#alt-ac · #post-ac · learning · transition

I Don’t Know What I’m Doing, and I’m Okay with That

I’m nearing the end of the second week of my new job at the SickKids Research Institute, and I’m starting to feel a little less like I know nothing. I’ve scoped out a great place to eat lunch, I’ve figured out the coffee situation, and I don’t get lost anymore on the walk between the hospital and the Institute. I understand the acronyms most of the time, and the way that the Institute is organized mostly makes sense, and I’m getting a pretty good sense of all the things I need to be keeping on top of.

The view from my favourite spot on the 19th floor. Better when it’s not pouring rain.

But I still feel so strange.

Despite my vast experience with impostor syndrome–which, funnily enough, almost completely disappeared once I moved onto the administrative side of academia, but plagued me on the scholarly side–I’m generally used to feeling like a competent, knowledgeable person. At York, I was the go-to girl for information and policy clarification and getting stuff done. I was very good at my job, and I left with lots of success under my belt. But now, I feel incompetent, unknowledgeable, not at all on top of my game. I have to check with my admin assistant on the answers to basic questions. I need to ask for context and the history on just about every program and initiative our Centre currently has running. Every face is new, every system just enough different from the ones I was using before to trip me up, every action deliberate and thought out rather than automatic.

It’s really good for me.

Aimee wrote awhile back about becoming a student again when she entered yoga teacher training, about the doubled-consciousness that comes from remembering what it’s like to be on the other side of the desk. There’s lots to be said for experiencing what it’s like to be the new person, especially when a good part of my job is figuring out how we can make the transition to SickKids a more seamless one for our students and postdocs. Trainees, as we call them in science (and living in science world as a confirmed humanist coming from a humanities-focused university is a whole other level of new that I’ve yet to fully process), have to figure out how to negotiate all of the various structures and policies of SickKids when they come over to work at one of our many labs. And those structures and policies are just different enough from the ones they’ve already learned to negotiate at their university to trip them up. I know, because they’ve tripped me up, despite having successfully figured out how to navigate four different universities since I first started in higher ed fifteen years ago. Understanding what it takes to figure out the complex structures of the Institute and how to effectively work within them is going to make me way better at identifying and responding to the needs of the trainees, especially the need to make all of this more transparent and easily navigable.

Aside from letting me serve our trainees better, feeling like a total n00b is just plain old good for me. I come home every day feeling completely juiced up about all of the new information I’m learning, whether it’s mundane or a big deal. So much so that after about ten meetings on Tuesday to meet and hear from various people with whom I’ll be working, I came home and almost immediately fell asleep–my brain needed to process that badly, despite the fact that it was my birthday and I quite wanted to do something fun. As a gal who loves to learn, I’m in heaven. And not knowing quite where to step makes me step carefully, really pay attention to what’s going on and where I fit into it, be considered rather than (probably unadvisedly) jumping right in. It’s also rather nice to have a work story to tell my husband that he hasn’t already heard fifteen times.

In a meeting with our senior manager recently, I remarked on how odd it sometimes was to be on a career trajectory so different from the academic one. If I were to be making a 5-year plan as a new assistant professor, it would probably read something like “be doing the same job I’m doing now, just with tenure.” But now, what I could or want to do five years from now, within the SickKids organization or elsewhere, is far more open and uncertain. Like being the new person in the office, that can be a little scary, but it’s also really exciting. I don’t know what I’m doing five years from now, and I’m totally okay with that. I’ll take it over feeling like there’s nothing I can or want to do any day.

grad school · learning · mental health · reflection · saving my sanity

Unsustainable Practice

There’s something about the semester system that really gets me. It’s only really four months, I think.

Four months of teaching. Four months of writing, four months of researching. Just four months.
Four months to pound out a chapter, throw myself heart and soul into teaching, send out proposals, revise and submit papers, submit job applications…four months.

Four months is a reasonable time to do all the things, right?

I usually start out in September like this:

And then end-of-December rolls around and I’m all:


This past December was particularly bad. In my last week of work before Christmas, I was fighting off an epic cold. Then, two days into a lovely mountain holiday with my family, I was struck with an awful stomach bug. It proceeded to infect my whole family. It was not pretty.

