Tradition(al)!

The comment I write most frequently as a reviewer or editor involves the word “traditional”. In most cases, I don’t think this word is doing what it needs to do, and in a lot of cases, I think it’s doing some harm.

First, the term “traditional” doesn’t communicate anything about that tradition. Lots of authors contrast their pedagogical idea with an unspecified “traditional teaching”; others frame their pedagogical activity as being embedded in something more “traditional”. But this doesn’t mean anything unless the reader shares the same understanding of what is traditional and knows in detail about that tradition. Here’s a brief excerpt from Eddie Izzard’s stand-up show “Circle”, filmed in 2000, that illustrates this point.

Human: What’s it like being a monkey?

Monkey: Not bad, not bad. What’s it like being a human?

Human: [beat] Pretty good.

… [Human gives Monkey a banana.]

Monkey: Alright. What’cha wanna know?

Human: Well how does the monkey community interact?

Monkey: Yeah. In the usual way.

Human: [beat]

What I think is “traditional” might have nothing in common with what others think is “traditional” right now because we have different experiences. And in my assessment, mathematicians (especially those with more privileged identities) are prone to assuming that the one thing they experienced is the only way something could be and therefore is a shared experience for everyone. I regularly interact with mathematicians who have heard a magical tale of student-centered pedagogy but literally cannot imagine it because “tradition” and institutional factors make themselves seem so absolute that nothing else feels possible. Meanwhile, there are other contexts such as elementary education where student-centered strategies are clearly normative. Furthermore, these perceptions of “tradition” change over time. I might use the word “traditional” this year to describe Calculus assessments that ask questions that are assumed to have one right answer, but a few years ago this same label might have been used to separate computational and conceptual assessments.

Even if this context were shared between author and reader, the term “traditional” is a missed opportunity to say something more analytic because “traditional” used this way is holistic rather than specific. If the activity being discussed is students’ only opportunity to ask their own questions or generate ideas that don’t come from an authority, or if the rest of the course assessments are timed and high-stakes, then we should say that explicitly rather than making the vague assertion that their other experiences were “traditional”. Focusing on these analytic comparisons is critical for transferability of ideas from papers about teaching. When readers attempt to implement ideas, they must contend with different contextual factors, so they must adapt the ideas. If the context is only described as “traditional”, the reader is left to experiment on their own with the relationship between the idea and implicit axioms about teaching and learning in that tradition, but if the paper is analytic about how the author thinks the ideas are related to previous and new assumptions, readers have tools for making adaptation choices.

Second, calling something “traditional” gives it power as normal, neutral, and default. Calling some students “traditional” frames that conversation around a normal path and a delayed, implicitly inferior path. This works the same way that discussions of “achievement gaps” for students of color implicitly assert that white students are normal and that the gaps are because of deficits in students of color. In this framing, the system is invisible, unchanging/unchangeable, and (designed to be) neutral and everything that the white students do is the default, and it evaluates the students of color through comparison with white students rather than looking at the resources and strategies they bring for their success.

Analogously, calling some teaching “traditional” allows it to be part of the conversation uncritically. It frames other approaches as radical and disruptive, and it absolves us of responsibility for the past and ongoing harms done by those traditions. This leads to faculty review/tenure/promotion processes that reward faculty for using “traditional” teaching methods that are counter-indicated by the research evidence (or even called unethical by groups like the CBMS) by accepting these methods as the default while simultaneously asking individual faculty who use more evidence-supported and just methods to justify and support their choices individually in a high-stakes context. Being framed as the default has powerful implications for people and ideas, and “traditional” helps sustain this power. I look forward to a day when faculty who only lecture are asked questions in their reviews such as: Can you cite evidence that total lecture is effective pedagogy and that it has equitable outcomes? Students regularly complain in their course feedback forms that they would rather watch your lectures recorded; can you describe what you do throughout the course to convince students that synchronous lecture is an effective choice for their learning? We can see that you lecture on all of the required topics, but how do you know what students are learning while you still have time to help them succeed in the assessments?

The word “traditional” does have meaning and hence can be appropriate. It indicates that a community has a long-term and relatively stable, shared pattern. And while academia is perhaps too diffuse to be called a community, it would be appropriate to describe a particular kind of teaching as a tradition in a sub-community like a department. The point of this blog post is to say: we should use the word “traditional” to mean that something else we’ve described is a long-term pattern, not to substitute in for a description of that pattern, and we should take care about the hierarchical systems that this framing can set up in our writings and thinking.

1 thought on “Tradition(al)!

  1. I think asking people to put their word “traditional” in context is a reasonable request, e.g., Babylonian tablets or Egyptian papyrus. All to often “traditional” refers to lecture style with little interaction, but time frames vary and what a 30 year-old faculty might have experienced as “traditional” while an undergraduate ten years ago is quite different than what I experienced as an undergraduate some 60 years ago! so perhaps in referee calls for PRIMUS just point out the need NOT to just use “traditional” unless otherwise clarified. indeed, perhaps NOT to use “traditional” at all, just be prices in what the comparison is with regard to.

    Brian Winkel, Founding Editor of PRIMUS in an age of “traditional” publication, namely printed matter and not just electronic

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