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Pedagogy 6.1 (2006) 149-153
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Moving beyond the Binaries:
A Learning-Centered Approach to Pedagogy
When I was a high school teacher and someone would ask me what I do for a living, I would unthinkingly explain that I teach English. Now, however, I am an assistant professor of English and have read Shari Stenberg's Professing and Pedagogy: Learning the Teaching of English, and I realize that this ostensibly simple inquiry is not so simple for those of us working in this always evolving profession. In fact, I realize after wrestling with the ideas outlined in this thin but remarkably dense book that even the question itself is hard to pin down: Do I teach English? Do I profess it? Do I profess to teach it? Or, do I teach (courses in composition) so that I might profess (my scholarly understanding of literature)? I realize, moreover, that any answer one might give to such questions as these will be loaded with implications and that nearly all such seemingly simple questions and commonsense answers are not so simple or obvious after all.
These types of realizations and related insights about our profession's complexity, inconsistency, and potential represent the positive and positively unsettling effects of reading Professing and Pedagogy. As a good set of photographs of one's own neighborhood might, this book enables us to look again at what we may have thought we had already seen and understood; more to the point, it enables us to reconsider what it means to be a professor of English. It achieves this end by challenging long-standing binaries and by unpacking such normative and limiting metaphors as "the teacher as scholar" and "the teacher as owner," metaphors we often subscribe to and abide by as we go about the business of teaching our classes and professing our expertise about various topics. Further, Stenberg's study of the profession enjoins us to reconsider what it means to be a professor who teaches English. It does so by retracing the discipline's relatively brief but complex history and, in the process, by providing a new model, one that emphasizes a learning-centered approach to instruction and research. For these reasons, and for the very fact that it forces us to consider exactly what we do for a living and how we do it, it is a must-read for assistant professors and full professors alike. [End Page 149]
In rhetoric and composition studies, countless publications champion research associated with the classroom activities and student-centered approaches to instruction. However, Stenberg's book—with its emphasis on both professing and pedagogy and with its suggestion that "learning the teaching of English" is central to these overlapping endeavors—moves beyond these studies by challenging what she describes as "deeply entrenched conceptions of the research professor and the discipline" (xvii). Whereas most scholarship on such issues as critical literacy and even radical pedagogy tends to leave the profession's foundations relatively unshaken, this one does not. Instead, in the introduction and in the first chapter, Stenberg identifies in the discipline's history and in the language that grew out of it certain persistent conceptions about pedagogy's second-rate status in the profession. Then, in four subsequent chapters—each of which focuses on a specific metaphoric conception tied to the teaching of English—it traces these ideas and underlines their often-detrimental influence. Simultaneously, it poses generative questions and carves out space for new and more productive means of making "pedagogy a central disciplined activity of English studies" (xviii). Ultimately and fittingly, the idea of space and, specifically, the "site of knowledge making" associated with one's classroom serves as the metaphor Stenberg employs to unseat the other more conventional metaphors commonly connected to our field.
Chapters 1 and 2 reconsider the profession's history and lay the groundwork for a learning-centered approach to pedagogy, one modeled in the subsequent chapters. Titled...