This isn’t to say I didn’t accomplish a lot of things over the Fall semester. In fact, I did. I taught my second-ever class (writing-intensive, forty students), half of it new material. I continued working with the great research project I’ve been privileged to be a part of, helping to develop a visualization tool. I submitted my first-ever job application, and had my first-ever interview. I wrote, revised, and submitted two articles. I applied and was accepted to present a paper at two different conferences. I did some service work. I helped organize a conference, which included vetting proposals and contributing some pieces to a SSHRC connections grant. With a colleague, I was invited to submit a chapter to a forthcoming book. And I continued to write my dissertation.

It’s all exciting stuff.

But I totally wiped myself out.

Fortunately, this winter semester comes with a much-needed break. This January, I have the privilege of a year-long fellowship that relieves me from teaching and research duties, allowing me to focus on finishing up my dissertation. So, last week, with space to do so, I actually took some time to relax. I read some books for pleasure, for the first time in months (turns out I like graphic novels). I watched some TV. I stayed at home for a couple days and napped.

And then I resolved to develop a sustainable habit of work, one not overly-based on the semester system. If I stop thinking in terms of “just four months, then…” I might just be able to develop a sustainable work practice, one not premised on overcommitting.

My resolutions thus far are simple:

1) Say no (more often). Mostly this means saying no to myself. So far I’ve done a good job crossing items off my list that aren’t important. Last week I decided not to apply to a conference that I didn’t need to go to. Two are enough for this summer.

2) Prioritize. This is related to number one. My main and primary work priority right now is my dissertation. In the last week, I re-conceptualized how my chapters were working and decided to add a new one before my existing two chapters. My current focus is on researching and writing this chapter, and it’s the top of my list. I’m determined not to let anything displace it.

3) Go for Walks. This is one of the main ways that I think and work through problems. And it’s also a great de-stressor. Edmonton in January usually prevents long walks (without frostbite, anyway), but right now we’re having an usually warm spell. I’m determined to take advantage of it to walk and think.

Do you find that the semester-system tends to encourage overcommitment? How have you managed to develop sustainable habits over longer periods of time?

*art credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

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?
generational mentorship · guest post · learning

Guest post: On not being the expert;

or what I learn from my teenage son;
or where I never expected to find myself over the past few summers

I have been giving a lot of thought lately about the idea of being an expert, partly due to my stage of professional life.  I just recently completed the tenure and promotion process successfully (an experience that is likely worth another blog post).  While it took about 6 months from when I submitted my dossier until the final decision point, the whole process was more than a decade in the making.  This time was spent building and demonstrating expertise and having it recognized by others.  And at the same time, I did not necessarily explore and learn new things; after all, that would take me away from becoming an expert and getting tenure and promotion.

But what happens when you open yourself to a new knowledge area, even in your personal life?  What might it mean for teaching, research and other professional activities?  How can you handle some of the anxiety that comes from not knowing while embracing the potential that comes with that very situation?  Good questions all around.

And thus began a journey into heavy metal music, perhaps the not most obvious starting point to exploring these questions. 

First, as bit of background, as a family, we have always worked to be supportive of each other’s interests, including musical ones.  For our son, that interest is heavy metal with all its different styles.  (Did you know that there are about 24 different genres of heavy metal, each very distinct? Who knew? See here for more info.)  Given the variety, much of it having changed since I was a teen, I quickly realized that more learning was needed to understand, if not appreciate, the music and the associated culture.

And so, I turned to reference material (I am an academic after all.)  I read books, such as Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal by Ian Christie.  I watched documentaries, such as Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey by University of Victoria alumni Sam Dunn.  And I even took a course on metal through continuing education.  (I did say I was an academic.)  These were useful for the “theory” of the music but did not really help me understand or fully engage with it.  What was left was full immersion and so off to several metal festivals we went.  (It was easy to spot me in the crowd – the middle age Canadian mom with no tattoos.)

For the past two years, we have gone to the holy land of metal: Wacken Open Air  for the full immersion experience with music, camping, beer, dust and much more.   
(We also added Graspop Metal Meeting, this year.) 

These were much more enjoyable than I thought they would be.  Some of the music has even “grown” on me and now occupies space on my playlist.  Proudly, I can now identify the artist/band correctly about 10% of the time, up from 0 at the outset.

So what have I learned through this?  First, while it is humbling and often embarrassing not to be an expert, it is also quite exhilarating, freeing and perhaps even a bit of fun.  You are able to ask (lots) questions without feeling like you have to already know the answer.  Second, by reversing the roles of teacher-learner, just about anyone becomes your teacher, especially those who we often spend the most time teaching, our children.  It also opens the possibility of new conversations as my son and I now discuss which metal band has the best stage presence, something I never thought I would have with anyone.  (My vote is split between Alice Cooper, Rammstein, and Alestorm.)   

