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Transactional Expectations?

The following was written by Derek Risse (GTA):

This semester began, as most semesters begin, with expectations; expectations regarding what my students might learn across the course of the semester; expectations relating to what I might also learn. Presumably, my students came/come to the class with some similar and some (or perhaps many) different expectations. In this sense, expectations are predictive, but rarely predictable. Even less predictable is how these expectations come to be, or not to be, fulfilled. That is, it is difficult to track how expectations play out in the classroom. Optimistically, we might ask, “how do our expectations create spaces for students to learn?” Less optimistically, it seems we must also contend with the eventuality that our expectations often circumscribe or impose real limits on learning. To this end, we might rephrase the question – “how do our expectations impose limits on spaces for students to learn?” The challenge of conceptualizing the relationship between expectations and limits is additionally hampered by the way we frame these challenges. As Karla DeVito’s contribution(s) to the soundtrack of The Breakfast Club reminds us, “we are not alone.” One problem that inheres in our attempts to account for student agency is our relative incapacities to attend (to) student agency. Here, I mean not to suggest that we are unable to recognize student agency, but rather, to suggest that agency is often unexpected. Perhaps agency is always unexpected, but that seems a matter for another place/time.

When it comes to the challenge of conceptualizing student agency, we might argue that there is great benefit to putting ourselves, as teachers, in student’s shoes. But, although I concede that this is a worthwhile venture, the task can seem not only overwhelming but insincere (maybe even destructively so). For all of our complaints about students, they are particularly adept at picking up on these kinds of moves. Sure, communing with students has its benefits, but they are not always so accepting of our efforts to do so; nor should they be. Putting on my student hat for a minute–I never really take it off–I recall many instances where similar gestures on behalf of a teacher figure, left me similarly dissatisfied, if not frustrated and resistant. We may not be “alone,” but as The Breakfast Club also reminds us, it doesn’t often feel that way. And yet (or perhaps because of this feeling), I want my expectations. More, I want these expectations bad. I’m fiending for them, so to speak.

It’s week 8 and the schedule I designed at the beginning of the semester indicates that I expected we’d be covering the topic of “ethics” in visual design. I’ve been teaching technical communication for the past few semesters and the textbook for the course, Paul Anderson’s Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach (8th edition), includes short sections on ethics at the end of most chapters. Project 4, the visual design project, asks students to work collaboratively to generate maps and other visualizations that take up an ethical issue, ethically. They also must write a short memo, a page in length, that describes the composing process and attends to the rhetorical exigencies of the image’s production. I don’t have the space here to describe the broader implications of this project as it ties into the fabric of the overall project sequence, but I’d like to briefly discuss my expectations as they seem pertinent here: Going into each semester, I look fondly to Project 4 as a kind of culminating point, where students get the opportunity to do something fun and, more importantly, the opportunity to exercise the vocabulary and larger conceptual framework they have been developing so far. From a pragmatic perspective, I expect that students will begin to recognize the unique challenges that each different genre brings. I expect that they might begin to articulate how the genre of image is similar/different from other kinds of language-driven genres they have composed (i.e. proposals, memos, Wikipedia and WikiHow articles). Beyond the pragmatic bent of the course, I also look forward to opportunities to discuss ethics, if even in a very condensed format. To this end, I expect that they will challenge themselves to think about the ethical valences of writing, designing, and composing “things” more generally.

More specifically, going into class yesterday, I expected them to begin mapping out what their vision of ethics might look like. I spent the entire class session at the board, helping them to define ethics using the terms and concepts we’ve been discussing in class. At times I simply wrote, trying to keep up with their thoughts and suggestions. Other times, I goaded them and played devil’s advocate. I challenged the ideas they brought up and offered some of my own thoughts on the matter(s). We pushed and pulled, and generally drug the topic along. And, I think, we made significant leaps. I write now not because we didn’t generally succeed in some of the aims I set forth–in fact, it was a great session overall. I’m also not writing because everything worked out. There were issues and concerns that we might have better addressed given more time or a second shot. I step back here because, sometimes, it seems like talk about teaching falls into one of two categories: success OR failure. This is the problem of expectations. In the language of expectations, we get (or don’t get) what we want, and nothing else remains.

