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.
classrooms · Facebook · grad school · reform · social media · teaching

How Should We Talk About Our Students Online?

A few weeks ago, in my digital world at least, there was a flurry of activity around the issue of online ‘student-shaming,’ specifically in response to the new Dear Student column on Vitae. The Dear Student column presents hypothetical situations involving students making unreasonable requests of professors, with a slate of profs providing satirical email responses to the situations, such as missing textbooks, late enrollment, or family emergencies the day before the final exam. Jesse Stommel, an assistant prof at U of Wisconsin-Madison, objected to this column, and in a much-shared broadside, withdrew from his new post as columnist for Vitae. The internet responded, and various scholars chimed in: Dorothy Kim, responding to comments on Stommel’s post, scrawled an epic twitter manifesto in support of Stommel about treating our students as humans and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Kelly Baker (of Vitae) storifyed a number of her twitter conversations and concludes, ultimately, that there are strong material reasons for ranting against students, but we should be pairing these rants with success stories: “instead of shaming students, we should publicly celebrate those who have inspired us,” @joshua_r_eyler writes on Twitter. Others have argued that we should rant up, not down. One rebuttal points out that Dear Student is largely satirical and gives voice to a diverse ensemble of writers and respondents, including many women of color.

I like the Vitae. They’ve reposted one of my H&E blogs, they are geared toward young scholars like me, and they seem engaged with #alt-ac and #CAF issues. Not many involved in this debate have recognized that Stacey Patton, the Vitae reporter who began the series, is herself a woman of color with a PhD in History; she does not currently hold a tenure-track job. ((She runs a website, Spare the Kids, whose stated mission is “to provide Black parents, families, and communities with a full range of alternatives to corporal punishment.” So we could say that she seems…cool?)) The attack has been leveled, strangely, at Vitae rather than engaging with Patton herself.

Of course, I echo others; we shouldn’t student-shame. But let’s take a moment and think about why many of us do it, even though we shouldn’t. I’d wager that many of the worst culprits are actually those who are just starting out in the profession, who are having a hard time starting out in the profession, whose working conditions are precarious, who are underpaid, who are underrecognized, who worry about their own ability to manage a classroom and occasionally project that worry onto students. Sometimes I do it because I’m constantly plagued with imposter syndrome, because I search for validation through the distinction between my students and myself, because I am comforted with the thought that I am, in fact, smarter than them, and have the authority to stand in front of the classroom. I love my students, and am known as a very caring, devoted professor. But sometimes I, too, fall prey to the temptation to scoff at a sweeping “Since the beginning of time” opening to an essay, or carp about students who feel comfortable enough to accost me about a mediocre grade the moment I hand back the papers, without even pausing to read, let alone digest, my comments. It is worth noting, though this comment may be for another post, that the hierarchy is not always clear in large, corporatized universities; when students come from rich, privileged families and educators are  not granted basic working rights and benefits–is complaining about students always “ranting down”?

So, with all this in mind, how should we talk about students online? I recommend the following guidelines.

  1. Let’s not shame students for succumbing to the immense pressure put upon them to succeed, to work hard to get better grades, to go into debt in the name of education, to fit in to a society that is still largely dominated by rich, white, cisgender men. Let’s stop calling our students “kids.” It’s infantalizing, in the most literal sense, and perhaps reflects a larger attitude of superiority and inattention to our students’ complexity, adulthood, diversity.
  2. Instead, let’s think of our students as allies. I blogged a couple weeks ago about undergraduate student support for the graduate strikes as one of the most inspiring things to come out of the collective bargaining movements, in both New York and Toronto. Undergraduate students–those we sometimes refer to as ‘kids’–fight for us. They fought for the unioners at NYU, and the unioners won; undergraduates have thus had a direct impact on the material conditions of grad students at NYU, present and future. It’s worth taking a few moments and contemplating this fact. 
  3.  Let’s not screenshot or copy sections of our students’ papers online, even the good ones. It’s condescending, and disrespectful of our students’ rights to privacy. How would you, as a scholar, feel if you discovered that some of your unpublished work was posted somewhere without your consent? Joke about it with friends, perhaps–and marvel at the great papers too.
  4. Relatedly, while celebrating rather than shaming students is a great idea, be careful–let’s not [humble-]brag about how great our students are online. At least not too much. You’re often not reeeeally praising the student; you’re praising yourself (especially when done within the privacy of facebook, when the student must remain unnamed and ignorant to your praise). In general, feel comfortable and confident celebrating your successes on social media (see: H&E’s Boast Post column!), but be aware of others, and practice moderation.
  5. Instead, let’s share teaching strategies online, the things we do with students. Talking about what activities you’re trying, what material you’re using, how your pedagogy is shifting, and soliciting advice: these are all appropriate uses of social media.
  6. Let’s ask our students for their permission if we want to celebrate their achievements online. My class website has a page for “Excellent Student Writing” where I post A papers with the authors’ consent, using the papers both reward and model for others. 
  7. Let’s treat students as humans. 
  8. But let’s be honest with ourselves, too, about the realities of our working conditions, about the hardships of higher education, for educators as well as students. Let’s recognize our need for outlets and validation, and perhaps for productive anger, for brainstorming possible solutions to the problems of higher education.

