Transparency as Obscurantism (on gift-giving, performance, and pedagogy)

Last week marked the annual cusp between my birthday and my wife’s, a week which often includes Father’s Day – as it did this year – and so I’ve been thinking a fair bit about gifts, both given and received. In particular, I’ve been thinking about gift certificates, as they were out in a particularly abundant crop this year.

I have in the past tried to avoid gift certificates, for two reasons. First, they suggest that I don’t know the person well enough to spend time in selecting the perfect gift for them. Lately, though, the people I’m buying for, especially for Father’s Day, have tended to get for themselves the things they want, and don’t seem to particularly need anything I can offer. So my solution of late has been to offer several possible gifts to spend the certificate on, but ultimately leave it to them to decide what fits best with their own self-perceptions.

The second reason is more intractable. Gift certificates, by naming a dollar amount, strip away the illusion that makes gift-giving work. When gift certificates are traded in both directions, it lays bare the fact that we’re essentially pushing the same bits of money around – or, what’s worse, that we’re pushing money around and getting more or less money in return. In this case, instead of cementing the familiar bonds with our gifts, we could actually be damaging them.

All of this is by way of introduction to a problem in my teaching, a problem of transparency: as with gift-certificate swaps, I fear there may sometimes be too much of it. As a firm believer in the power of metacognition to aid my own learning – a power which I don’t pretend to have discovered on my own; cf. How People Learn for a summary and references – I will frequently pause in the middle of a classroom activity to remind students why I think the activity is useful, what goals I’m hoping it will serve, etc. When I notice that I have less time remaining in the lesson than I’d originally planned for, I have a tendency to think through my options out loud – helping students to see, or so I’ve believed, (a) that there is a thinking process that goes on; that I’m not just following a set script; and (b) what one version of that thinking process might look like, as a model should they ever want to plan their own lessons. I have distinct memories of becoming aware of lessons as planned, some time toward the middle of my college career, and trying to rederive some principles for how to do it, based on what I was seeing.[1]

But there is a problem. In mid-term conferences this summer – during that same gift-laden week, in fact – several of my students expressed discomfort with the transparency of these asides. One student was insightful enough to point out that they wasted time (this after a particularly rough week of “Hmm, so that 10-minute exercise actually needed 35…” moments). If I would just choose, she said, instead of making a whole performance out of the act of choosing, I could regain precious minutes of time. (My words, to be fair. But her idea.) At least two other students confessed that such moments just left them with a squirming sort of discomfort: Wasn’t I the teacher? Shouldn’t teachers already know how to do things? Was this the first time I was teaching this course??

Now, it turns out that it is the first time I’m teaching this particular course, but the behavior isn’t really linked to that; I’ve been teaching first-year composition since 2004, and I reason out my decisions in front of my FYC students all the time. In fact, the longer I’ve been teaching, the more I’ve been doing it.[2] So I explained to my students, even as I conceded that prior faculty evaluations of my teaching have also remarked on the thinking aloud as a possible sign of lapsing confidence. And in response to both students and faculty observers, I’ve been a bit defensive of my behavior: Why should students be shielded from the tools I use to make decisions? Aren’t we trying to train them to be like us (whatever that means, and however problematic some versions of that might be)? Isn’t it a better version of “doing what the teacher wants” if they try to justify their own behaviors using rationales that they’ll know I find convincing? Wasn’t I being a role model here?

Maybe. I’m not sure. I mean, I haven’t exactly stopped mentioning some of the options we’re not pursuing, or providing my reasons for choosing what we are. But the gift certificate situation has gotten me thinking: what if transparency in the classroom, like transparency in gift-giving, destroys an illusion that’s needed for classrooms to work? Maybe what makes my students uncomfortable isn’t the realization that teachers are only human – by the time you hit college, if you’re still idolizing your teachers, you’re either shockingly lucky or shockingly naive – but rather the way in which that realization is being thrust in their faces. We know that gift-giving is, in effect, pushing the same money around; it’s how we know how much to spend on people. (What’d we get from them last year? Okay, then.) But there’s still something gained by pretending otherwise – when we put the time and energy into showing that we care about the specifics of the gift, we can enjoy the relationship-building value of that demonstration, and suppress our awareness of the extent to which it’s “merely” a performance. Something similar could be at work in the teacher-student relationship: by performing authority for students, we enable them to enjoy the role of novice that enables them to learn (cf. Sommers and Saltz). Treating them like equals might lead to disillusionment with the entire power structure, which is problematic not only for us, but for them.

In writing that last sentence, I realize with a bit of a shock that I’m actually arguing against critical pedagogy, and from a very consumerist capitalist place. My inner socialist (descended from socialist ancestors) is feeling kind of appalled. But my inner physicist keeps making metaphors to heat engines and the importance of energy gradients.

As with so many things, I suspect this comes down to a balance, or at least to a dialectic alternation that we wouldn’t want to collapse: at times, maybe even most times, we may need to perform our authority; at others – perhaps at moments of completion? – we may need to perform as still learning. I’m still learning to sense the right moment, the kairos, for each of these crucial behaviors, and I suspect I will always need to learn that, and differently with each different group of students.

But here’s hoping I learn to pretend to know, soon. ;¬)



[1] For me the triggering puzzle was a choir conductor declaring things like “We’re 13 minutes behind!” The specificity was suspicious. Now, though, I think I get it.

[2]I didn’t realize that until just now, as I was writing it. Huh. Does this reflect a simple growth in the number of options I’m aware of, as I accumulate years of experience? Or is it that as I mature as a teacher, I’m less likely to believe that all teachers just “already know how to do things”? Or maybe I’m just afraid that I’ll settle into a rhythm of teaching the same course, semester after semester? (Hasn’t happened yet – in fact, my wife keeps asking when I can finally stop reinventing the course every term, with new readings. Like Gandhi, I keep answering: because this year I know better.)

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