Is it really about what you know?

About eight weeks ago I wrote an open letter to my colleagues at Western University as part of the alternative “100 Days of Listening” tour curated at noahconfidenze.tumblr.com in response to the controversy surrounding the compensation packet of our president, Amit Chakma. Noah liked my post, and asked me back; this time around – why? Maybe it’s the humid summer air! – I’m feeling optimistic, and the tone of my letter (addressed to Dr Chakma this time) is forward looking. Call me a naive optimist if you like, but I still believe we have the chance to shift the neoliberal juggernaut driving through the heart of liberal arts education in Canada. This letter, reproduced below with Noah’s kind permission, suggests an important reason why we need to keep pressing the point.

***

Dear Amit,

I’m writing today as a colleague who also loves stories. During your brief meeting with my colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities back in April, you talked a bit about your personal library, and about how much you valued having not only engineering books on your shelves there. I found your description of your library inspiring; it was a heartfelt reminder that we all need stories in our lives, in part because stories are the raw material we use to live our lives: to look backward, forward, and all around us as we plot our routes through the world.

storytelling

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately, even more than usual. As I’m a professor in English and Writing Studies, stories are my stock-in-trade; further, as I’m one of the founding faculty members in Theatre Studies at Western, stories for me are more than words on paper or even oral narratives; they are embodied tales of the worlds we inhabit, built in intimate collaboration with the other bodies and narratives that surround us. So stories are a huge part of my life.

My mother, however, is struggling these days to retain her stories. She is living with dementia, and more and more the stories she remembers cling to her like spring water, feeding her from the rivers of her past as she copes with each new disappointment in each new day. My mom never got a lot of education, though she was bright and full of potential; WWII got in her way, and then followed the quotidian vagaries of making a living and helping to support a family in the new world to which she fled. But I know that, had she gone to university, she would have been filled up with stories. And she would have carried those stories with her like treasures through her life.

My mom was a math whiz; she would not have gone into English or even into Theatre Studies. But I have no doubt that she would have taken loads of liberal arts courses, given her lifelong love of storytelling. And that’s something I’ve learned from her as she navigates this difficult new chapter in her life: that stories are not just for the English-oriented liberal arts kids, far from it. In a new article called “Changing How We Think About the Goals of Higher Education,” Chad Hanson, a sociologist at Casper College, argues that the most important take-aways students receive at university have little to do with the specific content they absorb, and much more to do with how they absorb it, and with what the nature of their learning experience helps them to discover about themselves. Hanson is arguing for a much broader approach to assessing student learning than cognitive science and similar mechanisms can gather; he is insisting on the social, rather than the statistical, value of storytelling to the way we measure what students carry with them as they walk across our stages at convocation.

I can attest to the common sense of Hanson’s argument. When I think back to my own undergraduate career, in the English Department at the University of Alberta in the middle 1990s, it’s not the names and dates of novels and characters I remember; it’s the teaching styles of the instructors I had, and it’s especially the debates about our world, our nation, politics and culture the stories we read provoked. Thanks to those experiences I, long bent on a career as an architect, turned to graduate school in the humanities instead, and then to a PhD in theatre studies. And thanks to those experiences I found I had a built-in model for how to teach effectively: when time came for me to step in front of a class of my own, I brought the nuts and bolts of my favourite instructors’ group workshops to bear on my own teaching practice.

Hanson writes:

When we think of students as a human form of capital, the view potentially restricts our intellectual terrain. We run the risk of limiting ourselves to questions about what students know or how they perform prescribed tasks. We lose sight of the notion that schools allow people to forge new selves.

Amit, regardless of the specific departments or faculties our students choose as a base for their university educations, all seek stories to propel themselves future-ward. And they seek the means to tell those stories, to navigate the tales of others, and to fashion from the mix of emotions and events that make up their university educations the ability to shape themselves into citizens. Those of us who teach in the Arts and Humanities are the ones who help with these challenges, who shape our learners into not just employees but also citizens. Hanson again:

Knowledge and skills are not necessarily the most important factors when it comes to the question of whom a business will hire. Picture a typical job interview. Employers rarely conduct knowledge or skills tests as part of the hiring process. An interview is an exercise in storytelling. Candidates are asked to tell the story of themselves: who they are, what they are like, where they have been, and what their futures hold in store.

There are a lot of reasons for Western to value preciously its faculty in the Arts and Humanities. And stories are a big one.

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Yours with respect,

Kim Solga

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2 thoughts on “Is it really about what you know?

  1. Thanks, Kim,

    This is an important reflection and comment that has great relevance for decision-makers, teachers, and all of us as we seek to protect and preserve and extend the humane values that make everyone’s life worth living.

    Louise F

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