classrooms · inconvenience · teaching · Uncategorized

Classroom design and architectural determinism

You can learn a lot about an institution from its classrooms. The politics, values, and pinch-points inadvertently reveal themselves in infrastructure, I find.

In general, the classrooms I teach in attempt to squeeze too many students into a space designed for fewer of them. That’s problem number 1. One of our alumni, who took his degree in the 1970s when our building was new, remembers all of his classes having between 8 and 15 students (some of them smoking!) in classrooms that now have tables and chairs for 18-25. If someone at the back needs to get up, pretty much everyone else has to stand up and move out of the way.

Problem number 2 is that when these rooms are “redesigned” or “refurbished” the after condition is often worse than the before. The brown brick classrooms in my building, with chalkboards and pull-down screens and projectors bolted into the ceiling have now all been repainted retinal-burn white, have whiteboards that are actually wall paint and can only bear one brand of marker and be wiped only with a special rag (most classrooms have neither rag nor markers available) and instead of a screen there’s a giant wall mounted TV the people keep hitting their heads on. The instructor console is bolted to the wall now, so you have to turn your back on the class and stand up and lean in to use it. I hit people with my butt a lot this way.

The upward pressure on class sizes is visible here, as is the trend to one-size-fits all, vendor-led classroom design. There was a time when we taught classes of 12 students, and this time haunts us in the rooms we’re left with: too small for what we’re trying to do now, the awkwardness and discomfort of the new arrangements physically felt by everyone.

The bureacratization, managerialism, and business-ing of higher education is manifest in classroom redesigns that very, very clearly took no input at all from either students or teachers: I imagine it was all vendors, IT people, plant operations, and budget staff who did this. The rooms are literally unusable. So in one room I have to hit students with my butt to show some powerpoints and half of them have to move seats in order to see it. In the other room I’m teaching in right now, where there’s never any markers and no cloth, the classroom clock is hung in the middle of the painted-white-board wall that is most often obscured by the pull down screen. The students are seated stadium style (there are only 25 of them) and the rows are too close together, or too close to the wall, for me to walk past them without touching some part of my torso against the backs of their heads. No.

Yeah. I “erased” this as hard as I could.

It’s depressing.

In my ideal classroom the seating is flexible, so we can move it if we have to. I need the seating spaced enough that I can easily walk around the room. At the very least I should be able to walk to some vantage point where I can see their laptop screens. Crowded classrooms with inflexible media arrangements enforce a separation of the front of the room from the rest of it, a separation I feel keenly when I can’t even manoeuvre my way to my students to answer a group-work question, or hand back a marked paper. I can’t walk around during writing time to see what people’s screens are showing. This classroom turns it into me and them, not us. I hate that.

In my ideal classroom the technology serves teaching and learning, rather than serving as the kind of sun around which we must all orbit. Most of the projectors, for example, cover the whiteboard area, and can’t be ‘muted’–which means if the projector is on, it stays on and you can’t use the board. If you turn it off, it goes through its whole routine, and then again if you want to turn it back on. Flexible, it ain’t.

There are always tradeoffs in any situation, I understand. But as I watch all the rooms around me get retrofitted to be somehow uglier, more crowded, and even less usable than before, I fear we show a different set of values as an institution, a kind of carelessness or committee-think that has forgotten that classrooms are for students, and they are for teachers, to work together, to build something magic. All the phone calls because the TV is not working, or not being able to use the paintboard because someone else used the wrong marker, or shouting across the room at people because you just can’t get to where they are? That’s not it.

What does your ideal classroom look like?

academic reorganization · adjuncts · classrooms · guest post · mental health · workload

Guest Post: When too much is still not enough; Academic workloads and campus exhaustion

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Suzette Mayr’s recent satiric novel about a harried English professor, dramatizes the anxious thrum of academic work. Edith teaches, grades, and answers “pounds” of email. Her phone therapist advises her to excel in new areas, to increase her pace of publications while exercising regularly, revamping her wardrobe, and networking more extensively. Edith protests, “there’s never any time.” While swimming laps, she worries she “should be catching up on her critical theory, not frolicking in pools.”

Over the past decade, faculty have become increasingly willing to protest that academic workloads are overwhelming, stressful, and conducive to ill health. In last year’s The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber called for a shift to a more deliberative, less frenetic approach to research and teaching. Cultural theorist Rosalind Gill contends, “A punishing intensification of work has become an endemic feature of academic life.”[1][1]  The contributors to a special issue of The Canadian Geographer on academic workload and health describe “academic cultures and practices that valorize overwork, including expressions of martyrdom, talking about not sleeping or eating and about working all of the time, [and] an expectation of always being available for work purposes . . . .”

Faculty complaints about workload and stress may “appear self-indulgent,” as Berg and Seeber acknowledge. Mark Kingwell, for example, has little patience: “I am sure that people feel rushed to produce journal articles and positive teaching evaluations, to sit on this committee or that. But can you seriously compare this to actual work? Surely, there is a better term for such high-end special pleading. Ultra-first-world problem? Point-one-per-cent lament?” This is an invitation to shame and guilt. How can you be working too hard if what you are doing is not even work?

And the culture of shaming starts early. A mid-August tweet from the University of Cambridge praises novelist and alumna Zadie Smith for spurning barbecues in favour of long hours in the library and asks students, “Are you #teambbq or #teamlibrary”? The fierce competition for admission suggests entering students are unlikely to need an additional nudge. But the comment is perfectly characteristic of the anxiety that if we are not working all of the time, we are not doing enough to pursue the world-class status demanded by a growing number of institutions, with all members pressed to achieve more with declining resources. It reflects the anxiety of a neoliberal higher education sector beset with measurements and rankings of excellence. Graduate students are urged to publish while completing doctoral studies as rapidly as possible, even while new (and not-so-new)  proposals advocate that they also commit extensive time  preparing for non-academic careers. Institutions increase class sizes for introductory courses taught by teaching-stream faculty and sessional instructors and then mandate the time-consuming development of online resources to support struggling students. Research universities require qualifications for new Assistant Professors that were once sufficient to achieve tenure.

