Of Education, Fishbowls, and Rabbit Holes
Rethinking Teaching and Liberal Education for an Interconnected World
- ISBN: 9781620364208
- Published By: Stylus Publishing
- Published: February 2016
“If somebody teaches and nobody learns, what do you call that?” The inquisitive student who asked that question also answered it: “A lot of hot air” (xv). This anecdote sets the tone for Jane Fried’s short but provocative book Of Education, Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes: Rethinking Teaching and Liberal Education for an Interconnected World, which maps out a passionate and thoughtful argument regarding the need for educators—especially those who teach liberal arts—to reexamine what we do, how we do it, and why it matters. Fried’s career in academia—as a professor and a student affairs administrator—affords her a unique position from which to make her case, bridging the often untraversed gap between those of us who teach students, and those who help to manage all other aspects of students’s lives on campus.
Fried begins by raising a frequent question about higher education: “[i]f students aren’t learning what we expect them to learn and the methods we are using to teach them are often ineffective, how do we justify the massive amount of human and material resources that the United States puts into the enterprise of higher education every semester?” (xv). To answer this question, Fried suggests that we need to 1) reexamine and reframe the purpose of education in the liberal arts for the 21st century; 2) refresh our pedagogy, paying attention to what we now know about how people learn; 3) “move beyond the positivist paradigm of teaching and learning inherited from German research universities and incorporate both constructivism and the role of emotions in learning into our pedagogy as indicated by the learning research” (xvii); 4) learn about the idea of “self-authorship,” and use it in our work with students (Marcia Baxter Magolda, Creating Contexts for Learning and Self-Authorship, Vanderbilt University Press, 1999); and 5) seek professional development opportunities that can help us become “skilled and competent” educators (xvii).
While Fried addresses these issues throughout the text, this review will focus on two aspects of the book in which Fried makes important contributions to the current conversations on higher education and pedagogy. The first is the crucial need—for faculty and our institutions—to “get out of the fishbowl” of the “Grand Narrative of Western civilization” with regard to our understanding of our roles as educators, and our assumptions about what our students need from us (10ff). Universities hire those with doctorates, as we are experts in our fields. Following the German research university model, we are told that our job, as faculty, is to transmit knowledge to students and to create knowledge as researchers. In this model, the faculty “profess,” students listen, and the conceptual—and perhaps even literal—space between teachers and students is vast.
Fried is good at clearly and succinctly describing this state of affairs, and she also makes a powerful case for rethinking the fishbowl. She argues that, as our students become more diverse—coming to us with a wider range of experiences and needs—“we are obligated to take a look at the perspective that our fishbowl creates so that we can get outside and critique its utility in educational situations” (18). And, while it is true that the traditional vision of education has been criticized by many, and for years—Paolo Friere and bell hooks immediately come to mind—it nonetheless remains pervasive. Fried’s ability to bring in perspectives from multiple disciplines and make connections with student development theories renders her case even more persuasive.
The other concept in Of Education, Fishbowls, and Rabbit Holes that challenges the traditional role of the educator is that of “self-authorship,” an idea originally theorized by developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, and applied specifically to student development and learning in college, by Baxter Magolda. Self-authorizing is the ability to create and shape the narrative of one’s own life, which includes “learning to create and support [one’s] own opinions/critical thinking” (39). As Fried notes, it is “the most profound task that college students face, regardless of their age, their field of study, their career choice, or any other future plans” (39). I suspect that, although the faculty hopes that we help students do this, we may actually have no idea whether we are successful. Teaching that encourages self-authorship, research shows, requires “a willingness to question students about personal reactions; the ability to acknowledge emotions and ask students to analyze their own feelings” as well as “emotional involvement or caring … and a teacher who is willing to self-disclose” where appropriate (44). These are skills that faculty are not taught in graduate school: did we imagine that we would ever “ask students to develop an opinion about any set of facts based on their personal experience?”, or talk with them about where they find meaning and purpose? (46). This is dangerous territory for many of us: what if we are expected to become counselors instead of educators? Here is where Fried makes an important point: “[r]eferring a student to the counseling center is a very good thing to do, but it may not address the cognitive elements of subjects that may have personal meaning for students. The student may be attempting to develop a sense of self-authorship, self-in-the-world, by incorporating information from the faculty member’s discipline into his or her personal narrative” (52). We need to be willing to have these kinds of conversations with our students.
Fried’s book would be an excellent choice for a faculty reading group or discussion, especially as she includes questions and activities to assist readers in thinking about their experiences as teachers and learners. As a bonus, Fried includes information on the dynamics of classroom group work, and on contemplative practices for the classroom. If you are a regular reader of books on higher education and pedagogy, this is a good book to put on your list. If you are not, read it anyway.
Susan E. HIll is Professor of Religionn and Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Northern Iowa.Susan E. HillDate Of Review:April 13, 2019