emotional labour · grad school · professors · teaching

A Pedagogy of Detachment

“So, we’re supposed to read two things for every class?”

A number of thoughts cross through my mind when a student asks me such a question:

1. Why are they asking me this?
2. Have I put too many readings on the course syllabus?
3. Are they feeling overwhelmed and it’s my fault?
4. Am I contributing to a culture wherein students are overworked and placed under undue pressure to succeed and enter the workforce as soon as possible and never have time for themselves or for play? 

In spite of these thoughts, what I should say, when confronted with this question, is simply “Yes, there are a couple readings for every class,” and leave it to them to follow up if they have a problem with this fact. But what I did say, following from that thought progression, was something along the lines of, “uhh, yes, there are a couple, but you know, the reading schedule is open and evolving and adaptive to the needs of our course, so if I find that we’re getting overwhelmed with work or anything, I’ll dial it back–or, conversely, add texts if it seems like too little. Also, other professors assign an essay a week, so my courses are a little more reading-heavy than others, so you should be thankful you’re in my class and stop complaining.” (ok I didn’t say that last bit)

This was not a good teaching moment. It was, in fact, an instance where I faltered in my current pedagogy strategy as I enter a new semester of teaching: a pedagogy of detachment, of caring less, of embodying more authority and not feeling so beholden to the needs and preferences of each student. Rather than adhering to my carefully thought out teaching principles, I nervously rattled off all the reasons I had for assigning ‘so much reading,’ even though in reality some of those pieces are only a few pages long, and these students are adults, and the readings are important and interesting and diverse and carefully selected.

In essence, my new strategy can be embodied in one important emoji:

I deploy this metaphor of the hammer in my head whenever I need to give fewer f***s. Aided by this emoji (with the exception of the two-readings question), so far I’ve been maintaining more authority than I have in the past, stuck to my principles more, fought against the urge to externalize the running nervous commentary of feelings and questionings in my head. Past students have written on course evaluations that I am sometimes inconsistent in my assessment standards: I will say one thing in class, perhaps revise proceedings to accommodate the class’s supposed needs, but then not be quite so accommodating in my grading. This semester I am going to try to leave things in the same place where I set them down, as much as possible–hammer them into place, if you will. Paradoxically enough, I think caring (and apologizing) less will earn me more respect as a teacher, so hammering things into place is mutually beneficial.

Most people write about the importance of a pedagogy of compassion, of treating students like humans and being sympathetic and flexible when they experience life crises or fall behind on their work. I agree with all of that, of course: undergraduate students, like grad students, are under more stress than ever in this precarious socio-political climate, and we as instructors should be sensitive to the pressures they face. I am not the type of person who could ever be fully detached–even after only a couple classes, I can feel myself growing fond of the students in my classes as unique individuals, and I enjoy joking and chatting with them on a personal level. So in dialing back my propensity for caring too much, I’m just reestablishing balance, fighting against the feminine nurturing stereotype instilled within me, cutting down on draining emotional labour, and attempting to instate a reasonable level of care and compassion while retaining my own authority as an instructor.

Yet I know, and fear, that this approach may have its own host of negative repercussions, as this timely NYT article on the “madonna-whore complex” that still tends to persist in modern academia suggests. I guess with this new tactic I’m trying to achieve whatever the word for the aunt-equivalent of “avuncular” would be, an alternative to the girlfriend or mother affiliation: related, yet detached; skin in the game, but not my whole body. I wish more cultural codes existed for this type of persona for women. I wish I didn’t continue to worry that a non-nurturing front will read as overly assertive or abrasive to students, to whom I remain indebted for strong evaluations. I wish I could just enter the classroom and immediately command authority without feeling under scrutiny for my outfit or my hair. I wish things were a little bit easier for us female instructors.

backlash · bad academics · copper-bottomed bitch · hiring · job market · professors · righteous feminist anger · structural solutions

The backhand side: stupid job ads and equity

I hate red tape. I hate that every time I travel for research, I have to ask for and then save the receipt I get for buying a $5 sandwich on the airplane, and that if I get breakfast in my hotel room because the conference starts at 8:30am, I have to make sure that my toast and eggs are itemized on the hotel invoice because “Room Service Charge” is not reimbursable. This feels petty and annoying to me.

But sometimes, the pettiness and rules of the bureaucracy are an equity-seeking device.