Contract faculty cobbling together enough courses to pay rent, staff members who have experienced surges in expectations without salary increases, and hourly-waged service workers on campus laid off every summer are all experiencing time crunches of various kinds, exacerbated by financial strains. Rather than isolating one kind of faculty work for analysis, we might assess how various campus groups—including students who are juggling onerous work obligations with school—are participating in a culture of academic exhaustion. We need to know more about each other’s work conditions. A student who fell asleep in one of my classes explained that she clerked at a convenience store until two a.m., when public transit had stopped running, and then walked several kilometers home. She had no family financial support and, as a first-generation university student, feared acquiring a heavy debt load. A member of the custodial staff described how her work duties had been revised to increase the amount of heavy lifting while reducing the social contact with faculty and students that she enjoyed. Knowing these stories, and translating that knowledge into advocacy for better student aid and more equitable and safe working conditions across campus, is crucial.

But we also need to resist the notion that academic work is such a privilege and a pleasure that there can never be too much of it—only too little capacity to carry it out. This approach stigmatizes people who bring up workload concerns and equates endless work with competence, pushing out those who, in Berg and Seeber’s terms, fear they are “not suited” to academia, who judge themselves as inadequate to (unreasonable) demands. It also creates trickle-down impacts, as burnt out faculty members’ responsibilities shift to their colleagues.

And we need to watch out for the unequal workloads that are imposed. Alison Mountz is among those who have pointed out that female faculty members perform a disproportionate amount of emotional labour; persuasive evidence suggests they do more service work, particularly in lower-status roles,  and that this has a negative impact on promotion. Racialized and Indigenous faculty are called upon by their institutions as diversity workers and as mentors to students from traditionally underrepresented groups, sharply increasing service responsibilities that are less valued than research.[2]

Universities and colleges have increased their attention to student mental health, but most are doing far less to support faculty and staff members (even while adding to their work the support and monitoring of student well-being).

Workload is a labour issue; workload is a feminist issue; workload is a disability issue; workload is a mental and physical health issue, a collegiality issue, and a sustainability issue. It is also one that academia avoids tackling. Ramped-up expectations in all areas of faculty performance have come to seem inevitable, and they cannot be resisted without collective will.

[1] More recently, Gill reflects on the ubiquity of a discourse of academic pain among tenured faculty: “Academics’ talk about our own lives has become suffused with extraordinarily violent metaphors: people speak of going under, of coming up for air, of drowning or suffocating. This shocking imagery should surely give cause for concern.” Rosalind Gill, “What Would Les Back Do?: If Generosity Could Save Us.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. Pre-print.

[2] The essays in The Equity Myth expose a much broader set of issues and reach depressing conclusions about the ways in which symbolic forms of inclusion and diversity are overriding more substantive equity efforts. Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda K. Smith, The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017). The essays by Henry and Kobayashi and by James pay particular attention to the workload consequences.


Heidi TD

Heidi Tiedemann Darrock holds a PhD from U of T and taught as a contract faculty member at universities and colleges in Ontario and BC for more than a decade before accepting a position as an Assistant Teaching Professor. For four years she was a member of the MLA’s Committee on Contingent Labor, serving for two years as Chair. Heidi publishes on Canadian literature.

chaos · classrooms · collaboration · grad school · ideas for change · pedagogy · skills development · Uncategorized

the Do-It-Yourself grad class

I’m trying something a little different with my grad class this year. We have a really big cohort and we’ve bumped our course caps up to 15 and that’s what I have and it’s a lot. A lot of grading and name-remembering, maybe, but also–what an opportunity!–a lot of brain power in the room.

I’m trying to turn big enrolment into a feature, not a bug. I’m experimented with, if you will, a kind of parallel processing or distributed cognition at the very foundation of the course, right up to the top.

I’m making the students do the bulk of the work–designing the syllabus, choosing the readings, teaching–and pedagogically, I think it’s the right thing to do.

Here’s what I’m trying. The course is on selfies, which is the book I’m deep in writing right now. So I know the crap out of all of this. I could teach this in my sleep–but I don’t want to teach in my sleep. Instead, I am making the students create the course as we go. They’re not experts on this material, and this is the best way I can think of to make them so. On the first day I made some handouts with different options on it, and had them discuss and debate, in pairs, then fours, the half the room, then all together until we had reached a consensus on whether we would run the course like a survey, or as case studies–we had to really think it through, not just what, but why. They decided case studies and then we had to debate to consensus on which three of five possible cases we wanted to focus on. My job then was to create a frame for the rest of the semester, to distribute the work and attention.

The next two weeks were foundations in theory and method, ideas that are going to be our North Star for the rest of the term, where I assigned the material and organized the classes. I also created five groups, and for each case study (lasting either two or three weeks of class) assigned groups to specific tasks related to the very methodologies I use to produce these cases in my research: finding and sharing context from secondary literature, intensive browsing across possible primary texts, picking representative or exemplary texts for analysis, producing a persuasive interpretation / argument, and linking the case to the broader work of the course. Starting next week, it’s the students who are going to have to figure out what we’re going to read, what theory is going to be relevant, which hashtags or instagram accounts are most useful to consider, what it all means. Already they’re asking great questions: who are the major theorists of art photography? Or, I know how to find primary materials for fine art photography, but how do I find and decide what vernacular photography to use? Yeah, those are basic research questions. I already know the answers but the goal of the course is not really for me to perform my own scholarly excellence–it’s for students to develop their own skills and excellence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what grad students need from their courses. I think they need a lot more skills training, in the basic skills of the degree and the profession. I did a bit last night on how to read like a researcher, and how to create a lesson plan. Someone came up to me afterwards to tell me, excitedly, how that was most important bit about class. I’m teaching them how to start from literally nothing: “this is a course about selfies, and we are grounding in auto/biography studies, surface reading, new media studies, and photography studies” and figure out how to say something valuable and humane about why some images get banned from Facebook and some don’t. This is a skill that PhD students really need if they’re going to write dissertations. This is a skill that MA students need if they want to join a professional workforce and move beyond the entry level. Self-efficacy develops when we are presented with malformed problems and have to figure out how to bring some order to that chaos. They’re learning about how to find the important works on a topic they start off with very little knowledge on. They’re learning how to read a ton of primary material fast, looking for patterns. They’re learning how to link these patterns to broader cultural and theoretical contexts. And they’re learning how to frame all that work to be useful to all of us in a classroom setting.

