catch-22; bridging literacy and literature in the classroom (part 1)

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one…. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”  – Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Postman published his book in 1985, a year after George Orwell’s temporal setting for his dystopian novel, 1984, but ironically, the culture of surveillance that Orwell so abhorred is a circumstance our post-millennium citizens largely welcome. We have devolved into a celebrity culture in which it is normal, desirable even, to be relentlessly observed, and we tally our social success using tweets and twitters and likes facebook_like_button_bigon Facebook, where we blithely post huge swaths of our lives with nary a concern for personal privacy. It doesn’t occur to us that much of what happens on Facebook is stalking behavior, any more than it occurs to us to worry about highly networked government data banks or corporate computer surveillance. In a culture where a Paparazzi tail is the sincerest form of flattery and renegade civil libertarians are the new social pariahs, we have invited the brazen and unremitting violation of what used to be our constitutional right to privacy.

The implications for pedagogy are profound. As we move deeper into the digital age, trading the printed word for the glittering image, we find ourselves straddling the divide between process and result with regard to literacy development. Studies indicate not only that children learn to read most effectively by reading, but also that they can be most easily enticed towards literacy by reading what they like. This creates a catch-22 for teachers, as research demonstrates that texts that reflect and incorporate popular celebrity culture do not facilitate higher order thinking skills to the same degree as more challenging literary texts, an unintended consequence of which appears to be the systematic loss of the linguistic and intellectual tools needed to separate political truth from illusion. As a result, teachers find themselves in the unenviable position of choosing between literacy and those who choose to function as illiterate.

Notwithstanding the eternal vitriol raging between highbrow scholars and the literary déclassé, the twilight-book-coverbenefits of non-literary fiction are myriad, for children – like adults – tend to resist what is forced upon them. They crave personal autonomy and control over what they read. Choice in turn is affected by interest, which is itself influenced (though not fully determined) by individual taste, need and background, and – more often than not – involves selections damningly defined as “pop fiction”.

(As an aside, the very notion of self-selecting anything from popular culture itself raises intriguing philosophical questions. There is a tendency for students and teachers alike to conclude that when students choose their own reading material, they are in fact expressing individual preference, thereby creating a sense of empowerment by bringing to the classroom literary content that their teachers would rather not legitimize. In many instances, however, children are influenced to choose materials that are imposed upon them by the social and cultural norms that surround them. Indeed, this same social determinism could be attributed to self-selection in music, food, art and clothing:)

Yes. Well. Meandering down the path of inquiry again… sorry about that.

Ultimately, however, the fallout from the pop-fiction/literature debate lands far beyond mere pedagogy. Western democracy cannot, by definition, flourish without a fully literate electorate, and if schools are graduating citizens who are incapable of distinguishing between verbal claims and published facts, then political leaders no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest, but only to appear as such. We tend not to pay attention to a political candidate or government minister based on issues, but rather on popularity and newsworthiness: a federal aide with a money-laundering, ex-hooker in his past is newsworthy; a charismatic foreign president with a glamorous, fashion-forward wife is newsworthy; a local politician who proposes serious regulatory reform regarding cross-country oil pipelines, on the other hand, is boring.

As a culture, we have been hooked by what is easy: theatre, full-size (non-tabloid) newspapers and literature have been relegated to the margins of cultural life, where they are ignored as elitist or intractable because they do not provide effortless entertainment. This popularization of culture as mere amusement leads to social “decay”, writes philosopher Hannah Arendt, “and those who promote it are not the Tin Pan Alley composers, but a special kind of intellectual… whose sole function is to organize, disseminate and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps as educational as well. There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining (emphasis mine) version of what they have to say.”

If school is a microcosm of the larger political perspective, then we pander to our children’s need for entertainment in the classroom at a serious social cost. In a cultural age where reality television reigns supreme, and popularity, thinly disguised as “google-hits”, dictates newsworthiness, it behooves us to re-establish complexity in our classrooms and to re-connect our children with the literate, print-based world of ideas.

copyright © 2013 ingrid baier all rights reserved

public speaking and the Art and Science of being a fraud

“It’s quite simple, public speaking. Say what you have to say and when you come to a sentence with a grammatical ending, sit down.”
– Winston Churchill

The Alberta Teachers’ Association is sponsoring its annual Science Conference this November in Banff, and I have been invited to present:

“I would like to invite you to share the project that you developed as your independent inquiry, on Saturday (November 17). Conference registration is free to those who present. Conference is Nov 15-17. Bill Nye is the keynote on Saturday!”

As in Bill Nye, the Science Guy?

Okay, I’m flattered to be asked—really I am—but me and Bill??

I don’t think so.

Safely ensconced in my shell on the couch, I write back, trying my best to be diplomatic:

“Thank you for the offer, I am tentatively interested, but would like to confirm approximate audience size before committing…”

This is what I get back:

“Thank you, Ingrid, for your response, I am so glad you will be participating…”


The first thing I do is panic.

The second thing I do is ask my husband for advice on how to extricate myself. He raises one eyebrow in that way he has and when he speaks, his voice is calm: “You know you have to do this.”

Case closed.

I phone my PhD-toting, neuroscientist sister (she know what’s really going on here), and ask her the same question, but she’s no help at all. She too can do that annoying eyebrow thing, and I can practically hear one silky brow as it whisks along her hairline.

