academy · canada · classrooms · righteous feminist anger

Activating the Classroom

Around this time of year I often find myself thinking about great classroom moments. By great I mean those magical moments where the conversation is generative, engaged, and unexpectedly intense. Those moments moments that occur as if by accident or serendipity.
For example I remember going into the literary theory course I was teaching in 2008. That particular day we were discussing Marxist theory, specifically Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual. According to Gramsci everyone is an intellectual, we just don’t all live solely in that sphere (thank goodness). It just so happened that this was also the day after Stephen Harper had announced that ordinary Canadians don’t care about the arts. (about a day later Margaret Atwood published a public rebuttal) I asked the students “what do we make of the Prime Minister’s statement that Canadians don’t care about the arts? How can we unpack this statement using the readings we did for today?” and just like that, the magic happened. Conversation was rampant, engaged, and we could all feel the collective lightbulbs going off: Aha! I get it! This matters in my everyday life.
Granted, these moments can’t happen in every single class, and granted sometimes the subject material simply isn’t going to allow for these cross-connections, but I find myself regularly looking for ways to weave current events into the classroom.
Identity-based events, current or otherwise, are–for me–the hardest and most important issues to bring into open discussion in the classroom. Part of this difficulty is what I think of as the syllabus/relevance issue. What I mean by this is not to say that, for example, the incredible social revolutions happening in the Middle East and parts of Africa aren’t relevant (of course they are), but they can be very difficult to weave into a lecture on the syllabus subject matter.
I’m aware that one might suggest that I’m trying to do too much, but after a two week period where we have events such as the Winnipeg judge‘s ruling that a rape victim asked to be assaulted because of the way she was dressed, the Toronto police telling women not to dress like sluts if they want to avoid being victimized, and the recent Globe and Mail article that outlines how Canadian-born visible minorities earn substantially less than a Canadian-born white males with a commensurate education I’m feeling pretty dedicated to talking about these issues with my students.
My question to you, readers, as teachers, students, administrators, and people, is how–and maybe how often–you bring current events into your classrooms, workspaces, etc.
(Oh yes, and in case you are interested, this term I am teaching two introductory literature courses and a survey course of Canadian literature)

9 thoughts on “Activating the Classroom

  1. Great post. I recognised the “moments” you describe immediately. I felt that way a bit in last week's tutorial; a student had asked for a clearer explanation of neo-liberalism, and since it had come up in three lectures already I thought I;d dwell on the issue.

    Instead of talking about the global economy, I talked about what I research: the neo-liberal university. And that was something everybody understood, so there was a good discussion that ranged from why tuition is higher for international students to why knowledge is not an object to be dished out from a “basket” (hehe). That was one of the best discussions we have had all year, so I'm thinking hard about how it happened and how I can facilitate that happening again. I think those are the moments that encourage us to keep trying hard, even in moments of frustration.


  2. Great post, Erin!

    In some ways I have it easier than you — I teach media studies, so stuff that gets covered in the media is all fair game. So I can *always* talk about current events in class, and that's great. On the other hand, I often find I would really like to anchor those discussions in a bigger context, a literary context. But I don't really teach fiction: fiction is a great way to talk about current events with a bit of perspective, I think, intead of all the he-said, she-said of soliciting student opinions. Which sometimes happens in my classes.

    Anyways, in many of my classes, I assign writing assignments (response papers, essays) that are based on news coverage of current events–it makes stuff not only relevant, but also hard to plagiarize.


  3. It's such thoughtful consideration of how and why we teach that makes you one of the best teachers I know. 🙂

    Unlike Aimee, my home discipline – history – looks somewhat askance on relating our study to current events. And yet the two other units in which I teach – Canadian Studies & Sustainability – demand it. So in my history classes I worry about appearing “political” or “presentist,” and in the other classes, I worry about appearing not political – or relevant – enough.

    Which is maybe why I am increasingly enjoying Canadian Studies more than any other kind of teaching. Arctic sovereignty, military memory, environmental policy … issues which require an historical perspective, but also engage my sense of myself as a citizen.


  4. We're currently reading Fahrenheit 451 in one of my classes, which begs to be compared to our current attitude towards school, books, and learning. In my other class, we are reading philosophical texts that discuss the nature and purpose of education, and I invite the students to reflect on their own attitudes towards and experiences with modern education.

    This is the immeasurable element of “critical thinking” that we provide. We need to challenge students with what we ask them to read, as well as how they then apply it to how they see the world around them. Often (at least here in the US), we ask students to comment on their lives without giving them any sort of “theoretical” framework (because they won't/can't read it) or we offer the theory with no practical application (hence people's aversion to it, or at least part of it).

    Thank you for this. It reminded me, during this tough part of the semester, why I teach. And, that I am not alone in my efforts.


  5. These are amazing suggestions everyone! Thank you. I keep thinking we should develop a commons where those of us who are teaching can share pedagogical ideas…


  6. When I taught introduction to Sociology we did a unit on the city introducing various sociological approaches. We then assigned an essay (there were about 3 possible questions) which asked the students to engage with those debates in relation to a particular city that they knew well, and even encouraged them to use the essay to think about the city they had chosen to live in to study. That yielded some very interesting essays including one memorable one about Nottingham as a post-modern city.


  7. I'm an early modern specialist but the last time I taught modern Western Civ in 2007, the students were absolutely spellbound by the story of the Great Depression. Presciently, we all stared down the long line of parallels and got thinking. It was the liveliest week of discussions, trying to figure out what motivated policies and why some options weren't considered.

    Since that class, I admit to having looked for possible parallels and employed them even in more distant courses. While mindful of the very real differences, it's energizing for students to realize that they might have a useful parallel in their own lived experience to what seems, at first, a purely theoretical interest such as the troubadours or Reformation satirists.


  8. Great post, Erin! I showed my first year non-majors drama class a clip of James Earl Jones reading Othello's defence before the senate speech at an event in the Obama White House. Lots of lively discussion ensued about race, otherness, etc., and I was able to make Shakespeare relevant to jaded twentieth-century students. It was exciting!


  9. Thanks for the post, Erin! After I read it, I brought the Globe and Mail article (that you gave us the link for) into class. I usually try and bring outside news into the classroom and I often get great sources via friends and Facebook. In our class, we're looking at the US and its history of xenophobia towards immigrants (via literature). The G&M article was a good reminder that Canada is not perfect and that racism is still a problem in our supposedly progressive society. I find that when we focus on the problems in the U.S. (from teapartiers, private healthcare, tax-evasion, high university fees, racism, and so on) it's all too easy to forget about Canada. Indeed, many of these issues (plus tar sands) are already a problem in Canada, albeit less visible than in the U.S. and it's important to be aware of this before we U.S-bash.


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