Jan 12

Pedagogy and the Science of the Mind, 1798-1899

In the twenty-first century it is fairly common to discuss teaching as the application of psychological principles (as in Susan Ambrose et al.’s How Learning Works [2010]) or even the alteration of neural pathways (as James Zull does in The Art of Changing the Brain [2002]). This research is seen as something rather new: as late as 1899, says Ambrose, “there was a lack of research evidence” on both the “science of learning” and the “science of instruction” (How Learning Works xiii). John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) was the dominant model of pedagogical thought for most of the eighteenth century, displaced in the closing decades by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762). And Alan Richardson has argued that “the most frequently cited authority in nineteenth-century writings on education  . . . is not Locke’s Some Thoughts or Rousseau’s Emile, but Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations’ ode” (Literature, Education, and Romanticism xv). The historical picture here is that pedagogical theory was begun as a philosophical endeavor, influenced in the nineteenth century by literary works, and only in the twentieth century drawing on scientific research.

But the research evidence that would come to underlie the sciences of teaching and learning did not suddenly emerge at the end of the nineteenth century. Richard Lovell Edgeworth writes in the preface to Practical Education (1798) that “To make any progress in the art of education, it must be patiently reduced to an experimental science” (v), and throughout this work Maria Edgeworth draws on scientists like Joseph Priestley, Thomas Beddoes, and Erasmus Darwin. When Practical Education appeared in 1798 the sciences of psychology and neurology existed only in nascent form but were already being applied to the field of education.

The field of psychology developed gradually throughout the nineteenth century, and principles of psychology were applied to the field of education almost as quickly as they were discovered. At mid-century Herbert Spencer argued that “Some acquaintance with the first principles of physiology and the elementary truths of psychology is indispensable for the right bringing up of children” (“What Knowledge Is of Most Worth?” 64), and late-Victorian teachers could acquire this knowledge from works like James Sully’s Teacher’s Handbook of Psychology (1886) and Joseph Baldwin’s Psychology Applied to the Art of Teaching (1892). By the end of the century research in psychology was regularly being applied in the classroom.

As Sally Shuttleworth argues, throughout the nineteenth-century relationships among different disciplines were by no means simple: sometimes literary texts drew on scientific theories, but often literary works played “a formative role in the development of the frameworks” of scientific studies (The Mind of the Child 3). In the coming months I will be exploring the extent to which nineteenth-century educational writers drew on both literary and scientific discourses. Focusing on three decades – 1800-1810, 1860-70, and 1890-1900 – I will examine how pedagogical texts treat topics like motivation, attention, imitation, and memory, all of which were of interest both to scientists and to literary writers. In the first decade of the nineteenth century David Hartley’s associationist psychology provided a theory of the mind that underlay not only educational writings like the Edgeworths’ Practical Education but also poetic works like Wordsworth’s Prelude, which itself would become a key text for pedagogical writers later in the century: Wordsworth’s conception of memory formed the basis of both literary and scientific experiments.

Following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, education took a decidedly biological turn: Spencer claimed, “the first requisite to success in life, is to be a good animal” (“Intellectual Education” 103) and George Eliot explored questions of evolution and education in novels like The Mill on the Floss (1860) while Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold debated the respective roles of science and culture in a liberal education. The decade that began with Darwin, Spencer, and Eliot ended with the 1870 Forster Education Act, perhaps the century’s most important educational legislation. In the 1890s the child study movement called on parents and teachers to supply data to researchers, and as Shuttleworth argues, “enacted a series of territorial struggles over space: domestic, discursive, and professional . . . The story of the initial growth of this science in England is not one primarily of laboratories and experiments, but rather of tentative debate in the periodical press” (288). I will trace the literary legacy of these debates in authors as varied as Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, and H. G. Wells.

The educational debates begun in the nineteenth century remain current today, as we continue to feel the legacy of nineteenth-century educational reforms. My project will provide a historical background to these contemporary debates, contributing not only to our understanding of how nineteenth-century writers thought about education but also to our sense of how these writers shaped the way we talk about education in the twenty-first century.

Works Cited

Ambrose, Susan A, with Michael W. Bridges, Michele Di Pietro, Marsha C. Lovett and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Edgeworth, Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Practical Education. 2 vols. London: J. Johnson, 1798.

Richardson, Alan. Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice, 1780-1832. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Shuttleworth, Sally. The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Spencer, Herbert. “What Knowledge is of Most Worth?” Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1898.

Zull, James E. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 2002.

Dec 19

Mentors and Intangibles: Remembering Gary and Greg

As applicants and search committees look forward to the upcoming Modern Language Association convention in Seattle, Rosemary Feal has been listing “intangibles, not visible on CV”  on her Twitter feed. She means characteristics like integrity, maturity, honesty, and empathy, which while hard to glean from job materials are nonetheless very important to employers. I’ve been thinking a lot about these kinds of intangible characteristics recently, but not because of the MLA. When I think of the intangibles that I would claim for myself, I trace many of them back to my college swim coach and mentor Gary Troyer, who passed away last week, and to Greg Colomb, who passed away in October. I am a different person — a better person — for having known them, but it is hard to quantify what they taught me. As I reflect on what the world has lost in the last two months, I felt the need to think about how much I learned from these two mentors.

