Pedagogical Evolution: A Personal Journey

It was more than one hundred years later before corporal punishment was banned in Queensland state schools. Cartoon: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

My teaching philosophy hasn't changed for over a decade. I find it a bit wordy these days, but it has stood the test of time. Until they started talking about killer robots, that is. It's time for a rethink.

When I was growing up in Queensland, we used to get the cane. The first time was in 1982. I bounced a ball at "little lunch". Because, during recess, we weren't allowed to play. One cut on the left hand. And the pompous clown who made a great ceremony out of writing it all down in his grand book. Seriously. Then I remember one kid in grade 6 was whipped with the aluminium handle of a feather duster. No ceremony at all, just whack-whack-whack-whack-whack. The back of his legs came up in black and blue welts. This was a state school in the early eighties, and it kept happening up until 1985. It was the last time and I got six of the best on each hand. We used to call it "getting the cuts" or "six of the best" and usually on both hands, one after the other. They even had a theory for its use in education.

Then in 1986 something changed. By then I was in year 11, so it didn't apply to me anymore but the world changed almost overnight. Legally it didn't change until 1995, but in practice it never happened to me again after 1985. I hated school so much the 20th November 1987, my last day of school, was the only day I didn't wag it and I wore my school uniform properly for the first time. I didn't realise how much I hated everything about school except the music block and a handful of teachers who I still call friends.

And then I was free.

University is so much better. You can be yourself, or someone else, or somebody new, or anything you want. But there is no longer any system to buck. I mean, there is still a system, but you can walk away from it any time you like. I always challenged myself, and I studied everything the exact opposite of what I thought I believed. Feminism, gender politics, left-wing, post-modernism, conservative, liberal, libertarian, you name it. There was a whole world out there to discover. And I discovered that most of the stuff I had learnt as a kid was rot. It was all about how I should behave to make others happy and it was all based on the same old boring world view that would have me bust a gut for some other clown.

False consciousness was never for me. University taught me how to comprehend, combat, and even turn it on its head to my advantage. I always say that a university degree proves that you can successfully navigate through bureaucracy. Just watch your grandmother try to fill out a Centrelink form and you will know exactly what I mean.

But there were so many great people who encouraged me along the way. I don't remember a single lecturer who was bad. Not one. I used to dream about doing my PhD and being supervised by one particular professor who wrote many of my textbooks in my early undergrad political science degree. I was living in Brisbane and had just left the military at the time. Years later it actually happened. Since, I have met and sometimes even worked with some of the great names in political science. And not just Australian political scientists.

I read and read and read and do almost nothing else and I write and write and read and read and deliberately take time to think and reflect and yet it will be years before I can match what these great professors know and can do. But by reading and writing and thinking and reflecting and discussing and debating and adopting a scholarly attitude to my work I hope to emulate what I see in those who have been before.

But there is a strong class element to education. Sometimes it is like you are being held back by those around you, other times those who have the appearance of being above you try to keep you down. But not always. The idea of having a "chip on one's shoulder" in the Cambridge dictionary uses this example: "He's got a chip on his shoulder about not having been to university". I worked and studied full time for years, just as many of you are trying to do, and it sucks big time. I had one six month period after I left the military where I studied full time and used up my superannuation (back in the day when you could). All HDs but then I was out of money and I had two kids and a mortgage and so it was back to work.

These days I realise that almost everybody has to do this to get a university degree. At the time I thought the silver-tails all had it easy. And some of them do. But these days I focus on what matters to me, and life is simpler and more pleasant than ever. But I love my work. I hope I can provide opportunities for those who otherwise wouldn't have them and I hope that I can inspire even one person in the way that my own lecturers inspired me. But then the world changed again.

Social media was going to save the world and then it did the opposite. Now we are talking about stuff that Isaac Asimov was making up years ago but now it is actually happening. I mean, Elon Musk is leading a bunch of experts to ban killer robots. Did I fall asleep and wake up in a movie?
I think we agree. The past is over (George W. Bush, 2000). 
The future is here. Gunning buffers me from the worst of it, but I still have to interact with this brave new world, even if I am the slave whipping myself on the hill while the helicopters circle around me. I have to adapt.

My biggest issue is that I think a great books education is the best way to learn the liberal arts. When I assessed my teaching style years ago, I was an awkward blend of liberal arts, where the Socratic method is supreme and the lecturer is the expert, and radical education. I like to think this is why I try to read the great books but I also blog and have built a reputation as a teaching and learning innovator.

But I have been struggling with the changes. I still think the essay is the best way to learn how to think. But unless a student intends to be an academic, then the traditional system might not be the best approach. Sure, writing is important, but what about writing an op ed for a website, where the piece is around 800 words with links and so on. It is still referenced, the quality of the research is still important, and it requires a particular writing style. Surely that can be academic in its own right?

And then on 27 June 2015 I subscribed to Ryan Holiday's reading list email. I think it was via the Art of Manliness, one of my favourite podcasts and websites. It seemed a bit random but every now and then I'd receive an email with a list of books this bloke had read. And I started reading some of these books. And then I started learning more about him and then reading his books and then learning about Stoicism and then thinking how the hell did this lad who was born at the same time I finished high school get it?

And it's the reading, and the thinking, and the reflecting, and the learning. But he puts the old and the new together in a way that I try to do. If he didn't read I couldn't trust him. He is surely a poodle-faker, but poodle-faking is a skill. And so here I am, and it is probably time to update my teaching philosophy. But not yet.