teaching, reflection and hegemony

So apparently the first signs of spring inspire book reading.  But in this case I had another reason to read this book – some upcoming presentations and some further thinking on a topic that has been on my mind for a while.

Brookfield is one of the more useful authors I’ve come across on this journey through the reflective practice literature — where useful doesn’t necessarily mean “provides stuff I can adopt and use as is” but instead means “makes me think of things in a new way/ gives me ideas for how to move forward no matter whether or not those ideas were what the author I’m reading actually had in mind.”

Which makes it cool that Brookfield himself suggests a similar role for the literature about teaching:

Embedded as we are in our cultures, histories, and contexts, it is easy for us to slip into the habit of generalizing from the particular.  Reading theory can jar us in a productive way, by offering unfamiliar interpretations of familiar events and by suggesting other ways of working (p. 186).

(Note: I would argue that writing theory can serve the same purpose, or that it should.  That research done to illuminate practice should produce results that jar you in just that way – that make you think in new ways about the thing that you are investigating — but that’s another post for another day.)

So, what Brookfield does is argue that reflective practice is the process of finding out what your assumptions are as you practice – what assumptions are guiding your decisions about what you should be doing, shaping your interpretations about what you see your students doing, and coloring your beliefs about how you will be held accountable by others.  He argues that there are three types of assumptions:  paradigmatic, prescriptive and causal.

Paradigmatic assumptions are those huge world-view type assumptions we might only be hazily aware of, but which serve as the structure by which we make sense of the world.  They’re the hardest ones to identify and the hardest ones to change, but when we do change them everything else changes too.  In our case this might be something like “information literacy leads to critical thinking” or “information literacy empowers people.”

Prescriptive assumptions are those assumptions about what we think we should be doing – about what good practice is.  When I think of this one with library instruction I think of active learning – the assumption that information literacy skills are best taught/learned with active learning techniques, or that active learning improves students’ engagement with learning information literacy.  This assumption even shows up in our conference proposal forms, doesn’t it?

(Am I the only one stymied sometimes by having to articulate learning outcomes and “how I will engage the learner” in every conference proposal I submit?  Non instruction-librarians aren’t doing this, right?)

Causal assumptions are our assumptions about how things work, and by extension, how we can make things better (or worse, but we’re probably mostly interested in making things better).  If X causes Y, then some alteration (more or less) of X can change Y the way we want it to.

{So, this is the point in this post where WordPress stopped saving it – and I lost almost 500 words.  I find it very suspicious that this happened just as I was talking about hegemony and dominant power structures.}

So what I like about this book is that it doesn’t just locate the value of reflective practice and reflection in the individual teacher’s practice, but pushes beyond that to recognize that we teach because we want to make the world better, and that some of the assumptions we carry with us are grounded in the power structures already there in the world we want to change.  That’s the critical part of “critically reflective teacher.”  It’s not enough to find the assumptions and think about them as they relate to us, and to our practice, but we need to go beyond that and locate them in all of those things outside the classroom that also affect how we approach, understand and evaluate teaching and learning.

One thing that pushes this past regular reflection into critical reflection is attention to hegemonic assumptions — these are those assumptions teachers carry around that make them complicit in their own oppression.  That sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?  That’s how I learned to define hegemony back in the day.  I wrote this oral history paper which I loved (and which I still have) that ended up being about the strategies used by the Democratic party machine in a small rust belt city and how they traded favors for votes.  The TA was taking a class that was all Gramsci all the time, and wrote something like “… how people are complicit in their own oppression.  I’m sick to death of this topic, but you’ve given it a fresh twist here.”  Then she gave me some Gramsci citations and I’ve remembered the phrase ever since.

So those assumptions that we embrace because they seem to capture something important or noble or good, but which lead us to do things that are against our own best interests.  Brookfield gives four examples for classroom faculty:

The idea that teaching is a vocation — the idea that people are called to teach, and that like any calling, it should consume them or they’re not doing it right.

The perfect 10 syndrome — this is the idea that we should strive for perfect evaluations, and that good teachers get perfect evaluations from everyone.

The last two are the two that had particular resonance for me, thinking about instruction librarians —

The belief that the answer must be out there somewhere — This is the idea that someone, somewhere has already solved the problem you’re facing in your practice and that if you can just find them or find their book or their article, you will know what to do.  The aspect of this that I hear a lot from instruction librarians is this one — “we didn’t have a course in teaching/pedagogy/assessment in library school.  This way of thinking devalues our practice knowledge, and keeps us from understanding it as expertise — keeps us feeling like frauds and dilettantes in the classroom.  If a real teacher is one who has the answers, and we don’t feel like we have the answers (and really, who does?) then we’re not real teachers.

The idea that teachers meet everyone’s needs — this is visible in the focus on learning styles, on active or experiential learning, in all of the “how to teach the netgens stuff” or in the constant “meet them where they are” refrain.  Like all hegemonic assumptions, every action it inspires is not bad.  But one problem with this one for us as instruction librarians is the same as the problem Brookfield identifies for classroom faculty:  “Students who define their need as never straying beyond comfortable ways of thinking, acting and learning are not always in the best position to judge what is in their own best interests.”

But I think there’s also another dimension to this needs meeting one that is unique to us – and that is because when we think of meeting everyone’s needs, the classroom faculty is included in that.  A lot of librarians take it as a given that we can/should support everything the classroom faculty want us to do — I hear this when I hear people complaining about having to teach things they know to be pedagogically unsound.  I also hear it when I hear librarians taking full responsibility for everything about a class session, even for things that are entirely outside their control.

So what are the other hegemonic assumptions we have as instruction librarians?

Brookfield also offers a model for reflection that adds an element of concreteness to these big questions.  As teachers, we should examine our practice through four lenses:

  • Our own (autobiography)
  • Our students
  • Our colleagues
  • Our literature and theory

5 thoughts on “teaching, reflection and hegemony

  1. Hi Anne-Marie,

    Your blog is very interesting. Thank you for sharing your pre-writing thoughts.

    In response to this post, you have raised several interesting discussion points. I do not think, however, that librarians/teachers are here to find answers. We are, rather, here to help individuals find information that can lead them to reflect on and discover their own answers.

    I am also a little concerned about the author’s idea that we can look through the lenses of our students. Wouldn’t this assumption be hegemonic in itself?

    1. Hi Nancy – nice to meet you! I’m not sure where the suggestion that librarians should find answers is coming from, but I am going to guess that it is in the “the answer must be there somewhere piece?” If that’s correct, then I think my response would be that Brookfield is talking here about teachers trying to solve their *own* practice problems, not that teachers are trying to solve problems for students. I think the desire to teach learning skills is common to both information literacy librarians and classroom teachers (Brookfield’s audience) and that’s where I see the connection happening.

      (the “we shouldn’t find answers” is a great example of a paradigmatic assumption in librarianship – thanks!)

      I think if we believed that the view through the students’ lens was always more correct than that of any other lens, then that would be a great example of a hegemonic assumption – but I don’t think that’s what the author is talking about? I think he’s talking about adding another point of view – and in this section I’m summarizing several chapters into a couple of sentences so any lack of clarity is mine, not his – in most cases by asking the students directly what they think?



  2. just fyi I recently filled out a conference presentation proposal that discussed how I would engage the audience. i thought it was an odd thing to ask on the form, but now i understand.

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