Other suggestions? How should we be talking about our students online?

classrooms · community · learning · reflection · teaching · thank you

Teaching and Learning

On Thursday last week I sat in my office all day and waited for my first-year students to pick up their graded papers. As they filtered in and then out my door, a few of them paused, smiled, and thanked me for the semester.

I think I forgot to say “you’re welcome” for at least half of them. I know I always smile, sometimes a little awkwardly, but genuinely. But occasionally I find myself at a loss for words. “You’re welcome”, I suppose, somehow just doesn’t quite seem to cut it. 
Perhaps it’s because those students who have paused to thank me are often those ones to whom I am also grateful: grateful for their commitment to learning, their effort, for their essay re-writes, the way they’ve taken my feedback and pushed themselves, how they’ve made their papers convincing, persuasive, and drawn stronger links to textual evidence. I’m grateful for their genuine searching questions, their involvement in class discussions, and their respectful comments. I’m grateful for their their earnest fastidiousness, their engagement, and perhaps most of all, their deep concern for each other. 
My students this semester have been all this and more, all the more remarkable because for the vast majority this is their first semester of post-secondary education. For some, my class was their introduction to city-living, the cold dark of Northern Novembers, being far away from family and old friends. For most, this semester was their first experience of the university classroom space; their first lesson in self-directed time management, in living life without direct supervision, in juggling financial obligations with academic ones. 
For any first-year student, the experience of university can be challenging, difficult, and overwhelming. For the students that started out at my university this term, they also had to deal with two “non-criminal student deaths” on campus. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to experience the loss of a fellow student, a classmate, a friend. What I do know is that this first semester is hard for most students, and that without contact from caring, compassionate people, students can feel nothing but alienation and loneliness as they begin university life.
Earlier this semester I had two of my students approach me to explain their tardiness to class. They had been trying to get ahold of their friend, also in my class, who had been missing classes for a week. The reason they were late was because they’d decided to track down this friend at her house. Waking up early in the morning, they’d to travelled off-campus to their friend’s home, to see if she was going to make it to class. She didn’t answer the door.
When they told me this story, I was prompted to pass along resources–contact info for the chaplain’s office, peer-support centre, and others–to pass along to their friend, if she needed it. While I don’t know if they were used, I do know that the student did return to my class a few days later.
I’ve always implicitly seen teaching as collaborative, reciprocal learning, but this semester my students have pushed me to consider how to care beyond the classroom space. My students’ concern for their classmate and friend prompted the realization that perhaps other students in my class needed these resources, too. Following the lead of other instructors at my University, I ended up talking to my students towards the end of term about on- and off-campus support. I acknowledged that this is a difficult time of year, a challenging term. But mostly I just wanted them to know that people do care, and that what they may be feeling is important and valid, and that there are people who can help. And it was brought home to me by the demonstrative concern of my students.
I think the next time once of my students drops by to thank me for the semester, I’ll know what to say. A simple “thank you” in response will probably suffice.
Have your students taught you something valuable this term?
appreciation · classrooms · teaching

Persuasive Writing

One of my colleagues, in a workshop for new graduate student teachers, suggested an in class exercise that I’d never heard of. Get your students to draw a picture of their ideal reader, he said, then get them to draw a speech bubble on that reader: ask them what the reader is saying to them about their writing.

Students have so much trouble imagining a real writer, particularly in an academic context where producing an essay often feels like a performance in showing the teacher you read the right number of books and journal articles, and hit the right word count, and used X number of transition words, and underlined your thesis statement. This exercise concretizes the idea of a real reader, and asks students, as well, to think about what they want that reader to come away with after.

I tried it with my first years. They’re writing a short research paper, a persuasive essay where they have to craft an argument for a particular interpretation of one aspect of our contemporary digital lives–I’ve got papers for and against online dating, social media, video game aesthetics, normative sexism and racism online, and more. So far they’ve written a proposal that briefly described their topic and articulated a provisional thesis they were interested in arguing. Then they produced annotated bibliographies of primary and secondary sources. Then they wrote a draft of the introductory paragraph of the paper. This week they’ll do a draft editing workshop on a first draft of the full paper. Next week they hand it in.

At the very first, though, when I handed out the Research Paper assignment, I had them do this exercise with the reader and the speech bubble.

