Question of the Week: Why the Resistance to Teaching Strategic Knowledge?

Why do you think English departments as well as individual instructors either don’t think about or resist teaching “strategic knowledge”?  What’s behind that resistance, even though the advantages, as spelled out by Sherry Lee Linkon, seem considerable?

Is it connected to concepts like “expert blindspot” or “professorial packing”? I’m very curious to hear what you think.



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One Response to Question of the Week: Why the Resistance to Teaching Strategic Knowledge?

  1. timmcneil says:

    Strategic knowledge, which Linkon uses to refer to the processes of actually doing a discipline (in our case, literary reading), is something that isn’t often transferred in the department of English. In considering this question, I’m going to share an anecdote from earlier in my education, another from my initial year of teaching after graduation, and appeal to the idea of nostalgia as a pedagogical pathology.

    While he wasn’t the first of my professors to invite their students to come to office hours, Nick was the first professor whose office hours I actually attended. After showing him a draft of my initial paper, he made the suggestion to incorporate material from the previous paragraph into the introduction of the next one as a way to smooth out the transitions between my ideas. I still didn’t really know how to deliberately write a thesis statement, but this technique was fairly instrumental in my essay-writing development.

    But what did I learn?
    1) That going to office hours was potentially a helpful exercise
    2) A way to write essays which were better integrated.

    One obstacle to learning both of these things in class is the problem of audience. As a member of a larger class, it was not necessarily appropriate for my professor to address my specific concerns. I also didn’t know what questions to ask, other than a general “how do I do this better?” In addition, in this survey of poetry and drama, it was assumed that students had: a) taken a first year composition course, and b) that they knew how to do the things taught in that course with a reasonable level of proficiency.

    On a meta-level, then, the course I was in assumed a certain level of proficiency in essay writing. The strategic knowledge I did gain came from a) listening to an invitation to office hours, and b) actually going to those office hours and the applying the advice I received. In the case, this strategic knowledge would not have come up in class. It’s not that my professor wasn’t incapable of delivering it, but the way the class worked was much more content oriented than strategy oriented.

    Ultimately, and this is certainly subjective, much of the coursework in my undergraduate studies followed a similar model. The breadth requirement ensured that I was exposed to literatures of various periods and places, and having completed an honours thesis, I was able to convince a hiring committee that I was qualified to teach English upgrading despite having studied precisely nothing pedagogical in nature. In my second semester of teaching, after having what I felt was a pretty lively discussion around the symbolism in “Young Goodman Brown” one of my students, not being satisfied with my neutral position, asked how I interpret the text. I explained some of the basics of Freud’s theory of interpreting dreams and suggested a few implications of reading YGB through a Freudian lens; I also offered some other avenue of interpretation (I can’t remember what) that would allow for Goodman Brown to be awake and experiencing all of the things which are described in the narrative. My students were fascinated, and a few times a semester I’d include a class or two where I would lead my students from particular points in a text through to a conclusion, and then ask “how did I get here” and get them to unpack the steps I had outlined.

    These attempts at conveying strategic knowledge were in classroom situations, and were largely in response to student requests for help with process rather than content. Ultimately, my teaching decisions were uninformed by any serious research into effective pedagogical techniques, but were perhaps gesturing toward a more strategic orientation.

    But… why don’t we emphasis process and strategy more in our genre/period classes? Part of it is nostalgia. We are graduate students, and we were able to be successful when strategic knowledge was imparted in ways which were largely implicit. Attending pedagogical workshops I’d often participate in conversations that went “an A student will do X no matter what SYSTEM is used.” I wonder if the A student is just one who is more willing to engage in process, even if that process is blind/flailing until things begin to make sense. (Tangent: I wouldn’t have gotten through English 302 without visiting my professor in office hours to help me make sense of the readings which often would cause me to complain that my brain was broken. But I had learned earlier the value of going to office hours. An A student will attend office hours when they don’t understand something.)

    And so, we teach in ways which imply strategic knowledge. Some of this is nostalgia. I had some professors who I thought were excellent, and who I attempted to study with multiple times. Both primary instructional strategy was to ask a few questions and engage in serial bi-lateral discussions around the room. (Most students would interact with the professor, but rarely would there be student-student interaction.) Even in classes of 6-8 students, we would also do some group work to help facilitate those larger (all of the class) discussions.

    The trouble is that we imitate our favourites. Most of my teaching, particularly in the early years, was imitative and focused on content knowledge. While I’d avoid professional packing for the most part, having an interpretation of the text guided my class planning. This continues through to my present TA-ing at U of C. Dr. Bennett has encouraged me, for example, to get more students doing more things in my classes. (Those who don’t talk might, for example, write on the board.) But the model is still very much based around discussion. The idea is, of course, that by having interesting interpretations in class discussions AND by using discussions to implicitly model essay writing skills, my students will learn to better write essays.

    So, what if I hadn’t gone to office hours with Nick? Would I still be here? Writing this post? Majoring in English? Maybe. Maybe I would have figured it out.

    TO summarize, the problem with teaching strategic knowledge is not that it isn’t being taught, but that:

    1) different students have different needs regarding strategic knowledge, and sometimes the classroom isn’t a great place to identify and transfer the needed knowledge

    2) where strategic knowledge is transferred, it is often implicit. Students who are engaging in process will probably develop some of the strategic knowledge being presented.

    3) Nostalgia causes us to imitate our favourites, but at least in my case, that imitation was largely not underpinned by any particular pedagogical theory.

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