I’d like to be careful here. I’m not suggesting that we ditch expectations. How could we? How could they? Rather, I’m interested in exploring what it might mean to think about expectations a bit differently, in terms other than “success” and “failure.” This doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t talk about what works and doesn’t. In fact, the pragmatist in me thinks there is much merit in such an approach. Instead, what I’d like to suggest is that framing expectations is difficult because our experience of expectations often feels very lonely, even when, or perhaps more so, when we are with others. What I became painfully aware of yesterday was that although they exceeded many of the expectations I went into the classroom with, I can’t be sure, at least with any degree of determinacy, if I was meeting their expectations. In this moment I felt incredibly, well, alone. I felt alone despite them; despite their frequent and informed contributions. Strangely enough, I felt alone exactly because of these contributions. As a kind of counter-example to the one provided above, I’m reminded of Heart’s late-1980’s hit “Alone,” in which Ann Wilson repeats the refrain “how do I get you alone.”

Although these referents romanticize the classroom in a way that feels somewhat uncomfortable for me, Heart’s “Alone” alerts us to other possibilities for thinking about the ethical dimensions of (teaching) writing. Though we often talk about our expectations going in and our reflections going out, there is also great import in considering how these expectations play out in the company of our students. This leads me to several related questions: What might it mean to think about the performative dimension(s) of expectation? How does expectation manifest in the company of others? Moreover, how does it manifest differently in the company of others? Or, maybe even, how is expectation dependent on others? When and where does expectation become problematic? How might we better attend (to) the expectations of students? How might they better attend to our expectations? And, perhaps ultimately, what might it mean to think of expectation as a kind of transactional experience?

This line of thinking would likely benefit from a consideration of scholarship in Composition around issues of tone, tonality, and voice. I also see this line of thinking being usefully tied to conversations around reflection, agency, situatedness, and awareness in our program specifically. I have few concrete conclusions to offer here, but I’d like to suggest that there might be something to be gained by thinking about this transactional experience of expectation. And, though this move is probably an expected one, I end here by quoting again from Heart:

“Till now I always got by on my own/

I never really cared until I met you/

And now it chills me to the bone”

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Discussion

One thought on “Transactional Expectations?

  1. A quick initial response as I review your post this morning. I am thinking about your questions at the end, and about the idea of expectations as “aims” (to take Dewey’s term). You ask several questions about how expectation manifests in front of/differently to others, and as I review what Dewey says about expectation and aims in Democracy and Education Ch. 8, and what Postman and Weingartner suggest about these in “What’s Worth Knowing,” I see a tension between what the teacher wants students to know, and what students want to or need to know (you address this above, but I think there is something worth parsing out here that I might not get to in this reply over toast and coffee). That is, if, as these authors suggest, aims are defined (or should be defined) by what is significant to the learner, then is, maybe, our best aim as teachers to help students cultivate their own aims and to be able to find ways to pursue these aims in the course structures we have put into place?

    This is short, but two other things I would like to think more about: expectations as a performative experience (which I addressed a little in my recent reluctanceandrisk blog post) and the idea of expectations as transactional, as dependent on the other person–can we have expectations that are never met (educationally?). Yes, of course! But then, are they worth having? Are they the “right” expectations? Might it be important that in defining our expectations as teachers, we work with students (here is maybe a different way of thinking about the transactional) to define and articulate expectations, not just to carry them out? That is, could these expectations be developed through a mutuality between teacher and student, and what does it take to get there?

    Lots more to say, but I’ll get there 🙂

    Posted by firstgradepicture | March 7, 2014, 7:37 am

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