The Agent Provocateur

June 7, 2010

One of the lines at the IT workshop I went to recently suggested that a part of the role of the teacher was to be an “agent provocateur”. I was intrigued by this concept and went online to ensure I’d understood it correctly. Tragically, the only definition I could find was from Wikipedia. I kid you not – “Agent Provocateur” is the name of a lingerie company and a shoot ’em up style computer game and assuming that I don’t think lingerie, gaming and teaching are deeply connected (or at least not in the areas I teach in!) then I’m left with the following:

“Traditionally, an agent provocateur (plural: agents provocateurs, French for “inciting agent(s)”) is a person employed by the police or other entity to act undercover to entice or provoke another person to commit an illegal act. More generally, the term may refer to a person or group that seeks to discredit or harm another by provoking them to commit a wrong or rash action.”

Now I’m pretty sure our presenter was not suggesting that our role is to get students to commit illegal acts. So if I understand the “spirit” of his suggestion then I guess it’s about being in the role of provoking students to think or act in a way they would usually not. It’s not a term I’m entirely comfortable with as it invites the idea of a malicious power dynamic. However the spirit is one I can ponder. I’ve been thinking back on the idea of pain in learning I blogged about a few posts ago, and the idea of both teachers and students needing self-mastery rather than mere compassion or self-pity. I think this is similar to the idea of meta-process. That one might move outside of content and process to a helicopter view of the interaction. It’s like a broader view of the world where one can feel one’s own discomfort, recognise the discomfort of others, but then move to a third place where you hold the discomfort together. That’s the bit I’m stuck on. Reflexivity doesn’t seem the right word.

Then the question is how does one encourage this in one’s students? Some (not all I hasten to add) of the comments I have heard from students are at the level of ” here’s my idea” and “that’s an idea I agree with, that’s an idea I disagree with”. I’ve been disappointed by the absence of deeper thinking. It feels very reactionary. So my pondering for today is how, as a teacher, can I respond to students in ways that elicits a higher response and moves thinking on? How do I do a better job of disengaging my own defensiveness? How do I hold onto compassion without rescuing?

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One Response to “The Agent Provocateur”

  1. Natalija Says:

    To move away from the shivering term of ‘I think’… ‘I believe’ the current system in tertiary education -more generally within undergraduate – encourages students to identify problems, however, stops the exploration process by directing them to critically appraise the issue through reputable tinted glasses. I understand that as undergraduates, academically our knowledge does seem limited…However, what I don’t comprehend, is why when a student presents an original criticism, conceptualised through their own fresh eyes – underpinned with valued sources – they are penalised. There needs to be some flexibility with the arbitrary marking criteria to enable students to follow through on ideas, and not fall short of their analysis because they are worried they won’t be able to find an appropriate author to reference. The tertiary system is rapidly expanding -especially with the introduction of dual-degrees and technological learning environments- but it seems to have forgotten that the bright students harboured within knowledgeable institutions, have no ‘space’ to understand, explore, conceptualise or express their learnings. Our ideas may not adorn us with a Nobel Prize, but we do have a unique outlook, so why not encourage that, let us develop it, guide us, instead of slamming a structured manual on our desks. ‘I feel’ the process is failing us. Allocating grades may seem arbitrary, but in a world where you cannot get employed or even into post-graduate study without an embossed piece of paper and a high GPA, grades matter. Classes need to include ‘free’ forums so we can openly discuss the topics, develop ideas or simply gain a more in-depth understanding from a range of views. We need ‘space’. Otherwise, some students hand in assessment with absolutely no idea of what they just did; other’s try to tackle too many ideas at once and need a hand to guide them. Maybe participation assessment – similar to 2288 – is needed across all subjects, or maybe it’s simply the notion of being able to explore issues without fear of persecution? Maybe anonymous online graffiti walls, with the lecturer providing students with weekly responses to the common issues?
    One thing is for sure, any teacher that does tackle and change/modify the process is brave and deserves a raise.

    I do fear that I have just added to the kerfuffle of food-for-thought.

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