Eric Detweiler is an associate professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University and the director of the public writing and rhetoric program at MTSU. When I saw that Eric had a new book out called Responsible Pedagogy: Moving Beyond Authority and Mastery in Higher Education, I knew I wanted to talk with him here on the podcast.
In the interview, Eric shares the motivation for the book, the problems he sees with the notions of authority and mastery in higher education, and how not to teach about thesis statements. Oh, and we talk about ChatGPT, the AI text generator, because it’s unavoidable.
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Derek Bruff 0:06
Welcome to Intentional Teaching, a podcast aimed at educators to help them develop foundational teaching skills and explore new ideas and teaching. I'm your host, Derek Bruff. I hope this podcast helps you be more intentional in how you teach and and how you develop as a teacher over time.
Derek Bruff 0:24
I'm excited to bring to you today a conversation with Eric Detweiler. Eric is an associate professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, and the director of the Public Writing and Rhetoric program there. He has a healthy interest in the use of games and new media in teaching and learning, which is how we met several years ago. We were already Twitter colleagues. But when I helped to organize a one day symposium on learning and play at Vanderbilt University, Eric joined us for the day and I got to know him better. So when I saw that Eric had a new book out called responsible pedagogy, moving beyond authority and mastery in higher education, I knew I wanted to talk with him here on the podcast. In the interview, Eric shares the motivation for the book, the problems he sees with the notions of authority and mastery in higher education. And how not to teach about thesis statements. Oh, when we talk about ChatGPT, because it's unavoidable.
Derek Bruff 1:21
Thank you, Eric, for coming on in central teaching. I'm really glad to have you on the podcast and excited to talk with you today.
Eric Detweiler 1:28
Yeah, I'm really excited to be here and appreciate the invitation.
Derek Bruff 1:31
Yeah, and it's good to have a fellow podcaster on.
Derek Bruff 1:35
So I'm going to ask you a question that I like to ask all my guests, I think it gives me a little window into kind of who they are. Can you tell us about a time when you realized you wanted to be an educator?
Eric Detweiler 1:46
Hmm. That is a good question. I mean, I think honestly, I will just go back to sort of the very starting moment for me. So I, you know, was an English major in undergraduate, probably not surprising, given the fact that I'm an English professor now. But, you know, at the time, I was really interested a little bit more in kind of the writing side of things than I was in sort of literary study in the more traditional sense. And I ended up going to a master's program at the University of Louisville, to do my MA in English. You know, there's some great faculty there also, Louisville is my hometown. So it was, it was a good excuse to kind of figure things out in a familiar location. But initially, I was kind of thinking that I wanted to be some sort of maybe creative nonfiction writer of some kind based on my experiences and my interest in writing in undergraduate. But one of the things that happened when I got to the University of Louisville, which is not uncommon in a lot of English master's programs, is I was a tutor in the writing center there. And so that was kind of your first year in that program. Before you would go on to teach first year writing courses. I was working in the Writing Center and just working one on one with with students who came in who were, you know, everything from first semester college freshmen who were trying to figure out what on earth does it mean to write sort of a college level essay? How do I get started? How do I get my first paragraph down, through, you know, international graduate students with these fantastic and fascinating dissertation topics, who were, again, you know, trying to navigate genre conventions, trying to navigate English as a second language, all kinds of different folks that you were working with there.
Eric Detweiler 3:37
And I found that I just really enjoyed that work of sitting down and thinking with other people about what was going on in their writing, and trying to help them figure out what they want to do with it, where they wanted to take it, you know, offer whatever help I could along the way. And even from that moment, I was kind of like, you know what, I don't really know that I like creative writing any more than I like this kind of work of being able to, to, to collaborate with other people in this particular kind of way, that that sort of one on one kind of proto teaching affords. And then really, once I got into the classroom, and you know, the opportunity, as clumsy as that can be when you're first starting out as a teacher to continue working with students do that kind of work. Just kind of got its hooks in me a little bit. And I was like, I enjoy this kind of, you know, mentoring, collaborative kind of engagement around writing. And maybe I want to do this for a while. So I I taught as kind of a full time temporary person around Nashville for a few years was like yes, even in a teaching intensive position. I think this would be sustainable for me. And just kind of took off from there were really it was something from even that point. When I was early on in graduate school. It was really the teaching part of it and research on teaching and things like that, that drew me in and really captured my attention. And it kind of led me to where I am now. So it was never sort of a like, oh, I want to do my research but teaching gets in the way kind of thing, right?
