What is Scaffolding?: Y Marks That Spot

What is Scaffolding?: Y Marks the Spot

Up until this quarter, I didn’t know scaffolding was a “thing”. I never really gave the syllabus any serious consideration as a student, merely happy just to go along and read as required. Looking back, I see how foolish and naïve that is. Of course I have had to seriously consider scaffolding when I began planning my own syllabus. This led me to realize how fundamental a good treasure map is to the success of a class.

Let’s embrace this metaphor of a treasure map, assume I am a pirate professor[1], and hunt for the ‘Y’, not the “X”.

For me, scaffolding goes hand-in-hand with curriculum, my philosophies on writing and reading—and plagiarism—, as well as teaching. You all must surely know by now that I practice critical pedagogy, that I believe in my students as agents of their education, and relinquish as much authority as I can in order to foster their ways of thinking, being, and seeing. That last one, seeing, is where my boundary between authority figure and democracy agent meet. If I am anything these days, it is a pirate professor with looking-glass in hand.

Ira Shor leads me to see this when he says in ‘Empowering Education’, Although students expect a teacher to assert his or her authority, they also resent the unilateral power presented to them. They may feel adrift if the teacher does not impose structure; they may feel dominated if the teacher does. This dilemma is complex because teachers who don’t assert their authority invite chaos at the worst and testing student behavior at the least, as students probe the soft rules to find what the limits are. In a class without traditional discipline, students can doubt the seriousness of the course, thinking that real education is not going on here because the teacher’s authority is low-profile and nontraditional. Students have not had much chance to practice mutual dialogue, co-governance, self-control, and cooperative learning. (Shor 157)

Reading this again near the end of the quarter, it is heartwarming to know that what I have done in my class has created much of this, and that I am not alone in my feelings that often move between chaos and authority. But one state has proved its overarching stasis in my class: a feeling of piracy.

We have combated the fear of this dilemma—my students do not always feel our class is that of chaos or overbearing authority. I find that we have arrived at a place where we all see each other for who we are in class. This consciousness of identities—mine, my students, and us as a community—has come about because I have dared to venture into the unknown seeking gold.

To me, the treasure I have been seeking is a form of pedagogy piracy. Shor also says /in the same place/: To navigate the conflicts, to win some constructive participation in dialogue, it helps for the teacher to take a negotiating posture. It seems I have adopted this, especially in my scaffolding. Again, what got me there was a form of piracy of my own plans. Let me elaborate…

Scaffolding (to define this as a “commonsense” in the Bartholomaeic sense) is how a teacher builds specific materials into some structure that leads to definite learning happening; these can be called “student learning outcomes” (SLOs) for those of us modernists still holding to un-nifty little data packages that replace critical thinking. Oops, I pirated my own purpose again. To continue. You see, I greatly dislike structure, unshakable plans, and outlines. The syllabus, by its very nature, disrupts my calm creation of uncertainty. However, and no matter that my teaching identity is that of “low-profile and nontraditional”, Shor reminds me that I am a pirate professor, and why: I can be a negotiated teaching self. This requires that I do provide a syllabus with some form of structure, even non-structure is a structure (hi Derrida). Thus, I set out to determine what kind of scaffolding I want to define. The sea of possibility.

When I work to create my syllabus of uncertainty, I put a good deal of effort and care into it. All of this comes down to emphasizing agency, my own loss of authority, and fuel for thinking. You got it: I am the captain of this ship, and I know what needs to go in it. I may have a general idea of where we’re headed (we do have a map); I may be steering on occasion; but I am not the only one making our journey possible; I am merely responsible for all of these people for whom I care greatly.

So where are we going? Well, we will write essays, and we will make things. All of us, together. I firmly believe in doing my assignments with my students, and I have. Before we can do the assignments, though, we have to get to our various destinations on the way to Y. To get there, we must enjoy the refreshing spray of the ocean, battle the kraken, stay afloat in storms, plunder colonized territories, and stay up late playing poker in the mess hall. What?

That’s right. I am advocating a lot of messing around. The Derridean in me makes my captaining of this ship grant us the leisure and work of reading, writing, and doing some amount of nothing prior to each essay or project. These practices are as much about learning as they appear not to be. Part of the time I decide what we are doing. After all, I am the captain; I am responsible for these writers and humans; and I know where we are going.

Sometimes, I have to show my students the map.

Other times, I need to let them decide how we are getting to Y. So I keep much of my syllabus open. I grant them the space to determine our direction on days. This service does two things: it relieves me of the pressure of authority when it becomes too imposing, and it teaches students that they have a say in their education just as much as I do. The pressure bit is a good one, and my scaffolding clearly denotes regular intervals of what I call student-guided days. Both my students and I feel better on days when they decide what we do. And that, mates, is agency. We may not be able to give it, but we surely can grant it. Remember: acknowledgment is the first step to ethics.

Are you wondering why I have used the ‘Y’ in place of “X”? I have done this because questions and questing are at the heart of piracy. Venturing out to sea is a quest of daring. One must embrace courage to go full pirate. I learned this invaluable verb ‘questing’ from my mentor. Reading Shor, realizing I am a pirate professor, all stems from the fact that I was granted democracy in the classroom throughout this program. Simply put, my teaching is what it is because I was allowed to learn who I am here. I have a few great Captains of my own.

So when I set out to scaffold my syllabus, I lunge us toward the Y. My students and I get to decide where we are going, and how we are getting there. My job is to make sure we have everything we need when we leave.

I chose to embrace this rather cliché metaphor to emphasize one important part of my teaching philosophy. When I set out to teach a class, I want to never assume what will happen, or who my students are. To think of myself as a pirate professor, I am able to embody the identity of an ‘anything goes’ mantra. Yet, I can also trust my experience and my knowledge of my job. Letting go of imposing suppositions of what teaching must be in favor of what it could be encourages a responsibility toward granting my students to be their own captains one day.


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