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

the Do-It-Yourself grad class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

adjuncts · inequality · pedagogy · student engagement · teaching

Students Respond to the Adjunct Crisis

Adjunct professors have been described as part of the “working poor”: the highest educated and lowest paid workers in the United States. They are group of contingent labourers who work at poverty-level rates, shuttle between multiple campuses, have little to no job security, and struggle to climb themselves out once they enter the sessional circuit. Critiques of the increasing “adjunctification” of universities usually focus on the plight of the adjuncts themselves, collecting stories of overwork, despair, and uncertainty. But the undergraduate students for whose education these adjuncts are responsible are often left completely ignorant of the hierarchical system, assuming all professors are paid relatively the same amount, a sustainable and permanent salary. Why keep them out of the loop when the crisis has such an indelible affect on them, their education, and their futures? 
My two current Composition II classes read and discussed this Atlantic article about the issue, and most were shocked. Here are some of the tweets that emerged from that discussion (remember, my class tweets). 
(Siiiiighhhhh to that last one…)

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsIn addition to tweeting, some students compiled this collective statement including a few personal anecdotes: 

As undergraduate students, we are very concerned with how the increasing reliance on temporary workers, who are paid per course and granted no financial security, is affecting our education, especially since we pay an exorbitant amount in tuition dollars.
Professors and adjuncts are the backbone of secondary education, but full-time professors should not be treated better than adjuncts. University students pay an incredible amount to attend private schools such as Fordham and adjuncts should be earning more out of that tuition. 
Adrianna Kezar, head of the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project, stated that “institutions that have large numbers of adjuncts or students that take lots of classes with adjuncts have lower graduation rates.” This is a one way that the adjunct crisis is affecting us as students, and how it could potentially affect our futures. What could be the possible reason for this? 
In addition, as a student paying a considerable amount for my education, it pains me to see that the school I chose and attend treats its employees with such unfairness. How can some faculty make a six-figure income, while some adjuncts are earning a salary of $20,000? Ultimately, I’m supporting an institution that is capable of fixing this crisis, yet chooses not to.
“One of my favorite professors this semester revealed to us that he is an adjunct.  He always goes out of his way to keep class interesting and even planned a class trip to the New York Philharmonic.  When describing being an adjunct, it was evident that he was discouraged with his current situation, for he has an Ivy League education and it seems that he is/was hoping for more permanency in his occupation.”
“I was recently talking to one of my friends about the adjunct crisis. As a chemistry major, she told me she was interested in doing research with her chemistry professor this year. However, when she asked her professor if there were any opportunities available, he told her since he is an adjunct professor, he does not have a lab to work in and therefore cannot allow students to conduct research under him. This situation shows that hiring professors as adjuncts ultimately leaves students at a disadvantage, as students are deprived of opportunities to learn and research due to the lack of resources given to adjuncts.” 
According to BBC, Uber drivers in the United Kingdom are entitled to holiday pay, rest breaks, and the National Living Wage. Uber drivers are entitled to benefits, but the professors and educators teaching the next generation are not? 
As students at a University it can often seem like the adjunct crisis is out of our control. The grand structure and distribution of jobs and wealth come from the control of a higher power. But these are our professors, and this is our education. As a student body we should stand in solidarity with adjuncts and work together to make our voices heard.

—–

Let’s keep talking with our students, listening to our students, and as they themselves have said, building broader solidarity with each other and with staff and faculty at all levels of higher education–across Canada and the US alike. 

classrooms · community · compassion · pedagogy · social media · student engagement · teaching

Tweeting the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what about you, readers? How has Twitter worked/not worked for you in your courses?
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

#FergusonSyllabus · academic reorganization · classrooms · empowerment · pedagogy

The Shadow Syllabus

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

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

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

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

Curiosity, doggedness, open-mindedness: a new pedagogy

I sat in my office the entire day on Tuesday, for my undergrads to drop in whenever and pick up their graded assignments.