Alice Cooper





Third, it has been very useful to remember what our students face each term and the ways that I as instructor can respond to their questions and anxiety while fostering their desire to learn more.  (And here is the big thanks to my son who is always patient in answering my often ill-informed and repetitive questions as I struggle to identify music, bands, etc.)  Fourth, there is nothing like the “field school”/immersion to fully explore a topic.  Books, movies and other resources can only take you so far until you have to experience something to appreciate it.  And finally, it is okay to never become an expert in a field.  It is possible to learn just enough to appreciate a topic and enjoy the ride.  And with my trusty camera in hand, we are off Wacken for a third time next year.

If you are interested in more photos from Wacken, Graspop and other music festivals, see my blog.  I also got a photo credit from the Globe and Mail for one of my pictures from Wacken.  See the banner picture here.

Lynne Siemens 
University of Victoria
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good things · job notes · learning · running · teaching · tenured life

Yelling, and other things I’ve forgotten in ten years

Last Wednesday, I shouted myself hoarse. Or, more specifically, I talked so much and so loudly for so much of the day that I gave myself a pounding headache and my braces tore up the inside of my mouth. I told myself it was because the “Faculty Speed Dating” orientation session was really loud, and since I was the one that had to get people to move tables every five minutes, it was the yelling that did it (note to self for next year: buy a bell, or a gong). But then Thursday: headache again. And all I had done was a presentation to 20 continuing PhD students, for an hour. Perhaps I was coming down with something?

Friday found me standing in the graduate coordinator’s office, clutching my throat and my head, moaning. J is a singer, with a degree in music. She knows about throats, and yelling, and of course, about managing grad chairs. She offered me a headache pill and then some advice.

She said I should stop yelling and start speaking loudly, from the diaphragm. Pfft, I said, I know how to do that, I’ve done theater! And singing (very very poorly)! And public speaking! She told me, then,  kindly, that her own speech therapist noted that every September, she was besieged by … teachers. Experienced ones.

July marked the 10th anniversary of my hiring at Waterloo. I’ve been a professor for ten years. Ten! Tenured now for three. The “new carpet” I brag about my office having is now ten years old. Some of the books I bought new with my first grant now have sun-scorched spines. I’ve taught somewhere in the vicinity of 35 classes, ranging from 10 to 200 students, and given what feel like countless presentations and papers.

But here I was, like a rookie, squelching up my throat and squeezing my vocal cords and pinching my voice and yelling. Like a rookie.

Ten years in the same office, with the same departments, many of the same colleagues, and surprisingly many of the same classes. This stability is, of course, one of the great privileges of tenured and tenure-track appointments, but in the midst of all this incremental moving from one September to the next, it’s easy to forget that I am changing, still learning, forgetting things. This year, over the summer, somehow I’ve started yelling instead of projecting. So my project is to remember how to be loud without giving myself a headache.

My career here attains the rhythm of a long, slow, Sunday run. I’m focused on endurance, and maybe enjoying the view, listening to the birds. Ten years behind me and at least another 25 in front of me, in the same office with the same carpet, and many of the same colleagues. I’m not racing to put together enough work for the fall. Not sending applications out wildly into a future I can’t see. Not packing or unpacking for or from a major move. In ten years? I’ll still be here, most likely, doing much what I’m doing now.

Yet, things change. To keep to the running metaphor, if the job hunt is like racing for the bus in heels while dragging a laptop and 50 student papers behind you, and tenure is a long, slow training run, you might say that I’ve got time to work more carefully on my form. And so I am. This term it’s my own voice, as well as using informal daily writing in my first year class. Last year it was shifting my fourth year design course to a fully major-project focus. I’m learning about anti-racist feminism and how to integrate this better in my teaching. I’m trying to figure out how to help graduate students train as writers rather than just as subject-area experts. I’m writing my first book. Since I finally understand how the courses fit together in our degree programs, I’m starting to think of new and old courses in terms of their fit in the curriculum. I’m taking on bigger administrative roles.

Ten years ago, I was having trouble imagining how I could do one thing for 35 years. I was used to running pell-mell from one milestone to the next, waiting for my real life to start. Ten years in, I can say it’s started. It turns out I’m still feeling just as challenged as ever, and even if I’m in some ways developing new and more advanced skills, sometimes I’m learning the same lessons over again. Like how to project my voice into a big room.