I expect I’m going to have a LOT of meetings with students about this. That’s exciting: working one on one, or group on one, with students who have urgent and concrete scholarly problems they’re trying to solve, that have real stakes.

So far, I’m loving the results. Next week is when the plan fully launches. It might be a little bumpy until we all figure it out, but I am really looking forward to seeing how we all grow.

classrooms · faculty evaluation · guest post

Guest post: She’s Hot: Female Sessional Instructors, Gender Bias, and Student Evaluations

This post by Andrea Eidinger was originally published on and is reposted here with permission.
I would like to acknowledge and thank the many female instructors who got in touch with me over the past week, not only for their bravery in sharing their experiences with me, but for their strength in continuing in their dedication to the field of history and education. I am profoundly grateful and honoured. 
“I think your feminist stances are slightly overcorrecting reality. I’m sure minorities had a harsher experience than women, ESPECIALLY today, a point you seem to overlook. You’re a really nice person though.”
That comment comes from my student evaluations from one of the first courses I ever taught, back when I was still a graduate student. At the time that I read that, I burst out laughing. I mean really, how else can you react to that kind of statement? But many courses and student evaluations later, I am starting to think that this is reflective of a larger problem in the world of academia, and history in particular, with respect to female sessional instructors and course evaluations.
Over the course of the past year or so, there have been a number of studies that have emerged detailing the gender bias against female instructors in student evaluations.  According to one study, male professors routinely ranked higher than female professors in many areas. [2] For instance, male professors received scores in the area of promptness (how quickly an assignment was returned) that were 16% higher than those of female instructors, even though the assignments were returned at the exact same time.  Another research project, which examined word usage in reviews of male and female professors on “Rate My Professor” found that male faculty members are more likely to be described as “funny,” “brilliant,” “genius,” and “arrogant,” while female faculty members are more likely to be described as “approachable,” “helpful,” “nice,” and “bossy.”[3]
While many of these studies discuss the negative impact that this bias has on tenure and promotion few consider how devastating they can be to sessional instructors, particularly given the overrepresentation of women at this academic rank. Although data on sessional instructors in Canada, both contract and regularized, remains scarce, what we do know based on a 2016 report on sessional faculty at publicly-funded universities in Ontario is that 60.2% of sessional instructors identity as female. Most of these individuals have Ph.Ds. and will spend roughly 4 to 5 years working as a sessional instructors with the hope of securing  full-time positions within academia. During these 4 to 5 years, 53.2% of these individuals will secure contracts that are less than 6 months in duration while the next largest group, at 18.2% will not have any current contract at all.? And declining enrolment in history courses across the country means that jobs of any type are becoming more and more scarce.
The effectiveness of sessional instructors is often evaluated based primarily on student evaluations, particularly when it comes to questions of hiring, contract renewal, regularization, and promotion to tenure-track positions. (This is in spite of solid evidence that student evaluations are not good measures of teaching effectiveness). Consequently, female sessionals often face a serious disadvantage compared to their male colleagues.
Here is a quick sampling of some of the more problematic comments I’ve received over the years:
  • “The focus on social history was good but I did not learn events leading to confederation. I didn’t come out of this course with any more information, except gender and race struggles, than I came in with.”
  • “Although Andrea stated on the first day she would teach a peoples[sic] perspective it was not illustrated how much was going to be focused on first nations and women’s history.”
  • “A bit biased in her views: very feminist and consequently an alternate view isn’t respected.”
While these remarks only represent a small percentage of the student comments that I’ve received on evaluations, they are extremely troubling. They also appear to be fairly representative of the types of comments that female instructors, particularly those who appear to be younger, receive on a regular basis. While writing this piece, I put out a call on social media for Canadian female instructors who teach history to get in touch with me if they were willing to share some of these comments on an anonymous basis. Eight women came forward and shared their stories. These comments and stories generally fell into five categories: bias, inexperience, unprofessionalism, behavior/appearance, and sexualization.
One of the most common critiques is that of “bias.” You can see several examples of these types of comments that I’ve received above. Many female instructors are heavily criticized for including women and gender history in their courses, and this is often described as them imposing a personal bias on history. They are often accused of “only having one point of view” and “shutting down opposing views.”
For instance, one instructor had a student that complained, “it was obvious that she didn’t quite enjoy the boys telling her that men are biologically superior. She rapidly dismissed their explanations as outdated and sexist without giving them the reason (although she did later on in the course elaborate). But it was clear that those students had lost interest since their ideas were being rejected.”
Related to this problem are comments about female professors being “inexperienced,” “new,” or “too young.”  Female instructors often have to face criticism from students who don’t feel that they are qualified to be professors. This is particularly a problem for female professors who appear to be younger than they really are or who happen to be short. Several of the instructors shared comments from students about them being “newer,” or just “getting started in teaching.” In one case, an instructor relayed that, “I also recently had an issue with a mature male student who made comments about me being “early in my career” and that he may be able to “help me” through his own line of work. He also expressed unsubstantiated doubts about my qualifications for teaching the subject matter after admitting to doing an online search of my background.”
On a related note, this can often result in direct challenges to female instructors in classes. Recently, a colleague related the following exchange on Twitter:


Another common complaint is that female instructors behave “unprofessionally.” The reasons for this can vary significantly, but often relate to references to one’s personal life. For instance, one instructor I spoke with had been forced to cancel a class because her child was sick. She joked about it in the following class. Then, on her student evaluations, she noted the following comment: “I found it very unprofessional that the Instructor referenced her child as an excuse for not being available or for missing class. This is not the concern of the student or any reputable faculty. Those issues should remain private and availability should be clearly indicated without reference to the Instructors personal life.”

