Reframe Podcast: Episode 6

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

Tom Poetter and students

"The best educational experiences are those where the teacher understands that education comes from the Latin 'educare,' to draw out," Poetter says smiling.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami university.

In this episode . . .

We look at how an autobiographical form of qualitative inquiry called currere is helping scholars gain a critical understanding of how race, gender, class, and various cultural perspectives can influence the field of curriculum studies. And we also learn how EHS professor Thomas Poetter uses the method as a very effective means to help graduate students achieve early publication. 

James Loy:

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. 

Thomas Poetter:

 The best educational experiences are those where the teacher understands that education comes from the Latin ‘educare,’ to draw out. So we are not just filling people up with stuff, even at the undergraduate level. We shouldn’t just be filling people up. They come with life experiences too, and an understanding of the world. We should be co-constructing knowledge with them. I start my undergraduate classes with that theoretical framing. Like, I am not here to fill you up. We have a syllabus and readings and projects and all that. But you’ve already come to the table. You are not an empty vessel. So my work is to pull you out.

James Loy:

Translated in full, educare means “to draw out that which lies within," and it encapsulates 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.

Thomas Poetter:

“So one of the questions in curriculum studies is how do we actually move. And what are all the factors and contextual boundaries that bump up against us? Of course, in the last 15 years it has been the federal government. It has been No Child Left Behind. It has created a little havoc on public education. Not only in terms of the standardization of the curriculum, but in terms of the corporatization of it -- opening the doors to all kinds of things that weigh down on schooling. That weight down on schools, administrators, and ultimately teachers and students.

James Loy:

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 even 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.

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.

Dr. Denise Taliaferro Baszile, Poetter’s colleague and EHS Associate Dean, who also incorporates currere into much of her own critical academic work, explains the methodology this way . . .

Denise Taliaferro Baszile:

It’s . . .  kind of the way we think about it in curriculum studies is the way in which your interior work manifests as sort of public intellectual activist work. So currere is, I think, just a method for doing autobiography . . . So I am always saying to you that this knowledge, as is all knowledge, comes from a situated “knower” who is raced, and gendered, and located in a particular moment in time with a particular set of experiences that impact the way I  . . .  not just the way I write, but the way I study, and what I choose to study and what I think about what I study.

James Loy:

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.

Thomas Poetter:

One of the things I am talking about with students is, is that -- because they are who they are -- they are often professional people who are coming to us for doctoral work -- they already have life experiences and professional experiences that form the basis for a research agenda. And that their lives themselves are important stories and data points on which to capitalize. And of course that comes out of the curriculum studies tradition of valuing people’s positionality and their life stories as places to start, since in most qualitative approaches to educational research the research is the main instrument.

James Loy:

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 work and directly establishes the students as burgeoning academics themselves.

Thomas Poetter:

There is a scope to this that is pretty big. I realize that. But in the main, I am trying to teach beginning scholars to be scholars. And I am giving them a practical environment and an opportunity, an actual opportunity . . .  Like, you are going to get to write a chapter for a book in my class. So that is what I am trying to do, is create an environment for them to experience what it means to be a producer of knowledge.

James Loy:

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.

Peggy Larrick, currently an EHS doctoral candidate and educational leadership teaching assistant says she’ll never forget her first class, in which Poetter announced that they would be writing an entire book from day one. Since it was a summer seminar with more experienced doctoral students Peggy assumed she would just observe, or assist in some way, but surely not actually publish. However, she quickly realized that that is not how it works in Poetter’s class.

So Peggy 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.

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 even decided how the material was to be 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. 

In general, the book, Was Someone Mean to You Today? 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.

Thomas Poetter:

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. So, 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.

James Loy:

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

Former EHS 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

Bolyard says the experience gave her an authentic audience to write for, and it empowered her as an emerging scholar, to refine her craft as a writer in academia. 

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.

James Loy:

Do you get people who are overwhelmed with just the prospect of starting a new article or a whole new book? That journey that they are about to embark on? 

Thomas Poetter:

They always express that to me, that they are nervous. One, is, “I never saw myself doing that. So you are going to have to empower me,” which I do. And, two, “What if I fail at that? What does that mean for me if I can’t do this?” And that’s a really good question. And I put that to rest by helping them all do it.

James Loy:

And 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.

Thomas Poetter:

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

James Loy:

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.

Denise Taliaferro Baszile:

It reflects the kind of work both of us have always done, and we got together and we dreamed up this conference . . .  I am a dreamer by nature. Dr. Poetter translates that into, like, action. So thank goodness for him because we actually got the conference up and going, and we had an excellent turnout and response. 

James Loy:

In fact, the response was so excellent, that the two EHS professors immediately recognized an excellent opportunity to create a whole 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. 

Denise Taliaferro Baszile:

Here, I think . . . here it has been a battle about, you know, the sort of macro level versus the micro level analyses. The objective versus the subjective. It is kind of like we 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. And, so I think it has lulled. And so there is a void there. I think there are some . . . There are lots of voids to fill in currere work.

James Loy:

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, Poetter says, it all comes down to finding your flow.

Thomas Poetter:

You sort of learn how to do it. And if something is not hard to you anymore, and it becomes what you like to do, like, you find your flow. 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 to do. So that’s how I look at. That, and I am constantly always trying to smile about it.