The results astonished me. In among the hilariously poorly-drawn stick figure renditions of readers (most of them imagined me as the reader; only one imagined PacMan) and the comic descriptions of writing awards bestowed, most students imagined two kinds of feedback. First, a strong majority asked for substantive feedback on both mechanics and structure. Second, and this was surprising, nearly half of them imagined me saying something along the lines of this:

“I never thought of that before, but you’ve convinced me!”

My students were actually focused on persuading me. On generating new, surprising knowledge. Somehow they’ve actually got the idea that their writing matters, generally, and that it matters to me, particularly, and that they can use their words to meaningfully interact with culture, ideas, and interpretation.

I’m floored.

Right now I’m just so grateful to get this little sign that somehow, somewhere, this group of students has had some kind of little spark lit. I’m grateful my colleague taught me this exercise. Yesterday I graded 35 quizzes and 36 intro paragraphs and got to work on 20 SSHRC Departmental Appraisal Letters and assorted other ranking tasks. This was just the reminder I need that there is a purpose beyond just a rank or a grade or a credential. That my teaching, sometimes, matters and makes a difference. That my students can surprise me, that they’re trying and they care.

Have you had any nice surprises lately? Something to help us get through these last few weeks of term?

Honestly, my students this term are the BEST

academic work · after the LTA · classrooms · guest post · moving

Guest Post: Academic Alternatives

It’s a well-known fact that after defending one’s PhD, a person is in want of direction. Few of us have the strategic training to line up a tenure-track job while ABD, were there an adequate supply tenure track jobs. I defended in January 2008. The time after my defence was exhilarating. I felt like a crack addict who tasted the world anew. But with all drugs, the euphoria passed and I plummeted into the dark dungeon of the academic job-market, exacerbated by the post-economic-collapse of the 2008 mortgage crisis. The attrition of tenure-track jobs was a lethal combination with the absence of conversation and advising about alternatives to academia, well documented by Hook and Eye, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and others concerned by the corporatization of the university. 
Out of fear of disappointing my advisors and myself for failing to obtain a position at an “acceptable” research institution, I took an Assistant Professorship at the American University of Dubai in 2010. To my great surprise it transformed and invigorated my desire to teach and to pursue my scholarship. With housing and a tax-free salary, it was also financially sound. An overseas academic job was for me, and friends, a circuitous but fruitful path. Though I taught four courses a semester, and often two during a summer term, I found time to write and think and travel. In the three years I lived in Dubai, I published four peer-reviewed articles and a book review, and traveled to nearly fifteen countries in addition to paid visits home every summer.  
There are many, many problems with working and living in the Middle East, including the exploitation of the labour class, the for-profit university model, and the rampant racism and sexism. It would be easy to dismiss Dubai and the American University in Dubai for all manners of social justice and environmental crimes, and one day I might write in more detail about these, but on the ground I was also able to encounter incredible people and their narratives, to witness and to learn about colonial legacies, and to challenge my Western-centric political assumptions about the Middle East, globalization, postcoloniality, capitalism, literature and religion. Many of us talk about learning from students in our pedagogical statements, but this was not really true for me until I witnessed the many social, cultural, and political negotiations my students undertook everyday: Emirati students were full of joy and pride for their country’s rise, but unwilling to attend to the enslavement of construction workers; brilliant Indian and Pakistani students whose families helped Dubai grow were pained by exclusionary policies which prevented their families from obtaining Emirati citizenship; Nigerian and Kenyan students sought to understand their countries’ neocolonial legacies and corruption, while embracing Western culture; bright Iranian women worked assiduously to prove themselves to their families, but feared feminism; Kazakh students espoused conservative Muslim beliefs, although they enjoyed hard liquor, fast cars, and sexual promiscuity; Egyptian students brimmed with excitement during the revolution Arab Spring but understood little about their country’s history. They all, admirably, spoke three or four languages, respected their parents, and held professors in high esteem. As a quirky, unmarried, enthusiastic, socially-attuned, and reasonably young woman, I felt that I also offered a model for a differing subjectivity that alerted students to richer possibilities than what cultural and patriarchal norms establish, almost universally. (These same issues also surface in classrooms in New York, which shows the extensive convergences between “East” and “West.”) 
Not all of us can go overseas or desire to live in blinding heat and under a liberal Sharia law, but for those who love teaching and the possibilities of the world, there is much to advise about seeking academic work in Asia, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe at schools accredited or affiliated with North American institutions. 
My Dubai experience of teaching a diverse student body surely helped me to obtain a tenure-track position at Hostos Community College in 2013. Hostos belongs to the City University of New York consortium of 24 colleges and has a special history of serving the underserved Hispanic and Black communities of the South Bronx. Its faculty are devoted, long-serving, and passionate teachers and scholars. My colleagues are amazing. They support and pursue teaching innovation, encourage rigorous scholarship, provide mentoring about the tenure process, and nurture junior scholars. My scholarly presentations and publications are received with enthusiasm, not with competitive jealousy. The tenure process is clearly outlined by the union and the college, rather than obscured and ambiguated. Collaboration is encouraged and lauded. Because it is part of CUNY, I would venture that Hostos functions like some small postsecondary institutions in terms of the culture of scholarship and opportunities for pedagogical and research development. There is an awards officer who works closely with us to produce successful grant applications, and both the Provost and the Dean of Academic Affairs wholeheartedly advocate time and funding for conferencing and research.
There is something incredibly human about Hostos. Space is limited, supplies are modest, work is abundant, and energy is seemingly unlimited. The teaching load is, as it was in Dubai, four courses a semester, half composition and half literature classes. I have fewer students than adjuncts who teach two or three courses at larger institutions. My students might work full time, live out of a shelter, have childcare responsibilities, experience gang violence on a daily basis, be victims of domestic abuse, and battle racial and ethnic brutality everyday. I sense that some have been nearly hollowed out by social abjection. Never have I been more convinced of the necessity of power of education. I have learned that students are the same everywhere, that they try, fail, try again, if there is the right engagement from their professors. I don’t yet know if I am succeeding. I do know that I am thankful for this work, for this job, and for my colleagues. 
It takes some imaginative work to carve out your own path after the defence, and that path should be broader than the dream of a position at an R1 (first-level, research) institution. There is a snobbishness about teaching positions, whether at a technical school, a community college, a writing center, a liberal arts college, or a non-research institution; it implies that one has not made the cut or is less “intellectual”. It is also an unstated rejection of the labour of academia, which we would rather contract out to adjuncts. This attitude is particularly baffling in light of my alma mater, which structures the PhD package so that most candidates teach first-year classes from the start. Many of us benefitted intellectually and pedagogically from these classroom experiences, and yet it was always understood that we should aim “higher” than a teaching position. On the contrary, teaching positions have enabled me to do the work that I love: teach. I don’t glamorize it or marry my life to it. I experience my rewards when students arrive at a breakthrough or offer small thanks. I worry about the ones who sift through urban war-zones and private minefields to get an education. At the end of the day, I try to leave the weight of my students’ troubles at the office. Other friends who have landed permanent work at liberal arts or non-research colleges (Vancouver Island University, Quest University, NAIT) enjoy a similar experience as I: we do the work we trained to do.

