Tending the Community of Practice garden

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_lightwise'>lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo</a>One of the most rewarding aspects of the research I’m doing for my doctorate is the opportunity to just sit down and talk with colleagues. I’m using interactive interviewing,* which means that I get to hang out with other teachers, talking (venting, ranting, musing, crying, laughing) about teaching. We’ve talked to each other about how we got started, what we think teaching is, how we deal with assessment, and even what our theme songs are (right now, I think this is mine. No Rick Roll, I promise).

I have just finished the final round of four interviews, with my nine participants (yay!! finished!!). I’ve met with each person one-on-one four times since last May; each time, we’ve talked for more than an hour, allowing ourselves to explore the tangents and spirals that naturally arise in our dialogue. The first time we talked, our theme was simple: how did we find ourselves in the classroom? In the second round, we talked about mentorship and metaphors for teaching and learning. In the fall, we met for a third time, to talk about assessment, evaluation, grading, and feedback.

In our final conversation, I asked my participants** to reflect on our process: did anything in particular resonate? Were there any 3-a.m.-wake-up epiphanies? Any moments in the classroom where our discussions echoed in your mind? What was the most valuable part of this process? Each person had different things to reflect on, or to elaborate upon, but what struck me was that every single one said that they just really loved talking about these things with me. One or two said that they’d spoken about teaching and learning with me more often in this past year than with anyone in their department. Most said that they’d really like to keep talking about teaching and learning, even if my research cycle is complete.

Earlier this month, I presented an overview of my research to my college department, and suggested that one of the take-aways from my research so far is that while we may not have Yoda-esque mentors as teachers, most of us experience what I’ve taken to calling mentoring moments. These moments share a few characteristics: they are typically peer-to-peer dialogues (although not exclusively); they are mutually beneficial (both parties get something from the dialogue); they may arise from a crisis but are not really designed to solve a problem – rather, they allow both people to explore ideas, share experiences, and brainstorm strategies, without trying to find the one-and-only way to deal with the crisis.

So, for example, I might engage in a discussion with my colleague Jane about our deadline policies, perhaps because one of us is dealing with a situation that has made us question our current policy. So, I’ll talk about what my policy is, and Jane will tell me about hers. We’ll naturally talk about how our policies differ – maybe Jane refuses to accept any submissions more than three days after the deadline, whereas I accept them but provide no feedback, or deduct 5% for each day late. Perhaps I’ll realize that my policy now is pretty different from what it was five years ago, and we’ll talk about what changed and why – maybe I’ve stopped deducting marks for late submissions because I reflected on that practice and came to the conclusion that I wanted the grade to reflect the work done, not the time management. Maybe it’s the other way around, and I’ve realized that I want students to learn how to manage time and workload, so my deadline policy now reflects that desire. Jane and I might talk for an hour or so, sipping tea, sharing stories of students who’ve tested our policy patience. In the end, maybe one or the other of us will adjust her policy; maybe neither of us will make any changes. No matter what, we both will feel more confident in our policy; in discussing, exploring, challenging, reflecting, we’ve come to understand better why our policy is what it is. We can better articulate the how and why of our policy.

So here’s what I’m thinking about now: these mentoring moments are so fruitful, yet, as I’m sure many of us have experienced, when our institution sets up a community of practice or a mentoring program – even if everyone’s really keen and excited – eventually it fizzles. The online forum for our department includes a space for dialogue – the most recent post in that section is from 2016. We talk about mentorship and community of practice, but it seems like things never really get off the ground.

I was discussing this fizzle phenomenon with a colleague today, and she said “and that’s when people just give up.” People stop attending the brown bag lunches, stop posting to the online forum, stop trying to track down their appointed mentor… but maybe, like a neglected plant, we need to do some pruning, some repotting, careful watering, and see if we can’t bring that plant back to life.

So, then, of course, the question is how. How do we revive a wilting community of practice? How do we keep conversations going? And how do we do all of this organically, so we don’t feel like we’re under some kind of administration-mandated obligation to pretend we’re talking to each other.