Female instructors are criticized on everything from their behaviour to their appearance. Many are told that they should “smile more” or be “more approachable and friendly.” One student wrote, “she sounds like a dictionary with all the words she uses.” In some cases, students comment on their clothing choices in student evaluations, with comments like, “I like how your jewellery[sic] matches your clothing” and “I would love to know where you shop. You have some great dresses.”
More pernicious are the sexualized comments that female instructors received. These ranged from comments that “she’s hot” and “the prof is not hard on the eyes” to “I would really like to get you into a room alone and have some fun.” Finally, one instructor was told “I like how your nipples show through your bra. Thanks.” As the instructor herself noted, “this one led me to never wear those bras again. I now wear lightly padded bras exclusively. I was horrified when I got this one. Horrified. And not because my nipples were showing. Who the eff cares? But because someone was looking at me that way and sexualizing me while I was teaching a class in political history.”
Instructors have handled such comments in different ways, but nearly all of the instructors that I spoke with have stopped reading comments on student evaluations entirely. This is particularly the case in more recent years, as student comments have become increasingly aggressive and at times violent. Not only are these comments not helpful in any regard, but also they are profoundly unfair.
The end result to these kinds of comments is a situation that puts female sessional instructors in an un-winnable position. Their job performance is judged on teaching evaluations that are significantly biased against them. And yet teaching evaluations are used to make hiring decisions, where female instructors are ranked alongside with their male peers, on the assumption of an even playing field. And when there are no second chances and bad teaching evaluations can spell the end of your entire teaching career, female instructors get the short end of the stick.
Further, there are few support systems in place for female instructors to help them deal with these kinds of comments as well as misogyny in the classroom. While some departments and department members are sympathetic, others are less so, and some are openly hostile to even the suggestion. Female instructors are routinely told to just “ignore” these comments,[4] or are reluctant to even raise concerns for fears of being accused of “not being able to handle it” or of not being sufficiently “grateful for having a job.” Most of us end up feeling entirely alone. The situation is often worse for women of colour, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, and LGTBQ+ instructors.
However, it does seem that at least one Canadian university is starting to take this problem seriously. In May of 2014, the University of Waterloo initiated the Course Evaluation Project Team, to “assess the current practice of course evaluations and provide recommendations for improvement.” Their draft report was released to the university community in November 2016, recommending the adoption of a cascaded course evaluation model that would be consistent across all faculties. More than ninety associations and departments responded, and the final report is pending following a full review of this feedback. Three groups of faculty in particular submitted the most detailed responses, the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo, the Status of Women and Equity Committee, and faculty members from the department of psychology.[5]
Each of these responses recommended that student evaluations should no longer be used to evaluate faculty members due to the significant gender, race, and other biases. They all specifically refuted the idea that careful design can be taken to counter the gender and racial biases in student evaluations. Instead, these reports advised that written comments in student evaluations should only be for the instructor’s use, and that alternative assessment tools be used instead, such as teaching practice inventory or correlating teaching with in one course with student grades in later courses. It remains to be seen what the final report will say.
While I can’t provide recommendations about what kind of system should replace student evaluations, what I can say is that based on the feedback that I’ve received and conversations I’ve had with other female instructors, gender bias in the classroom, and academia, is a serious problem that needs to be addressed openly, with honesty and compassion. Not only do these biases end careers, but they also deprive students of superb instructors.
Andrea Eidinger is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She holds a doctorate from the University of Victoria, and has spent the last six years teaching as a sessional instructor in British Columbia. She is the creator and writer behind the Unwritten Histories blog, which is dedicated to revealing hidden histories and the unwritten rules of the historical profession.
[1] Special thanks to Joanna Pearce for her comments on the piece!
[3] Scott Jaschik, “Rate My Word Choice,” Inside Higher Ed (February 9, 2015). You can use the tool itself, which was developed by Ben Schmidt, here. For information on how he developed the tool, click here.
[4] Thank you Christo Aivalis for the suggestion of this example.  The comments section of this article (and many similar articles) highlights the prevalence of the ‘just ignore’ attitude.
[5] To see the background research for the study as well as some of the other responses and commentaries, including those from students, click here. Interestingly, of the responses posted that website, only the Federation of Students was fully supportive of the draft report’s recommendations.
classrooms · community · compassion · pedagogy · social media · student engagement · teaching

Tweeting the Classroom

Students have more to say than we realize. And we do them a disservice when we don’t give them an opportunity to contribute their wit, critiques, and independent inquiries to the course.