Many states and provinces have college consortiums (Texas, Georgia, California, Illinois, New York) and online application systems that will list positions from their various colleges. University Affairs has international job listings for those interested in overseas positions. Look for schools called “American University” or “Canadian University”. NYU has several global campuses, including one in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Writing Programs and Centers at these institutions yield interesting positions. Don’t be afraid of venturing into a two-or-three-year contract. There is no guarantee, but it will be an adventure.

Hostos Community College
classrooms · experiential education · grading · reflection · teaching

Reflections After a Semester of Teaching (for the first time)

Yesterday, I finally pushed the big writing project of my semester off my plate. Admittedly, I did it with little aplomb or flourish (in fact, I may be legitimately concerned that it might have landed with something like a splat), I’ve still got 30 final exams to grade, ongoing work with the digital humanities project I work on, and a spring research trip looming. But it feels, at last, that this very busy and taxing semester actually might wrap up. My classes have ended, my final essays (and revisions) are graded, the graduate student event I’ve been coordinating all semester is poised to take flight on Wednesday, and this week I finally have some time in my schedule to do things which I’ve been putting off since the mid-term break.

As I near the point where I can legitimately say I’m not a first-time instructor anymore, I’ve been reflecting, like Erin about the end of this semester, my first semester of teaching. This winter, as I walked into my first-ever classroom as sole instructor of an intro English course, there were several things that I expected and had prepared for, but others that presented unique and unfamiliar challenges. As a result, there are some things that I’m pleased to say went very well, but others that I think I’m going to change going forward.

First, I should say that I am really privileged to have walked into my first-ever classroom with a lot of support behind me. In the first year of my PhD, I took a writing studies course on how to teach writing which helped me feel confident and knowledgeable about how to approach first-year composition. My department also put on a valuable proseminar on how to teach English literature. Finally, and most importantly, I was given a really excellent teaching mentor who was willing to answer basically any question I had, gave me copies of sample assignments, and helped me to assess my assignments and imput my grades. I really don’t think it would have been possible to be a sole-instructor for the first time without this kind of support system, and I think anything I did right was because I had the benefit of these helps.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the decisions I made that I’m really happy about:

1) Assigning an obscure text: I put a book on my syllabus that I was not sure would go over well with my students, a late-nineteenth-century feminist utopia, Margaret Dunmore, or a Socialist Home, which is totally not mainstream, but I thought might be an interesting pairing with Dracula. My students found it fascinating, and took it up productively in ways I didn’t expect. In the future, I hope I’ll be less anxious about making decisions to feature texts on my syllabus that are obscure if I find them interesting and/or provoking, even if they are a little off the beaten path.

