Teaching Outside of the Classroom

Since I seem to be riding a vaguely political wave as of late, I thought I’d write a piece about the various ways that educators find themselves imparting their wisdom when outside of the classroom. Well, actually, this post is really just about what I do outside the classroom. But I know for a fact that there are at least a few other people out there who do similar things, with similar goals, and I’d love to hear about these in the comments.

Anyway… I’m not talking about pedantic speeches detailing my latest research obsession while standing around at a party. Let’s face it, no one wants to hear about that – some days, not even me. I’m also not talking about acting as a de facto tour guide while travelling with my family. I hate both of these things with a passion, and while I understand that some people enjoy doing it, I just can’t go there. There are, however, other ways that I find myself acting as an unofficial pedagogue outside of the classroom. For the most part, this type of work seems to be appreciated by those who benefit from it, but undervalued by society at large. And it’s work that I think most of us who possess doctorates do a lot of.

1. Editing

This one is pretty obvious, especially to frequent visitors of my blog. I do, after all, have a tab for editorial services. But my role as an editor goes well beyond the ESL services that I charge a fee for. I have long-since been one of the “go-to” people in my circle when someone needs an extra set of eyes on a paper, or help with a cover letter, teaching statement, or grant application. In fact, I could probably start a business critiquing grant apps if I wanted to, given how many of the bloody things I have read.

As I said, I do most of this for free. This is because, as an intellectual, I consider it part of my job (even though I currently don’t have a proper academic post), and here’s why. One of the hardest parts of doing the PhD for me was dealing with the post-course work isolation and the lack of sounding boards for my own thoughts. I had to work really hard to create groups and contexts where us lonely souls could get together and swap ideas – not to mention bitch about department politics. I couldn’t develop my ideas without the help of others, so I would never deny this fundamental part of the learning process to anyone else. Very few of us are just naturally brilliant. The majority of us are just smart. And this means we have to talk things out, and have colleagues point out some initial flaws in our argument, in order to produce our best work.

My willingness to read application letters similarly stems from my commitment to peer-to-peer learning. I know it’s a competitive world out there, and that I’m supposed to be looking out for numero uno. But I’m always telling my students they can do more by learning from one another than they can ever do while sitting alone with a book. So why wouldn’t I put my money where my mouth is and share the knowledge that I possess with my own peers. Job and grant apps are a special kind of writing, and one that people aren’t always trained for. I’m lucky enough to have figured it out early, so I do what I can to help others.

I know, I know. I too have a pressing need to eat, and I shouldn’t be giving my services away for free. And I do charge for some things. But there are some things which I feel morally obligated to help others with – especially people who I call my friends – if I have the time and the knowhow to be able to do so. I feel this way because I truly believe that this is how we collectively produce knowledge.

2. Trying to write Op-eds.

OK, so I may have just LOL-ed… for real. The emphasis here is on the “trying.” I am now on attempt number three – a revised version of last week’s post – and I don’t expect to get that one published either. This is because I’m still learning not to bury the lead, to use terminology that doesn’t make normal people want to break out in hives, and to be generally topical. So far, I’m not really doing so well, but for whatever reason, I feel like I need to keep trying. If there really is value in my training, and I really do have something to offer society, I feel like I have to keep pushing to make that happen.

As part of this process, I am trying to better understand how my doctoral training has prepared me to speak on a wide variety of issues. Some things are a no-brainer, like entering the debates about alternative-academic careers or the alleged crisis in the Humanities. Other things, however, are not as immediately obvious. For example, I recently wrote a piece about how understanding history provides a different vantage point when entering the debate we are having right now in Quebec about a proposed “secular” charter of values. This is because understanding history (especially the early modern period) makes it easy to see how secularism can actually be dogmatic, given the right set of circumstances.  So yeah, it turns out that I have knowledge to share when it comes to a wide variety of subjects.

3.  Arguing about politics and/or explaining why a certain person/group/thing you hate isn’t necessarily evil.

This is closely related to the Op-ed thing, but is not exactly the same. It involves conversations that are much more informal in nature, even though they ultimately have more of an impact (seeing as those Op-eds aren’t getting published). As I’ve said so many times before, people have a hard time seeing the other side of a debate and tend to get frustrated and angry very quickly when someone else is “just wrong.” They don’t listen any better than their opponents do, and even if they’re right, this kind of approach is not likely to result in much progress.

Going back to the current debate about secularism in Quebec, I see this phenomenon at work in this context all the time. Friends and relatives in Anglo Canada are utterly dumbfounded by the fact that anyone would want to discriminate against minorities. They immediately notice that the proposed rules for what people can and can’t wear are arbitrary, and some of them even remark upon the fact that these bans will keep religious minorities out of any and all positions of authority. And they, quite rightly, get offended, after which they launch into a tirade which is almost as prejudice towards the Quebecois as the Quebec government is being towards minorities.

Quebec’s Charter is the result of a specific history, and one that involves a very rocky relationship with the Catholic Church. Many supporters of the new charter seem to be extrapolating based on this experience, and to assume that everyone should hate religion as much as they do. And then there’s the whole issue of multiculturalism vs. interculturalism, and the gaping gulf that this creates between francophone and Anglophone culture. I spend a lot of time explaining how and why these profound cultural disjunctions matter and why, if people really do want to change other people’s minds, they need to start from a respect for that difference, and move forward carefully from there.

I should confess that I do indeed do the same thing on Facebook, though often concerning less overly-political issues. This has landed me in more epic Facebook fights than I should probably admit to, but hey, it’s ended in some very interesting conversations and no one has un-friended me yet. I’m sure there are other venues where I have been using my knowledge for good – or evil, depending on your perspective. But these are the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. There’s a fine line between being a pedant and a pedagogue, at least in a public capacity, and I’m still trying to figure out where that is.

So I’m curious: who else out there is doing the same kinds of things?

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