Derek Bruff 5:07
Yeah, yeah, that's interesting. I had somewhat of a similar experience, but in mathematics. So the other half of the universe, I guess. Let's talk about your new book. It's called Responsible Pedagogy: Moving Beyond Authority and Mastery in Higher Education. Tell me the secret origin of this book. Where did the idea come from? How did it evolve? And what do you mean by responsible pedagogy?
Eric Detweiler 5:29
For me a lot of it probably rehashes a little of the territory I just covered, that experience of starting out as a as a teacher, and trying to figure out like, what, what is this teaching thing? All about? What am I doing here? Why am I here? How are students perceiving me? How are they making sense of this experience? How am I making sense of this experience? And really just, it grew out of a lot of those questions that I think new teachers kind of encounter, not only the sort of like, how do I teach what I am charged with teaching effectively, but sort of peeling back the layers of like, well, why do we teach in the first place? Why does writing instruction look the way that it does, in in US universities and colleges and things like that. And so this was, you know, in an earlier iteration, my my dissertation that I did for my PhD at the University of Texas. And it really was me just trying to take a lot of the stuff that I was learning about rhetorical theory that I was encountering, about, like the history of rhetoric, and the history of rhetorical education, and all kinds of different, you know, places and cultures stretching back millennia, and trying to piece together, like, how do we get to here? And why do those relationships and those networks between teachers and students look the way that they do now. And so like, I, like I said, kind of weaving together those those pedagogical traditions, with more kind of theoretical and historical questions about what education looks like.
Eric Detweiler 7:06
And getting to sort of the responsible part of responsible pedagogy and where that came from, that was me sort of wrestling with and trying to respond to the ongoing prominence of terms like agency and autonomy and personalization, and a lot of the key words that inform how we think about and talk about education, I think across a whole bunch of different kinds of fields. And being curious about what some of the unintentional kinds of limits and problems of that kind of framing of education are now, you know, in a lot of ways, I'm very much somebody who thinks that, yes, we can, we can meaningfully personalize how we teach in our classrooms, to different kinds of student populations, try to meet them where they're at, rather than offering some kind of one size fits all approach. That yes, you know, an important part of education is helping students feel a little bit more agency in their relationship to their writing, what they can do with it, and what they can take with them once they're once they're beyond the classroom.
Eric Detweiler 8:12
But one of the things I was really noticing when I was really just starting to work on this book, kind of around like 2012 2013, was that these kinds of framings, were the exact same framings you had coming out of places like the for profit Massive Open Online Course movement, the MOOC movement that was kind of happening at the time, where they were also talking about personalization, and autonomy and agency and all this kind of stuff, and how, you know, this new model they have of massive courses with sort of AI, you know, sort of teaching assistant tools, were going to be able to offer, you know, democratized free affordable education to 10s of 1000s of people at a time. And in in many ways, some of the other things they were saying felt pretty hostile to public education is a value, public higher education is a value, something I was invested in education as as this kind of public good.
Eric Detweiler 9:12
And I was like, How do I square those two things? What's going on here that you can have these these very, you know, informed? Sort of, I guess, everybody in that context, I can be generous and say they were well intentioned, but people who were working in university saying, This is what education does, and trying to set themselves apart from these sort of like Ed Tech would be solutions, and have the people doing the ed tech stuff saying the same thing and using the same vocabulary. And so long story short, all of that for me with with thinking about responsibility as an alternate key term was thinking about, what would it mean to think more about what we're doing in our classrooms, in particular, public colleges and universities as about this sort of, network of of responsible connections, this sense of like, needing to care for each other and engage with each other and think about each other, teachers and students alike as meaningful audiences. And that sort of community of writers and students and learners that we have in a classroom, and the ability to engage with each other in a really sort of extended meaningful way, being a big part of what we're doing that can that can be really different from this notion that we're going to sort of hyper personalize to everyone so that they can just get, you know, the sort of drip feed that they need to learn in the way that they're going to learn without ever depending on anybody else or encountering everybody, outside of the sort of platforms like Udacity, and Coursera, that were kind of, you know, all of the all of the rage at the time. So you know, all of that to say, really just thinking about education in terms of those relationships, those connections that happen within and beyond and across different kinds of classrooms, being something that is not the opposite of but I think can really supplement the way we think about education as being about like, agency and personalization and autonomy that can be a little bit hyper individualistic, and kind of atomizing. And what that means for how we think about students.
Derek Bruff 11:18
Yeah, well, and I don't, I don't know if you've used the drip feed metaphor before, but I can imagine, you know, in kind of a science fiction world where I get a little vial of liquid to drink everyday, that gives me all my nutrients. It's perfectly tailored for my DNA and what I need. And and that's not the same thing as sharing a meal with some friends. Right? Like, both of them will provide you nutrients, but one of them is a very different experience than the other.
Eric Detweiler 11:44
Yeah. Thank you for that extension. I have not used that before. I'm glad to know that maybe I'm accidentally onto something.
Derek Bruff 11:51
Yeah, well, and it's it's that, you know, I also appreciate that, you know, the rhetoric guy noticed that these two groups of people associated with education are using similar words and similar language but but seem to be making very different arguments with those same terms, and seem to be building different things in terms of educational systems. Let me try to make this a little bit concrete, we're going to probably bounce between the concrete and the abstract with you a little bit here today.
Eric Detweiler 12:19
Yeah, absolutely. I love doing that.
Derek Bruff 12:21
Because I was struck by some of your comments, in the introduction to your book, you're kind of forecasting some of the work that you do later in the book around thesis statements. And so I am a mathematician, but I have taught a first year writing seminar, I don't know, eight or nine times now. And so I've I've gotten to pretend to be a writing instructor. And so I was really struck by your comments about thesis statements, and the way that they're used as a tool in writing instruction, and how that relates to students' authority, mastery, right? What do thesis statements as an instructional tool, what did they do well, and in what ways are they problematic?
Eric Detweiler 13:06
So you know, if you're familiar with this kind of convention at all, which I imagine a lot of, if not all of your listeners are going to be, you know, there's this notion that for for student writing, in many contexts, you want to have that sort of one sentence, often kind of near the end of your introductory paragraph, where you state the argument that you're going to make in that paper. Now, one of the things to start off, charitably, that I think that can do for students usefully is help them help them kind of consider, what is the thing that I'm actually trying to accomplish in this piece of writing, whatever shape it's taking? What's the thing that's driving it, you know, what's the what's the central claim, the central question, the central issue that I'm getting at, and the thing that I want to, to argue about it? Because I think for all of us, myself included, you know, it's so easy to get lost in the weeds of writing, and you're going in 15, different directions, and your paragraphs aren't quite fitting together. Because you're pursuing so many different lines of inquiry, you're you haven't quite nailed that down. And so I think the thesis statement for students can be that kind of anchor point in a useful way.
Eric Detweiler 14:20
I think the big problem is that if you're situating that as something that students are beginning with, as they're just jumping into a project, it has a real strong potential to sort of close off avenues of curiosity and uncertainty, and sort of shut down the like, where could I be wrong? Does this thesis statement actually hold water? Kind of places that students might go if they're starting with more of a question, and just ended up causing the writer to do a lot more cherry picking and just be like, oh, gosh, like, I started this thesis or I started this paper with this thesis statement. I have a bunch of tests coming up in the next few weeks, I don't have time to restart from scratch. So I'm just going to find this stuff that proves what I set out thinking rather than really wrestling with sort of how I could be wrong, or the other places that this paper could go.
Derek Bruff 15:14
Yeah, or the students. I've heard students say, Well, I picked this thesis statement, because I think I can put a paper around it like, I think I think I can support it, which seems for me, also part of this is the kind of the student ownership or maybe this gets to the your, your notion of agency. But for that student, it doesn't matter if they believe or agree with the thesis statement. They've picked it because they think they can build a three paragraph essay around it. And I think that's problematic, too. Maybe for some different reasons. But But I also think about my own, the writing that I do, the work that I do, the thought work that I do. I don't know what my thesis statement is, until after I've done some work, right, I've got to read, I've got to think I've got to have some conversations, and then maybe I have an opinion on something that I want to defend. To start with that does seem quite artificial.
Eric Detweiler 16:07
Yeah. And I think like, many of us who who have pursued graduate study, probably have that moment where you're, like, 18 months into a project, and you read something that you're like, oh, no, I need to rethink everything that I've been doing. And that can be very, you know, disheartening and anxiety inducing, of course, but but it's also I think, a reflection of how complex trying to put together these kinds of arguments can be in, especially in in a writing class that might be squeezed into, you know, a semester or a quarter or something like that, like to ask students to get to that point of, I have a thesis statement. And now I will will masterfully demonstrate that it is completely and airtightly correct, is a lot to ask.
Eric Detweiler 16:50
And so again, like some of the things that I get into in that chapter, and that I really value as a teacher is, you know, helping students not feel the kind of intense anxiety that they often feel about writing. And that has maybe, in some cases, been hammered into them by past teachers who have given them a sense that they're not good writers. And that they need to be making very specific kinds of moves. I do want to assuage that a little bit, but at the same time, leave a lot of room for them to be uncertain and start more with questions and dig into different kinds of research processes, and potentially get to the end of the project and be like, I still don't quite really know where this is going. And maybe in some cases, yes, we're going to wrap back around to like, Okay, what's your argument going to be? Where are you going to situate and state it in a thesis like kind of way, but at the very least, as something that arrives at the end of the writing process, rather than something that kicks it off, and with a real willingness to sort of admit failure, in some cases, or admit lingering questions, rather than trying to make things like super airtight. And I think that's something that sort of reflects the complexity of writing as a practice for people who are, who are really experienced writers, as well as students who may feel like they're not even if they are in a lot of different kinds of ways in terms of their everyday writing practices.
Derek Bruff 18:17
So now, so let's take that as a kind of example, on this plane with a thesis statement and when it evolves, and how it evolves. How does that connect to your notion of responsible pedagogy?
Eric Detweiler 18:27
Yeah, so a lot of that is, is to say that, I don't want students starting out with this sense of like, I have to prove myself and defend myself and be this like strong individual writer, who is absolutely certain about what I stand for. And that those kinds of projects in the classes I teach, I try to make unfold through a lot more kind of relational steps that take place in the classroom. So there are you know, as there are in most writing classrooms, there's feedback that students get for me. So you know, I'll try to leave them some, some responses and some questions about their writing, and try to behave not just like someone who's going like, oh, you put a comma in the wrong place there. Or, you know, you misspelled this word over here. But But trying to behave like a genuinely curious reader, where I'm like, Oh, this is a really interesting point that you're raising in your third paragraph. I'm having a little trouble seeing how it connects back to what you were saying beforehand, can you make that a little clearer, so that so that your reader can kind of follow along with you there and follow your chain of thought.
Eric Detweiler 19:41
And then they're also going to be, you know, doing, again, a fairly common component of a lot of first-year writing classes, but doing a lot of peer workshops, where they're getting together with other students, where they're, they're swapping their projects, and they're getting some feedback from a bunch of different readers on like, what What do I like here? What do I follow? Where am I getting turned around or lost? What are the potential objections I can see to this line of argument, perspectives that you haven't considered, all that kind of stuff. And so by the end, what the student often has is, is multiple and sometimes opposing perspectives on their writing. That may then lead them as, as a writer to sort of have to wrestle with and make an ultimate decision about like, what do I want this piece to look like? What feedback do I want to take? What feedback do I want to ignore, but thinking of that, that's unfolding across this kind of community of audience members and readers and other writers with different kinds of values and priorities, and moving through a piece of writing in that way, and responding to that writing, and that feedback that they're getting along the way, rather than just feeling like it's a little bit more of like a sole, sort of, you know, romantic author sitting alone in the attic, sort of riding away with with no one else around on this project, that they're that they're kind of in.
Derek Bruff 21:04
a part of the writing process is a kind of mutual responsibility that we are going to read each other's work, and then we're going to invest in each other's work, and we're going to try to help each other be better writers, whatever that means. Collectively.
Eric Detweiler 21:20
Yeah, yeah. And I think really concretely with thesis statements, one of the things that comes up there is, you know, in, in actual arguments that you read out in the world beyond the context of the college classroom, you don't often see a one sentence thesis statement at the end of the introduction, because that can be a really ineffective rhetorical move, because if if your readers aren't already on board with that argument, they're going to bounce they're going to be out, they're going to pop over to Twitter, and start talking about how horrible your argument is. A lot of times, you see people really working slowly to put a whole bunch of different pieces, and examples and bits of data kind of in place. So that maybe at the end, they can get to sort of a thesis that they are defending, like now that now that I've sort of worked to build a relationship with my reading and reader in this particular way, in the end, you know, here's the thing that I hope we can come to some degree of agreement on. And so even in that case, there's, I think, a lot more sense of like a relationship with the audience, and an attempt to really, potentially build some rapport there that when you put your thesis statement, front and center, as much as that might make a piece of student writing easier to assess, in a conventional way, it often can really undercut the potential rhetorical effectiveness of that piece. And its, and its potential for other readers and circulation.
Derek Bruff 22:41
Yeah, how many times have I followed a link on Twitter, to some essay or blog post, and I read the first paragraph, and make a decision whether or not to spend the rest of my time with that piece of writing, right. And if the thesis statement is right there in the last sentence of the first paragraph, which is where my students put theirs as 95% of the time, you know, I may not read the rest of it, I may make up my decision about this person and their argument, just just from that, I see your point there, that that's not a rhetorical move that may serve you well, if you're trying to build a relationship with your reader.
Eric Detweiler 23:16
Yeah, and way different than when you get to the end of that first paragraph. And the author asks a really compelling question that they convey that they are genuinely interested in pursuing and figuring out with you as well, rather than just leading you to the same conclusion that they've already arrived at. And that that's such a different way of building that sort of responsive relationship between a reader and writer.
Derek Bruff 23:38
That more traditional use of thesis statements, start with a thesis statement and kind of hang your argument around it, like it's a coat hanger. Is that maybe, like a, like a practice that students could engage in? That's not the end of the learning process. But it's something that's helpful, as you know, um, it's not the marathon, it's, but it's part of the training for the marathon.
Eric Detweiler 24:05
Yeah, if if I'm understanding that question, right. I mean, I think honestly, the thesis statement is a little bit more useful if it's positioned as what did I end up doing and arguing in this paper? Then if it's what am I going to argue in this project that I'm about to set out on? So yeah, I think is like an after the fact like, let me look back. And like I said earlier, try to make sense of like, the core thing that this paper is actually about, and think about how everything kind of hangs together or doesn't that I went through along the way, you know, that can be a useful part of, I think, a reflective practice, that's really beneficial for a writer, but is again, very different. As we've talked about than that, I'm going to start with this, I'm going to stick to it. And no matter what I'm going to try to make it play out to save myself a little bit of work or sort of perform the kind of expertise that I think that this teacher or other kind of evaluator wants to see me doing
Derek Bruff 24:59
So let me change topics a little bit, but not really, because I want to move into what appears to be in every blog and news site in higher ed right now, which is AI writing generators, like ChatGPT, which was launched, I guess, was unveiled in November, to the public for public use. And these are tools that will, you know, generate pretty coherent paragraphs of text given pretty much any prompt based on some mysterious process of ingesting the contents of the internet and spitting out new text. I'm curious, your take on that tool and similar tools? In part because I find that ChatGPT has this voice of authority, right? When you see when you give it a prompt, and it explains something, it's, it does read like a kind of c plus b minus student essay where they have presumed an authority on a subject that they don't actually have. And so what's your take on these types of tools? And what role they might play in writing and writing instruction? And in writing and other disciplines even?