2) Sequencing Assignments: For every essay, I made my students do a short three or four sentence “Question and Answer” prospectus, which consisted of a question, revised from the essay prompts I provided, and an answer that would form the thesis of their papers. (Taken from John Bean’s really excellent book Engaging Ideas). When I got them back, my first instinct was that it was a terrible mistake, because they were kind of awful. But I was then able to give detailed feedback, explaining to my class again collectively and to each student personally how to write a thesis statement. It made my papers infinitely better than they would have otherwise been. I did this with both of my papers, and for the last final research essay, I also assigned an annotated bibliography which helped make sure they properly assessed the sources for their final essays and understood them in advance of the final assignment.

3) Requiring Drafts, Allowing Revisions: I had a peer review class for each essay assignment in advance of the due date, and required at minimum a detailed outline and intro that my students had to bring to class and read to each other. This meant that students were forced to get thinking early about their assignments, and able to collectively bounce ideas off each other in the classroom space. I also allowed revisions for their papers, but only up to a week after their papers were handed back. Only six students over the course of the semester took up the opportunity to revise their papers, but reading them as though they were drafts, and seeing the potential for improvement, made a big difference in how much I enjoyed marking their assignments. It was also a great pleasure to see how much improvement the students who did take up my offer to revise their assignment were able to make in their writing. I had several students bump up their marks from high C’s/low B’s into the A-range, and it’s great to see how much they learned to clarify/revise their thinking and writing.

Of course, there were also things I did that I did that I’m not terribly pleased with–hopefully these are rookie mistakes that I won’t make again:

1) Overpreparing: I often prepared wayyyy too much material for an hour and twenty minute class: too much groupwork, too long of a lecture, too much knowledge crammed into my head/refreshed the night before. This often caused me to rush through my lectures and not take enough time for class discussion if I had too much to say. This was a big issue in the first half of the semester. Serendipitously, my daughter’s/my frequent illnesses in the last half of the semester meant that I simply couldn’t prepare nearly as much as I had been in the first half, and I cut down my prep from probably 6+ hours for each class to just 2, and was pretty shocked to see how much of an improvement preparing the right amount of material had on my actual classes. I also got a whole lot better at being okay with letting things go if I didn’t get to them. Hopefully this is something I can carry forward to my next teaching experience.

2) Poor Organization of Classroom Time: This one is related to the above, but more specifically related to how much time I took in the space of the class to a) lecture, b) do group work, and c) undertake class discussion. I was not taking enough time for lecturing/class discussion, and giving too much time for group discussion. Fortunately, I did a stop-start-continue (an anonymous assessment from my students suggesting what we should stop, what we should start, and what should continue doing in the classroom space) with my students just a few weeks in, which let me know that I was giving too much time for group work. In response, I cut down group work drastically to between 3-6 minutes, depending on how many questions I was having them discuss.

3) Overassigning: In addition to the two essay assignments and annotated bibliography (and the sequenced assignments therein), I required my students to do 7 weekly reading responses over the course of the semester, which they were required to post on a private course blog. This one is tough because I really really liked the outcomes of this assignment: my students were always very well prepared for class, they had ideas that they were comfortable discussing in groups and as a whole class, and I’m pretty sure this largely followed from the assignment. I also used these blogs to prepare my lecture: I tailored my talks to the themes they picked up on, and was able to correct misreadings and redirect discussion to the things I thought they should note. But the fact is that there were just too many things to mark, even though it was low-stakes writing. I think in the future I’m going to have to cut this down to a maximum of 5, but of course I’m concerned that if I do this, the students themselves will be less prepared.

What are the things you do in the space of your classroom that you’ve found work well? What have you learned as you’ve become more experienced in the classroom space? Do you have any advice for for new instructors that you wished you’d learned before you stepped into the classroom space?

classrooms · equity · ideas for change · job market · learning · PhD · risky writing

Conquering Fear, Risking Failure

I’m writing my dissertation on a disparate group of women writers in the late-19th century who were not just writers but also speakers, thinkers, and activists, and involved in a number of different social clubs and organizations in London. As these women employed a variety of mediums to promote their particular type of feminist social change, they had to cross barriers of all kinds to make themselves heard. As platform speakers, they were scrupulous about their modest yet not-overtly-feminine appearance so as to manage their authority on the platform, yet still they endured jeering, shouting, and even physical assault when they spoke up on topics like class inequality and female suffrage. As executive members of prominent social organizations, they were refused appointments and invitations to certain committees and other clubs because of their radical opinions; as writers, most began their careers pseudonymously before daring to print polemical work under their own names.

