7 mins reading and 7 mins viewing
When my cousin saw this photograph, she asked, ‘Why are you dressed like Jesus?’
This was disappointing.
But in case I do need to give it some context, I’m dressed – rather unconvincingly perhaps – as Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars films (although it’s an officially licensed costume so how dare you if you didn’t get it!) The reason for this strange attire was that I made a Star Wars YouTube parody to welcome students into the world of video-making, but the key issue I want to explore in this blog stems from one very simple fact: I am not a Jedi.
I’m currently writing this while waiting for a workshop to begin, which aims to redefine the way in which ‘Digital Literacy’ is understood within the university. I was invited as a Faculty representative due to my reputation in the digital space for teaching with social media. These kinds of invitations come around every now and then, and I have people call me ‘the digital expert’ or ‘the social media guru’ quite a bit. Nothing seems so deeply ironic to me than this, as I’m honestly nothing of the sort. I’m constantly encountering things I don’t know or can’t do, trying new things out, and getting things wrong.
Being a lifelong learner is paramount in these ever-changing times. As I often reiterate to students, I’m deeply skeptical of anyone who makes the claim to be an ‘expert’, but this doesn’t mean you can’t have expertise (a subtle distinction but an important one). The impossibility of mastering social media isn’t specific to education and educators of course, but the massive transformations being experienced in Higher Ed go hand-in-hand with how the role of the ‘teacher’ continues to be negotiated. The fundamental question I want to dwell on here is what does all this mean for how teachers, students, and the dynamics between them might need to be (re)conceptualised?
I recently came across an article by Erica McWilliam called ‘Teaching for Creativity: From Sage to Guide to Meddler’ (2009). Published ten years ago, McWilliam provides a very useful framework for understanding the changing role(s) of students and teachers, particularly in relation to creative capacity-building (an area I’m deeply passionate about and invested in). Adding to the ‘Sage-on-the-Stage’ model of a teacher who distributes learning and the ‘Guide-by-the-Side’ facilitator whose strategies can too readily lean toward passivity (if not neglect), McWilliam adds a third category – the ‘Meddler-in-the-Middle’:
This meta-category is descriptive of active interventionist pedagogy in which teachers are mutually involved with students in assembling and/or dis-assembling knowledge and cultural products. Meddling is a re-positioning of teacher and student as co-directors and co-editors of their social world. As a learning partnership, meddling has powerful implications for what ‘content’ is considered worthy of engagement, how the value of the learning product is to be assessed, and who the rightful assessor is to be. (2009, p. 288)
This is a lot to unpack, and it’s curious that McWilliam appears somewhat ambivalent about the use of digital technologies given the relevance of her ideas to the here and now. Positioning students as co-creators of knowledge and materials has long been talked about, though in practice the ‘mutual involvement’ of students and teachers in a ‘learning partnership’ remains far from the status quo. There are many intersections between McWilliam’s ideas and the ‘Media Studies 2.0’ approach, which I’ll write about in future posts. In my own case, I try to make sure the only time I put myself on a ‘pedestal’ is to fit everyone within the frame…
Empowering Student Agency
Crucially, the ‘meddler’ model can provide greater scope for, and deep respect to, student agency. McWilliam notes that the Meddler-in-the-Middle does not attempt to rescue students from difficulty and struggle, but rather lets their students ‘experience the risks and confusion of authentic learning by allowing their students to stay in the grey of unresolvedness, supporting any and all attempts on the part of their students to experiment with possibilities’ (2009, p. 291). Failure and renewal are central to the process of creative capacity-building – the ‘unreachable’ sage and ‘aloof’ guide can’t facilitate this to anywhere near the same degree.
But does a ‘meddling’ teacher give up her responsibility when stepping away from playing the authority figure at the front of a lecture theatre, or commanding the overwhelming voice of exposition in a seminar or tutorial? While the metaphor might get a bit messy here, I’d argue that being a Meddler-in-the-Middle can be pivotal to student-centered learning. The powerful myth that McWilliams identifies that the all-knowing educator must provide ‘all the maps in the learning process’ (2009, p. 287) continues to persist in many contexts, but students are empowered when this is revealed not to be the case. Great things happen when students are invited to embrace their agency.
Sometimes getting lost is the best means by which you can find your way.
A ‘meddler’ is certainly not abdicating leadership in the learning process, even though a changing series of other ‘micro-leaders’ might also emerge within an online learning community (i.e. students become teachers at times too!). Leading-by-example isn’t the same as being the all-powerful figure who can do no wrong. In the digital and social media arena, for instance, it’s crucial for educators to be professional examples who practice what they promote: any prompts to students to engage in creative media-making are hardly going to be compelling if the one prompting doesn’t do and hasn’t done the same… and got things wrong in the doing.
So I’m not a Jedi, and I’m not Jesus. I’m not an endless fount of wisdom, but just another learner who’s scrambling around looking for the next opportunity to level up. Perhaps my reflexive self-presentation as a lifelong learner and anything-but-an-expert is in part what is increasingly encouraging people to perceive me as one. If you’d like to get more of a sense of some of my teaching practices as a meddler-in-the-middle, below is a video I was invited to make in 2018 for a colleague’s postgraduate unit on Digital Learning:
Thanks for reading and watching! Let me know what you’re learning at the moment as part of your Force training… even if we won’t ever quite become Jedi 😉
McWilliam, E 2009, ‘Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to meddler’, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 281-93.