Eric Detweiler 26:07
Yeah, I mean, the start of my answer, I think is, is somewhat boring. But also somewhat maybe controversial in this moment of as you have said, a million hot takes about what these kinds of AI tools are doing, which is that I don't really know. I think we're probably like a little bit premature on saying we know what this is going to do to student writing. I having seen this with all kinds of educational technology hype cycles, as I'm sure you have, as well, you know, there's very much this kind of moment of wild utopianism on one side, right and intense alarmism and skepticism on the other that is playing out here. And my, my guess, which is a real mealy mouthed guess is that probably will end up sort of somewhere in the middle. I do think that we shouldn't like
Derek Bruff 27:07
That's important to remember. We have, I have seen in my career, many of these moments, right? You mentioned the MOOC mania of the early 2010s similar types of rhetoric around it, right, there were folks who were like this is going to transform higher education and solve the world's problems. And the university, as you know, it will be gone in five years. And there were folks who were like, This is the worst thing ever that's happened to higher education. And, and, you know, it wasn't either of those, right? It was it was much smaller in scope. In the end. Yeah.
Eric Detweiler 27:34
And you could think about the internet as a whole. I mean, we're the creation of the internet is sort of a widely used thing, like the same kind of lines sort of played out in social media and, and other kinds of broader, you know, things that go way beyond education. But yes, so I mean, I will say that, on one hand, I think a lot of the underlying issues here, that I think you were already suggesting what the phrasing of the question, in some ways have to do with labor. I think teaching writing meaningfully and effectively is a pretty labor intensive task. You know, this isn't something you're typically doing with, you know, Scantron tests or, you know, quiz questions that can be assessed by your learning management system. You know, this is speaking just for myself here. I mean, I think serving as an engaged reader of student writing is one of the most important things that a writing teacher does. And that is time consuming, sort of relational work, to go, not just is this student writing following the set of conventions that I've decided in advance, define what good writing is, but instead going, what is the student trying to do? And even if it's a little different than how I might approach the thing that they're trying to accomplish in this piece of writing, how can I help them do that better? Whether that means going like, Hey, here's some conventions you may be unaware of that could be useful for you to adopt in this paper, or you're doing a really cool, weird thing here that I don't quite understand. And if you want that to land, you know, here's the questions that you might have to anticipate your reader asking to do that.
Eric Detweiler 29:26
And because so many college writing classes are taught by people who are underpaid and on contingent contracts where they're trying to line up their spring classes in the middle of the fall. And, you know, capping the size of writing classes is not exactly the top priority for most colleges and universities. I think that's where this stuff really does worry me a little bit because it's less about like, how good or bad how, you know, benign or malignant or Are these kinds of tools? And more about at what point might people who are looking to cut costs go, well, why are we paying all these writing teachers, when we have these, like chatbot tools that we could redirect to instead? Or why are we spending all of this money training students at public universities to write, when we could just, you know, have these these chat tools kind of generate content for us. And especially given the some of the disparities between different kinds of institutions? And, you know, the teaching loads that, that
Derek Bruff 30:37
that and I remember, same conversation around MOOCs, right, which was, why do we need, you know, hundreds of people to teach this course or that course across the nation, we can have one good instructor who we put on video and computers will handle the rest. That was troubling, right?
Eric Detweiler 30:55
Yeah, and the big thing for me, I mean, what I was thinking of with those different kinds of institutions is, a lot of the folks who were at that forefront of that movement were like Harvard, and Stanford. And with, I was going to say, you know, no offense, but maybe a little bit of offense to some of those institutions. This is someone who, who has a real passion for things like like community colleges, and regional and comprehensive universities. I think they're used to dealing with a really particular type of student population, who is very well socialized into the expectations of, of the different kinds of work and the different kinds of writing that you do in school, in general, and in college and university more particularly. And I think that affects their vision of what these kinds of courses can do. And it is not to say that students at other kinds of institutions are less capable or less intelligent, or anything like that. But it is to say that often they are coming from schools that had fewer resources available, where it may have been easier for a student to kind of slip through the cracks in different kinds of ways. And I think those are the students that we really need to be thinking about, like, what what is the value of the labor that teachers do and the value of education is a public good, that isn't just serving the people who by means of resources or other kinds of predispositions are likely to be already pretty well prepared to move through education without a ton of friction, and to be able to intuit a lot of the things that they're being asked to do, often, just because of where they come from.
