Playing with the episteme of educational development at STLHE 2011
I’ve spent the past three days in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan as a participant at the 2011 iteration of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) conference (theme: From Here to the Horizon: Diversity and Inclusive Practice in Higher Education). It has been, in a word, great. This educational development gig is a new one for me and beyond getting settled in the day-to-day-ness of my job, I’ve spent considerable time thinking & reflecting (on a larger intellectual scale) about just what I do. The sessions I’ve attended through the pre-conference workshops and the conference proper have, unexpectedly, coalesced my thinking about some of the approaches I take and just what I do as an educational developer.
The relevant preamble here is that I come from an academic background of critical environmental education (special thanks to Leesa and York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies for that particular flavour of practice), informed by a worldview that works actively to acknowledge, then illuminate the inherent blindspots of an anthropocentric orientation to the world. Environmental education is not, then, simply the act of educating about the environment (the assumption that somehow if everyone knows about the water cycle, we’ll have solved that particular component of the environmental crisis).
If I’ve been struggling at all in my new position, it is how to integrate my (now) two educator selves. I intuitively felt as though my academic training as a critical environmental educator had something important to offer my educational development work; I just needed to figure out what or how.
I participated in two pre-conference sessions that introduced themes that I revisited as the conference went on. The first was centred on professional skill training for graduate students. This links to my professional practice as a member of the University of Guelph’s graduate student learning initiative and as someone who trains graduate students interested in their own teaching practice. Without getting into lots of detail, there has been tri-council gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands around the lack of coherent professional skills training at Canadian Universities. This came to a head in the late oughts with the publication of a few policy documents, including lists of competencies, but has since fallen off the radar. We had, in the pre-conference session, the opportunity to work towards actions that can be taken to re-emphasise skill development as an important component of graduate education.
We began from the position that professional skill development is a good thing. Which, on the surface, is a natural assumption to make. Yet it’s not entirely unproblematic. See, for example, Doctoral student Melonie Fullick’s (another York U student, too!) post on the knowledge economy, human capital and tenure to see how we might muddle that idea a bit—my own critical interpretation is that grad skill development can be an (unintentional?) attempt to widget-ize grad students.
That afternoon was spent thinking— ultimately—about making a more explicit effort to get the epistemology “right” behind our efforts in teaching and learning. Constructivist metaphors to learning permeate recent approaches to understanding how we learn. Further contextualizing my time in Saskatoon was the land we were on (the Treaty 6 lands of Cree First Nations) and the theme (Diversity and Inclusive Practice in Higher Education). I struggled in the session because while I was seeing a clear attempt for us to think critically about our assumptions about our epistemic understandings, our offered alternative approaches were still steeped in a Western philosophical tradition. What of an approach that echoes Cheney & Weston’s (1999) ethics-based epistemology? Or that is distinctly non-Western?
Later, as we entered the full conference proceedings, I started to see rumblings on Twitter about a disconnect between practice and theory. I was struck with wondering why, as a community of practice, we seem to get stuck in certain epistemes of practice: it is, as best as I can tell, a Western, knowledge-as-deliverable one. Buffy St. Marie put it another way in the closing plenary: “University saved me. But the best teachers I ever had never had a chance to go to university…Eurocentric learning is not big enough, we need a bigger paradigm”
This is not to say I didn’t also start to see people operating at the periphery (or outside) this approach. Colleagues from environmental education, such as MJ Barrett, presented on decolonizing teaching practice; a team from U Sask re-framed teaching portfolios as storyboards and, in turn, turned a check list into an unexpectedly holistic practice.
My own doctoral work concerned itself about the ontology of humans watching birds: what relationships become, or emerge, in the particular practices of this human and non-human relationship? To link these emerging themes to my own work and the image above, it came together when I attended a session facilitated by Teresa Dawson on transforming the ontology of graduate education. Teresa did a great job laying bare an implicit approach to my understanding of work as an educational developer: it’s about the epistemology (often) at the expense of the ontology. Put another way, it’s about the ends (or knowledge) in spite / despite of the means (or questions). It’s focusing on learning the names of bird parts (the eye-ring, the scapulars) without learning about the situated context of that bird (how does it move, where is it found, what does it sound like). It’s being lectured at in a plenary of innovative practitioners because there’s an implicit fear of not getting the knowledge “out there.”
And this has given me my way forward: I’m not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater. My work will still concern itself with knowledge (how to plan a lesson, how to evaluate using a rubric) but this will not be the only ends I work towards. I intend to be more playful with participants; to spend more time exploring other possibilities; to include, or illuminate, other perspectives that I would let lay hidden.
For that, these four days have been a great success. Thanks to all at the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness.