The origin of the word radical is “root,” which goes a long way towards explain Norman Cornett’s approach to teaching.
Cornett, a hero of the radical pedagogy movement, takes his cue from the historical beginnings of universities.
“All the first universities — Bologna, Sorbonne, Oxford — began as communities, as brotherhoods, as sisterhoods,” said Cornett.
“The key to education is not the prof. It’s the students. You cannot divorce (the students’) reality of their experience from the curriculum.”
But is that realistic in a world where universities are increasingly dominated by administrative expectations? Thompson Rivers University teachers want to know.
Cornett, a religious studies professor, was famously fired from McGill University in 2007 presumably for his unorthodox approach to teaching (the university never explained why).
More than 50 teachers, students and the public joined Cornett and University of Calgary English professor Dr. Aruna Srivastava at TRU Wednesday for a discussion on the teaching method they share.
Both agreed that the key to successful teaching is building community. And the turnout gave Srivastava hope for the university.
“We had five people come out to the same talk at the University of Calgary,” she said.
According to a TRU prof at the event, the faculty is already working towards strengthening their community with an online forum where they can exchange ideas and best practices.
The term radical pedagogy has different meanings for different teachers. For Cornett and Srivastava, it means creating a curriculum that springs from students.
Cornett said he adopted the approach when he began seeing his vocation as a moral and ethical imperative.
“Over the course of my 15 years of teaching, I saw people drown,” he said. “Psychologically, emotionally, intellectually drowning. If someone’s drowning right in front of you, you throw them a lifesaver.”
Srivastava said it took her years to shake the “tyranny” of expectations around course content and to throw away the syllabus.
The result is an engaged and truly challenged class of students who must become self-aware, self-critical and self-motivated. The classroom should be a transformative experience, said Srivastava.
It’s actually more challenging than traditional instruction since the method doesn’t let instructors simply regurgitate material.
“But I say, ‘If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen,’” said Cornett.
The method appealed to those gathered at TRU, however some were leery because of perceived limitations on their academic freedom.
“We do not get tenure, if we do not have a syllabus, if we do not get students through that class,” said one assistant professor.
While acknowledging that professors have been fired for their unorthodox methods — Cornett among them — Srivastava encouraged teachers to determine whether threats were real.
“Am I going to get fired or do I think I’m going to get fired?” she said.
So far Srivastava hasn’t been disciplined, however the tenured professor does admit to putting on a bit of a performance for her superiors.
Cornett, on the other hand, felt he had to be entirely true to his approach.
“I was caught in a web of deceit. I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said.
But, he added, there is a cost to reconciling principles and practice.