12 February 2011

Seize the (Teachable) Moment

Last week I renewed my campaign in favor of greater flexibility in graduate education and raised the question, What happens to undergraduate education when disciplinary research and specialization are the sole, legitimate emphasis in training future faculty members? My aim was to defend and encourage interdisciplinarity among scholars and future academics. However, I am the first to admit that “breadth of curiosity” is a poorly defined battle cry. It leaves my position open to the criticisms that it lacks meaningful direction and undermines the scholarly expertise that contributes to intellectual progress.

These critiques are fair and it serves little purpose to fight for big ideas that rely on grand notions of learning that are not necessarily shared by everyone. Nevertheless, there are significant issues for the education community to face regarding the pieces of professional and intellectual development that may be missing or underdeveloped in higher education. Consider, for example, development of teaching skills.

Wait… strike that. Forget the classroom-centered image of teaching and consider the skills that prepare someone to educate.

Furthermore, consider the fact that everyone will encounter substantive opportunities to educate someone else – a child, a co-worker, a compatriot. These teachable moments can fall somewhere between private, edifying experiences and professional responsibilities. But they all carry the possibility to inform another person and, as such, to improve that person’s chances at meaningful engagement with the infinite complexities of life. Higher education is meant to prepare us to seize these opportunities. College graduates are expected, in theory, to be good communicators with demonstrable abilities in speech and writing. It is not enough to amass knowledge and to refine one’s skills in clear thinking. One must also be able to convey that knowledge and thinking to others, to educate and teach them.

Some students know they want to pursue a career dedicated to education and teaching. Some, particularly graduate students on the faculty trajectory, know that teaching will be a necessary responsibility even if it is not their primary professional goal. And other students remain willfully ignorant of the educational opportunities that come with intellectual training – opportunities to educate others, that is.

The question is, What does higher education do for these very different students? How does the university meet the goals of the committed educator? What sorts of professional development are available to the reluctant teacher who is, as yet, disengaged from the complexities of educating? And, perhaps most important of all, at what point during academic training is the research- or skills-oriented student expected to consider and prepare for the teachable moments that will, without fail, present themselves in the future?

The multi-front crusade for a dynamic life of the mind is simply too large to resolve as a whole. I concede this point and recognize the wisdom in the statement, “To defend everything is to defend nothing.” The higher education community needs to focus on one battle at a time, identify the forces at play, and try to understand what is at stake.

Preparing educators, communicators, and teachers is one such battle and ought not be ignored or neglected. And – if I may stretch this field-of-combat metaphor to its limit, casting myself as the gruff war correspondent – you can rest assured that I will be pursuing this story for good, long while. Stay tuned for some As-I-See-It dispatches from the field.

Athena Looking Over Socrates by tiseb
Portrait of Charles E. W. Bean (Australian war correspondent, WWI) by George Lambert

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