That’s what using Twitter as a teaching tool does for me. Of course, classroom time allows for critical and creative discussion, and I design many exercises that encourage the voicing of student opinions and perspectives. But invariably, some voices become heard over others, and some quieter students relax under the comfortable knowledge that other, more confident, and louder students will speak up if they don’t. For the two sections of Composition & Rhetoric that I’m teaching this term, each student must tweet four times per week. I state on my syllabus that “tweets may be creative, inquisitive, analogical, humorous, playful, critical, and/or informative,” offering suggestions for questions that could be asked or YouTube links that could be given (you can view my full syllabus on I must confess my indebtedness to Megan Cook of Colby College for her generosity in sharing her syllabi, upon which some of my Twitter guidelines are based). Tweeting makes extra-sense for this class because we spend our first month discussing the communicative advantages of social media, so in a very real way we’re performing what we’re theorizing. In case some of you are wondering how on earth I keep track of everyone’s individual tweets, I don’t–I require that they keep a personal log of their required 4/week, which they will submit at the end of the term. It’s pass-fail.

Even though I don’t monitor and record every tweet, I do follow along using columns on Tweetdeck, “liking” posts, responding to particularly thoughtful or provocative points, and often integrating the content and material of the tweets into classroom discussions. It’s a perfect enactment of the decentered classroom that I describe in my Teaching Philosophy Statement: students learn to exercise their own voices and actively contribute to the evolving dialogue of the course as it unfolds.

Last week, for example, I had assigned the second of three episodes in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast dealing with higher education, on the relationship between dining facilities and financial aid for low-income students at Vassar and Bowdoin Colleges (both elite liberal arts schools on the East Coast). Leading up to the class, I could identify a few problems with his narrative but in general found it convincingly and effectively told, offering some important commentary on the amenities war currently inflating university budgets at the expense of better funding for students’ education and faculty salaries. The night before, one of my students posted an article in Inside Higher Ed that essentially blows apart the logic of Gladwell’s approach, showing that the correlation between enhanced dining services and low-income students is not as direct as Gladwell indicates, and outlining the lopsided nature of his investigations. In class, then, we were able to establish the admirable qualities of the podcast and then I pulled out the article the student had tweeted as a contrasting critique. This made for an effective classroom discussion of the pros and cons of Gladwell’s storytelling approach, and it was almost entirely student-driven. Twitter thereby serves both to keep students engaged outside of class, and can also repopulate classroom discussion.

I am of course not the only one who has used Twitter in (but more properly outside of) the classroom. Others within my field of medieval literature set the social media platform to various creative uses. Reading through these posts, I realize I am still very much a Twitter novice. Just as a sample: Kisha Tracy (@kosho22) has created a great video account of her experience, complete with student feedback; Sjoerd Levelt (@Slevelt) had students write out tweets as different characters of The Iliad, and Laura Varnam (@lauravarnam) did something similar for Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. A number of scholars have translated medieval texts into tweets, beginning with Elaine Treharne’s translation of Beowulf.  Twitter offers ample opportunities to reveal the continued relevance of centuries-old texts in the present, help students feel more confident articulating their own perspectives, and counter the condescension that, in my opinion, is rampant toward undergraduates amongst professors and instructors (the sense that they can’t comprehend complex issues, that quietness is a reflection of ignorance, that the teacher naturally has a better grasp of course material).

Students, as Tracy’s video shows, are inspired and further motivated when reading their peers’ tweets, producing an enhanced and more cohesive learning community. In my class, inside jokes have formed, such as a photo of ice cream my student posted with the tag #relatable, which makes an ironic play on our in-class discussion about “relatability” as a distinctively modern and generally narcissistic phenomenon that encourages passive thinking. Twitter also aids memory retention and helps students become more active thinkers and readers; even something as simple as posting a line from an article that resonates with you involves critical processes of selection and amplification.

Admittedly, my students’ tweets do not always contribute productively to classroom content. I had to give a gentle reminder in class the other day that posts like “I’m so excited for my presentation tomorrow!” or “off to the museum to complete my assignment!” don’t really count toward the required four, even as they might be fine posts on their own. There is a difference between normative social media use and classroom use, and we are learning to distinguish between these different rhetorical situations while also discussing the meaning of rhetorical situations in-class. I also need to find ways to encourage students to respond to each other more, as I’m not always sure they’re reviewing the course hashtag. Finally, it’s a little bit personally stifling to have my own Twitter account so exposed amongst my classes. But after a bad experience last year with a tweet gone awry, I decided that it’s better to embrace the openness of social media and accept the fact that students read what I post, though this inevitably means fewer angry political rants or off-handed comments about my own work-related exhaustion. Since I’m on the job market, though, maybe this increased self-censure is necessary.

Sometimes students’ off-handed banter does express a sophisticated understanding of issues we discuss in class, such as this tweet (reproduced with permission; thanks Vera!):

Vera refers to a NYT article we read, “The Busy Trap,” that argues against rampant busyness* in modern society, basically suggesting that we should all be hermits in the woods rather than privileging productivity and industry over relationships or creative downtime. While I love the core argument here that we need to set aside time and space for activities that don’t build into some productivist superstructure, we all agreed as a class that being overworked is not necessarily self-imposed, and there are unavoidable limitations to setting aside time for self-care. In other words, Kreider’s argument is essentially privileged, and students at a place like Fordham face very different challenges and pressures. This builds into my broader sense that we need to be compassionate toward and receptive to our students, and open to hearing their grievances and perspectives. I truly believe, and see all the time, that students at Fordham are beset with anxiety and a pervasive pressure to succeed, mostly because the cost of attending Fordham hovers around $65 000/year (uhh……you heard that right, Canada.). And so, yes, students (and their parents) want to make their tuition dollars “worth it” in the form of future gainful employment employment. In her tweet, Vera’s hashtags give further context for her case against Kreider, and voice her personal frustration with her heavy college workload while responding in an intelligent way to course content. In this sense, Twitter can also encourage students to engage with course material on a personal level, integrating the messages of readings into their everyday life.

I guess what I’m saying is–I still really like Twitter! It helps me get to know my students better and generally enhances our classroom experience by generating continuities and cohesions. I hope to expand its use in my future literature courses as well.