10 of the 40 came. And you know who came? The student who got 100%. And the three who got 95%, several more in the 80s, and the couple of 70s student who are trying really hard and slowly bringing their marks up. Most of them had a draft of the next assignment with them, and asked if they could show it to me. YES.

It is ever thus, in more or less every scenario.

Those who make a little extra effort, who are a little extra keen, who make an extra appointment, who send me links related to the readings, who follow me on Twitter, or show up at department events, they do better. This is true among non-students as well. I see it in every context I circulate in: research, service, yoga, running, team sports, kids activities.

I know that “Do What You Love” has its problems, and I agree with all the critiques of that line of thinking. But “Be Interested In What You’re Doing” is something of a different proposition, I think.

Curiosity, doggedness (or, “grit,” I guess is what the kids are calling it these days), and open-mindedness are qualities that seem, almost invariably, to bring success. Success needn’t be absolute; maybe it’s relative in a lot of cases, but the process always brings better results than not, and is more rewarding, to boot. Let’s move away from my students for the moment and consider an example from my own life.

As an athlete, I’m an excellent literature professor. My gifts of strength, endurance, balance,  and grace, are not naturally numerous. I can’t run fast, or throw far, or jump high. And yet I wound up as captain of my high school volleyball team in my senior year. I once won MVP of my team in a softball tournament. I’ve been hired by my studio to teach yoga. I ran 5k yesterday, slowly, but I’ve managed to do it at least once every week this term. I’m not actually very good at any of these activities, but what brings me whatever measure of success I’ve managed to cobble together has been curiosity, doggedness, and open-mindedness: I really want to be better and I’d like to know how I could do that; I keep trying and trying and trying and trying; I am open to constructive feedback on my performance and try to change my tactics accordingly.

Reading and writing about literature has always been, if I’m being frank, super easy for me. If I was going to teach my students the way that I best learn that material, I would dump a bunch of books on the table, and say “Go.” But the majority of my students do not learn like me. Their reasons for being in my class are various, their level of intrinsic interest and aptitude as variable as you can imagine. I want them to succeed, so I find that more and more, I’m teaching curiosity, doggedness, and open-mindedness as much as I am the explicit content of the course.

I find I’m making deliberate efforts at “selling it” all the time: I’m trying to hook them, to pique their curiosity, to light whatever spark of genuine interest can for them, help them nurture that little flame so that it might be self-sustaining. I’m also crafting assignments that required sustained effort over time–like this research paper that has five stages and five milestones over five weeks. And I employ what I call my “pedagogy of provocation,” where I deliberately try to push them to consider and explain and try out ideas or concepts they find difficult–in this vein, I also give substantive content-related feedback on all their assignments, which they often get to rethink and rewrite.

It’s a lot easier to teach the content. I can deliver that easily enough. The emotional work involved in actually teaching each class like a sales pitch for the work is substantial and the results uncertain. And it means I become invested in the outcome, which is problematic for a number of reasons. But when I see the spark light up in someone’s eyes, or that student who asked what needed to be different to get a 90 instead of an 80 have something click, or that other student who argued from anecdote and gut suddenly get discomfited when a contrary perspective begins to have an impact? Worth it. I hope they feel the way I do when I managed a run in the rain, or when I balance in a crow pose after falling over for two years. Like the act itself has become a reward, like something meaningful just happened.

ideas for change · pedagogy · slow academy · yoga

What the doctorate can learn from yoga teacher training

This weekend, I did so many down dogs for so long that today I can hardly lift my arms parallel to the floor and draw them to touch in front of my body. It was a yoga teacher training (YTT) weekend. It strikes me that YTT is both very much like, and very much unlike, the doctorate.

Many people join yoga teacher training programs for the same reason they start doctorates: they are skilled and enthusiastic students of the discipline in question, and want to “go deeper” or “take the next step.” They may admire their primary teachers and start to imagine what life at the front of the room might be like.