“I concur. You have to do this.”

You concur? What are you, a Supreme Court Justice?

I revert to panic, and the “what ifs” paralyze me on the couch as I contemplate everything that could possibly go wrong:

I’m not that great with Power Point. Prezies make me nauseous. My hands will shake. I’ll drop my paper. WHAT WILL I WEAR??  

And as I wallow in my fear, the real issues start to come up…

What if I’ve made a mistake in the science? What if my research is unsound?

…quickly followed by the mother of them all…

What if they realize I’m a fraud? What if they notice that I know nothing at all about science? What if they see right through my long words and recognize me as an intellectual poseur, laying claim to a scientific authority I don’t actually possess…

Like the pauper in love with the princess, I have always worshiped science from afar, surveying her fortress with the furtiveness of a stalker whilst the whispering waters of the moat mock the absurdity of my feelings:

“…science isn’t for you… science is for smart people…”

I’m not sure where, exactly, I picked up this intellectual inferiority complex—I know I am not unintelligent—yet I have spent a significant part of my academic career feeling like an imposter, believing, for whatever reason, that if I was good at something, it must not be very hard.

Science was hard.

I fell in love with science as a child because of Madeleine L’Engle, a children’s author whose fiction departed from the usual fairy tale, illusion and magic, and drew instead from cutting edge biology and physics; whether she was transferring regenerative strategies of adult somatic stem cells from newts to humans, redefining mitochondrial function as the fulcrum balancing cosmic good and evil, or reconstructing a tesseract as a medium for time travel, my child’s imagination was captured by the sheer possibility, the utter coolness of science…

But there’s the rub… science and science fiction are not the same thing, and when I turned in school to science itself, I discovered an academic disconnect that haunts me to this day.

I have no recollection of science classes as a young child, and—having skipped a grade in elementary school—high school science labs always seemed to get bogged down in behavioral issues as I struggled to fit in with kids who were, in my adolescent mind, so much older and more socially adept than I. In physics, I was the kid in the back playing with the laser; in chemistry, the kid who got kicked out of class for reversing the lab directions, just to see what would happen.

After so many days locked out of class in the hallway, or caged in the principal’s office, science and I parted ways—she as the idol, myself as her unworthy suitor. As much as I loved the concepts, I couldn’t grasp the practice, and even when I truly believed I understood something, my teachers insisted otherwise. Unfortunately, my young mind conflated difficulty and superiority, with the result that I placed Science on a pedestal, later concluding that Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences must be a myth, a heroic fiction created by humanities majors in a robust attempt to defend their own lack of scientific prowess; a valiant attempt to equalize cognitive ability, to be sure, but ineffective nonetheless, because all it accomplished was to create a hierarchy of intelligences in lieu of a genuine plurality.

The visual representation of such a scheme is, in the pathos of western culture, a pyramid, with “Logical-Mathematical” at the pinnacle, and “Intrapersonal” intelligence—that bastion of the New Age Universe—shoring up its massive, swollen bottom. In a world in which physics is truth (and chemistry is lies that work), we worship at the altar of hard science, and the fact that Gardner is a psychologist, not a physicist, isn’t lost on the congregation. Indeed, my undergrad years as a philosophy student were filled with such flippancies:

Q: How many psych majors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One, but he gets three credits for it.

And again in grad school:

Q: What’s the most frightening aspect of being a parent?
A: The realization that your children are being taught by people who majored in education.

And yet… and yet… the draw of science has persisted.

I collect layman’s physics books. I indulge my passion in private, where no one can catch my mistakes. I write science fiction stories that never see the light of day.

And still… and still… the feeling of being an imposter endures.

The truth is, I have always lacked confidence in my ability to understand bona fide scientific principles, and while a précis of scientific concepts (courtesy of, arrests my interest, to my chagrin, “real science” always seems to lie an inch or two beyond my grasp. Even as I recognize this flaw, I can’t seem to change it. While I realize that my own distorted conceptualization of science as loftier than all other disciplines isn’t a strength, particularly in light of my own lack of foundational scientific knowledge, I continue to feel disenfranchised in the presence of “real scientists.”

And because I feel like a fraud, I assume I will be viewed as one, as well. My intellectual hangover from high school, influenced by both teachers and family, has left me with an acute awareness of the uneasy relationship between science teachers, humanities teachers, and pedagogy today. In essence, it boils down to a question of accessibility. While scientists may dabble in creative writing, sing in the Bach choir, and earn certificates in cordon bleu cooking, English majors don’t typically set up ad hoc labs in their garages so they can tinker with the human genome at the weekend. As John D. MacDonald once said, “if you want to write, you write. This would not be a useful approach to brain surgery.”

I found this perceptual disconnect between academic faculties particularly noticeable during my  years in education, for while the “science people” in my professional seminars clearly understood the pedagogical concerns of the “arts people”, the reverse was not the case. I’d like to believe that we are two sides of the same coin, but my inner high school physics student—who is, perhaps, still sitting in the principal’s office—is wont to disagree.

The ATA Science Conference is, for me, about more than getting through a Power Point presentation without going into myocardial infarction, it is a clarion call for me to deconstruct my own self-criticism. I have no idea how to do this, but this much I know is true: I have to start by getting up off the couch.

© copyright 2012 ingrid baier all rights reserved