In the last few months, as I’ve sifted through newspaper clippings, letters, and ephemera related to these women, I’ve come across numerous references to fears: descriptions of trembling and shaking before public speaking, the repeated impulse to destroy one’s work, the desperate measures taken to prevent discovery of private conversations. What has struck me above all else, however, is how they ultimately conquered their fears of public judgement and risked personal failure to promote their cause. Despite trembling like a leaf before every public speech, Isabella Ford marched up the steps to the podium and advocated for female emancipation. Instead of destroying an article she’d written on the place of women in society, Emma Brooke submitted it to the Westminster Review.

While privileged in terms of their access to newly-opened educational opportunities and because of their upper-middle-class status, these women still had to challenge existing gender hierarchies and oppressive social structures to make their voices heard, risking social exclusion to do so. Yet instead of experiencing their privilege as a silencing force, they spoke out powerfully and passionately for the benefit of equality in class, gender, and social relations: they took a stand, became involved, and overcame their fear to enact the social change they wanted to see.

Sometimes, as a PhD student with little institutional power and a precarious job market ahead, it is easy to forget the privilege I inhabit on a daily basis as a white, cis-gendered, person of normative height and weight. I’m often very conscious of my precarity, and less conscious of my privilege, concerned more with limiting risk than with conquering fear.

But I’ve been inspired by these writer-activists I’m studying, who conquered fear and risked failure so as to advocate for equity.

Last week, for the first time since my daughter was born, I brought her to work with me. It was partially necessary (she couldn’t go in to daycare and my partner was unavailable), and partially luck: my class was doing their second peer review. Not only did I not have to explain how to do the exercise, I only had to hand out the worksheets, answer a few questions, and make sure my students stuck around to participate. Bringing a 2 1/2 year old was actually possible. Of course it was still risky: bringing a toddler into such a space always has the potential to go radically wrong. And in terms of establishing or managing authority in a classroom, a toddler is not a particularly strong choice of accessory, even if you are wearing a great blazer.

But my thinking is that the university too needs to be a open and inclusive space, not just for women, but for the children we (or our partners) occasionally have to bring with us. And sometimes, in order to make those spaces open, we just have to be in them.

I decided to take my daughter to class with me despite my lack of privilege, and because of my privilege. I decided to forgo my authority for a day and instead attempted to challenge how my students conceive of university space. I’m not sure I was successful, but I hope the risk was worth it. Perhaps, like the women of whom I write, I too can enact the change I want to see.

classrooms · collaboration

Syllabus + Sound: Remixing and Teaching

It is no secret that this semester has brought some challenges, and with the so-called storm of the century apparently heading towards those of us in the Eastern provinces I figure it is time for some levity. Indeed, it is time for one of my favourite crowd-sourcing activities. Friends, it is time to talk about music.

In almost every course I teach music — and often music videos — finds its way into the classroom as a teaching supplement. This term is no exception. I’m teaching a third-year literature course which the course catalogue briefly describes as “Traditions in 20th and 21st century Women’s Writing in English.” Given that I’m only here on a year contract I didn’t go through the tangle of renaming the course, but if I had it would be something along the lines of “Poetics of Form: Women Writing.” Here is my course description from the syllabus:

This course covers particular and recurrent aspects of twentieth- and twenty-first century literature written from the perspective of women. The course stresses the diversity of women’s authorial worlds, both through time and/or space. Rather than be organized in a strictly chronological fashion the course is organized thematically. In each unit we will address the historical, cultural, linguistic, and aesthetic ways in which women writers address some of the recurrent material and conceptual concerns for women. 


There are some limitations in this class: Namely, we are working with an anthology. Specifically, we’re working with the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: Traditions in English. The anthology, while huge and heavy, is limited in its scope. It deals only in writing that is in English, and it focusses almost entirely on North America and the United Kingdom. We are using the anthology through a fluke: I ordered the earlier version of this anthology for the first half of this class in the fall and the bookstore received them as a packaged deal. Given that several students in the fall class intended to take this course in the winter I decided to make the syllabus match their purchases so that they didn’t end up with an unused (& hard to resell) textbook. In addition to having a narrow linguistic and geographic scope the anthology is also limited by its temporal reach. The most contemporary writer in it is Jhumpa Lahiri who was born in 1967. If I were to teach the class again I would switch up the texts. As it is, I’ve supplemented. With these things in mind here is a glimpse at our course reading schedule as well as the various themes we’re unpacking:

Work I: Histories 

Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own,” Alice Walked, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens”

Work II: Gendering Work
Susan Glaspell, “Trifles,” Ruth Stone, “Things I say to Myself While Hanging Laundry”

Work III: Interventions
Mina Loy, “Gertrude Stein,” “Feminist Manifesto,” Zora Neale Hurston, “How it feels to be Coloured Me”

Work IV: Frame-off
Adrienne Rich, “Snapshots of a Daughter In Law,” Joy Harjo, “Deer Dancer”

Work V: Craft & Form
Amy Lowell, from A Critical Fable [On T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound], Gertrude Stein, “Ada,” H.D. “Sea Poppies,” Marianne Moore, “Poetry,” June Jordan, “Poem About Police Violence”

The Body II: As Subject
Lyn Hejinian from My Life, Anne Carson from The Glass Essay, Maragret Atwood, “Rape Fantasies”

The Body III: Motherhood
Diane Di Prima, “Song for Baby-O, Unborn,” Anais Nin, “Birth,” Jamaica Kindcaid, “Girl”

The Body IV: Desire
Jeanette Winterson, “The Poetics of Sex,” Radcyffe Hall, “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself”

The Body V: Writing
Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Reawaken,” Audre Lorde, “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.”

