On “Minding American Education”, by Martin Bickman*

*An Activist Classroom book review.

I have a big stack of books next to my bed – like most bookworm types, I’d wager. It never grows smaller; in fact, I think it’s inhabited by book-replicating trolls. Or perhaps it’s simply that I’m slow to move through each title, falling asleep as I read most nights.


(This image comes from shiyali.blogspot.ca.)

For the past few months, one of the titles on top of the pile has been Martin Bickman‘s 2003 volume, Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (New York: Teacher’s College Press). I finished reading it, at last, on the night before our first day back to class last week, and I’m eager to share my delight in it.


Minding American Education is a rich tapestry, though it’s woven from two quite different strands of thread. I’m tempted, even, to say that there are two different books here, addressed to two different kinds of audiences: scholars of American literature on one hand, and teachers of elementary, middle, and high school students on the other. Nevertheless, the two strands of Bickman’s discussion move together like warp and weft, producing a broad-ranging discussion of the longstanding, powerful, and imaginative tradition of active learning in American pedagogical theory and practice.


Bickman is a literary scholar as well as a teacher of teachers, and through the chunky middle of Minding American Education he is concerned primarily with American transcendentalism (the works of Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, the Thoreaus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example) and especially with the ways in which the transcendentalists reimagined education as an enterprise in knowledge-creation rather than rote learning or linear dissemination. Bickman notes carefully the rarity of this kind of reading of the transcendentalists: while we appreciate, as a rule, the literary and philosophical merits of these authors’ works, much less common is our appreciation for how these pioneering American thinkers were rebelling against ways of teaching and raising children that encouraged teachers to replicate themselves in their students, and through that process to replicate dominant culture tropes and ideologies.

220px-Henry_David_Thoreau_2 220px-Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857 Sarah_Margaret_Fuller_engraving-2

(A trio of transcendentalists: H.D. Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller)

As Bickman moves, in the latter half of the book, into the modern period and eventually into his own, contemporary experiences teaching literature at the University of Colorado, the writing becomes less philosophically dense and gains what for many teachers may be more familiar ground. Nevertheless, I want to recommend not skipping the early chapters that bring transcendental theory into collision with education praxis; as a scholar with absolutely no knowledge of the transcendentalist tradition, I was both fascinated and moved by Bickman’s account – not least because it offers a very different picture (active; activist; exploratory; non-hegemonic) of American education history than most non-Americans are likely to expect.

Bickman makes a strong and – today more than ever, as Donald Trump lumbers toward the 2016 Republican presidential nomination – valuable case for why and how exploratory learning enables the development of creative and nuanced minds, and along the way he rescues a number of now-outré education scholars (John Dewey!) from the dustbin, mining their writing and their practice for important tools and insights. This is my favourite thing about Minding American Education, in fact: it has no time for educational faddism. Although it is committed to a practice of active learning, to tracing the history of that practice in American thought and to advocating for its futurity at the heart of a robust American democracy, it does not regard active learning as a fad, and it does not treat student-centred learning as anything but a methodology with a long, rich lineage. At bottom, it is 165 pages of evidence that active learning is not a fad – it is an ethics, it is education for democracy, and it has been around for a very, very long time.

For all this historical insight, however, my favourite chapter in Minding American Education, and the one I recommend EVERYONE read, is the last one: “Enacting the Active Mind: Teaching English, Teaching Teaching.” Here, Bickman relates his experience teaching two particular courses at the University of Colorado, one of which was actually two courses in one: a graduate class on the theory and practice of teaching literature, organised around the team-teaching of an undergraduate class in which the graduate students acted as teaching assistants, active teaching participants, laboratory experimenters, and careful observers. (I first learned about Bickman’s work from my lodger, who himself took this course as a graduate student and raved to me about the experience.) Bickman’s discussion of this course is profound for its honesty: he explains the many stumbles he and his TA teams experienced along the way, and he explores carefully the ways they arrived at fixes, some of which worked better than others. This chunk of the chapter is a window on an exceptional, committed, activist teacher discovering new insights into his own teaching practice on one hand, and into the ways in which undergraduates learn, engage with, and inhabit literary texts on the other. It is both riveting and humbling to read.

In this final chapter Bickman is frank about the limited power of lecturing (“I blush to say it, but I was never tired or bored by my own lectures. And yet I know I cannot keep my mind from wandering after about a half hour of someone else’s lecture, no matter how good it is” [154]); about the value of reader response theory as a tool for empowering students (although, as he notes, that theory is often let down by its abstractions, imagining “the ideal reader” rather than trying to encounter real ones [153]); and about the value of writing before and during class time as key to students’ learning processes (“As we push our vague, fuzzy thoughts to precision, we find the very act of writing makes us articulate things we didn’t know we knew” [155]). In effect, he ends the book by mobilising his earlier, transcendental history, whose purpose now comes fully into view: what the transcendentalists have given him, and might by his example give us, is a firm sense of how to enact theory, test and experiment, learn and change as our students do, knowing that it is not our job to impose theory on them, but rather to build it with them.

