Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 489-503
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A Graduate Instructor's Perspective
My first-year students in expository writing at Rutgers University know that on the day we are to discuss Paulo Freire's (1996) essay "The 'Banking' Concept of Education," they will have to take a quiz. 1 There is a not-too-subtle irony here, given that Freire argues against such "authoritarian" measures. Nevertheless, since the technical vocabulary of the essay demands close attention, the threat of a quiz on Freire's terminology (a threat that translates into my students' serious preparation for a quiz on Freire's terminology) helps lay the groundwork for an in-depth discussion. On the day of the quiz, virtually everyone has read--even meticulously studied--the assignment. It does not take the students long to catch on, though--to recognize the hypocrisy of employing such a method to manipulate them into reading an essay about the distribution of power and authority in the classroom. When everyone has finished the quiz, then, I open class discussion on Freire's essay. This surprises them: they expect to hand in their quizzes, eventually to receive grades on them. For some, from the looks on their faces, the primary reason for having worked so hard is to get a good grade--and the removal of the threat of a failing grade seems to leave them feeling duped, even as they express mild relief. Others enjoy the joke: their knowing grins suggest that for them, grades are secondary; learning, they have learned, can have its own rewards.
In conversation and in writing, students need little encouragement to apply Freire's argument to their own experience in school. Part of my task, as I view it, is to complicate their often simplistic formulations of the relationship [End Page 489] between the text and their lives. When they criticize teachers for employing the "banking" rather than the "problem-posing" method of education, I engage their position by asking them what it takes to construct an egalitarian relationship between "student-teachers" and "teacher-students," in which students and teachers can learn from each other. I try to turn their attention to their own roles in the process of creating such an environment--and to their own roles in so often frustrating, by force of habit, their teachers' well-meaning attempts to dispense with coercive methods. By encouraging my students to adopt a self-reflexive, critical approach to inquiry, I hope to foster in them new forms of self-consciousness about their own position in the real-world context of our discussion.
In Argument Revisited, Argument Redefined, Barbara Emmel, Paula Resch, and Deborah Tenney (1996: xv) identify such an approach as a strategy of teaching argument:
Without naming this process as argument, or presenting any of the formal terms of argument, composition teachers are nonetheless asking their students to engage in argument when they ask them to reflect on their own responses to texts and the origin of their ideas in a nexus of cultural and social beliefs and values. . . . Students are increasingly being asked to be reflexive--to explore and question the ways in which they not only construct responses but also are themselves constructed as readers and writers by the worlds in which they live.
Like many of the contributors to their volume, Emmel, Resch, and Tenney identify the teaching of argument as a valuable strategy for teaching writing as an ongoing, recursive process of subtle negotiation and, potentially, invention--a process in which students themselves can take an active role from the very beginning of their studies in the composition classroom and in college courses generally.
Opening class discussion to the subjects of education and, in particular, to the relationship between students and teachers in the context of Freire's essay provides an opportunity for students to realize that the "academic" work of reading and writing can be relevant to their own lives. Students often enthusiastically criticize former teachers who have relied on the traditional teaching methods critiqued by Freire. I encourage my students to take responsibility for their...