Teaching/Learning: Making space for taking initiative in and through relationships

I want students to see dialogue around written work as an important part of defining and refining research direction and questions. However, the system they are familiar with is: produce a product, receive a grade, check that assignment off the to-do list, and move on to the next one. They have to expose their submissions to the instructor, but most of them are uncomfortable about subjecting it to dialogue. The challenge, then, has been to get students into the swing of an unfamiliar system as quickly as possible so they can begin to experience its benefits.

I chose to focus on this challenge when I participated in a faculty seminar on “Becoming a teacher-researcher” during my second year teaching the students in a mid-career professional and personal development graduate program (Taylor 1999). My teacher research began a month into a research and writing course with students completing a survey about their expectations and concerns in working under what they called the “revise and resubmit” process. The participants in the faculty seminar then digested all the students’ responses and brainstormed about qualities of an improved system and experience. We wrote suggestions on large post-its, which we grouped and gave names to, ending up with five categories: “negotiate power/standards,” “horizontal community,” “develop autonomy,” “acknowledge affect,” and “be here now” (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Five themes about improving the experience of dialogue around written work.

In the following class I initiated discussion of the students’ responses, clarifying the meaning of the themes and exploring the tensions between them (conveyed by the connecting lines in Figure 1). For example, “develop autonomy” stood for digesting comments and making something for oneself—neither treating comments as dictates nor insulating oneself by keeping from the eyes of others. Yet, “negotiate power/standards” recognized that students made assumptions about my ultimate power over grades, which translated into their thinking that I expected them to take up my suggestions. Moreover, although these assumptions about the “vertical” relationship between instructor and student had to be aired and addressed, “horizontal community” captured the need for students to build additional kinds of relationship.

During the rest of the semester, discussions continued to refer to these themes and tensions. We applied them to the whole research and engagement process, not only to dialogue around written work. I looked for a substitute for “autonomy” because some students construed this word as going their own way and not responding to comments of others, including those of professors. When “taking initiative” was suggested by my wife, I realized that it applied to all five themes. I emailed my students: “[The challenge is to] take initiative in building horizontal relationships, in negotiating power/standards, in acknowledging that affect is involved in what you’re doing and not doing (and in how others respond to that), in clearing away distractions from other sources (present and past) so you can be here now.” Don’t wait for the instructor to tell you how to solve an expository problem, what must be read and covered in a literature review, or what was meant by some comment you don’t understand. Don’t put off giving your writing to the instructor or to other readers and avoid talking to them because you’re worried that they don’t see things the same way as you do.

A longer phrase soon emerged: “Taking initiative in and through relationships.” That is, don’t expect to learn or change on one’s own. Build relationships with others; interact with them. This doesn’t mean bowing down to their views, but take them in and work them into your own reflective inquiry until you can convey more powerfully to them what you’re about (which may or may not have changed as a result of the reflective inquiry).

Finally, as a student or as the instructor, don’t expect learning or change to happen without jostling among the five themes-in-tension. Of course, saying this does not specify how to teach and support students to take progressively more initiative. Nevertheless, I believe that talking about the five points on the “mandala” helped the students in that course recognize themselves and take more initiative in their learning relationships. Since then I have presented the insights from the original group to new cohorts—sometimes adding “explore difference” as a sixth theme.

(Extracted from “Teaching/Learning for Reflective Practice,” a section of a book manuscript, Taking Yourself Seriously: A Fieldbook of Processes of Research and Engagement, also on the web.)


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

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