Tuesday, October 15, 1996

Some remarks on the negotiated curriculum

from a conference presentation in Seoul, Korea, October 1996

I. I'd like to preface my remarks by making the observation that I am in the not too comfortable position of taking a consciously political perspective while at the same time addressing an audience in a country where I have been for no less than 24 hours. I trust that if what I say comes out sounding pushy or otherwise inappropriate, that you will take my remarks as a starting point in a discussion about what is real, what is possible, what is useful and what is good in the field of second and foreign language teaching rather than an attempt to persuade you without discussion to come around to my political perspective.

II. The three of us have been involved in a project generated at the Shonan Fujisawa Campus of Keio University just outside Tokyo, which has now expanded to include colleagues at other universities as well. We refer to it simply as "the monograph," but it is a different monograph each year, this year dealing with the topic of Gender in Language Teaching. The monograph project was conceived originally by Christine Pearson Casanave as a means of involving as many of our colleagues in the English Division at Keio SFC in a way that we hoped would accomplish three objectives: to channel some of the energy of staff into research and publication, to articulate our educational values and integrate them into our professional lives, and, perhaps most importantly, to bring together a faculty of colleagues who for one reason or another hadn't found adequate time and means to put their ideas together with those of their colleagues. Our campus opened only seven years ago and we have been fortunate in being able to bring more voices into the building of a new curriculum than is often the case. This monograph project worked so well, in fact, that by the third time around others wanted in, and we realized we would only gain from their contributions. This volume contains the work of colleagues from five universities in the Greater Tokyo area.

III. Our first effort took up journal writing, our second the use of film and video in the classroom. This volume turned to the issue of Gender in Language Education. Since the purpose in engaging in a communal activity of this sort was to attract our colleagues and make them want to work together, we took up in each case what we perceived as hot topics, the topic we heard most often bandied about in the faculty lunch room and wherever teachers got together. Sometimes, these perceptions led to one-time forums, as was the case with the topic of postmodernism. Gender, however, was particularly apt as a monograph topic because it reflected not only faculty interest, but strong student interest as well. Whether they articulated their interest as feminism or simply as the interest of 18-23 year olds in the opposite sex, we knew he had something that would hold the interest of both students and faculty.

To many of you the inclusion of gender into the language curriculum needs no justification. If you feel this way, I ask your indulgence while I address those of you who may think this is politicking or pressing an agenda that is unworthy of a teacher of language. My remarks are aimed at the skeptics among us.

IV. Thomas and Amy will take up the issue of gender in the classroom and in classroom research directly, but I want to try to set the stage for their efforts by placing the issue of gender in a larger educational context.

That context is both philosophical and political -- philosophical because it is derived from reflection on the goals of teaching and the meaning of education more generally. Political, because it engages us in the profession as challengers to the status quo.

Let me take up the political aspect of a focus on gender first, since it tends to frighten the greatest number of people. "I don't want to be political," they say. "First of all, I don't want to lose my job. Secondly, who am I to impose my political will on my students? I'm here to teach them language and communication skills, and, if I'm lucky, I can teach them a few critical thinking skills along the way. Besides, as a teacher of English, particularly outside the European and North American continents, and given the history of European colonialism and the Anglo-Saxon propensity for spreading their various gospels, I owe it to my students to take a more watchful attitude.

I think you'll agree with me that that is an attitude worthy of respect, and quite probably the view of the majority of practicing ESL teachers working today. Yet I would like to consider what it means to retreat to a "watchful attitude," to retreat to the security of an identity as a teacher of skills.

Think for a minute about how teaching is commonly conceptualized. Three words often stand in for "teacher" -- trainer, educator, and indoctrinator. Let's take up the last one first and dismiss it quickly.

An "indoctrinator" is an inculcator of ideology -- a filler of lamps as opposed to a lighter of lamps. "I know what's good for you," says the indoctrinator, "Listen to me and we'll go a long way. Just do as I tell you and you'll get an A and we'll all be happy."

Some of us do this in the classroom because we think that's what we are paid to do. We don't call it indoctrination, we call it being responsible, teaching our experience, whatever, but it's still indoctrination. For many of us, it's in our blood, because it's the way we were taught and everybody knows no matter how much you don't want to be like your mother you still hear her voice when you speak.

To escape the role of an indoctrinator, many of us have swung on the pendulum to the other side and become trainers. For what else is a teacher of skills but a trainer? "I don't care about you," the trainer implies, "I only care about your performance." Makes you think of the manufacturers of guns. "I just make them; I don't tell people they have to use them."

