Excerpt, Mark Leier's Blog

Contemporary Challenges:Teaching Labour History

By Mark Leier
Labour / Le Travail
The Canadian Committee on Labour History

Issue 84, Fall 2019


As scholars and academics, we are trained and rewarded for our mastery of content, of the facts, concepts, and ideas that make up our discipline. When we start teaching, it is common for us to focus on content. We are, after all, experts. We profess our expertise to the initiates and judge them by how well they absorb what we lay before them.

This top-down process has been intensified in universities during the neoliberal period. Today, university classrooms are dominated by prerequisites, learning outcomes, scanned examinations, teaching assessments, larger classes, fewer tutorials, fixed seating, Massive Open Online Courses, and “student response systems,” that is, electronic clickers that let students “participate” by pushing a button to register a choice from displayed options. To be sure, each of these tools may have pedagogical benefits. But they are not imposed on instructors to support collaborative, democratic, sound pedagogy. Rather, they are imposed so the university administration can generate more revenue and process more units at a greatly enhanced pace. The situation is worse for the growing cadre of precarious instructors, who are often handed teaching outcomes and syllabi and assessment tools designed by someone else and whose future hiring may depend on conformity to neoliberal pedagogy. It is difficult for instructors to push back; indeed, to those raised and educated in this climate, it can be difficult even to imagine alternatives.

Yet for those who believe our work should help inform and empower those who want to engage in progressive collective action, how we teach is often more important than the content of what we teach. This means learning to teach against the trends and practices and expectations of the boss. It means [End Page 199] thinking about teaching as a way to help people develop their own capacities for understanding and for action. It starts not with content and assessment but with the people we are teaching. It pays less attention to facts and ideas, although clearly these remain important, and more to the dynamics of the people in the class, so we may learn from each other and teach each other. It is designed to help us examine new ideas through our experiences and the experiences of others so we may become more effective. The role of the instructor is less to deliver and test for content and more to create a place where people participate and gain confidence in their own power so they push and probe one another and themselves.

Teaching in this way is not new. It is a staple of labour education where unions want to have active, militant members. It is sometimes called the “organizing model” of teaching, for it draws upon lessons from effective organizers. It starts not with the mastery of the expert but with the knowledge that people have ideas and experiences they will draw upon and that will shape how they handle new ideas. That in turn pushes the instructor to take seriously not just the content but the people in the group and to work as part of the group. It assumes that how material is delivered matters at least as much as the material itself, for the point is to help people learn how to build oppositional cultures and structures.

That is hard to do with a Scantron exam and predetermined learning outcomes. The four essays that follow share some of our experiences and experiments in teaching in a more democratic and participatory way. We are not experts, but we are long-term instructors, educators, participants, and scholars of labour history and labour studies who think about, research, collaborate, and practise teaching against the grain of neoliberalism. Our hope is that readers can adopt, adapt, reject, reshape, and build on our teaching experiences. In this way, we can share and shape our educational vision and our daily practice for a democratic, participatory future. [End Page 200]

This is a dangerous and deeply disturbing book for those of us who teach at post-secondary institutions. It is dangerous because it forces us to face the growing corporatization of colleges and universities. These institutions have always abided by the rules of prudent business. They have tended to the accounts and allocated resources and taken instruction from their political and business masters. But over the last forty years college and university administrators have consciously and eagerly adopted the aims and objectives and means of the corporation. Students are considered customers, and the institutions compete with each other for market share, or, in admin-speak, “bums in seats.” Since the goods offered for sale are more or less interchangeable, like Pepsi and Coke, the competition is based instead on branding, advertising, and dubious rankings. Students are also considered products, and producing more units profitably means reducing labor costs. The work process—courses and instruction— are prefabricated and routinized and intensified, with larger and larger classes. Teaching is mechanized, with multiple-choice exams marked by electronic scanners, “student response systems,” or clickers, and online courses. Labor itself is contracted out, with instructors, many of them women and people of color, part of the precarious gig economy.

