It’s Not Them . . .

It sometimes happens that things I learn in my private life have a profound impact on some aspect of my professional life, usually to the benefit of those I work with.

In particular, I have been involved in the American traditional dance scene since I was a graduate student: contra dance, English country dance, and a select few varieties of couples dance. I now play fiddle in a couple of contra dance bands, and my wife is making a name for herself as a caller and choreographer.

I may have things to say, later on, about what I’ve learned from being a musician and playing for dances. My experience organizing the Atlanta Open Band has given me some insight into the conditions under which large, transformative projects might succeed or fail, for example, and I’m convinced that there is some deep, metaphorical connection between musical improvisation and ethical living.

As I was thinking about yesterday’s post on electronics in the classroom, though, and on some of the attitudes evinced by contributors to the discussion on The Daily Nous, I was reminded of one of the principles my wife learned when she was first learning to call dances: It’s always the caller’s fault.

Prompting a large room full of chatty people through the steps of a dance can go wrong in any number of ways, leaving some dancers lost and confused, and other dancers annoyed and frustrated.

It can likewise leave the caller annoyed and frustrated: Why won’t these stupid people follow my instructions?

But that simply doesn’t wash.

Partly as a matter of public persona and partly from simple modesty, the caller should always assume that she or he did not communicate clearly enough, or misread the crowd and chose a dance that was too complicated, or did not practice enough, or simply misread what was on the card.

The caller should never, ever berate the dancers for not getting it, and should never, ever single out a dancer for criticism.

I now wonder whether that lesson, absorbed vicariously by way of my wife and her various mentors, filtered over into my thoughts about teaching and learning.

A few years ago, when I was still lumping along with a conventional lecture-and-discussion-and-occasional-desultory-group-work approach to teaching, I was increasingly frustrated with my students. Yes, the distraction of electronic devices was part of that frustration, but it was more generally that students seemed more and more disengaged.

In the privacy of my own thoughts, I would complain about them, even rail at them: Why won’t these stupid students pay attention and make some effort to learn all this wonderfully interesting stuff?

Part of what turned me to a new approach to teaching was a dawning realization: it’s not them, it’s me.

Or, rather, it’s the design of my courses that has failed, due to a mismatch between the ends I say I am aiming for and the means I employ to reach them, and a mismatch between those means and my students’ degree of cognitive development.

Creating an environment in which students can learn some fundamental skills in ethical inquiry and ethical conduct can go wrong in any number of ways, leaving some students lost and confused, and other students annoyed and frustrated.

Partly as a matter of public persona and partly from simple modesty, we teachers should take the responsibility for those failures on ourselves, go back to the drawing board, again and again, refining and developing our approach and our course design.

Even an excellent course design and an attentive and responsive instructor will not guarantee that every student will succeed.

Even with the best of callers on a good night some non-zero number of dancers will persist in being lost and confused, sometimes almost aggressively so.

Callers have to learn not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, to let those individuals fail to get it, as long as the dance is going well for everyone else. In many instances, the other dancers can be trusted to work around or with the confused, directing them where they need to go, patching up any holes in the dance that may develop around them.

There’s a lesson in that, too.

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