But the academy and the kula diverge at the point of advanced study. In my doctorate, I received a lot of training in how to be an even better student of my discipline: how to do advanced research, how to gain field coverage, what books to read and buy. And this is true of my YTT as well: my physical asana study has gained a new intensity and depth. However, in my YTT, I’m receiving explicit and sustained instruction in how to be a yoga teacher, and a yoga professional. I didn’t get either of those things, or in nearly such depth, in my doctorate.

For example, in my YTT, we learn what kind of language is most effective for helping beginners move their bodies into the shapes we want. How to modulate our voices to create a rhythm in class, how to use enthusiasm to create energy. How to create a safe and effective sequence and lesson plan. What it means to ask students to look at our bodies, about sexualization and transference and asking someone you trust to tell you if your pants are see through. How studios operate, how to market ourselves and get work as teachers, what the going rates are. What techniques can help students with injured bodies, with round bodies, with aged or otherwise non-normative bodies.

Here in the academy, we talk a lot, currently, about ‘professionalization’ of the PhD–by this we seem to mean, “teaching students skills they can use in jobs that are not professor jobs.” This implies that the doctorate is already teaching students the skills of being a professor, and professionalization means everything-but-professor training. But we’re not training people to be professors now, nor have we ever, really. Because as far as I can tell, the doctorate is just an advanced-practice workshop of studentship. Are we incorporating pedagogy training into the core of the degree? Training students how to craft a successful article submission, conference presentation, or job letter? Offering strategies for teaching non-majors, or non-native language speakers, or non-traditional students, or service courses? Outlining the political skills of grantsmanship, or curricular overhaul, or program review?

Mostly, no.

My YTT has advanced practice and pedagogy and ethics and business and see-through-pants-ness woven through it to tightly that there’s no real boundary between something purely “professional” and something purely, well, “pure.” Professionalization is still a dirty word, though, in the academy, and the boundary between the pure pursuits of studentship and the more prosaic or workaday labour or skills or economic aspects is rigidly, emphatically, sometimes even self-righteously enforced. We might ask ourselves why.

body · language · pedagogy · yoga

Jargon, expertise, exclusion

My last twenty-hour yoga teacher training weekend intensive featured a full day of anatomy lessons. It was great! Jesse Enright came, with a bag full of variously sized bones and skeletons, and some other props, and we all worked on learning some of the technical terms for bones and how they move.

We stood up and practiced a kind of anatomy-dork “Simon says”: flex your left shoulder! pronate your right wrist! extend your right knee! invert your right foot! both feet dorsiflexion! adduct your left forearm! It was embodied pedagogy of the best kind.

But here’s what knocked my socks off: you know that what we call ‘the hip socket’ is just the colloquial term? The joint in question is referred to, medically, as the “acetabulum.” All the bones have Latin names. It’s all very precise and sciency and much more objective and important and learned than our analogic or metaphoric terms like “knee cap” or “collar bone” or “shoulder socket.” Doctors and scientists use the real words, the science words, right?

You know what “acetabulum” means, in Latin?

It means “small vinegar bowl.” Because the joint looks, to a vinegar-bowl-using anatomist who devised the term, like a a small vinegar bowl.

Wikimedia Commons

What?

There’s another bone, inside the whole shoulder apparatus, a little knobby pointy thing. It’s called the “coracoid process”. Want to know what that is in English? “Like a raven’s beak.” See?

Wikimedia Common

As a culture, we’re so very quick to draw hard lines between objective, scientific domains and squishy, subjective humanities domains. Even those of us who might decry the hierarchy this creates sometime even forget that this is a forced and ideological distinction in many ways. This is disingenuous. Anatomy is metaphorical, and, as my teacher suggests, speculative.

Speculative? Yes. Did you know that until a couple of months ago, humans only had four ligaments in our knees, but now we have five? Yeah. I’m going to guess that fifth ligament was there the whole time, but anatomists and doctors and other scientists just learned not to see it because they were told there was nothing there. Hm.