This "hands off" approach to teaching I take to be immoral. Immoral because it fails to engage the participants -- both teacher and learner -- in a meaningful attempt to understand the consequences of their actions.

And that brings us to the word "educator," for what is an educator but a person who believes in the possibility of change for the better. People go into the field of education because they believe they can do some good. At least here they are doing something besides simply earning a living.

The field of education is a great place to make a fool of yourself. People who think they are doing good are commonly called do-gooders, another word for fool. So it takes some doing--I think it's courage, actually--to identify yourself as an educator. In a cynical age, it sounds arrogant and self-important. But only until you explain the difference between an educator and an indoctrinator.

Let me try to separate those terms. An indoctrinator says, "I know what's good for you." An educator asks, "What do you think is good for us? Given who we are, you the 18-year old, me the 50-year old, for example, given what you know and what I know, how do we work together?"

I've mentioned the roles of trainer, educator, and indoctrinator, but there is one more role that must be considered if we are to keep in touch with the reality of the classroom, and that is the "entertainer." What is an entertainer? Somebody who seeks to capture the attention of her audience, and take them away from their troubles, right? In our dissatisfaction with the role of indoctrinator, many of us have turned it in for the role of trainer, and a sense of ineffectiveness as trainer often drives us into the entertainment business.

A good entertainer wraps the audience up in something outside themselves, and sometimes that something can be informative and useful -- I'm not deriding the role of the entertainer. But an educator differs from the entertainer, I believe, in that she doesn't hide her moral self in the process. And I don't think we should hide from the word moral, despite its now largely discredited association with ideologues and other authoritarians.

If you accept the notion that education is all about seeking the good, even if you are not always certain what that is, you are of necessity defining education as a moral activity.

The educator, to be an educator and not merely an entertainer or trainer, and to avoid becoming an indoctrinator, must engage with the student as first among equals, in what Martin Buber calls the I-Thou relationship. The young student sometimes against her will comes to you for instruction in the English language. From "This is a book. This is a pencil." to "Do you think life in the country is better than life in the city?" we all too often engage as if there were no I and no Thou.

No need to see the wealth and power, the poverty and need, the person in search of answers. No need for the culture conflicts, the sexual personas, the self-image, the politics, the male and the female. No need to wonder who you're talking to.

I have said nothing about gender directly, so far, but I hope I've made it clear that I think you're selling yourself short as a teacher if you limit yourself to training or indoctrination, if you don't recognize your potential as an educator. But once you take on that role, once you seek to negotiate the learning task rather than dictate it, you will have to face the rush of things that a fully engaged person of the 1990s is likely to throw at you. Whether it's ecology or revolution, bride-burning, female genital mutilation, women in the work place, gay marriage, the war in Iraq, the massacres in East Timor, once you open up the language classroom to the world so that education can take place, you open the classroom, and yourself, to questions beyond your ability to answer and your relationship to your students must necessarily move you in the direction of their burning concerns. Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, agism, all the other ugly isms will come marching in.

I've called these remarks "Some remarks on the negotiated curriculum" because I find that whether teachers are conscious of it or not, they are subversive by nature -- those who care about their profession and about their students reflect on the process and find ways to put themselves into the curriculum no matter how controled it looks and feels from the outside.

Another way of saying this, is that we should come out of the closet -- at least to ourselves -- as people who in fact largely determine our own curriculum. That leaves us with the choice of doing it all on our own or asking our students to participate. Unlike my colleagues, who will be reporting on research, I am taking a position of advocacy. I think the curriculum ought to be a negotiated curriculum; it ought to be based on a relationship I have referred to as and I-Thou relationship and to do this effectively, it ought to include the whole person. If it does, if it accepts the whole person, it accepts the victim of poverty and the spoiled brat, the manipulator, the cheat and the teen-aged prostitute, the overly extended single mother and the future head of state and it uses their whole being in content, style, and evaluation of success.

If you are going to try to educate, you owe it to those who accept your role as teacher to let them know how you see them in their place in life and how you set your life up against theirs. The alternatives are to be satisfied with the role of trainer-but-not-educator, entertainer-but-not-educator, or indoctrinator-but-not-educator. I hope you will agree with me that those are not satisfactory alternatives.

Alan J. McCornick
Seoul, Korea
October 1996