Stanford News

4/2/97

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Learning by teaching

Erin, a sophomore, drew the short straw. While all her classmates have to "teach" at least once, her assignment is the most risky. "I'm rather intimidated trying to summarize an article with the author sitting at my left side," she begins. Hooking a lock of hair behind an ear, Erin says that she "didn't understand" one scholarly argument in the reading assignment.

"It's not important," the author, anthropology Professor Sylvia Yanagisako, says quickly with a dismissive wave of her hand. Erin clears her throat and begins again. In simplest terms, she tells the other students gathered around a conference table in a small Quad classroom, Yanagisako's article boils down to one point: "In the interest of creating Asian American unity, certain stories aren't told."

Yanagisako scribbles furiously on a yellow pad. Her eyes are pointed down, as if to make herself less visible. Erin continues listing the reasons why conventional Asian American history courses and books leave out certain stories ­ stories of Asian American women, according to Yanagisako's paper. When Erin runs out of notes, the room falls silent, except for the hissing sound of Yanagisako's pen. All eyes seem to land at once on the scribe. "How am I doing?" Erin asks, as if speaking for the entire class.

Teaching students that the best education is a collaborative process between people of differing skills and perspectives is difficult, but Yanagisako, an award-winning teacher, refuses to give up. She is convinced that Erin, like all the others in this feminist studies class, will have learned more from teaching her classmates than if Yanagisako had lectured on her own paper. The students, well into winter quarter, tend to agree that they have learned more this way but say teaching the class still makes them feel anxious.

When teachers always lecture to students, Yanagisako told a meeting of teachers a few days earlier, "often the mode is at odds with the substance of what is being taught." Marshall McLuhan was at least partly right, she said, when he said the medium is the message.

Yanagisako, who won a dean's teaching award in 1992-93, teamed up with lecturer Amy Burce recently to discuss "collaborative" teaching techniques at a seminar sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning. Collaboration normally refers to two or more teachers taking responsibility for a course together, but the two also said that when they can't team teach, they "collaborate" with their often-reluctant students.

Courses that use teaching and learning as "collective brainstorming" are more consistent with the university's process of creating knowledge, said Burce, a lecturer in anthropology and the Cultures, Ideas and Values program. When one expert lectures to non-experts, "courses appear to be individually constructed and authored like articles. But good courses are like good articles ­ they are socially constructed. . . . When we teach or write, we draw on ideas and information from our current colleagues and our students as well as our reading."

Anthropologists traditionally have thought of teaching as "cultural transmission," Yanagisako told her colleagues. When studying any culture, the anthropologist asks what is being conveyed about the society through a given educational practice.

"We would argue that an important part of what we teach and learn in our educational institutions is not only ideas about education but about hierarchy, authority, the self and all sorts of social relations ­ in other words, the ideas, meanings and practices that anthropologists call culture."

Yanagisako and Burce gave examples of different styles of collaboration, and conceded that they could probably learn as well from the laboratory model in some sciences. One example evolved from a collaboration of dissatisfied graduate students in the late 1980s. The students proposed a different way faculty might approach a required course in the history of anthropological theory. Yanagisako worked with one of the students and Professor Jane Collier to rewrite and teach the new curriculum, which involved each of the three focusing on one national tradition in anthropology ­ those of France, Britain and the United States. "Now it has become institutionalized," Yanagisako said of the course, "and waits for another generation of anthropology students to rethink it."

A quite different collaboration resulted when Yanagisako teamed up with anthropology Professor Arthur Wolf. The two deeply disagreed about methodology, she said, and both were members of their high school debate teams, so they decided to debate in class such questions as whether or not the incest taboo or the concept of family were universal.

Some students were "confused and overwhelmed," she said, to hear respected experts disagreeing, but most seemed to find it enlightening. "There isn't enough exposure given to students of the ways in which [faculty] disagree but still carry on a dialogue," she said.

Collaboration is critical and layered in the Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV) program for freshmen, Burce and Yanagisako said. In CIV, faculty members lecture in a quarter-long course that is part of a three-quarter sequence. They are aided by lecturers who lead small group discussions throughout the sequence.

The entire faculty of the anthropology department initially collaborated in devising a CIV track known as Origins, Encounters, Identities. Then the three faculty who would teach it ­ George Collier, Jim Fox and Yanagisako ­ developed core themes that met the requirements of the CIV program. The lecturers were hired after the course was approved and funded, which is not ideal, Yanagisako said, because they had no input into the syllabus. CIV professors "rely on the lecturers to do the integration between quarters and fill in the gaps," she said. "Time constraints are a big thing for professors. You are only responsible for 30 percent of the course, and it's easy to walk away from the other 70 percent."

Professors also should occasionally lead the small group discussions, she said. "Sometimes you forget who a freshman is, and it's helpful to see what it's like to do the other person's job."

The two lecturers in her CIV track talk with each other at least twice a week to coordinate their work, Burce said. "Students want to know they are being treated equally and that they are learning comparable things and being graded in comparable ways." Because the lecturers stay with the same group of students all year, they also keep tabs on the long-term goals of the sequence. Problems emerge, she said, when the teachers do not talk enough or do not share goals for what students should learn.

Getting students to collaborate on teaching each other may be the most difficult, Yanagisako said. "Over 15 years, I have given up trying to get students to write papers together." They are troubled, she said, by issues of sharing the workload and grade.

In classes of 30 or fewer, however, she has been successful in organizing students into groups of three to five who are then assigned to lead a class discussion together and comment critically on the selected readings. The students also trade reading notes, which they use to review for tests.

Burce agreed that students benefit from collaboration. "If students have to identify an argument in someone else's paper, it helps them learn what a thesis is and sharpens their own writing abilities."

In her Feminist Theory and Practice class, Yanagisako eventually puts down her pen and slings an arm over the back of the chair. The discussion of how conceptions of gender and ethnicity influence ideas of citizenship involves students sharing their personal experience as "naturalized" or "native-born." At the first pause, Yanagisako jumps in with her collaborative style: "I want to throw out my definition . . . ," she begins.

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By Kathleen O'Toole