And what about you, readers? How has Twitter worked/not worked for you in your courses?

academic work · adjuncts · affect · change · classrooms · emotional labour

Returns, Rituals, & the Road Ahead

September makes me both nostalgic and thrilled. It never fails: whatever my working conditions, when Labour Day weekend rolls around I feel a tug at my memory. My heart starts racing just a little bit. I make more lists that I do in the summer.

My first memory of going to school is hazy. I remember lunchtime which, for me, meant opening an orange plastic lunchbox with the Muppets on the front. The edge of the decal was worn because the lunchbox was a hand-me-down from my babysitter’s older children. I remember the sound of the front snaps and the smell of my sandwich. I remember my thermos filled with water or juice. I remember being excited on the days I got a juice box.

I remember the first day of grade six more clearly because it was the first day in a new school in a new country. My mom drove me. I was nervous. I wore purple overalls because they were my favourite and they made me feel brave and cool. Until this year I had never had a long commute to school. I’d either walked or taken the city school bus.

Yesterday, I texted my mom and asked her if she remembered dropping me off at university for the first time. She did. Of course she did. We had driven nearly twenty hours from Ontario back to North Carolina. We’d made the geographic shift from the cool mornings of August in Halliburton County to the oppressive humidity of Chapel Hill where walking through the early morning air feels a bit more like swimming slowly than anything I’ve ever experienced (except swimming slowly). I remember the yellow painted concrete of my dormitory walls, the surprise at how small the room was and how close my new roommate’s (a stranger) bed was to my own. And I remember struggling with the campus map trying to find my 8:30am Philosophy class.

I remember the first day of graduate school–how excited and nervous I felt to be in Montreal. How fancy everyone looked to me, how polished, how prepared. How unlike me. I remember the first day of my PhD, walking for a full hour around campus confused by the sign for the Art Building and not thinking to look in the Social Sciences tower for my orientation room.

I remember the first day of not starting classes. Or rather, I remember the first day of being the instructor fresh out of graduate school and trying very hard to sound as professional and in-charge as I wanted to feel. I remember driving between the campuses where I taught and thinking, after the first week of introductory lectures and syllabus questions, that perhaps teaching four new classes was going to be too much.

I remember my first “real” job–the excitement of an office with my name on the door, a schedule of department meetings (I know, I am one of those people who loves department meetings…), and a fresh agenda waiting to be filled with lists. I remember my second “real” job. I remember the years, most recently, of going back to sessional work, and how, despite the difficulty of shifting into underpaid labour, I still felt excited at the start of a new year. The first day of school matters, for so many reasons.

This year, as I sit at my new desk having just completed my new hour-long commute, I find myself so eager to take this moment and reflect on what it means to be able to begin a new year on campus. Sure, I am obviously nostalgic. My memories are grounded in my own experiences and affects. And I am also aware–so aware–of the ways in which university and college campuses and classrooms are challenging, restricted, and often inaccessible spaces for so many.

As we begin the new year let’s take a moment to think of our own first days. As we ready ourselves and our classrooms or offices or cubicles or cars or library spots for the labour of teaching and learning in vastly different material conditions let’s try to see one another’s work and support it. Let’s imagine that in spite of inequities (among students, among teachers, among academic workers) we can in our own ways contribute to making the project of higher learning more equitable, more just, and more exciting.

Happy September, dear Readers. Take care of yourselves as we begin.

classrooms · teaching

Ice breakers

Some friends were asking around on Facebook last week: what sorts of ice breakers do you use on the first day of class? Ice breakers, of course, are those get-to-know-you exercises that classroom leaders, workshop coordinators, event runners and others in charge of large groups of strangers employ to, well, thaw the polite distance that keeps strangers isolated from each other, even when they’re sitting right next to one another.

Ice breakers not only help students relax a little, and get to know each other’s names, but also break up the terrible tedium of The Reading of The Syllabus and the Laying Out of All the Rules and the Sorting Out if You Are Registered that is most of the business of the first class. The first class never really seems to reflect what the other 23 meetings are going to be like: there’s a lot more lecturing and reading along, and no one laughs at my jokes, hardly, and everyone seems nervous and bored at the same time.

My ice breakers vary depending on several factors: smaller classes or larger classes, survey course versus specialized seminar, undergrads versus grads, etc. Sometimes I put students in pairs, get them to introduce themselves to each other, then make pairs of pairs where students now introduce each other to each other. Sometimes I go around the room, asking students to tell me what program they’re in, and what their research interests for the course are. Sometimes I ask each student to just say their name, and one weird thing about themselves that I probably won’t forget, and then I try to see how many names I can get right at the end. Sometimes I do show-of-hand polls like, “How many of you were born in this city?” and “How many of you speak another language at home?” and “How many of you are left-handed?” and other silly questions and then we laugh at our commonalities and our differences.

Often, the ice breakers are for my benefit. I’m really, really terrible at learning people’s names. Like, really terrible. Once, when my husband and I had been dating for over a month and I was deep in the honeymoon stage of infatuation, he came unexpectedly to my postdoc office to take me out for lunch. “Hey!” he said, leaning in the door, “I came to surprise you with lunch!” You know how I responded? “Oh! Hi … dude!” Because I forgot his name, being deeply engrossed in some fact-checking.

Anyhow, the ice breaker I use with my first year Digital Lives class is one of those ones that’s mostly for me. On the first day I assign them the following homework: “Use the email utility of the courseware management system, and write me 200 words of who you are, where you’re from, and why you’re here. Attach a photo of yourself, with your name somewhere visible.” This is a great exercise, because it immediately ensures that everyone can access the course website, and their university email. It is also great for learning names, because what I do is take all the photos, and make a screen saver slideshow out of them: it’s like names-and-faces flashcards for me, and it really really helps me learn their names.