Last year when I taught our graduate professionalization class to the second-year PhD cohort, we had as a guest lecturer a departmental colleague who was chair for a long time, and was hired in the 1980s. He was talking about the academic job market now and then. Now, as we all know, it’s a paper-heavy bureacractic mess. But then, it was a phone call between two dudes, exchanging grad students and privilege. No application, just backchannel.

In this vein, Sydni Dunn in Chronicle Vitae just reported on Jonathan Goodwin’s work with vintage MLA job ads (building on prior work by Jim Ridolfo). Here’s an ad that really stuck with me:

This is a marvel of insider-clubbiness. There might be an opening, and it doesn’t matter what field you’re in, but we’d like your degree from somewhere good and you should be able to play tennis and engage in repartee about same. The vague requirements leave the position completely open to whim; the emphasis on the rank of the school tends to reproduce privilege. The only real metric you could use to distinguish among candidates is actually tennis: publications are “helpful” but not required, so you can’t compare candidates on research record. You can’t distinguish by specialization, because none is required. You could in fact not hire at all. I can just imagine the deliberations. Oh wait: there wouldn’t be any. Because this was before committee-based hiring. Shudder. I’ll take Interfolio any day, frankly.

In my Facebook feed, then, in 2015, I was surprised to see a link to this ad from MIT. It starts out okay, or at least standard:

The MIT Media Lab (www.media.mit.edu) is seeking candidates to fill two tenure-track positions. Appointments will be within the Media Arts and Sciences academic program, principally at the Assistant Professor level. 

Successful candidates for either position will be expected to: establish and lead their own research group within the Media Lab; pursue creative work of the highest international standard; engage in collaborative projects with industrial sponsors and other Media Lab research groups; supervise master’s and doctoral students; and participate in the Media Arts and Sciences academic program. Send questions to faculty-search [at] media.mit.edu. 

MIT is committed to building a culturally diverse educational environment; women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply. EOE.

Yes, that sounds like a job ad. Job type, job rank, job duties, number of jobs available, contact information, assessment criteria. Also, equity statement.

Good. Then the two available positions are listed out. One, in climate change and environment, is pretty standard, too. But then, this, in “undefined discipline”:

The Media Lab is a cross-disciplinary research organization focusing on the invention of new media technologies that radically improve the ways people live, learn, work, and play. 

We are seeking a new kind of early career faculty member, not defined by discipline, rather by his or her unique and iconoclastic experience, style, and points of view. You can be a designer, inventor, scientist, or scholar – any combination – as long as you make things that matter. Impact is key. 

This means somebody with at least these three sets of characteristics: 

  1. Being deeply versed in a minimum of two fields, preferably not ones normally juxtaposed;
  2. Being an orthogonal and counter-intuitive thinker, even a misfit within normal structures;
  3. Having a fearless personality, boundless optimism, and desire to change the world. 

Any disciplines apply as long as their confluence shows promise of solving big, difficult, and long-term problems. And, most importantly, candidates must explain why their work really can only be done at the Media Lab. We prefer candidates not be similar to our existing faculty. We welcome applicants who have never considered academic careers. If you fit into typical academia, this is probably not the job for you. 

Applications should consist of one URL—the web site can be designed in whatever manner best characterizes the candidate’s unique qualifications. Web site should include a CV or link to a CV.

So. Not a real application. Make a website, any kind of website, but unique, and submit that as your application! Also, there’s a personality-based assessment–be orthogonal as well as polymathic! We want you to be young (early career) and iconoclastic! This is a professor job, but if you fit into academia, you’re not the right fit. Except you’ll still need a PhD and do the work of a professor. The ad seems to be asking for a set of personal traits–and personal traits that seem to inhere in a very particular kind of applicant:

Venture-capital tech-dude types who skipped college and traveled to India (not to see family, but to experience life, man) and who have foregone the scholarly article in favor of something showier because they like attention and feel they deserve it and they have rebellious haircuts and gender-bending accessories.

Look. I regularly lobby to have my media appearances and blog work count on my CV. I get “iconoclastic”–and I get weird haircuts and gender-bending accessories. I wear My Little Pony swag to teach. But this kind of ad, in its emphasis on personality and attitude, feels insulting to all the hard, verifiable, assessable work that academics do to become trained and competitive for professorships. And it will lead to bad candidate assessment.

