From Knowledge Consumers to Knowledge Producers: The Autobiographical Inquiry in Curriculum Studies

Tom PoetterJames M. Loy, Miami University's College of Education, Health, and Society

Dr. Thomas Poetter has the look of a professor who can’t believe he’s allowed to have this much fun inspiring and mentoring a new generation of educational leaders and scholars. And as he ruminates on the field of curriculum studies, as an exciting pathway into a life of the mind, it’s apparent that his enthusiasm for the subject is only equaled by a desire to inspire active student engagement.

“The best educational experiences are those where the teacher understands that education comes from the Latin ‘educare,’ to draw out,” he says smiling. “So we are not just filling students up with stuff. They come with life experiences too, and an understanding of the world. We should be co-constructing knowledge with them. I start my classes with that theoretical framing. We have a syllabus and readings and projects. But you are not an empty vessel. So my work is to pull you out.”

Translated in full, educare means “to draw out that which lies within," and it certainly does encapsulate fundamental aspects of both Poetter’s pedagogical philosophy and the way his exhaustive body of research welcomes students directly into the fold.

As Graduate Studies Director in the Department of Educational Leadership, Poetter works alongside undergraduates, master’s and doctoral students. Together, they study how the convergence of leadership, individual and social contexts, and curriculum-based methodologies can either enable or prohibit the progressive advancement of educational systems.

“One of the questions in curriculum studies is how do we actually move,” he says. “And what are all the factors and contextual boundaries that bump up against us? What are the barriers to movement? And what kinds of things could we be doing better to help move things along beyond radical solutions?”

Answering these questions means thinking critically about the embedded cultural, political, and ethical forces that inherently shape the contemporary educational landscape, their relation to different demographic groups, and the fundamental organizational or ideological shifts required to achieve social justice.

But Poetter’s efforts are more than just about acknowledging the rise of various challenges to long held traditions and established institutions, and it also goes beyond the external and internal social pressures affecting the overall evolution of the system. For Poetter, it is also very much about reading, understanding, and transforming the specific cultural and individual contexts in which these forces occur.

So to explore these lines of inquiry in more depth and detail, Poetter introduces students to a process called “currere,” and he does so early on, generally on day one of their graduate careers, and with the explicit intention of helping these students actually publish work much earlier than most otherwise ever would.

“What he does with doctoral students is a pedagogical tour de force,” says Denise Taliaferro Baszile, College of Education, Health and Society (EHS) Associate Dean and Poetter’s EDL colleague. “Because you are talking about, first of all, new doctoral students who don’t always know the terminology in the field, and who don’t always, at that point, have the strongest writing skills. And yet he manages to produce whole books out of their thinking, and that is huge.”

Currere as a Pathway to Early Student Publication
Currere is a method of critical self-reflection that gives meaning and context to one’s own autobiographical knowledge of educational and cultural experiences. On one level it is an introspective process, but it is also the story of how people make sense of their experience and their knowledge in relation to the much larger historical, social, and political dynamics in which it exists.

According to Taliaferro Baszile, who, like Poetter, also incorporates currere into much of her own critical academic work, “This knowledge, as is all knowledge, comes from a situated ‘knower’ that is raced, and gendered, and located in a particular moment in time with a particular set of experiences. The way we think about it in curriculum studies is the way in which your interior work manifests as public intellectual activist work.”Tom Poetter and Denise Taliaferro-Baszile

Currere, therefore, is a way to unpack these cultural contexts, and it builds upon a strong tradition of qualitative research that has always recognized the researcher as a pivotal part of the academic process.

As a method, it was first formulated by acclaimed curriculum theorist William Pinar in the 1970s and it follows four stages that include regression, progression, analytical, and synthetical analysis. Today, Poetter uses it to encourage graduate students to think deeply about their own educational experiences. It’s a starting point for exploring, discussing, and, most important, for generating new knowledge around curriculum studies.

“Because they are who they are -- they are often professional people who are coming to us for doctoral work -- students already have life experiences and professional experiences that form the basis for a research agenda,” Poetter points out. “Their lives themselves are important stories and data points on which to capitalize. That comes out of the curriculum studies tradition of valuing people’s positionality and their life stories.”