This afternoon I had a snowy walk with a good friend who is teaching a contemporary critical theory course (a staple of all English Literature programs in North America) for the first time this year. He lamented that he’s found few resources online to help him troubleshoot common problems with teaching high theory to inexperienced undergraduates, and he concluded that it seems the scholars most likely to teach theory are those who tend to be least interested in pedagogy. While I’ve no doubt this is true often enough, Minding American Education suggests that it need not be – that in fact good theory and good teaching make exceptional fellow-travelers.


Check out a preview of the book here.




An Inspiring Fellow Traveler, Discovered by Accident

I’m always on the lookout for ways to work better, smarter, more helpfully and more mindfully with my teaching assistants. I well remember what it’s like to be in that role: you are so eager to learn the teaching ropes, so utterly terrified of screwing up, and, at the same time, so fretful about stepping on your supervisor’s toes, not wanting to overstep your bounds. Maybe you have something to say, some suggestions to make, but you’re utterly terrified you’re going to be shot down or shut out, humiliated – especially if your supervising professor hasn’t been too welcoming, or hasn’t clarified your role in the course particularly well. It happened to me, more than once. The scars still pinch, so I feel for my junior colleagues in the TA job and try to do right by them.

I’ve been fortunate to spend time with some outstanding, committed young teachers in the almost 10 years since I began working full time in universities, and I know that many have gotten much our of working with me. That’s primarily because I figured out pretty quickly the two basic but essential things I had to offer them: 1) as many clear chances as possible to get up in front of the class, alongside 2) regular opportunities to reflect on what happened there, what was going well or badly, what needed tweaking. The formula was simple: do it, mess it up, score big, talk about it. Figure out together how to reproduce the good or avoid the bad. Say how you’re feeling, own the highs and lows, then work out how not to take it personally. Teaching well emerges through a mix of strong, honest dialogue with someone who has been there, observing and thinking carefully about others’ teaching practices, and then not being afraid to own mistakes and admit fundamental human flaws. (Teachers are human! We don’t come from pods!) Or, anyway: that’s what has worked for me, and it’s what I try to give my TAs.

This fall I’m lucky to have not one but two committed young teachers in my orbit: my TA for 20th Century Drama, Madison, and my tenant, also a PhD student at Western (albeit not in my area), called Jon. Madison inspires me with her astonishing energy and deep engagement with our students, primarily online via our class blog (you can check it out here if you wish; I’ll write more about my and Madison’s work together later this year). Jon and I, meanwhile, often chat after hours about our teaching experiences, while we are getting our suppers ready or reading in our shared household space in the evening.

Recently, Jon told me about a unique class he took a few years ago at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Convened by Martin Bickman, a celebrated scholar of literary pedagogy, “Theory and the Teaching of Literature” is an innovative graduate course that sets as its “text” an undergraduate class in American lit, which Martin and his students run together as a teaching team. Jon’s description of this experience – the way the course invited Jon and his peers to take ownership over the teaching; the way it required reflection and constant risk-taking; the way it weathered disasters and normalised mistakes as all part of the job – made me immediately want to learn more. Thanks to links Jon provided I quickly found Martin’s 2003 book, Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (it’s in the post), as well as a 2010 article he wrote for the journal Pedagogy on the importance of returning the study of literature to its roots in community activism.

Here is Martin, from that article, writing about the shape and the goals of “Theory and the Teaching of Literature”:

…the student engagement in and work accomplished by this graduate course was radically different from those of my more conventional classes. In two decades of teaching this course, I recorded fewer absences than in one semester of my more traditional classes. I could dispense with grades entirely, because the motivation to help the undergraduates learn was far stronger than anything external. The graduate students took ownership of the class, assigning their own readings and projects. The competitiveness that usually underlies graduate seminars was replaced by a sense of common endeavor, because the main result of our work was not individual papers but the creation of two related communities, the undergraduates and us.

I sought not to clone myself as a teacher but rather to help the graduate students theorize their own teaching, as close observers and reflective practitioners who could use the perpetual feedback of the classroom to revise their strategies. I also know that teachers teach only in ways they have learned, so I tried to make our own class as organically experiential as possible and not let its members do unthinkingly what had been done to them in their own educations. (Martin Bickman, “Returning to Community and Praxis” 16-17)

Martin goes on to summarise the ethos of the class like this: too many teachers don’t realise that what they are really doing when they get up in front of a class is trying to prove to the students how smart they are, that they really do belong at the podium. That’s what lies behind a hell of a lot of lecturing, the rank-pulling when a student tries unsuccessfully to challenge a teacher’s claim, and I suspect it’s why generous, frank group discussions are genuinely difficult to pull off.

I’m not immune from this yucky urge to show off to my students; none of us is. Impostor syndrome is wired into academic DNA. But that’s even more reason for us to try harder to give up some of our teaching control, to TAs as well as to our students, and see where the experiments might lead us. Chances are that both the student teacher and the students proper will learn something real, and remember the feeling for a good long time. Chances are, too, that little by little we will all learn that being in the classroom is so much more fun and interesting if you don’t insist on being the cleverest one there all the time.

I’m scheming about cooking up a version of Martin Bickman’s course at Western, and I can’t wait to read his book. Meanwhile, take a look at his inspiring “Returning to Community and Praxis” here.