The ability to receive a serve on the backhand side is not named, but implied. Again, how on God’s Green Earth can you sensibly sort a candidate pool? I’ll tell you right now it’ll be like an American Idol open tryout, except many of the sensible people will just not even go.

Once more: in many ways, I’m all about thinking outside the academic box: I take Facebook seriously as life-writing and I refuse to call everyday social media users naive or thoughtless. I’m lobbying hard to change a lot about the PhD at my institution. What is killing me about this job ad is that it gets loosey-goosey about all the wrong things in ways that are going to disadvantage applicants who’ve just barely got a toe-hold into the academy. By removing assessable metrics and by opening the ad so widely, it’s nearly guaranteed that a very narrow set of possible winners is going to emerge.

You can bet your backhand on it.

ideas for change · LGBTQ · PhD · professors · students · teaching

Being an LGBTQ Ally

This post may be considered Part II of my post from last week, when I wondered aloud what a more “queer” feminism might look like, and proposed that this blog could be a space for us to think through how to become better advocates for the LGBTQ community. Here I share my experience with a recent six-hour course at Fordham called LGBT and Ally Network of Support Training; by participating in this course (according to the website), members of the network

demonstrate their active commitment to creating a campus environment that is open and welcoming to all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) students and their allies, in keeping with the Jesuit tenet of Cura Personalis (care for the whole person) and the principle that all persons should be treated with dignity and respect which is explicit in Catholic teaching. 

 Yaaay Jesuits! Plus we get a pin and a plaque with our name on it!

That fostering a growing ally network is important cannot be understated; at Fordham, the findings from last year’s LGBTQ Que(e)ry Student Experience survey reveal that nearly two thirds of the student LGBTQ population felt “uncomfortable or unsafe” in the classroom, and 46% felt uncomfortable or unsafe around their professors (p. 18). The report contains numerous other chilling anecdotes from students, including these: “My roommate went on a rampage about not standing for any of this ‘gay and lesbian bullshit’ on her campus. As a result, she does NOT know that I am bisexual”; “I don’t want to out myself to [my roommates] because I can’t deal with their questions and curiosity that is borderline invasive”; and one student reported being out to “Certain friends who could tolerate that information (p. 17). Straight, cisgender respondents were sometimes disturbingly dismissive of the survey, expressing their beliefs that it was not necessary because no space on-campus was “unsafe” (15).

I could go on, but basically–this stuff matters.

The course I took basically consisted of a group of 30 or so beautiful and diverse people sitting in a room together over a couple lunches, discussing challenges faced by the LGBTQ community, and attempting to facilitate heightened awareness, understanding, and knowledge. I’m hoping that in posting here some of the activities we conducted, you can share in some of this wonderful experience too, and perhaps learn a couple strategies for your own classrooms and your own advocacy practices (though this is mostly a recounting of my experience rather than a delineation of inclusivity strategies). If you require a primer on LGBT terminology before proceeding, by the way, I will refer you to GLAAD’s “Ally’s Guide to Terminology,” the PDF of which can be accessed here. From my perspective, some of the most arresting/memorable group activities we did were: 

  • Introducing ourselves with our chosen gender pronouns (ex. “My name is Boyda Johnstone, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers”). We as teachers can implement this exercise in our classrooms in an attempt to create more inclusive spaces for transgender people. Like all new things, it was a little bumpy in practice (I personally am not clear on why we needed to list all three pronouns rather than just one, which made things significantly bumpier), but the more it becomes established, the smoother the playing-out.
  • A circle exercise wherein we were asked to step forward whenever we identified with various statements. The statements began as softballs (“I like to eat sushi”; “I was born in America”), but gradually increased in import (“My family growing up did not have much money”; “I have lost a parent”; leading to “I identify as bisexual,” “I identify as gay,” etc). I was shocked at how nervous I became even when stepping forward during low-stakes claims; no matter the category, it was scary to break out from the crowd. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to step forward during high-stakes claims, especially in “real life” situations such as coming out to loved ones. 

