Friday, June 30, 2006

The Bowling Green Prison Experiment

For the final day of my AP training today, the "consultant" (euphemistic for teacher) of our workshop asked us to work on a syllabus, or at least to make a plan for what order to teach stuff for next fall. This is no surprise, since a few days ago she announced that we would be making a syllabus as part of our training. The converstation then veered to another few topics before a lady raised her hand and said: "For those of us not teaching A.P. next year, do we have to do a syllabus?"

The consultant/teacher said with a playfully ironic tone, "This is not something I'll be collecting. You won't be getting a GRADE on it." Everyone laughed at the extra empasis she put on the word grade, as if it were a totally absurd scenario to expect she would give us a grade, though I suspect that most people in the class (er, workshop) half expected her to do so.

I mentioned in my last post that most of the participants present were women. To add a bit of demographic background, most were fairly young. The teacher (er, consultant) is a 25-year veteran who clearly knows how to command a group of people, and is used to being in charge. Verbally, she continued to re-inforce that she was a colleage and a resource, but the unspoken dynamics in the classroom (including the fact that we were literally in a classroom) contributed to an envirionment where a group of people who are used to being in the front of a class as teachers comfortably settled into the role of student. One participant actually referred to the consultant as "Ms. ___" rather than by the first name with which she introduced herself.

Today we had a "workshop day" in which we were told we could work on our syllabi, and she would be available to answer any questions. One of the women sitting near me asked me "Will She be collecting these?" (I capitalize "she" on purpose). I answered by saying "I didn't get that impression," but with a tone indicating that there was no way she would collect them considering she told us the other day that she wouldn't. The woman followed up by asking "So She will just look at them?" "I didn't get that impression, either" was my response, but this time with a little less certitude in the tone.

After this brief exchange, I stepped out of the room to purchase a Code Red Mountain Dew, fairly certain in my conviction that I didn't need a hall pass. While walking, I decided that I wasn't going to do a syllabus that day, that most likely the teacher's (I mean consultant's) idea behind the "assignment" was to allow her an easy Friday. (To be fair, Monday through Thursday she presented a ton of content, and really great stuff). I found this fairly obvious, and wondered why more of my colleagues were stressing out over getting a "teacher pleasing" syllabus together.

I thought back to a speech a grad professor made to a class I was in last year. The class was very hard for those of us in it to get a grip on, because the content was incredibly meandering. Every class was very interesting, but it was impossible to see what the ovearching theme or goals for the course were. When it came time to write a seminar paper at the end of the semester, many were panicked. They asked him tentatively in class what kinds of things he was looking for. He responded by invoking the French philosopher Foucault (who every English grad student knows about), and discussing how the mere existence of social institutions causes people to internalize a set of rules that don't have any overt hold over them. He said that the pressure that we would exert on ourselves to write a quality paper is sufficient and that he didn't feel the need to exercise any additional power. He talked at length about how grade inflation at the graduate school level is a good thing. Then we moved on to the actual content of the class.

Proving the professor's point, some around me had trouble interpreting this speech. They didn't feel any better about what was being asked of them. A rather outspoken individual translated for them: "Write the damn paper and you'll get an A." Of course, this is exactly what the professor said with his speech, but it was such a foreign idea that they couldn't get their minds around it. Or, perhaps they didn't want to wrap their minds around it. To have the burden of writing an "A" paper shifted entirely to oneself might be paradoxically more stressful than to surrender control of the grading to the teacher.

What was so intriguing to me about today's experience was the irony of teachers being so willing to fall back into a student's pespective, when on the surface it would be easier to not stress about pleasing an arbitrary and ultimately toothless authority figure with our work. Of course, to acknowledge that there is actually a llmited amound of power that any one individual teacher can consolidate is a reality that most teachers would not like to confront. Ironically, it might actually be more mentally healthy to stress out about whether "She" will collect our work. If "She" is only a "she," after all, that means that we are actually "he's" and "she's" when we teach, not "He's" and "She's."

Note: The title of this entry refers to a classic experiment that examined how social roles influence behavior. Check out the Wikipedia entry here.


Blogger kevin said...

i think for most people having the driving force of authority bearing on their work is a good thing. of course, the objective of the paper and or the teacher could change the importance of authority. for instance if an instructor wants an opinion paper then i don't think that guidelines and restrictions are in order. i think that the level of the writer's abillities also plays a deciding factor in authority's role. the lower your abilities or confidence the more you want guidance and limitaion. perhaps the other "students" were not confident in their own abilities. it is a common thing in writting to not be confident. at least it was and some times is for me (in a classroom setting).

8:27 AM  
Blogger Heidi said...

i would of just bitch slapped her.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Azor said...


Thanks for the comment. Tons of research is done every year on how to best teach, but it's amazing how little actual students are consulted in the research. You've unknowingly hit on a huge controversy in the study of how to teach writing. There has been a trend in recent years into giving students much more power, though there is starting to be a backlash against this. People are starting to realize that some students could benefit from more limitations.

7:38 PM  
Blogger kevin said...

i guess it is a controversy. i think it still comes down to the instructor and/or authority. pressure can make some write well, while good thought provoking questions can get a good response from others. it is all in the set up. once people learn how to spike their intrest and understanding of a topic that is when good results occur. i think students should start with "response" type papers in middle school instead of the book report type they are doing now, and continue the responses through high school in place of the essays that they focus on. i have written many more responses than i have essays thus far. maybe i am not far enough into my collegiate career to make that judgement yet.

10:59 AM  

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