Probably the most specific characteristic I associate having learned from both is self-confidence. Greg ran the writing program at the University of Virginia, and every graduate student who came through our department worked closely with him. A memory I deeply cherish is from my first time teaching a college course, as a teaching assistant in Greg’s “academic and professional writing.” I led a once-a-week workshop, which complemented the lectures. Around mid-semester, about an hour before my class, I happened to meet Greg in the hallway. “I’m coming to observe you today,” he said (while some professors give lots of advance notice before coming to observe a TA, I soon learned that wasn’t Greg’s style). The class went fine, and when I went by Greg’s office a few days later to talk to him about it, he told me “you’re a born teacher.” This remains one of the greatest compliments anyone’s ever paid me, and meant so much more coming from Greg. Whenever a class doesn’t go well, or I feel like I’m not doing my best, I remember Greg’s confidence in me.

Gary had been coaching for thirty plus years when I first met him, and one way he had learned to keep track of the swimmers was to recruit them to play water polo. I’d never even seen a game before, but was happy to fill out the bench and stay in reasonable shape. I wasn’t very good at water polo, and probably didn’t try as hard in practices as I could have. After a successful performance in the 100 fly in one of the first swim meets, Gary confessed to me, “a few months ago I wasn’t sure you could even finish a 100 fly.” This was blunt honesty, which some found off-putting but which I appreciated. And that he could be this honest meant that when he was excited about something, it was genuine. He wasn’t given to large outward displays of emotion, but I remember winning a race and looking over to see him with both arms raised in victory. The image stays with me.

The more I think about it, Gary and Greg had a lot in common, and would have gotten along well together. Both were inveterate lovers of knowledge: Gary did the crossword every day, and Greg was never shy about sharing something he’d just learned (he taught me everything I know about curling, a sport I never thought could be interesting.) Both loved to cook, and would have students over to their houses (I can’t begin to guess how much carne asada and tri-tip sandwiches Gary cooked us). And both were repositories of institutional memory: Gary coached at Pomona for over thirty years and we loved hearing his stories and meeting alumni whom he’d coached years ago, and Greg could draw on decades of experience in the writing program to aid in any of the administrative questions that came up (I witnessed this first-hand in weekly meetings.)

But most of all, both were great men: happily married, they loved their jobs and were loved by their students. There are many people to whom I look up intellectually and professionally, but when I think of the kind of person I would like to be, I’m hard pressed to imagine better mentors than Greg and Gary.

Nov 16

The Teachers Who Mattered Most

[This post is cross-posted on the NINES blog]

Following last week’s symposium here at UVA, I found myself recalling Roger Lundin’s essay in Pedagogy from a few years ago: “the teachers who mattered most to me did so because of what they loved,” writes Lundin. “As I taught, in other words, I learned I had come to love what my most effective teachers had loved, and they had taught me how” (137). Lundin, riffing on Wordsworth’s Prelude – “what we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how” – offers a viewpoint that I think was implicit in many of the discussions. The symposium marks in the inauguration of Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures, and Steve Ramsay began his talk by praising institutes like this one for providing an opportunity for scholars to live an intellectual life in community with others. Community – which means, people – is as important to academic fields as the theories and methodologies that were the symposium’s explicit focus.

Lundin again: “For the past several decades in the humanities, our discourse has been theory-rich, perhaps theory-saturated, and we have developed explanations for everything from the nuances of différance to the needs of the subaltern. But when have we thought about love?” (134). Love of our work, Lundin means, and in a real, non-theoretical sense. A flurry of recent posts (like Natalie Cecire’s and Jean Bauer’s) has considered the place of theory in digital humanities. And perhaps the most important argument to arise from symposium (besides the institute itself, of course) will be Bethany Nowviskie’s call for reform of graduate training, to match the methods and questions that will form the future. But in the words of the Black Eyed Peas, where is the love?

For digital humanities, the response to the Black Eyed Peas comes from the Troggs: love is all around. At THATCamps, at MLA sessions, on Twitter – digital humanists seem to have a fondness for their work, an emotional connection to their theoretical arguments. Panels play to packed houses, in a way that other fields seem not to. This isn’t to say that everyone always agrees with each other, or that theoretical conversations don’t happen. The teachers who matter to us, Lundin is careful to state, are not necessarily the ones with whom we always agree: “my most influential teachers had religious commitments, political views, or theoretical understanding that differed sharply from my own” (137). Disagreement of course fosters insights. Responding to Bethany, Ryan Cordell hopes to reform undergraduate teaching as well. Ted Underwood, though, is “not yet sure about the implications at the undergraduate level. Maybe ten years from now I’ll be teaching text mining to undergrads … but then again, maybe the things undergraduates need most from an English course will still be historical perspective, close reading, a willingness to revise, and a habit of considering objections to their own thesis.” In considering how our pedagogical goals might change, Ted gives what I think is the best and most concise list of what those goals are now (at least the best I’ve heard).

Academics are teachers, and I’m excited to see that teaching has become a center of the conversation in digital humanities, with both graduate students and undergraduates involved in digital scholarship. We can say, to the leaders in the field, what you love we will love: teach us how.