But you know what else is great? It helps me connect with my students as human beings. The students I meet in emails are nothing like those scared / bored / nervous / skeptical poker-faced lumps that often populate the first-day-of-class classroom. They’re funny, accomplished, unique, cosmopolitan, pedantic, curious, naive, serious, driven, aimless people. They come from all over the world, including the neighbourhood where I live. They have cats, and friends, and weird hobbies. They take wild selfies. They screen grab their imgur posts. They create fake Instagram accounts to make me laugh.

I answer every email with a little tidbit of my own, a kind of reciprocal humanity. I will share some of their stories in class, in the aggregate, to help them get to know each other. But for a couple of days, my inbox is a marvel of little Hello World statements and pictures, 40 new people–young people!–that I am privileged to get to know.

#FergusonSyllabus · academic reorganization · classrooms · empowerment · pedagogy

The Shadow Syllabus

Do you ever find yourself revising your syllabus as you move through the semester? I don’t mean small things like shifting a due date or adding or subtracting a reading. I mean have you ever realized part way through the term that while you are technically teaching what you proposed in reality there is something else, something subversive, something exciting happening that is not on the syllabus? 
I have. In fact, I am experiencing this in a class right now.  
There is some context: I hadn’t really planned to teach this fall. When classes started our daughter was three months old. And so when the opportunity to teach two courses came up in late August (#precarity) I launched into syllabus writing mode so quickly I might well have looked like a superhero or a bedevilled scribe. As I scrambled to order texts and build online learning sites I also fiddled and fiddled and fiddled with my syllabi. One class in particular was brand new for me: writing in the digital age. After consulting with a number of digital humanities friends and colleagues, attending an online workshop on digital and collaborative teaching (thank you, FemTechNet), and reading an astonishing amount of material in an equally astonishingly short time, I built a syllabus I was proud of. And now I am subverting it. 
Here’s what I mean: the syllabus I built is strong. I feel good about it, colleagues who also work in the field were complimentary of it. But what I could’t have expected at the time was the need to work in contemporary issues on the fly. That’s the thing about teaching the contemporary field: things happen as the semester progresses. So, we have worked into our classroom opportunities to close read the performative politics of the election, for example, which in turn has had us thinking through the politics and poetics of the performance of self in everyday digital life, which in turn has become a conversation about the ethics and politics of power in our digital lives. 
What we are building, my students and I, is a shadow syllabus. 
I first heard the term when I came across Sonya Huber’s wonderful writing where she poetically outlines the intersectional politics and affects that structure any classroom. It was last week, though, that I came across the term again and thought about it in relation to my own present and future classrooms.

Last week I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Marcia Chatelain–who is an incredible speaker– give a talk on teaching in the age of #BlackLivesMatter. Dr. Chatelain, who is the brains behind #FergusonSyllabus, spoke to the audience about how she used Twitter to develop a national and international teach-in. Our role in the university is to assess what is going on in the world, make it accessible, and mobilize discussions in communities, she told the audience. Creating the #FergusonSyllabus was a practical and politically engaged call to discuss the events of the shooting of Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Dr. Chatelain challenged colleagues to talk about the events–and the systemic inequity and racism that made them possible–in their classrooms on the first day of school. 

The shadow syllabus, she explained, emerged as a tactic for working in how to talk about meaningful and vital current events that may not meet institutional approval. For, as Dr. Chatelain related, in some elementary and high schools teachers were not allowed to talk to their students about the events. 
Enter the shadow syllabus.

A shadow syllabus is shrewd. It allows you to meet course and learning objectives while simultaneously working in the contemporary, the political, and, according to my students, the vital.  You want to teach students about systemic racism but can’t because you’re under a gag order? No problem. Teach them about housing policy in the municipality in question! You want to teach first year students about the corporatization of learning? Use the university’s mission statement and the twitter feeds of Provosts as texts for close reading. The shadow syllabus emerges as a practical application of Huber’s poetic thinking. And it is, I wager, both a means of working in what the institution does not recognize, and a way to work organically as a class. 
While my class and I are not developing a shadow syllabus as a means of working around a gag order, in the way that some of Dr. Chatelain’s colleagues were, we are working with the contemporary field as it happens, and that? That is exciting. It is hard and exciting. It is learning. 
academic work · classrooms · guest post

Guest Post: Transferrable Skills

Last spring  I was asked to write a guest post comparing my work as a corporate educator with my work in the corporatized university.  Much to the surprise of many, including myself, I realized that the pragmatic benefits of corporate work quickly outweighed the far more intangible benefits of academic work.  After I shared this revelation with you, my mind really shifted toward imagining myself in alt-ac.  Not as an alternative, but as a concrete opportunity that I did not feel I could get within the university.  I don’t just want to work.  I want to thrive.  And, I can’t thrive if I am not making a living wage but spend all of my time working.
So today, I thought I might speak a bit about my job search thus far.  I want to speak in big, broad terms.  I am not going to speak to the conversion of my CV to a resume, or about strategically pitching my experience to employers.  Instead, I just wanted to mention some of the things I am looking for when I assess jobs against my own experience and educational background.
In the last two weeks, I have applied for four jobs.  That is more jobs than I saw posted in Canadian literature all year, particularly if I narrowed it down only to permanent, uncontracted positions.  If I look at each of them separately, I see that they are diffuse:  jobs in training, instructional design, learning strategy and grant writing.  But, they aren’t diffuse because I am reaching, trying desperately to fit something to my skills.  They are diffuse because, I have learned, my skills really are transferable and I have a ton of existing experience.  My experience is tangible, and I can tie my work to real, concrete experiences and outcomes.  I can write up portfolios and presentations in various media to illustrate that I have, in fact, done all of the required to excel in each of the positions I applied for.
So often, particularly as a PhD student, we get caught up in narratives of failure and helplessness.  It feels sometimes (and our departments often make this worse!), that we have nothing to offer and have somewhat hopeless futures.  But we don’t.  We don’t.  We just need to realize that there are other industries—closely related to the ones we currently operate in—that value our work experience.  If we treat the PhD like a job, like I have for the last five years, then, we end up with five years of amazing skills and experiences that make us desirable and marketable to employers in both the public and private sectors.

