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Created: January 31, 2002
Latest Update: February 2, 2002

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January 31, 2002: Bull Sessions: Talking About Our Learning

journal entry by jeanne

Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individaul Authors, January 2002.
"Fair use" encouraged.

Thank you all for trusting me to pull this off successfully. I've never taught a course this way before, with our only face-to-face meetings to be arranged corroboratively by us, as we go. And I don't have a nice neat set of tasks to give you, with a nice neat set of due dates. If I did, it would be structurally violent, and not a good learning experience, because I would be controlling it. I agree with Freire that you who are the learners need some say in what is to be learned.

But now that we have this course to practice with, how on earth do we do it? That's what this series of letters is for: academic discourse. What I mean by academic discourse here is the time we take together, officially sanctioned as part of our learning and teaching to talk over what we're doing and why. That's what academics do in real academic discourse. They talk over their theories and idea, argue over them, and mull over what needs changing. They help each other create. And that's what we're going to do.

You can call them bull sessions if you like. Sessions when we'll prod each other to dig deeper and try to understand what we're feeling about what we're learning, and what that tells us about how to build a learning community in which we could get the most from that learning. Pierre Bourdieu complained that we didn't teach students how to engage in these academic bull sessions. But then we expect them to know how to have their own bull sessions and include us someday. He's right. We need to focus on how to do this, and we need to practice. Moot court this semester is our practice.

Stanford, in some research published in the early 90s, suggested that the top-ranked academic institutions used to provide this training for their Ph.D. candidates. But then came budget crises, and even the elite schools could no longer afford their generious research budgets. Graduate students ended up doing more and more of the technical support for running the research and had less and less time for bull sessions with their faculty mentors. A few chosen students were still selected for bull sessions, students the faculty mentors felt would be their replacements in years to come. That very selection led to those students having special privileges when it came time to get teaching positions, and those who had missed out on this selection found it easier to get positions as research directors, technical people a step lower than the "great thinkers." And so class was reintroduced into higher education, even in the elite halls of ivy.

How does this affect us? Trickle down theory. If the elite higher education institutions turned to putting their students to work at directing the research instead of taking time to think and learn and ponder with them, guess how much more inclined poorer and less well known institutions hired up their good students to help with the overload, and eliminated frills like bull sessions in face of overload.

Bull sessions are not a luxury. They are essential to learning to take your time and mull over thoughts and theories. They are how we learn to make decisions, but hold them tentatively until more data appear. All that takes practice.

Bull sessions are what Mac describes as learning that what you think matters.