I’m going to let you assemble your own conclusion from this. Maybe it’s about how becoming a student in a new domain of knowledge can really add zip to your day job. Maybe it’s about the inevitability of metaphoric thinking. Maybe it’s about how jargon serves sometimes to clarify, but often to mark the boundaries of a community of knowledge and exclude outsiders. And maybe it’s about how sometimes the stories we tell ourselves turn out to be really wrong, and yet somehow persist in the face of a million knee surgeries that might daily correct the record. Maybe it’s about why we’re so invested in the difference between objective and subjective even when this distinction keeps collapsing in on itself. Huh.

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?

best laid plans · emotional labour · parenting · pedagogy · righteous feminist anger

Pedagogical and Parental Responsibility in the Face of Precarity

You might have heard that the Alberta budget was released a couple of weeks ago. You might also be familiar with its consequences on education, the higher one in particular, although there are deep cuts at all levels, without enough noise being made about them. This austerity move from the province everyone in Canada views as the richest, most privileged one, led me to think more deeply about precarity. It seems to be the going theme here at Hook & Eye this week. What do we do about it? How do we combat this neoliberal wave of blowing up every remnant of job security, human solidarity, and certainty in the near future?

My interest started due to my own unexpected, deeply emotional reaction to the budget and its implications. I felt disbelief, betrayal, grief, etc. I was going through all the stages of mourning, and I wanted to understand why. What was it about my relationship to the province that made me react this way? An unwarranted, and definitely unreciprocated attachment? Once the initial hurt–also the reason why I couldn’t formulate a blog post last week–passed, I was able to think about it in a more detached manner: my reaction is personal, because I don’t think I’m prepared for this brave new neoliberal future.

The answer came, as it sometimes happens when we have the benefit of children to mirror our own idiosyncrasies, through my oldest, when she explained to me that she can now perform a certain physical feat, because “I practiced it a lot.” She had internalized, you see, my parental injunction that “we only become good at something if we practice it a lot.” I froze on the spot and the coin dropped: yes, that’s how I was raised, that if you work hard enough at something, whatever it is, you will eventually become good at it. But what happens when the world around shifts so that being “good at it” doesn’t guarantee any kind of gratification, no matter how much you defer it? Am I parenting on a Fordist model, when the world stopped being like that a very long time ago?

What about teaching? We and others keep making the point of the relevance of humanities for today’s world, that universities should not cater to industry, etc., but what is it that I do in the classroom that prepares students for the world that I’m not doing at home? I suppose it’s critical thinking, as in the ability and the flexibility that allows students to thrive in a variety of situations, to tackle problems from novel angles, and, ultimately, to create new, better worlds. One would hope. Do these skills work when students themselves face a precarity in their professional lives that does not allow them to “think big!” “be creative!” “change the world!” but insists their efforts go into the less glamorous “paying the bills” “buying food,” and “getting rid of that student debt”?

This pragmatism does not in any way go to undercut the importance of arts education. If anything, it reinforces the potential of arts education to allow people to step back and gain perspective in the face of sustained and systematic blows from a global system bent on breeding and generalizing inequity. So, what is the solution? How do we–teachers, adults, educators, parents–empower the young ones to tackle this increasing precarity or deal with it better than I see my generation doing it? What right do we have to place such an immense burden on their shoulders, when we couldn’t solve it? (and yet I realize that our inability to solve this issue necessarily places the burden on them).

In Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, Bernard Stiegler charges contemporary (French) society with having failed the youth altogether by withdrawing the responsibility of the older generations towards the younger ones, severing the ties, while at the same time demanding the youth display the behaviour that only the careful education of such responsibility would have provided. Instead, he says, we leave it to contemporary capitalism to exercise its psychopower on generations of youth devoid of the care that should have prepared them to engage with it. Stiegler promises to come up with solutions in the next volume, but the charge is clear now: there is an intergenerational failure, whether of pedagogy and/or of parenting, which leaves youth unprepared, while capitalism continues to do its thing.

So, my unfair question to you, just before the weekend is, what do we do? How do we live up to our responsibility in the classroom and elsewhere? Do you have little tips and tricks. I know the questions are big, but the solutions need not be. How do we teach four-year-olds critical thinking without swiping their big-eyed wonder at the world in one? Anything? Bueller?