In a recent job screening, I was asked about my salary expectations.  A little voice inside of me said, “Well, I am currently living off of $25,000 or less, so anything more than that would be nice.”  I didn’t listen to that little voice.  I did my homework and looked around at similar jobs and their salary ranges.  Instead of setting the standard at the abysmal low set by the university, I assessed my own value using the field standard.  This was such a necessary reminder for me:  I am valuable.  We are all valuable.  We need to stop defining ourselves by the standards established by part-time labour contracts.  We need to, just for a moment, remember our worth.

Emily Ballantyne
Dalhousie University
academic reorganization · classrooms · contract work · guest post

Guest Post: Corporate Education vs. Corporatized Universities

Those of us teaching in post-secondary settings have a tendency to vilify corporate education writ large. In my mind, I have always equated the ‘corporatized’ part of the university institution with the most insidious and inhumane aspects of teaching part-time at a public institution. For example, I believed that because the university has adopted a corporate model—i.e. piecemeal pay for part-time work, a valuing of “learning outcomes” without a sense of what preparation, delivery, and developing classroom empathy entails—I am not properly valued as an instructor.
Here is a more concrete example of what I mean. Earlier last week, I applied for a sessional teaching position at my home institution, where I would be teaching 180 students, supervising 8 TAs, lecturing for two hours, running office hours and offering a weekly one hour tutorial.  Because of our collective agreement, if I am hired, I will be paid about $4500 ($1125 per month) before taxes, regardless of how many hours it takes for me to prepare and deliver the course material.  Our agreement does not distinguish between half-credit courses with 30 students and half-credit courses with 180 students.  It also does not distinguish between brand new classes and established ones.  Finally, the newest courses—those requiring new teaching preparation and that have never been taught in my department previously—tend to be the largest courses in terms of enrollment. Why? Because in the corporatized university model, departments like mine can sometimes get money to hire sessionals if we offer a new, huge class. So, the fact that the university has requested that the part-time instructor develop new curriculum is not factored into pay, but is an assumed part of teaching duties that is not billable.  Neither is the additional time spent on administration, and educating and training TAs.  And, if I need supplies, like a new dongle to connect to the projector system, these are additional personal expenses that are not reimbursable.
I tell you all of this as if it is not a familiar story to all of you.  I narrate these expectations and pay arrangements because they are indicative of the neo-liberal, corporatized university model that is now the industry standard.  Though it is obvious that this hiring practice is exploitative, and certainly is in massive need of change, this is a model that I have accepted, and to some degree, encouraged, by continuing to accept these working conditions.
However, as a point of contrast, let me narrate another experience. I was recently hired to work part time as a corporate educator for a test preparation firm, and a lot of my strongly held beliefs were tested and realigned.  Let me, as a point of comparison, give you a sense of my experience with this corporation thus far.
In applying to work for a corporate educator I had to prove my abilities. I was required to pass the section of the test I was hired to help the students prepare for.  Begrudgingly, I took the test and felt anger that my teaching experience didn’t speak for itself.  When I passed that, I was then required to complete a teaching interview.  I received scads of paperwork detailing the expectations of the company for the interview, and was given a clear indication of what they were looking for in a sample lesson.  During the interview, my lesson was followed up by questions about scenario-specific situations about classroom management, and was assessed on my ability to handle underprepared, and aggressive students.  Once I was officially hired, I was flown to headquarters for an intensive training weekend.  I was expected to prepare extensively for the training, and would be teaching four different sections of the prescribed syllabus based on a standard set of materials.  It wasn’t training so much as it was further evaluation of my pedagogy, and my ability to follow their stringent model of instruction.  The expectations were very high, and very specific. They were also wholly different than any expectations, assessment, or application processes I’ve ever experienced teaching in the corporatized university. Further, to become a corporate educator, I was evaluated publicly in front of my peers, and was received criticism and feedback on content and style in front of my fellow trainees for at least ten minutes after each twenty-minute lesson.  After the training, I had to wait 48 hours to find out I was certified.
In some ways, my somewhat negative expectations of corporate education systems were met.  I had to adapt to a rigid model of instruction, and my creativity as a teacher was certainly hampered by the set schedule and learning objectives. Yet I would be remiss not to note that the high expectations and demanding hours were much like teaching for the corporatized university. Moreover, as I reflect back on this experience, I realize that in many ways, I found this initial foray into corporate education much more satisfying. 
It was certainly more humane.  The salary was hourly, and was negotiable based on my experience and education. 
When I teach for the corporate educators, I will be paid for every hour of prep and all student emails.  I was paid for training, which included being flown to a different province and put up in a hotel. I have access to my performance evaluations.  I have a mentor and a clearly established line of communication for both administrative and pedagogical questions and feedback. Also, get this: emailing my mentor is billable.  My teaching will be regularly evaluated; my positive teaching reviews equate to raises and further opportunities. I am able to train for other positions, and am encouraged to do so. I was hired permanent part time.  Though I am not guaranteed work, my contract is permanent, and I will never need to reapply.
I have been trained to believe that my lack of value is linked to the corporate direction universities have taken.  What I have learned in the last two weeks is to be far more careful about applications of labels and the way they translate into labour experiences.  It turns out, I want many of the things corporate education models can offer.  Maybe there is more room to maneuver and cause change from within this corporatized university structure than I ever thought possible. 

I can’t believe I am saying this, but: we can learn a lot from corporate education models.

Emily Ballantyne is a PhD student, part-time lecturer, and most recently, a corporate educator.