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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Let’s treat students as humans.
- 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?
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.
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.
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|
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?
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.
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.
Work I: Histories
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”
Nella Larsen, Quicksand
Toni Morrison, from Unspeakable Things Unspoken
Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel,” “Elegy,” Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”
Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People”
Maxine Hong Kingston “No Name Woman”
Affect I: Lauren Berlant from The Female Complaint
Sylvia Plath selection, Anne Sexton, “Her Kind,” “Sylvia’s Death,” Maxine Kumin “How It Is”
Chantal Nevu from Coit
Shannon Maguire from fu(r)l parachute, Aisha Sasha John from The Shining Material
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)
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|
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.