Introducing them to currere, however, is just the beginning. Early on, Poetter shows students how to combine their critical autobiographical self-reflections with key scholarly texts, theoretical frameworks, current events, and even relevant public policies in a way that both generates original academic works and directly establishes the students as burgeoning academics themselves.

“I am trying to teach beginning scholars to be scholars,” Poetter stresses. “And I am giving them a practical environment and an opportunity, an actual opportunity, to get to write a chapter for a book in my class. Not after the course, not after they have done a project, but in the course, for the main project, to do work for publication. I am creating an environment to experience what it means to be a producer of knowledge.”

In the beginning, many students are often daunted, overwhelmed by the seemingly monumental task set before them. But those anxieties soon subside as students are encouraged by Poetter’s genuine enthusiasm, obvious expertise, and long track record of successfully seeing students through the process.

“I’ll never forget my first class,” says Peggy Larrick, EHS doctoral candidate and current educational leadership teaching assistant. “It was a summer seminar course with experienced doctoral students in which, within the first few minutes of class, Dr. Poetter said, ‘We’re going to write a book.’ I was sure I would just watch or support since I was ‘new.’ But that’s not how Dr. Poetter works. He had faith in my experiences and abilities even when I didn’t.”

From Personal Narratives to Professional Publications
Larrick, along with the other students in her class, were involved in a book called Was Someone Mean to You Today? The genesis of the project relied on the students’ personal and professional experiences with the ongoing curriculum standardizations and the high-stakes performance testing currently challenging most schools and teachers today.

So the subject matter was directly related to the story of the class coming together, thinking through various political reform strategies, and developing themes around how curriculum standardization and corporatization “hit home” and negatively impacted the public educational system.

After incorporating relevant academic references and meta-analyses that connected their narrative autobiographical sections to the theoretical and conceptual frameworks of other educational scholars, the students also served as co-editors and ultimately decided how the material was organized.

Over the course of six chapters, the book deals with the passage and repercussions of the No Child Left Behind Act, the social diminishment of teaching as a profession, the marginalization of certain demographic groups, how various oppressive forces such as technology, for example, can distort learning outcomes, viable solutions to these problems, and more.

Larrick’s chapter, co-authored with EHS students Cheryl Young and Nancy Tracey, titled, “Education Is the Answer,” served as an endcap, and it examined possible ways to overcome the challenges the book had previously explored.

“Our chapter was about the next steps and solutions, and how do we move forward from here,” Larrick says. “Using our real-life experiences and memories of lived experiences, we looked at how that is indicative of what is happening in present day, and what it means in relation to the cultural and political climate for all the stakeholders, who are parents, teachers, students, policy makers, and administrators.” 

In general, Was Someone Mean to You Today? follows a similar overall structure and it demonstrates the students’ grasp of the currere method as well as their ability to use it as a gateway to publication.

Similarly, the same also holds true for another ongoing and long-running project called Curriculum Windows, which follows the course of curriculum theory and practice throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

But unlike Was Someone Mean to You Today?, Curriculum Windows is not just a book, but rather an entire series of books. Each one highlights a different decade and every spring a new class of graduate students is given the opportunity to make another unique contribution to the field.

“These books are attempts by students of curriculum studies to connect with a historical text in the field and open a window to how it is relevant today,” Poetter explains. “I am asking them, within the span of a semester, to use their reading to support their ideas and to use their own life experiences to connect with the text.”

It all began during the spring semester of 2013, and Curriculum Windows has since expanded to encompass the 1950s through the 2000s.

Former student Chloe Bolyard, now an instructor at Evangel University, first joined Curriculum Windows during the project’s third year. And in addition to serving as an editor, her chapter examined the paradoxes and possibilities of cooperative learning in the volume titled, What Curriculum Theorists of the 1980s Can Teach Us About Schools and Society Today.

