- Editors’ Introduction
For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.—George Eliot, Middlemarch
We begin with this epigraph from the great nineteenth-century novel Middlemarch because it is a work that George Eliot sets firmly in time, place, and politics. (OK, and Jennifer just finished teaching it recently—and she likes the quote.) In Middlemarch, Eliot's achievement is, in part, that she provides, as her subtitle promises, a "study of provincial life." Eliot is interested not merely in the story of Dorothea or Lydgate or Bulstrode individually, but in the ways in which all these lives intersect and shape each other in the larger context of the town of Middlemarch at the time of the first Reform Bill. Place (and all that it makes possible—and impossible) matters.
Certainly, no one would deny that place is critical in teaching, but it is something that needs constant attention as we think about the scholarship of teaching. As Mark Long's thought-provoking commentary asked in issue 5.3, "Where do you teach?" Within Long's question is embedded a bevy of assumptions about values, priorities, and professional rewards. We were reminded of Long's question as we recently read the provocative book by Rebekah Nathan (the pseudonym of University of Northern Arizona anthropology professor Cathy Small), My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (2005). Though Nathan offers a number of important [End Page 205] insights into the behavior and attitudes of college students generally, we were struck by how different the cultures of our respective institutions were from Nathan's AnyU. Ethics aside,1 we agreed that her experiment posing as a freshman simply wouldn't work for us in our own institutions—we are too known by students and staff to go unrecognized for long. One has to wonder how she could avoid every colleague and former student on campus for a year! Likewise, the generalizations about student culture and about what constitutes curricular and extracurricular activity does not always ring true. As in any ethnography, the power of the data lies in their particularity, in this case, in making the familiar scenes of college life strange. We could argue that the interpretation is not strange enough to capture the nuances of particular classrooms, students, or institutions. In other words, there is no AnyU.
Nathan's experience as a student and the transformative view of the classroom space it gave her and her readers, however, is certainly very intriguing. Though he did not hide his identity as a professor (indeed, one of his own students was in the class with him), Marshall Gregory's experience as a student in a Shakespeare acting class allowed him, like Nathan, to reconceptualize his teaching. In a Commentary in this issue, his exuberant examination of this experience offers some important lessons for all of us as we think about the students we seek to serve, particularly in his call to develop what Gregory terms a "deeper empathy for the rich swirls of our students' anxieties and initial incompetence, not so we can let them off the hook for learning or hard work, but so we can understand why they resist so powerfully being put on the learning hook in the first place."
As several of the articles in this issue make clear, being attentive to the particularities of place opens up significant pedagogical questions. For example, both Eric Ball and Alice Lai as well as Eric Melbye and John Tassoni demonstrate how a focus on local conditions—be they geographical, economic, or institutional—is critical for successful teaching, particularly in the way it allows us as teachers to combat a totalizing ethic. Then, too, consideration of place reminds us as well that pedagogical activity extends beyond the space of the classroom itself—into the community, into the editorial boardroom of a student literary magazine.
Place, of course, determines resources and local practices toward those resources. The other major thread in this issue features a lively debate around technologies of the classroom. The DigiRhet.org collective from Michigan State University...