I’ve been catching up with my departmental colleagues this past week, and like they do–like I do–every year, they report the same dream we all started having as children: it’s the first day of class, and I’m not wearing anything; I’m in the wrong room; I’m meant to be teaching in Japanese; the books didn’t arrive on time. Ten years in, I’m still as excited and nervous–nervouscited?–about the new school year as I ever was.

Once I get this headache under control, that’s going to be really cheering to think about.

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.

learning · parenting · teaching

The Vulnerability of Learning

Around my fifth or sixth birthday, I got a small wooden kids’ piano as a present. It was gleaming red with no more than ten or twelve keys, but I was instantly enchanted. I resolved, with all the might of a preschooler, to learn to play the piano. A friend of my parents’ taught me to play the “Do Re Mi” song from The Sound of Music, and I became convinced that I wanted to dedicate my life to the pursuit of piano playing. My mom, however, had been traumatized by childhood piano lessons with the strict Fräulein Schiller, who used to encourage correct playing through the assiduous administration of ruler slaps to erring fingers. In consequence, my mom had vowed not to inflict music lessons on her innocent children, so she was reluctant to fuel my newfound passion for piano playing.

Fast forward a few decades to the present, and here we are, my daughter and me, going to her music lessons every week. We found our way into the Yamaha music education system through the recommendation of some friends, and their class-type method suits both of our social-butterfly natures. She loves going to music class. She really likes her teacher. She can watch the dvd like a pro. But she masterfully avoids practicing at home until the very last moment, when she has to do her homework, because she does not want to miss out on her workbook receiving the literal stamp of approval, which changes every week to a new child-friendly rendering of a musical instrument, an cute animal, a flower, or some fruit.

My goal is to find the middle ground between my kids’ gaining exposure to the world of music and my mom’s legitimate reluctance to shove music down her own kids’ oesophagi. I want my kids to grasp the richness of music, to offer them the opportunity of not starting from scratch should they ever want to pursue it, short of pushing them into it with all my might. I am not tiger mom, and this is not my battle hymn. However, I do want my kids to understand that the world is available through different types of languages, and that adequate understanding requires engagement and work rather than passive consumption. Achieving that understanding demands work, practice, and openness to rendering yourself vulnerable by admitting some degree of ignorance in order to open up the space for fostering new knowledge.

The affective vulnerability of learning emerges through the gamble of its result: acquiring new knowledge can make you happy, but a better understanding can also make you despair sometimes. When we were driving to the Farmers’ Market one Saturday while listening to CBC Radio 2 broadcasting a piano sonata, I put my pedagogical hat on–you know the one with the teacher and the classroom, right?–and asked my daughter if she noticed how accomplished the pianist was, and did she imagine how much practice had gone into achieving that level? Her reply, skirting my direct and very transparent moralistic lead, was that when the pianist plays F clef, it sounds like “[deep voice] Santa’s going down the chimney,” whereas when it’s G clef “[squeaky voice] Santa’s going back up.” Chuck this one to the woefully under-represented pile of “good-parenting goal achieved.”

There will be time, of course, to despair when learning about our inequitable social structures leads to an understanding of the diminished options for most humans’ and others species’ lives; when seeing how our generalized obsession with women’s bodies colludes with numerous other acts of aggression–physical and mental–that amount to a patriarchal structure whose fundamental modus operandi relies on domination and subjugation; when concluding that wars of both military and ideological kinds are waged by a handful, yet impact us all.

My hope, in both parenting and teaching, is that despair will be transitory, and move us into action, into changing the world to the benefit of the many. I want to resist the facile cliché of pain and gain here, because like most soundbites, it simplifies a complex affective situation, and reduces it to some form of monetary outcome. Vulnerability of the non-teleological kind is more like it.

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

learning · pedagogy · teaching

Teaching with compassion and responsibility

While  compassion and responsibility do not sit at opposite of the pedagogical spectrum, I’ve stumbled over this conundrum lately, and I might just need your help to sort it out. The basic question, I guess, is how to balance the need to teach facts, e.g., passive voice, as building blocks for higher-order critical thinking, with the expectation, especially in an English class, that everything is up for interpretation. More pressingly, how to accurately assess the process of learning in a way that does not belie a progressive pedagogy.