*Note: Interactive interviews go beyond the conventional researcher-participant construct to establish a collaborative relationship between the researcher and her participant (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011). Unlike more traditional, ‘objective,’ interview techniques that ignore the emotional facet of the interview relationship itself (Ezzy, 2010), interactive interviewing uses autoethnography to recognize and reconstruct or redefine the relationship between researcher and participant. Ellis (1999) described her own experiences with interactive interviewing as an opportunity to engage in immediate responses to a participant’s story with her own lived experience. As the stories, experiences, and attitudes of the interviewer and interviewee flow into and through each other, the traditional boundaries and distances between the two participants are blurred or even erased (Fontana, 2002). [This section appears in the draft of my dissertation as well as in Finding Myself in Methodology (2017).

** OH MY GOD if someone can propose a few synonyms so I can stop writing “participant” over and over… the word has lost all meaning. Or rather, its connotation/denotation is starting to rankle – it feels very data-oriented to discuss “participants.” But I digress…

Talking to myself

An experiment: As part of my critical self-reflection, I’ve been rereading some journal entries from more than a decade ago, when I started my M.Ed. I thought it might be fruitful to respond to my thoughts, to explore how my thinking has evolved, shifted, or even changed. In regular text, my musing from 2005. In green italics, today’s Maggie responds.

January 2005

[NB: this is journal #1 from the College Teaching: Issues and Challenges course, which was the first in the Université de Sherbrooke’s Master Teacher M.Ed. program]

After only four classes, my ideas about knowledge are already changing – not that I am ‘changing my mind’ about knowledge, but I am expanding my definitions. I have always thought that there is a reason we talk about knowledge and wisdom, and that the two are not synonymous. In the context of this course, one way to think of these concepts is that knowledge is knowing certain information, and wisdom is knowing what to do with that information.

In class, we’ve looked at different kinds of knowledge, and discussed knowledge as a basic foundation upon which to build the learning experience. As an English teacher, and generally, as a student of the language, I find it fascinating to consider the various nuances of a single word – knowledge. What do we mean when we say that we “know” another person? Context is key here – we can “know” someone in the sense that we are aware of that person’s existence and can pick them out of a police line-up. Alternatively, we can “know” someone in the sense that we can predict that person’s behaviour, and be surprised when that person does something “out of character.” Do the same degrees of knowledge apply to information, such as literature? It seems to me that when we talk about the levels of learning or thinking, when we discuss knowing vs. understanding, we are simply drawing distinctions between knowing a subject superficially and knowing the same subject in-depth.

A couple of thoughts here… First, I like how I grappled with the degree of knowing here – I think it still resonates and makes sense to me. But I think I’m better able to articulate the why and how of “getting to know” someone or something, and I think I’m more interested in how we create knowledge and meaning through interactions. Each time I interact with another person, we “know” each other a little more. When this interaction happens near the beginning of our relationship, these incremental deepenings of our mutual knowledge may seem much greater than they do when we have already come to know each other well over years. Presumably we can say the same about how we come to know a subject or discipline – consider the threshold concepts idea: once we’ve crossed those first few transformative thresholds, our further progress within the discipline may not be as remarkable, in the literal sense.

We have labels for how this happens in personal interactions – we are friends of a mutual friend; we are acquaintances; we are friends; we are good friends; we are close friends; we are “besties.” We don’t signpost these stages – there’s no ritual or ceremony to mark our graduation from acquaintance to friend. Yet there are signs: friends get invited to dinner parties; close friends get invited to intimate dinners; “besties” get invited to family gatherings. Academically, we do indeed signpost certain stages in our knowledge creation, or at least in our demonstrations of having created knowledge – we move from grade to grade, from secondary to post-secondary; we are “admitted” to degrees; we move on to post-graduate work. Yet the true threshold crossings are typically not recognized or celebrated by our collective – we have an “aha” moment in class, or while working on our own, or in the shower, or while walking the dog. It must also be said that those moments that are recognized are identified by others – someone else decides that we’ve passed a test, passed a grade, passed into the next stage. We may have felt the actual transformation – from high schooler to college student, from learner to practitioner – well before we’re “official;” we may feel like we’re not ready yet, even if we’ve successfully passed the tests and received our certification. And of course, the certificate is a fixed point in time, and does not represent who we are at any other point. Am I a better driver on the day I get my license than I was the day before, when all I had was my learners’ permit? Am I as proficient a driver on the day I get my license as I am after a decade of driving?