“The book chapter I wrote for the Curriculum Windows was my first book chapter publication and only my second ever publication,” Bolyard says. “The experience of writing something of value, to contribute to the curriculum field at large, gave me an authentic audience to write for. This experience and process empowered me as an emerging scholar to refine my craft as a writer in academia and to use my voice as a teacher-turned-researcher.”

Many of Poetter’s students often express similar sentiments as, class after class, semester after semester, year after year, he continues to be a tremendous influence on their personal and professional growth. Even those who feel as if they are not ready are helped along the way. Poetter is careful to acknowledge their progress, point out their missteps, and offer practical feedback that opens a clear pathway for publication provided that the necessary improvements are made.

Educational Leadership students“Students always express to me that they are nervous,” Poetter says. “They say, ‘I never saw myself doing that.’ So I empower them. And they say, ‘What if I fail? What does that mean for me if I can’t do this?’ And that’s a really good question. But I put that to rest by helping them all do it.”

The Genesis of the Currere Exchange
This is precisely the kind of thinking that has made Poetter such a prolific scholar within the curriculum studies field.

Alongside the work he helps students produce also exists an exhaustive list of his own academic papers, presentations, chapters, and books. He’s even utilized the currere method himself to build a repertoire of personal work including a book about his life called 50 Christmases and a memoir of his 2014 experience as congressional candidate called Losing to Boehner, Winning America.

“I have been working on this on my own as well as with students,” he says. “So I am not just making this up. I am actually doing this type of work, trying to figure out how these connections build an educational journey story that is not just a story, but also helpful for people who are trying to position themselves on their own educational journeys.”

More recently, this process also inspired an annual event first hosted in June of 2016. Coordinated along with his colleague and fellow currere curriculum studies scholar Taliaferro Baszile, Poetter organized the inaugural Currere Exchange Retreat and Conference.

Hosted by Miami University’s PhD Program in Leadership, Culture, and Curriculum, the conference brought together professors, graduate students, professional educators, and school administrators as well as education activists and public citizens who were all interested in furthering an intelligent discourse around diversity, community, social justice, and curriculum and cultural studies.

“It reflected the work both of us have always done, and we got together and we dreamed up this conference,” Taliaferro Baszile says. “We did it as a very nontraditional conference. It was more like a writing retreat, and we had an excellent turnout and response.”

The response was so excellent, in fact, that Taliaferro Baszile and Poetter immediately recognized an excellent opportunity to create a new academic journal around the event.

Based on the positive attendee feedback and the high level of work produced, a call for submissions was sent out and manuscripts poured in. Soon, they had enough quality material to produce two full issues of The Currere Exchange Journal.

Even though currere has held an established academic presence for decades, especially in Canada and China and various other places, here in the U.S. it has stagnated somewhat. However, Taliaferro Baszile believes that now is a perfect time for the revitalization.

“Here, it has been a battle about the macro level versus the micro level analyses,” she says. “The objective versus the subjective. [U.S. scholars] have a hard time seeing the sense in both things and how they are really in discursive relation, and I feel like we are constantly looking for an answer in one or the other. So I think it has lulled. You can see currere stuff pop up here and there, but there is no curriculum journal dedicated to currere work. So there is a void there.”

Currere Exchange, therefore, will help fill that void. But it will also help further establish EHS as a leader in the field, and it demonstrates both Taliaferro Baszile and Poetter’s seriousness for using autobiographical perspectives as a way to generate new curriculum studies knowledge.

And finally, for Poetter in particular, the journal will be yet another way to help students achieve early publication. In fact, Peggy Larrick will be among the first EHS students included in the initial fall 2017 issue with a paper titled “My Currere Journey Toward a Critical Rural Pedagogy.”

From the outside looking in, the sheer amount of work Poetter accomplishes -- both with colleagues and with students as well as for his own particular audiences and personal enrichment -- may seem, at first, almost unbelievable.

But, he says, it all comes down to finding your flow.

“You sort of learn how to do it,” he admits. “And so if I am doing something that I really like doing, the time doesn’t pass. I am just doing what I am supposed to be doing. And when you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, these projects that look ominous are not ominous anymore. They are just another fun project. That’s how I look at. That, and I am constantly always trying to smile.”