I suppose I did this to myself: when I was preparing to return to full-time teaching this year after (1) a half-year sabbatical last year and (2) three years prior in an intensive administrative position, I gave our current administration some options: I offered to teach a few familiar required courses and seminars, and I threw in a couple proposals for new seminars and studios. I don’t quite remember how this happened — but I now find myself teaching three brand new seminar/studios and a required lecture course, which I’m totally reassessing since I haven’t taught it for three years. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the new specialty courses — “Media and Materiality” and “Urban Media Archaeology” have been awesome, and I’m looking forward to “Libraries, Archives & Databases” — but that lecture course is causing a little trepidation, in no small part because…well, let’s just say it hasn’t been everybody’s favorite class.

Of course nobody loves a required class — and they’re even less likely to love it when it’s, by necessity, a relatively large lecture class (we can’t duplicate guest presentations in multiple sections, so we have to gather all 180 new students in the same lecture hall; it’s simply, sadly a necessary evil of being a crazily big program). But I think the content has a lot of potential: on the first occasion I had to teach the class, in Fall 2008, I frequently thought to myself, wow, I wish I was learning this stuff as a first-semester grad student. And I know many of our previous graduates, who left the program before this class was instituted, said that they regretted not having a similar orientation experience to help themselves develop a broad view of the program, the university, the city, the field, etc., and all their opportunities to participate at those various scales.

My Fall 2008 version of the class tapped into the “craftsmanship” zeitgeist. Sennett’s The Craftsman had just come out, and several other craft-related books — and some new craft-y journals — were soon to follow. As I mentioned in my final lecture,

We used the metaphor of “craftsmanship” [throughout the] semester to think about our various roles as researcher-producers, scholar-activists, producer-mangers, etc., because models of craft ask us to think about the commitment and engagement that…distinguish graduate work. Thinking about our work as craftsmanship, Sennett argues, helps us to get at enduring cognitive models, translatable skills, which, Shoemaker reminds us, are essential in an economy in which many move frequently from job to job. Plus, as we produce material and symbolic forms – films, theories, research papers, etc. – we also produce ourselves as subjects and our social relations; we can investigate “what the process of making…things reveals to us about our selves” (Sennett 8). And thinking about our commitment to and engagement in our work promotes “knowing-in-action,” reflexivity, Gray and Malins say (22-3).

The class was meant to provide an overview of a program that combines theory, practice, and management — threads that, traditionally, many students had kept separate. It was also, as I mentioned earlier, an attempt to provide an introduction to the department and the field, so students could start to orient themselves within it and determine how and where they wanted to make their marks. At some point in the middle of that fall semester, I encountered an article, published in Duke UP’s Pedagogy journal, by several graduate students who expressed their desire for an introductory grad course that “prepare[s] graduate students for taking an active role in shaping the future of the discipline” (Crisco et al. 372). This course would (1) “survey the historical development of the field”; (2) “critically examine some of the key terms presently at the center of debates concerning the defining goals and purposes of the work” in the field; (3) “create a collaborative, explicitly intradisciplinary space within the department to explore the often competing commitments of our discipline and to articulate the stakes (individual, fieldwide, institutional, cultural) of the various approaches to reforming” the field; and (4) “provide students with opportunities to locate themselves and their professional commitments in relationship to the field” (ibid. 369). I felt to me like that’s what we were doing in my class, and that was reassuring.

But some people, I learned, didn’t want to waste time on self-reflection, orientation, and exploration of “epistemological and methodological diversity.” They just wanted to learn how to make films. A long while later, I discovered an article in The Review of Higher Education in which Michael Gunzenhauser and Cynthia Gerstl-Pepin suggest that “students obsessed with instrumental goals are resistant to challenges to their time and their existing (and often unquestioned) assumptions and conceptions about their professional practice.” Of course I don’t want to blame my own failures, or the failures of the class, on students’ “instrumentalist” thinking, but I do think this paradigm is the reason for some students’ resistance. The authors also mentioned another risk of such “intro to grad studies”-type classes:

In many ways, it resembles a rite of passage into a discipline—a process of learning the language, developing specific research skills and habits, and reframing past experience and past knowledge. In this model, graduate students learn the cultures of their chosen disciplines—becoming familiar with the institutions associated with them (such as associations, conferences, and journals), perhaps mimicking the characteristics and actions of their mentors early on to “try on” the discipline—and devote themselves to becoming members of a research community. This model infantilizes graduate students, treating them as if they know little of consequence and inviting them to disconnect themselves from prior knowledge and experiences in favor of a superior, enlightened subject position.

While I appreciate the risk, I think we take care not to devalue the students’ own knowledge and experience or make them feel as if they’re there to mimic the “enlightened” faculty members’ practices. To the contrary, we encourage students to cultivate their own interests, their own “subject positions” — and thereby, perhaps, transform the field. That said, while I’m confident the course wasn’t “infantilizing,” I do know that some found it “remedial.” They learned how to do research as freshmen in high school; what more could there be there to learn in grad school?

A lot, actually. I know from personal experience. And even my TA’s, all advanced doctoral students, said they took a lot away from the class.

Joan Wink, Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World (2005): 178-180

I think there is tremendous value in a course that helps one cultivate frameworks for processing — and questioning the assumptions of — the material presented in other content- and skills-based classes; that helps provide a macro-scale overview of — and demystifies — the curriculum as a whole; that helps one reflect on his or her professional and intellectual past and consider how one might want to use his or her graduate experience. I’m going to try my best to make this spring class a useful and, dammit, enjoyable experience. I already have a few students soliciting advice from classmates for me. I’m posting a draft syllabus [file updated 1/8/11], and I welcome constructive feedback.

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