Cocktail Party Instruction: The notion that an education is primarily the inculcation of content-based knowledge that will make a student more "culturally literate" and conversant in a number of subjects. The name comes from the fact that such knowledge is of little use outside superficial setting, such as social gatherings and Jeopardy matches. Furthermore, the notion that education is an accretion of factoids sets an utterly unattainable (and not particularly desirable) goal--the accumulation of all knowledge without due consideration for the development of skills to process that knowledge. The simple fact is that students could not possibly absorb enough content in four year or even forty years.
Coverage vs. Uncovering: A distinction often overlooked in the rote rush to convey content in totality or create a student knowledge base at the expense of critical skills development. "Coverage" is primarily a teacher-based concern. "Uncoverage" is, by contrast, more of a student-based concern because it deemphasizes the hegemony of particular material and emphasizes students learning how to find and think about any material they encounter in the class or out, now or ever. At its most extreme, misplacing this priority can take the form of Fake Rigor.
These two concepts, Cocktail Party Instruction and Coverage vs. Uncovering, are related and therefore can be treated together. Both, when abused, have to do with content-intensive (and teacher-focused) pedagogy that privileges the what over the why and even the how. Sometimes they can be associated with particular academic disciplines, but they also correlate with the use of standard textbooks and anthologies and the employment of multiple choice and short answer tests as a primary means of student assessment. Neither does much to encourage students to enter into a dialogue with academic material and practitioners, much less produce new knowledge, now or ever.
Cocktail Party Instruction has much to do with what used to be called “cultural fluency,” the idea that to be a properly educated citizen one must have exposure to and knowledge of key facts and artifacts. There is a close association between this form of instruction and the so-called literary canon, which has purported to identify particular literary texts that are most valued by our culture and hence indispensable. Literature survey courses are an vestige of this assumption. Elsewhere in the humanities, this type of instruction might result in history's courses built around dates, important figures, and momentous events (useually financial upheavals and wars). In the sciences it might appear as a slavish adherence to rote memorization and preordained application, such as in a laboratory where student “experiments” consist of little more than multiple reenactments with canned results.
Similarly, Coverage has to do with an associated body of knowledge within a discipline but more focused on movement through a specific discipline than with meeting cultural norms. Simply put, Coverage focuses on completing the textbook and/or the syllabus on schedule rather than adjusting the pace of delivery and even not addressing material in order to facilitate student learning. Uncovering goes further by emphasizing the development of student skills and habits that will teach students to learn rather than to absorb (and regurgitate) material. For example, Coverage may dictate that because ten Shakespeare sonnets appear on the syllabus (or in the anthology!) for this week, students must slog through all ten in class even if they comprehend little. Uncovering, on the other hand, would allow the instructor to concentrate on fewer poems than assigned so that students may better understand how to read Shakespeare’s sonnets. If the students are good with ten, that is fine too. The teacher can make that assessment on behalf of student learning. The first approach all but guarantees most students will not be able to read on their own. The second helps assure that they could read on their own and, ideally, they may even want to. So, yes, they may not read as much at first, but they will read better.
While both Cocktail Party Instruction and Coverage emphasize a both of knowledge that students must have, even without comprehension, it is remarkable what always gets left out. Namely, historically oppressed or ignored people, peoples, and ideas. For instance, women, minorities, foreign norms, nonmainstream religions, languages, and controversies of all sorts. These items are invariably omitted from or abridged in the official body of knowledge to the detriment of all.
What is more, the political argument aside, no body of knowledge can ever be complete or truly representative. Therefore, to pretend that there is some universally agreed upon and finite set of facts and concepts is dishonest and irresponsible. It resists learning and encourages and rewards cramming and forgetting. Any mature student knows intuitively that the more one learns the more one finds more to learn. Learning is a never-ending process. It does not stop at the end of a term or upon graduation, or at least it should not. No learner is ever “complete.” The best teachers see their duty as teaching students to uncover knowledge, to learn.
Here is a cocktail party alternative. From time to time, literary scholars will play a little game in which they admit to some great or famous or canonical piece of literature they have not read. How is it possible that such erudite individuals could have overlooked The Great Gatsby or The Iliad? Were they avoiding difficult works, or was there a flaw in their otherwise impeccable educations. Frankly, the answer is that no one can get around to reading everything. Not a big surprise, I am sure, but someone always gasps as though I have a character flaw whenever I cop to the fact that I have never read nor seen Macbeth. I have not avoided the play, but I just have not read it or had the opportunity to attend a performance (and, yes, I know a version is in movie theaters now). The fact remains, though, that I could read and enjoy and understand the play at any time because I developed that skill many years ago by reading Shakespeare (and viewing his plays) and reading other authors in a variety of literature classrooms and on my own. I can uncover Macbeth and a host of other literary works at will. Why would I deny my students the same pleasure just to meet an arbitrary standard? I would rather they not read Macbeth in my class so that they may learn to read Macbeth better in the future. That is the distinction I draw and the choice I make for their benefit.
Now, I have to go to the movie theater.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.