Derek Bruff 32:38
Yeah. And I remember 10 years ago, hearing some computer science faculty from some of these well resourced, highly selective schools describing what computer science instruction looked like for them with 300 students, who were all highly motivated and highly prepared to succeed in that environment. And I thought, yeah, you could probably replace you that professor with a computer pretty easily. Right. But But hardly, I mean, that's a minuscule fraction of what higher education actually looks like, is that that particular kind of environment?
Eric Detweiler 33:11
Yeah, even though it ends up being about 90% of the media coverage.
Derek Bruff 33:14
Right, right. Yeah. Yeah, the the highly selective schools are, are really don't teach a lot of students in the United States of America. And so all that to say, I think, one of the things I wanted to ask you about, because you talk about the MOOC movement in your book a lot. And I think that's one of our lessons from that movement is that we don't want to kind of make that same mistake again, with something like AI, text generators and other AI tools of assuming that all students or most students or even many students fit a particular privileged profile, actually. Yeah. So I have another question that's moving back to the more abstract piece. But there's a, there's a word in your book's subtitle that we haven't talked a lot about yet that I just have to ask you about. And that's mastery. You push back a little bit at the notion of mastery in your book. And so. So what's your problem with mastery?
Eric Detweiler 34:10
I will say probably first and foremost, this is a something that I know varies a lot across disciplines. But for me, it was a little bit of a paired term with some of the other things that I was trying to call into question a little bit in that book. So in addition to agency, which I've already talked about enough, I won't I won't revisit that at length, one of the things I was really interested in, in the book that doesn't show up directly in the title is the history of how teachers' authority has been understood and described in the history of sort of Western education in particular, what has been seen as like, the thing that a teacher is an authority on and what that means in terms of what they bring to the classroom. And for so much of the history of education, that authority was a really key part of what was seen as the value of education. Even though it's something that has been in many cases displaced by sort of the shift to student centered learning, and an attempt to make student agency and empowerment kind of the center of what education is doing more so than like the teacher's authority that is being passed on to students or something like that.
Eric Detweiler 35:30
But I think there are ways that maybe get back to the thesis statement stuff, that when we're thinking about education, purely in terms, or maybe primarily in terms of the pursuit of mastery, that we may undercut some of the much more sort of complicated habits that go into studying and learning and practicing all kinds of different things that students are going to encounter, across and beyond their, their educational experiences. And that includes, of course, for me very much writing, where if we're trying to make students and talk to students about writing in terms of you're going to master this. And here's what that looks like. Oftentimes, it can lead to pretty unnecessarily or exclusionary, really restrictive notions of what writing is that don't resonate with how writing actually operates in the world, much less than our classrooms. And that can cut off and tamp down on some of like the curiosity and the uncertainty, and the relentless, repetitive failure, that is a pretty big part of of learning to be a writer in all kinds of different contexts, including, you know, when you're in your mid to late 30s, and trying to figure out what your next book project is going.
Eric Detweiler 36:53
So really, for me, it's not to say that like we should never use mastery as a term that can be be a way of discussing with students like what we're trying to have them get out of our classes or identify like the learning outcomes are the concepts that they should be encountering there. But that sometimes with this notion that that education is this sort of progressive process of mastering content, doesn't necessarily resonate with or capture the whole of the ways that like, student writing can fall apart, when they encounter a new genre in a way that is, is in some ways kind of unavoidable. That there's these steps that are not going to look like mastery. And then if you're just trying to stick to the the five paragraph essay that you are very good at and you understand is not going to serve you well. And I'm sure as much as you probably get this in math as well, when you move from like algebra to geometry to trig or things like that, like there's different rule sets that sometimes you can't just be doing algebra anymore when you're trying to do calculus. Right? Yeah. But But allowing and talking to students about writing in a way that acknowledges like, yeah, like we can create an environment that is hopefully, less anxiety inducing, has, you know, fewer disparities in terms of what one student is going to get out of it versus another, but still talk about it in terms of like, Writing is hard, and writing is variable. And writing, getting even getting better at writing often doesn't feel like becoming a more masterful writer. It feels like becoming a little clunkier for a while and maybe figuring something out that works in one context but that's going to prompt 15 questions that you're going to need to ask when you shift back into this other context, two months, two years, two decades later.
