All realities are first imagined. Educators hold a privileged space in which to develop and distribute such imaginings. So get cracking.

[Photo by ap]