Monday, March 21, 2005

Regionalism Revisited

The conversation on "The Utah Bubble" is still brewing at Composition Mountain West. We may not have come to any real consensus, but we have raised some interesting questions. Nancy at Random Thoughts also made a good point: In this case, the problem doesn't seem to be so much a question of geographic area but rather of how homogeneous a place is. When everyone comes from the same background, has the same belief system, the same attitudes and approaches to life, it can be difficult to teach there - especially if you don't entirely share those ideals.

I'd like to follow up on that idea of homogeneity because I think it is a very significant issue that affects everything about the job from the way hiring is done to the level of academic freedom enjoyed to what actually works or doesn't work in the classroom. More on that later.

For now, I have a few observations that have crossed my mind during these regional discussions.

1. There is as big a gap between rural schools and urban schools as there is between community colleges and universities.
2. We tend to gauge the right and wrong of teaching methods and decisions based on our own experiences despite the fact that those experiences might be very different from someone who teaches in another school or in another region.
3. There is a lot to be gained from discussing our differences and really stopping to listen to the reasons behind those differences.

When I first started the job I have now, I went into real culture shock. I thought I knew Mississippi. I was born here. I grew up here. My family has been here for generations. But there were things I never knew about my own state until I started teaching here. And the shock of what the students were like was nothing compared to the shock of what everything else was like. Nothing about the textbooks, the policies, the class sizes, the schedules, the department dynamic or anything else was remotely like what I'd been trained to expect in graduate school. I was horrified, and I had very little professional autonomy for making my own decisions about how to teach or what to teach...or at least that's how it felt at the time. All I accomplished by resisting doing things the way they'd always been done, however, was to antagonize people and alienate myself. I had to learn how to fit in. There was nothing else for it.

I asked some people at the university what to do, but their only reactions were the same horror I felt. Then one day I saw Nell Ann Pickett, my English teacher from my community college days, at church, and I told her about how frustrated I was with the textbooks and the class sizes and all of the other things that were piling up on me. I expected more expressions of disgust, but what I got was the best advice anyone has ever given me: "Pick your battles."

Wherever you might teach, there will be budget crunches and department disagreements and administrative policies that will be hard to work around, but work around them you must. We do the best we can with what we have to work with. None of us has an ideal situation, and none of us can win every battle we take on. Some things are worth stirring up; some things are not. Some things can be conquered once they are stirred up; some things cannot. Sometimes more can be gained by stirring a little at a time over a long period of time than by making a big mess of things all at once.

I think understanding where the lines are takes being in a place long enough to make yourself at home. It isn't so easy to see them right away. More importantly, it isn't so easy to see why the lines are there in the first place or who benefits from the status quo.

To paraphrase a friend, "The differences between us are as deep as they are vague." It may take some time for any of us to really understand them.


Nancy A. McKeand said...

I find that the battles I am most interested in fighting are those that really affect the student. I try to keep my own personal prejudices out of the mix as much as I can. My college is never going to look at life and the world the way I do. (And in reality, that is probably a blessing!)

Another thing I have learned in four years here is that a lot depends not only on which battles I choose but also how I choose to fight them. I have found that I have allies, people who share my ideas. If I am not antagonistic and if I try, as you indicate, to see why things are the way they are, I am much more successful.

Sharon Gerald said...

Well said, Nancy. I've enjoyed reading your blog. I'm glad you found your way to this one.