Tulips, Tinfoil, and Teaching
I continue to be a huge fan of personal narratives, those accounts of teaching experiences from which the author and the reader learn much. They’re scholarly, thoughtful, and intellectual. They may start with “here’s what happened to me” but that launchpad rockets the author and reader to reflection, analysis, critique, and new worlds of understanding. These pieces of scholarship are good reading, even at the end of a long day. I strongly believe that our literature on teaching and learning is being impoverished by the reluctance of so many periodicals to publish these personal narratives.
Yesterday, I rediscovered one that I’d forgotten: “Tulips, Tinfoil and Teaching: Journal of a Freshman Teacher.” It’s by Colleen Burke, who left a varied and successful career in business to teach. She was hired two weeks before classes started and assigned three sections; two the same course, the third a different one. She was supposed to use cases—they were prepared and ready to go for the first course. She need to develop them for the third course. “The first day in the classroom I felt as if I were lost in the wilderness without a map or compass.” (p. 45)
The chapter recounts various experiences during that first year, most of them describing what happens early and later in teaching careers. She interrogates these events with such powerful questions. Example: the two sections of the same course were totally different. “I was the same teacher in both sections. . .both sections. . .occupied similar spaces. Both used identical materials. Why did one section continue to work and one continue to fall apart?” “Was I a better teacher in the morning?” “Can a section have a personality of its own that just does not fit with the teacher’s?” (p. 49) Different responses to the same course, taught by the same teacher regularly raise these questions to which we offer elusive answers.
But it’s the tulips and the tinfoil that make this such a memorable piece of scholarship. Burke is in her backyard sitting next to a patch of blooming tulips. Her neighbor, who teaches art at the same institution, approaches and she starts talking with him about Fritz Roethlisberger’s work on organizational behavior. She been reading his autobiography and “It reminded me of what I was trying to do in the classroom: place behavior on a mathematical matrix, graph its multidimensionality, try to hold it still as it squirms like a puppy seeing its first squirrel. I described to him the process by which I tried to take students in a discussion class beyond the outline of a situation into its subtleties—a process of accepting and then mitigating ambiguity. . . “ Her neighbor asks her to describe the tulips next to her. She says they’re white. He is silent and so she looks harder and harder, seeing more and still more until they no longer looked like tulips. “Could it possibly be this hard and confusing for my students to look at a simple business situation case study?” (p. 38)
She wondered how art teachers help students develop the skills of seeing, analyzing, measuring, interpreting, and presenting. She decided to take a painting class to see if she could learn something from the techniques used to teach art, and that’s where the tinfoil comes in. The first assignment was to paint a still life of crumpled tinfoil. She couldn’t do it. “After three exasperating hours in the studio I dashed over to teach my introductory business class of twenty-five college freshmen who had just read a turgid handout on the structural analysis of industries. They looked at me as if they had just been given a piece of crumpled tinfoil.” (p. 39)
She remembered the tulips. “I must not ask my students to see everything with such rich detail or they will never move forward: analysis paralysis. Selection is the key to action. The art of the photographer: framing, focusing. How do I introduce my students to the complexity of a situation yet focus on specifics as well?” (p. 38)
Reference: Burke, C. Tulips, tinfoil and teaching: Journal of a freshman teacher. In C. Christensen, D. Garvin and A. Sweet, eds. Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 1991.