The Body VI: Writing
Angela Carter, “The Company of Wolves,” Carolyn Kizer, “Pro Femina” P.K. Page, “The Stenographers”

Identity/Politics I:
Nella Larsen, Quicksand 

Identity/Politics II:
Toni Morrison, from Unspeakable Things Unspoken
Identity/Politics III:
Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel,” “Elegy,” Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”

Identity/Politics IV:
Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People”

Identity/Politics V:
Maxine Hong Kingston “No Name Woman”

Affect I: Lauren Berlant from The Female Complaint 

Affect II:
Sylvia Plath selection, Anne Sexton, “Her Kind,” “Sylvia’s Death,” Maxine Kumin “How It Is”

Affect III: 

Dionne Brand from Inventory

Affect IV:
Chantal Nevu from Coit

Affect V:
Shannon Maguire from fu(r)l parachute, Aisha Sasha John from The Shining Material

For some reason more music than usual has found its way into the classroom. Last week one of my students who writes for the campus newspaper, The Argosy, invited me to contribute to the weekly mix-tape column. I decided to give a partial playlist from the class. Like the syllabus it has holes and like the syllabus it could be remixed over and over. But! Here is what I submitted. Some of these we have discussed in class, others we’ve not: 
Le Tigre “Bang! Bang!” From the Desk of Mr. Lady EP, 2001

Nina Simone “Work Song” Forbidden Fruit, LP 1961

Alabama Shakes “Rise to the Sun” Boys & Girls, LP (2012)

Tanya Tagaq & Bjork “Ancestors” Sinaa, LP (2006)

Julie Doiron “Snowfalls in November” Julie Doiron/Okkervil River LP, (2003)

Angel Haze “Battle Cry” Dirty Gold (2013)

Julie Ruin “Tania” Julie Ruin (1998)

The Sounds “Queen of Apologies” Dying to Say This To You LP (2006)

Rae Spoon “We Can’t Be Lovers With These Guns On Each Other” Love Is a Hunter (2010)

Patti Smith “Horses” Horses (1975) 
Now for the crowd-sourcing part: what texts would you put on a course like this? What music?
balance · body · classrooms · learning · openness · teaching · yoga

In which the teacher becomes the student. And it’s weird.

I spent 18 hours of last weekend in stretchy pants, making deliberate contact with various weight-bearing points of myself to a sticky mat, in a big sunny room, with 20 other people, taking notes, touching people with my “magic button” hands, directing their sun salutations, and being quizzed on the broader points of Ayurveda.

I’m in yoga teacher training. And it’s really weird to be a student.

Obviously, I’ve been a yoga student for years already, relinquishing the seat of the teacher to someone up at the front of the room, keeping my eyes on my own mat. Being a yoga student for me was an exercise in letting go of control, of letting someone else direct the show for a while, of keeping my eyes on my own mat and learning to be mindful. Getting into that flow is fairly easy for me. Yoga is a practice, not a perfect: you do it right by showing up, and continuing. Yoga in this way is a lot like writing: a lonely endeavour requiring grit and steady effort, over the long haul, accumulating into strength that manifests in individual ways.

But yoga teacher training is more like class: there are tests, and homework, and other assessments and you’re being taught a body of knowledge you have to master before you’re done.

So I’m that kind of student again, and it’s probably a useful experience for my life as a professor, now that I’m (ulp) fifteen years out of the graduate seminar, and seventeen years away from my undergradute experience. The gulf between my experience of university classrooms and that of my students is growing: I see class more and more as a pure learning space, as an obligation that needs to be regimented, too, if I’m going to get my other work done, as a luxury of dedicated time to be curious and access a subject area expert, as a set of names and stories I have to manage to make a connection, without burning out. I don’t know, really, how my students see class anymore.

