Pederson's article in this month's Journal is a wonderful example of ways in which we can engage our students in dialogue. The author points out the numerous controversial issues that nurses face in their practice. Resolution of these difficult issues requires the understanding of multiple perspectives, rather than adhering to a single point of view. Teaching strategies such as those offered by Pederson may be helpful for students to learn ways in which sticky issues can be resolved.
Articles such as these are valuable, not only for offering a concrete teaching approach, but also for stimulating reflections on our own practices as teachers and faculty members. I've been thinking about what else there is in our academic culture that encourages or impedes discussion of controversial issues between faculty and students and among faculty.
Many years ago, as I was being oriented to the role of accreditation site visitor, one of my sister orientées asked why it was that accreditation site visitors couldn't receive at least a small honorarium for the enormous amount of effort involved in these visits. The response was a glib, "That would violate the principles of peer review." The end. No further conversation. I was pretty young and naive and just assumed that everybody else must know what these principles were and how they related to honoraria, so I puzzled over this in silence. I recognize the response now as a conversation-stopping truism - a statement of obvious fact that is allowed to go unexamined, that is invoked during discussion of a controversial topic, and that has the effect of closing down debate. Such truisms are part of our everyday lives in academia. Here are some other examples that have shown up in my life since I started paying attention:
The curriculum belongs to the faculty." This one came up in the context of a discussion about changes being considered by one of the curriculum committees. The committee, as in most schools, is composed of elected faculty representatives. The issue was whether the proposed change should be considered by the entire faculty, rather than settled by the council. When the truism was invoked, the debate about who should be involved in decision-making stopped. What was interesting though, was that neither I nor anybody else involved in this discussion explored what the truism "the curriculum belongs to the faculty" meant. Is it that it doesn't belong to administration? To students? If this representative council isn't faculty, what is it? What does "belong" mean?
Here's another one: "If I know too much about my students, it's likely to interfere with my ability to evaluate them objectively." I was having a conversation with several faculty about whether we shouldn't improve our ways of communicating with one another about students' progress through the program. Virtually everyone involved in the conversation murmured assent to the statement ("Mmm, yeah, you're right") and once again, its meaning and underlying assumptions went unexplored. What's wrong with knowing the students? Is our major purpose objective evaluation or is it teaching? Can't we be more effective in our teaching if we know our students? Is there any such thing as objective evaluation anyway?
"The students haue to haue X (e.g., microbiology) before they can do Y (e.g., handwashing). They have to have the principles before they can do the application." This truism occurred in the context of one of those interminable debates about the reordering of the curriculum; once again, there was assent - of course, we all know that students have to have the principles first. Behind it are longstanding assumptions that professional practice is best understood as the application of scientific principles to particular situations, and that learning this practice requires a hierarchical sequencing from general principles to specific issues in practice. But, can students learn from practice without principles? What of practices that work but may have not principles?
Underneath each of these truisms are tacit assumptions about governance, about curriculum, about teacher-student relationships, which, if explored and debated, might go a lot further toward understanding the source of recurring controversy, and open new avenues toward resolution. When offered as factual truths, they shut down debate and greatly decrease the likelihood of any true reform in our educational practices. What's your favorite truism? Send it in, with your analysis, and well be happy to print it on these pages to help us all learn to uncover some of those deep assumptions in our practice.