Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Of metaphors and manure

This week I've been observing my colleagues' teaching in fields way outside my own and I confess that I don't always understand what they're talking about. (How well would you understand an upper-level class in a field of science that you last studied in 1978?) However, not knowing what they're saying frees me up to pay attention to how they're saying it, especially when they say it with metaphors.

I've heard colleagues invite the class to step in the Way-Back Machine or imagine a perfect world or put their metaphorical hands in their metaphorical pockets. I've seen syllabus language challenging students to explore new ground and dig deeper and go on a journey, and then I've seen the professor translate those metaphors into classroom activities that feel like adventures.

This experience reminds me of an exercise I've used to help faculty members write their teaching philosophies (because every tenure and promotion portfolio must include a teaching philosophy): Describe what's happening when everything is going well in the classroom. Somewhere in that description a metaphor will pop up--taking students on a journey or guiding them through a labyrinth or coaching them to build skills. Grab that metaphor, examine it, and see what it tells you about what kind of teacher you are. 

Now comes a document attempting to crystallize who we are and where we're going as an institution, and it is mostly pretty free of metaphors. I see several calls for develop mechanisms for success, which suggests that the college is a machine, and I see concern about spreading ourselves too broadly across the academic landscape, which makes us manure. 

There's a big difference between machines and manure, but a larger issue arises in a brief but pivotal statement intended to shape our future: our reputation is a foundation, but the building metaphor is immediately abandoned in favor of a gardening metaphor (rooted, nurturing) and then a medical metaphor (contributing to the health of a community). 

A building that employs mechanisms to remain rooted and grows to improve health? That's going to take a lot of manure.

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