But I just spent a weekend in their shoes. (Or bare feet. On a medidation cushion rather than a chair.) I have worried about how I’m going to find time to get the homework done–two hours of home yoga AND two classes a week? That’s hard! I can do the written homework fairly easily … oh and someone made digital flashcards for Sanskrit pose names. When is the courseware package going to be available? I’ve shot up my hand and given the wrong answer in front of 20 other people and been met with, “Yessssss, that’s interesting but no.” And I’ve shot my hand up enough to have my teacher’s eyes slide past me with, “Can we hear from someone who hasn’t given an answer yet?” I’ve been puzzled and I’ve been confident. I even got a little bored and my back hurt and I wanted a nap, at a certain point on Sunday. I’ve done group work, introducing myself awkwardly to strangers, and figuring out a process to take turns pushing on each others’ inner thighs, or leading sun salutations with verbal cues. the whole time I’m wondering if I’m doing it right, and how I would know that. It’s exciting and exhausting and confusing and worrying and fun.

At yoga teacher training, it seems, I’m learning (again) what it’s like to be a student, in a formal learning endeavour with real stakes. It’s humbling and illuminating.

I went back to my own class on Monday–the one I teach–and looked at my 14 sudents with a new kind of perspective. I heard what I was saying to them with a sort of doubled consciousness, like I used to when I was just starting. I could imagine what they felt like as students, even as I continued to occupy my role as teacher. Some of them are more or less curious. More or less prepared. More or less awake, or hungry, or distracted. Some have a burning desire to just graduate and others have a burning desire to learn to use Photoshop and some are too overwhelmed by the bombarbment of new information to desire much except a little respite and maybe a muffin. Just like me.

I am grateful for this unexpected extra benefit from my new training. I guess I forgot how long I’ve been in the classroom just as a professor, and not as a student, and didn’t realize what impact this might have on my teaching and on student learning. As I whipsaw between intellectual and physical/spiritual pursuits, between student and teacher, between satisfying learning and frustrating learning, I’ll keep in mind that that is what it is like to be a student. Any student. And we’ll see where that takes me, and my own students, in our time together.

Embodied learning: feet truly parallel, and active

classrooms · community · fast feminism · slow academy

New Year, Old Work: Some thoughts on the long game

January. For many people working in academia this month is the second opportunity to assess where one is, where one wants to be, and perhaps to think about how one might get from here to there. January is often a month of resolve: less of this, more of that. In previous years we have reflected on personal goals and professional aspirations. Last year, after a particularly formative December, I wrote about my resolve to see women. Rather than seek some new resolution I want to reaffirm and recommit myself to a version of that resolution I made a year ago.

December 2012 brought acts of national and international public activism that were flash-mobbing the country. Idle No More instigated actions, moments of solidarity, resistance, and possibility for a more just and sustainable future. It was a vital moment, and it was a moment in a long history of Indigenous resistance and activism in the midst of a country that still refuses to take responsibility for its colonial history. One of the crucial lessons I learned working with students, community members, and colleagues in the past year is that tenacity and resolve are fundamental to long-term change. Long after the media has turned to some new story the work continues.

For me, December 2013 brought another kind of reminder of the tenacity needed for the long game; of fundamental and deep changes that are needed in the fight for social justice. I was reminded in a much less public way of the necessity of seeing women. Discussions and arguments about gender and literary culture in Canada didn’t sweep the front pages of news media this winter, and they shouldn’t have. Not in the way that the work of Idle No More did. But reflecting on some of the events of this December and last December I am reminded of the resolve, dedication, and relentless actions big and small that are required of us if we are truly going to change this world.

Of course — and relatedly — January for me also means the beginning of a new semester. More so than ever I begin this new semester with the acute awareness that it may be my last one teaching for a while or, possibly, forever. Never mind the hysterics, this is realism: each month I watch more brilliant peers choose to leave this profession because there is no room for them in it. Their choices are sometimes deliberate and conscious, and they are sometimes simply choices that are made for them by outside forces. One of these days I will choose too, or the choice will be made for me when the work simply dries up. I used to be of the (narrow) mind that the pedagogical work I have been trained to do only functions in a classroom space. How wrong I am. Knowledge isn’t only made in a classroom, not by a long shot. It is passed down through conversations with elders and mentors. It grows through connections with people, with place, with land. In Canada the classroom is but one recent and all too often myopic space that is inflected with its long history of colonial imperatives, but it doesn’t have to be. It isn’t always. It is also a space for radical generosity and difficult urgent work. I resolve to continue learning.

I was also wrong in my former thinking that the professor is the conduit of knowledge. I forgot that a conduit is a container and that energy, or water, or knowledge can flow different ways. So this year as I finish my syllabi I have added a new component for myself and my students. I have the rare opportunity to collaborate on a syllabus with one of my colleagues and I have borrowed his template for an Academic Contract. The premise is simple and timely: both teacher and students write short resolutions to dedicate themselves to the necessary work of critical thinking in the service of intellectual freedom.

 As I walk into a classroom tomorrow, meet a new group of students, and work through the scope of the classes we’ll be experiencing together, I will also offer them my resolve to do the hard, vital work of critical pedagogy inside the classroom and outside it as well.