Sunday, February 8, 2009

Shamanic Teaching Spaces

When I first got a job as a lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology I was required to undertake a few courses to qualify me for the position. An interesting incident occurred at one of those courses that significantly clarified my views on teaching.

During the class the trainer showed a video which she characterised as "a bit of fun" that included some pejorative remarks about a recognisable group within society. After the class was over I approached the trainer and expressed my objections to what was shown on the video. At first she tried to brush me off "Oh, come on, I think you are being a bit too politically correct", when that didn't work she then tried to excuse it with "well, there wasn't anyone [from that particular minority] in the room", but when that didn't work she tried to justify it with "Look, it's very hard to get lecturers interested in this subject, and I have to include some light-hearted material in my classes." Eventually we agreed that if I wanted to I could leave when these videos were being shown, and so it was for the rest of the course I was required to do the 'walk of shame', walking out in front of everyone and coming back later, embarrassing, but necessary.

It took this incident for me to realise something that I'm sure is obvious to everyone else, the lecturer creates a teaching space with their students, and the lecturer decides what is and isn't allowed into that space. In this situation the trainer allowed things to occur in her teaching space that I would never allow in my own teaching space. This is not to say that she is wrong and I am right, but rather that different people have different ideas of what goes on in their teaching, so the lecturer has to be very active in their control over the teaching space and has to carefully review any materials that they present to students, and if someone makes remarks that the lecturer thinks are out of order, the lecturer must express their disapproval immediately. This is not to say that my classes are very serious and solemn, on the contrary, I think comedy and humour are vital in helping students learn. I will do almost anything to make my classes fun and enjoyable, other than making fun of individuals or groups.

The point of looking at the teaching and learning process as occurring in a teaching space is that it acknowledges that this process usually occurs in a somewhat ritualised manner. Everyone knows why they are there, everyone is indoctrinated into the education process, and all have one or two decades practice in how it works. The lecturer begins the class, usually recapping a little on what was discussed in the previous class, then introduces the main topic being discussed today, the lecturer goes into detail on the topic, quoting examples, and opening it up for discussion, and then the class usually finishes off with a summary of what was discussed. The students will undergo this hourlong ritual several times a day.

In a sense the lecturer acts as a mediator between the students and body of knowledge being communicated, this body of knowledge has no real-life existence, it can be expressed as formulae, theories, definitions and examples in the real world, but in reality it only exists in a Platonic Idea Space (of Ideal Forms) to which the lecturer intercedes on the students' behalf. This relationship is very much like the shaman who acts as mediator between his/her tribe and the spirit world. Of course the term "shaman" come from "one who knows" and the job of the shaman is to educate the tribe about the beliefs of their culture, very much like a lecturer. Also if one considers the manner in which the lecturer communicates to the students, not just their notes and what they say, but how they say it, the emphasis, the motions, and the gestures, it has a clear parallel with the shamanic ethnohermeneutic approach.

So in summary, teaching must be done thoughtfully, carefully, and with the recognition that sometimes the students are in a trance because of, rather than in spite of, your teaching ;-)