The students “produced” on the assembly line are carefully monitored for “quality control,” and so students are increasingly scrutinized for plagiarism and cheating. Students must submit their papers through plagiarism detection software companies, and instructors are given complicated instructions for monitoring exams. At my university, instructors were advised to use Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon principle” and watch students from the back of the room, not the front. This would, the memo continued confidently, reduce cheating, since students could never be sure they weren’t being observed. That an 18th century idea for prison reform could be seriously promoted as an innovative pedagogical tool says much about the culture of university administrators. Apparently, they are unaware, or pretend not to understand, that a society gets the criminals it deserves. Instead, they create more and harsher penalties—my university invented a new grade, that of “FD,” for “Failed for Academic Dishonesty”—as they ignore their direct responsibility for the conditions and pressures that lead to the problem they hope punishment will solve.

Instructors too are often complicit in the depersonalizing of teaching and the infantilization of students. Some are forced to go along as they scramble for precarious jobs and cope with crushing workloads without the support necessary to resist. Others are eager to assert their power over students. This was brought home to me when a tenured university instructor saw that the book was geared toward diverse adult learners and scoffed, “this book is irrelevant; our students aren’t adults.”

George does not suggest we treat them as if they were adults. He understands they are adults who have reached the age of consent, voting, signing contracts, and being tried in adult court. If it comes to it, college and university-aged people will most assuredly be sent off to kill and die in war. While instructors and administrators ignore this, George insists, calmly, confidently, and with much experience, that it is best place to start our teaching and learning. That wonderfully simple and profound point is subversive and dangerous, because it forces conscientious instructors confront the hierarchy and the command and control structure of the corporate university.

This is a disturbing book, because it calls on us to reject our assigned roles as assembly line managers. It calls on us to stop relying on our hard-won expertise and command of content to demand authority and attention. Instead of starting with ourselves, we start with the interests, needs, experiences—the expertise—of the people we’re working with. Giving up the privilege we have in the classroom, our authority, our expertise as masters of content, can be deeply unsettling. Haven’t we invested time and money and earned the right to be called doctor and professor, a right to some respect based on what we’ve learned and love and want to share? That’s the reaction of the middle-class intellectual, middle-class by role in the corporate structure, if not family background and income. But democracy is messy. Having people speak and argue presumes equality. That means giving up the authority of our syllabus and content. This book invites us to recognize that, and it is uncomfortable.

The book is largely based on George’s experience working with activists, who have come together to train with him. As a result, the book assumes that people want to be in the classroom. In our world of pre-requisites, mandatory courses, large class sizes, propaganda disguised as education, this is rarer and rarer at the college and university. This indifferent disrespect of the institution forces people to adopt the weapons of the weak, and the fawning “keener,” the passive-aggressive student, the vanishing student, and the student rightly suspicious of the power imbalance of the classroom make it clear that is much more interesting to study subaltern resistance than to have to work with it! But the book has techniques and ideas to help us overcome these survival mechanisms and negative expectations.

They are much different from the “hot licks and cheap tricks” we often look for to help our teaching: the new icebreaker, the fun group exercise, the innovative assignment. They are different because they are all grounded in a democratic, radical, subversive pedagogy rather than classroom management. Easy to adopt and use, these techniques have edges that provoke and challenge and push us all to learn and grow.

A final warning about the book. As midline managers in academia, one of the functions of instructors is to de-animate conflicts, both in the classroom and in society. This is summed up in the field of labor relations, in those few places that still have unions and contracts and grievance procedures, with the mantra, “work now, grieve later.” Nothing must be allowed to stop production! As a result, many of us think our classes are successful when conflict doesn’t arise, or we when quell it quickly and peacefully. But democracy is messy. Having people speak and argue on matters that affect them personally is often uncomfortable for us and for our students. As instructors and facilitators, part of our job is to embrace conflict instead of smothering it while ensuring people are safe and secure enough to take chances. This means giving up the authority of our syllabus and our mastery of content to respect the people we are working with. This crucial part of emancipatory pedagogy inverts the marketing device of “experiential learning”—come to University X for the experience!—and puts the lived experience of people at the center of teaching. It has less to do with people listening to our voices and more to do with encouraging people to find their own voices. “Student-focused learning” becomes something people do themselves, not something that is done to them.

And so this dangerous and disturbing book is also an exciting and challenging book. It gives us the chance for real creativity, the mutual creation of real knowledge, as well as the tools to empower people. It is filled with wisdom and joy; it is unsettling and restorative; it offers hope and trust and vision. I can’t think of better qualities for a book on teaching.

Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Adult Learners

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