I see it as my responsibility to equip students–as many as possible–with these building blocks that they can later count on, and thus dispel the myth that analyzing literature or popular culture and writing about them are the domain of a chosen few. If we model these methods–here are the building blocks, here’s how we put them together, here’s how they become evidence, here’s how we analyze, rather than simply judge–in class in a variety of ways–individual and collaborative–students will leave class with a toolkit they’ll be able to access afterward.

Compassion comes into the equation in a variety of ways. First, through the respect enacted in a decentred class. Second, by ensuring a distribution of different methods of delivery and types of assignments, so as to engage the various types of learners. Third, through ongoing consultation: most students I’ve encountered can diagnose their needs well, especially if they’re at a moment in their life when they can dedicate their attention to education. And that’s the final aspect of compassion for now: most students I teach juggle their education with jobs to pay for it,  volunteering, and family responsibilities.

Where’s the conflict? Simply put: in the unsatisfactory act of putting a grade on an assignment that comes at an arbitrary point in the ongoing process of learning and skill-acquisition. That grade, in spite of my attempts to contextualize it with tailored comments (and a wealth of them, at that) remains a poor, problematic, yet final assessment that tends to foreclose a process that  otherwise might have continued: what’s the incentive, for students who are as multi-directionally engaged, to continue practicing those skills, when the judge has spoken? Moreover, how do we reconcile the contradiction between the decentred class that the instructor moderates, and the fact that instructor suddenly becomes the judging authority?

There are alternatives out there: many people I know work with the contract grading model, in which a student is guaranteed a certain grade if s/he submits all assignments, and participates in the mandated meetings. Moreover, the assessment happens globally, on a portfolio, on the progression of learning, etc. Yet another system, championed by HASTAC, proposes a system of Badges for Lifelong Learning, which both acknowledges the need for and the reality of the ongoing learning process, especially when it comes to skills.

You’d think that, eight years in, I would have figure these pedagogical conundrums out, but they just seem to become more pressing. How do you see and achieve balance? Conversely, what’s your pressing pedagogical conundrum?

community · empowerment · learning · mental health · teaching

A Community of Care

The end of term brings about inevitable musings on the cyclical nature of the academic life. What else is procrastination from marking good for? I would like to think more about what the end of term brings as a way of understanding why everyone I talk to–myself included (why, yes, I do talk to myself, don’t you?)–seems to be exhausted. Things clicked last night when I was talking to students, and the answer comes back, once again, to emotional labour, and the duty we have to care for one another in order to have a community. The reverse is also true: we cannot have a community without care. At the end of the fall term, I contextualized that care as the need to pay attention to students’ mental health. Today, I’m looking at care in the context of post-secondary education in Alberta. If you’re tired of hearing about the budget cuts higher education in Alberta is facing, you might as well click away right not, but you’ll also miss an example of community care that creative people have organized in response.

Katherine Binhammer and Diane Chisholm, professors in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, organized a teach-in in response to the Alberta Government’s Draft Letter of Expectation for UAlberta. More specifically, they have rounded up a panel of faculty from the department to showcase why humanities research, critical thinking, and creativity are not only relevant, but indeed crucial to our life (and I’m not shy of universalizing this point). Alongside Katherine and Diane, Julie Rak, Michael O’Driscoll, Mark Simpson, Cecily Devereux, Eddy Kent, Jaimie Baron, and Nat Hurley took turns using different literary studies methodologies to pinpoint the problems with the language, the rhetoric, and the very real implications of this draft letter. And they did in front of a full HC L-1, which is the largest lecture hall in the Humanities Centre.

It was a moment of pride, of solidarity, of empowerment. Most of all, it was a moment of building a community of care; a moment of jolting us out of our neoliberal-enforced solitary labour, especially at this busy point in the term; a moment of doing our jobs. It was also a brilliant demystification of the “ivory tower” argument that props up so much political rhetoric about the irrelevance of the humanities.  To use the poshest of buzz-words, it was knowledge mobilization at its best.

Why do I link it to care? Because, the most frequent argument used to belittle humanities research–and, it has to be said, which we use ourselves–is that “it’s not going to cure cancer.” No, humanities research is not visibly health care. But it is care! And it even is *health* care. It’s the best form of health care because it’s the preventive kind. This teach-in says we know what ails us as a community, and here is the answer: more human care, more mental health care through solidarity, more coming together. So, join us as we take care of our community!*

Watch the CBC Edmonton coverage of the Teach-In, but whatever you do, don’t read the comments.

*Come march with us from the UAlberta quad to the Alberta Legislature on Wednesday, 10 April, at 4 pm.