Derek Bruff 38:41
Yeah, yeah. I, yeah, I appreciate that answer. And I do think the discipline matters a lot, and kind of where you're going within the discipline. So if I think about that mastery approach, when I'm teaching first year undergraduates a very narrow set of mathematical topics that I want them to understand, right, but if I'm trying to set that student up for graduate level research in mathematics, we're not even close to mastery, right? Like, that's not a helpful framing whatsoever, they're going to need a whole different set of skills that operate at a much more meta level than particular bits of mathematical content. And I think part of what I'm hearing is that I think in the writing instruction classroom, you get to those more ambiguous spaces a lot faster and a lot easier than in math, which tends to reserve that type of work for Far, far down the path, right for very specialized people.
Derek Bruff 39:38
So I've got one more I know, we're, we're we've been going for a while here, but I have one more question that may be a little bit sideways, but maybe not. You are a podcaster. And, frankly, I've listened to some of your more experimental podcast episodes. And so I know that you have a little fun with the medium and that you've made you made some arguments that in fact, more academics should be playing with this medium and doing some different things with it. I'm curious, how has your work exploring podcasting affected your teaching?
Eric Detweiler 40:06
Oh, that's a good question. Thank you for that. And thank you for listening as well. Yeah, I mean, part of it is is very straightforward, which is that I've taught classes that involve podcasting. And I think at a really granular level, that has helped me think about how to identify the particularities of the kind of writing students are going to be asked to do in classes. Because, I mean, I've sometimes done this as an assignment in my classes, had students craft the same argument or, you know, make the same point in a short three to five minute podcast episode and in a piece of writing, whether you want to think about that as a short essay, or you know, an explainer piece, or whatever. And what I've really appreciated about doing that is it gives me something to point to and go, you did this in the piece of writing that you did. And then you did this other different thing in the little podcast or the little audio essay that you made. Why was that? And then have a conversation with students about that. Because I think often when they think about academic writing, they assume that's writing that has no perspective. It's kind of the view from nowhere, there's no voice, there's no i There's no personality, there's no genre conventions, it's just like unmarked plain. Like, this is like the plain yogurt of the communication world. And to be able to go, no, there are actually things that work really well in writing. but that don't work in like oral communication, in the case of something like a podcast, and vice versa, can be a way to get students to realize, Oh, this isn't just blank or unmarked communication. There's other kinds of choices and other kinds of decisions that I can make with writing by bouncing it off this this other medium. And honestly, for me, as somebody who studies the history of rhetoric, it's the way of bringing a little bit back together the sort of instruction in speech communication and oral communication that has long been a part of, of rhetoric, but got kind of split off into communication studies departments at some point, and the writing stuff that ended up kind of, in large part getting put into English departments, and feeling like there's some real richness and resonance that you can get when you bring those things back together a little bit.
Derek Bruff 42:38
That's great. Well, thank you so much, Eric. This has been great. We've gotten a lot of different directions. I appreciate your insight as Rhetoric and Writing instructor and researcher. And I think there's a lot here for folks in all kinds of disciplines to benefit from think more deeply about so thank you for sharing today.
Eric Detweiler 42:55
Yeah, I hope so. And thanks again for for the opportunity and it's great to talk with you.
Derek Bruff 43:01
That was Eric Detweiler, Associate Professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University. Just about an hour down the road for me here in Nashville. Eric's new book is called Responsible Pedagogy: Moving Beyond Authority and Mastery in Higher Education, and it's published by Penn State University Press. See the show notes for links to info about Eric, his book, his podcast and his other work. Thanks to Eric for taking the time to come on the podcast and share his work.
Derek Bruff 43:30
This episode of intentional teaching was produced and edited by me Derek Bruff. See the show notes for links to my website, the signup form for the intentional teaching newsletter, which goes out most Thursdays, and my Patreon which helps support the show. For just a few bucks a month you get access to the occasional bonus episode, Patreon only teaching resources, the archive of past newsletters and a community of intentional educators to chat with. As always, thanks for listening
Transcribed by https://otter.ai