Finally, in light of my current explorations, I want to think about this concept in terms of self-knowledge. How much better do I know myself if I purposefully and consciously reflect on my self than I would if I did not engage in that reflection? Is it possible to surprise oneself? I think it must be – consider the well-worn “if you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be…” phrase. If you’d told me ten years ago that now I’d be doing a Ph.D. in Education, I probably wouldn’t have been surprised. But if you’d told me that I’d also be a certified yoga and fitness instructor, I’d probably have been a little bemused. If you’d told me that I’d be living where I am, with two dogs, I’d probably have been at least somewhat surprised. And while I might have been nonplussed about the doctorate, I probably wouldn’t have predicted an autoethnographic narrative inquiry into teacher identity and assessment…

In the courses I teach, knowledge of the subject depends on the level of the course – the knowledge a second-year student is expected to bring into the course is obviously different from the knowledge a first-year student has. By the time a student gets to the second-year English courses, his or her knowledge of basics – from grammatical structure to key analytical elements such as plot and symbolism – should be well-enough established to allow an analytical discussion of specific genres and themes. So when I’m designing an introductory English course, I try to keep in mind the knowledge I will expect from these students next year, and work backwards from there.

Interesting that I was thinking in terms of “what do I expect them to know next year,” and not in terms of “what are the ministerial objectives.” I was writing this while part of an English department that (a) had a common final exam for the first-semester English course and (b) insisted that students take the Block B course in their second semester, unlike the college I’m at now (since the fall of 2005, in fact). So I could have talked about what I expected my students to face on their common final exam, or about what they needed to know for their Block B course… 

The course I have chosen to design is a second-year course called Introduction to Playreading. This course covers drama from the Ancient Greeks to Aphra Behn (18th century England). I have chosen this course because I find designing second-year courses more challenging – first-year courses demand a lot of juggling, but are so chock full of material that course design is really a moot point. Second-year courses, on the other hand, are much looser – the ministerial objectives, for instance, simply state that the student should be able to write a 1,000-word essay and “to apply a critical approach to literary genres.” While this ambiguity allows our department to create and offer myriad variations on the theme of genre courses and thematic courses, as individual teachers, we are very much left to our own devices in terms of course content and assessment.

This leaves me with the question “what do I want my students to know at the end of my course?” Well, to quote myself (from the Successful Student assignment), ‘I consider students successful if they have not only learned the material, but learned to appreciate it, and have understood the relevance of the material. For instance, in a course on literature, students can pass simply by reading the material and writing a competent essay or two; but successful students will see connections between authors in the course and other authors, between themes in the course texts and their own lives, and between analytical skills honed in this course and those required for other courses. Ideally, students will seek out new authors, and expand on what they have learned. Ultimately, maybe the measure of a ‘successful’ student is not the grade but the grasp – and maybe the student can only be as successful as the teacher!’

“not the grade but the grasp” – I do sometimes have a way with words. This is essentially what I’ve been talking about with my research participants when it comes to our struggles with evaluation. We want to assess our students’ grasp, but we’re obligated to determine their grade. Ultimately, beyond the walls of academe, those grades are more or less meaningless. Yet within these walls, actors on all sides of the transaction are conditioned to emphasize grades over grasp. Students “need” to pass the course, not to learn. Teachers are sent spreadsheets with their pass rates compared to departmental averages. Institutions use grades (almost exclusively) to determine who gets to study and who gets left out – without, as one preservice teacher I recently talked with points out, considering the why and how of the grades. My A- or 84% is perceived as equal to my classmate’s same grade, even if I live with my parents, close to a metro, with no financial obligations, while my classmate is a single parent with a full-time job and rent to pay. When we both apply for entry to another program, those grades are the first determiner of our success – so if my cushy circumstances mean I’m more likely to have higher grades overall, then I get in, while my classmate, whose average suffers because of external factors, can’t get past the gate.