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Sage on the Side

i taught my first class in 1995. Strangely, it was not a course in composition (the traditional first outing for graduate students in English), but a course in public speaking. That was odd for a number of reasons, including the fact that my main qualification as an expert in that subject was about to be the class itself.

I had virtually no training; a Communications professor had held a perfunctory afternoon gathering in which he seemed to want to ask us – none of whom had taught – what we thought the class should be about. He had also mysteriously invited a folklorist, who said something about folktales in the rural South. I remember one student, at the very end, asking the professor if he thought it would be a good idea for us to have some sort of textbook. His answer was, “Hmm, yes. Yes, I think that might be a good idea!”

I doubt that experience is typical. When I later went on to teach composition (and then literature), I was given more substantive training, though certainly not the kind of training that the subject of college pedagogy deserves – particularly in composition and rhetoric. At the time, I had only the vaguest idea that this was a field unto itself.

But I suppose that even those with far better training have a similar experience to mine in this respect: they really have no idea what kind of teachers they’re going to be until they get up and do it. When I did that, the results surprised me. I was the “sage on the stage.”

I do not mean to say, of course, that I was a sage (I was nothing of the kind), but only that my teaching style – almost from the first minute – took the form of the Socratic lecturer. And now, almost twenty years on, it is almost exactly the same. I would like to think I am a far better teacher than I was when started. Certainly, I understand where nineteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds are intellectually and emotionally far better than I did, and I have seen hundreds of examples of the same kinds of writing problems, reading problems, thinking problems, and life problems. I have years of experience tuning syllabi, reconceiving writing prompts, and grading. And as my scholarly interests have changed, my teaching has changed along with it.

What has not changed, though, is the essential form of my classroom performance. There’s a guy in the front of the room (middle-aged and no longer the young “cool” professor, but better dressed) who is having a kind of fascinating intellectual crisis about Ibsen and asking his students to help him through it. He changes his mind constantly. He’s forever asking questions. He lights up when a student raises his or her hand. He thankfully knows to shut up when the students stop raising their hands and start having the same crisis he is.

I would never try to argue that this is the right way to teach. It just happens to be the only way I know how to teach. I suppose it started out with me trying to imitate the best professors I had in college (or, to be more precise, the teachers whom I enjoyed the most and whose style fit the way I liked to learn), but it also just fits my personality. It is the one role that this character actor knows how to play. For all my lack of range, I play it pretty well (though I still go down in flames on the odd Tuesday).

I constantly marvel at the way other people teach. They have lots and lots of activities, group projects, response journals, and all manner of online innovations (when I’m not teaching computer science, I have a whiteboard, books, and nothing else). The intricacies of their syllabi amaze me – carefully thought-out, scaffolded exercises meant to lead students through a series of well-planned learning experiences. Entire class periods consist of the professor running around between different groups who are each engaged in a separate conversation. They are the “guides on the side” [1]. Some of the best teachers I know teach this way.

There is another kind of teaching of which I am capable, though, and it also represents my attempt to recreate the best experiences I had as a student. This is the kind of teaching that goes on in a digital center where faculty, staff, and students (both graduate and undergraduate) are all working on some kind of project together. Maybe it’s a website or a piece of software. It could be a database schema, a design document, or a specification. I’ve worked on very small teams (me and one other graduate student) and quite large ones (at one point, nearly forty participants). I’ve also held every kind of position from ten-hour-a-week “intern” to Principal Investigator. I’ve been the worst coder on some projects and the best on others. I’ve been the only who knows what’s really going on and the only one who doesn’t. I’ve been on projects that failed spectacularly and ones that are still going strong. Whatever the case, these have been some of the most powerful educational experiences of my life, and some of that educational experience has come from being the “teacher” in the room – something I experienced long before I was the actual teacher in the room.

I don’t think I’ll be doing any injustice to either sages or guides (or saying anything novel) by pointing out that one of the chief problems in any classroom is the “just-for-practice” nature of the work. With a few notable exceptions (such as the astounding work some do with service learning), most of what we ask students to do is not the “real thing.” Digital work of the kind I’m describing, by contrast, almost always is. We’re going live with this thing, and there’s nothing “fake” about it. There are real deadlines, and a (real or only just imagined) user community. There are standards and best practices to heed. And there’s much, much learning to be done.

There’s a world of difference, I think, between teaching someone how to “program” in the abstract and teaching them how to do it because we’re both trying to build this particular thing that will have both our names on it. I won’t say that all hierarchies are leveled and that communitarian values automatically prevail, but something in the dynamic changes so substantively that it seems to me a third kind of teaching. Perhaps it is nothing more than a group of humanists doing what scientists have been doing for a long time (attaching themselves to a lab and undergoing apprenticeships while also doing independent research). That comparison alone should dissipate any wide-eyed ideas about comity and joy being the automatic result of collaboration – bad feelings, pedagogical neglect, and infighting are also radical possibilities. But this is nonetheless a distinct variety of teaching from what we usually do in the humanities, and one that I have discovered also fits my style and the style of many other humanists (not all of them digital).

The danger, of course, is that students will end up learning Drupal, but not Dumas – xml but not existentialism. But that may be the most important task of whoever happens to be the sage in the room. That person, granted, is probably having some kind of crisis. But as with my own (I hope) artfully constructed crises, that sharing of the task can lead to that glorious moment when people stop raising their hands.

[1] I am not, of course, the originator of the clever terms “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side;” that distinction comes from Alison King’s famous 1993 essay “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side” (College Teaching 41.1).

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