Blog Post

Unlearning Teaching

Reporting from The Storm. HASTAC 2013.

I still remember the experience that chose my undergraduate major.  The first class that left me perplexed, that made my brain hurt in a good way, that forced me to expand my perspective beyond anything I'd ever known or imagined -- that was it.  The class happened to be Wahneema Lubiano's Intro to Cultural Studies (LIT 100) at Duke, and what left me in such a state was Althusser's concept of Ideology.  
This past weekend, it happened again. As I sat in the audience, listening to the second half of Cathy Davidson's keynote address, it hit me. Davidson made two points that particularly stuck out in my mind:   
  1. Our culture is increasingly one in which learning, unlearning and relearning are fundamental.
  2. If teachers can be replaced by computer screens, they should be.
Maybe it was the fact that I'd just stepped off a plane or maybe it was because I'd never heard Davidson make these points to a live audience, but I took these points, one after the other, quite literally. 
Unlearning + Teaching --> Unlearning Teaching 
What, I thought, does it mean to unlearn teaching? As I listened to the presentations and discussions that followed throughout the conference weekend, this question began to solidify and expand.  Are there any be habits or patterns that I have fallen into over the years?  Do any of these make me similar to a computer screen? No less effective than a computer screen?  If so, how do I even begin to unlearn these?
I teach writing for the Culture, Art, & Technology program at UCSD.  The reality is that I've spent the last 20+ years of my life systematically learning to buy into (or at least conform to) a certain opinion of what constitutes "good" scholarly writing. Come on, I'm a grad student. I imagine many of you have done the same.  I also know that the form of traditionally structured academic writing doesn't always equal successful communication in today's technology-rich environment. Come on, I'm a HASTACer.        
Here's the problem. Grading pencil in hand, I sometimes find myself reverting to the standards of writing I've been conditioned for.  Worse, I get frustrated when students don't meet them. While I encourage my students to think deeply and engage in alternate forms of scholarship, my and my student's and the academy's expectations are stuck in what I we already know and have already imagined. 
So, if I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I need to practice unlearning teaching. This doesn't mean lowering my expectations of scholarly writing when grading, but it does mean unlearning a great deal of what I've been trained to achieve.  Any success stories, suggestions or ideas as to how? 

1 comment


An idea off the top of my head is to update my perspective on what constitutes "good" scholarly writing in today's environment by building expectations not of but with students.  This might entail:
- finding out what students have learned about writing (too often this is writing is something that's a timed essay)
- sharing past ideals of scholarly rigor, identifying updated ideals of scholarly rigor 
- asking students to come up with how their work may or may not meet these
I'm still working out the details...