  • A role-playing exercise wherein we practiced responding to various situations, such as someone using the word “fa***t” in an elevator, or our best friend coming out as gay. In the former case we agreed that it’s best to vocally express discomfort, even if the other person doesn’t respond well–‘planting seeds’ that may sprout later on, when we’re not around (of course there are complicating factors when we consider intersecting issues such as gender and race, and speaking out might not always be the best option). For the latter case, that of a friend coming out as a LGBT sexual or gender identity, we reviewed and practiced active listening skills:  acknowledging (“acknowledge that you understand what someone is saying by sending verbal and non-verbal cues”), reflecting (“helps you understand and process the whole experience”); interpreting & clarifying (“I hear you saying this…” or “Is this what you mean?”); and summarizing. Such practices, however basic they may seem to us, always merit review: we can never fully predict how we will respond in a given situation. It’s never a bad thing to remind ourselves how to shut up and listen. 

  • A word association exercise where we, as groups, generated ‘semantic bubbles’ of some of the positive and negative terms associated with LGBT terminology. We built our own definitions and categories but then challenged and questioned those categories, treating terms as living and situation-specific. The stereotypes and negative associations that were brought up made for sobering discussion, to say the least. Here I attach a photo of the posters I snuck with my phone, but it should be noted before reading that some of these words might be triggering or offensive, and were used in a specific context.

As I’m not sure this brief synopsis of events conveys, it was the complexity and diversity of the bodies in the room that made the course truly wonderful; because it was a safe, confidential space, people felt comfortable sharing their personal perspectives and variously heartwrenching and uplifting stories.

What about you, readers? Do you have strategies for making your classrooms more inclusive spaces? How have you practiced allyship to those in the LGBTQ community? Or, if you’re part of the LGBTQ community, how can we be better allies to you? 

adjuncts · grad school · notes from the non-tenured-stream · politics · professors

Repost of "The Teaching Class"

Hey all. It’s been a really long time since I’ve posted. I know you’ve missed me dearly.

Life post-research trip has been fairly hectic and social-filled, in really very good ways, and I have been making strong progress on chapter one and heading back to the UK very soon (spoiled this year!) and feeling pretty okay about everything. Yet in the tumult of summer I have struggled to brew up a post, and even today the ingredients are looking a little scarce. I hope you’ve all been following Erin’s excellent Empathy Trap entries, and who knows what lies in store over the next few weeks.

Today I just want to repost an excellent, important, smart, compelling article on, yes, the rising phenomenon of the adjunct, or adjunctivitis (a name which to me still sounds pretty silly but oh well), that just came out in the fantastic Guernica Magazine (thanks to my pal Ali for drawing my attention to this!). Perhaps you’ve already seen it. Here CUNY adjunct Rachel Riederer discusses the contradictions inherent in being an underpaid and undersupported worker in the still ostensibly middle-class and even, in some senses, “sacred” job of university teaching. Some instructors have been facing backlash for including statements regarding the material realities of adjuncting in their syllabi; a common approach is to urge students not to call them “professor,” since the term remains hallowed and obscures the actual conditions of labor that the human beings responsible for educating future generations often face. Riederer cites a fellow adjunct:

“The conditions of labor must always be obscured,” she said. “Work is good, work is noble, work is disciplining, work is what gives you social meaning in your life, so you can’t say, ‘Oh, this job is killing me.’ And they certainly don’t ever want you to talk to other people and realize this is structural, this is planned, we are the effects of other people’s choices and perhaps we should have a bigger voice here.”

‘How can we complain about our work?,’ some may ask. Adjuncts may get paid less than managers at McDonald’s, but that does not mean they are not more fulfilled. Our jobs as educators on pleasant university campuses are by many accounts very good, no matter the material conditions of being there. But, as Riederer claims, “of course it’s possible to love what one does, be good at it, and still be exploited.” (or, I love this: “A professor should not be so vulgar as to talk about the material reality of her life.”)

There’s so much more to this article, but I’ll leave you to experience it on your own, and I’ll get back to conference-paper-drafting. Oh, and here’s a video of a parrot talking with a stuffed rabbit, which if you can get past the awful clickbaity title, is pretty great. Because animals.

being undone · professors

The Value of Becoming Undone

I cannot tell you what I wore on the first day on my undergrad, but I can guarantee that it was brand, spankin’ new.
I promise that I had a backpack that was sans a sales tag less than 24 hours and I had 5 different binders with crisp dividers and an arsenal of unused writing pens and tightly capped high lighters.
I sat nervously in seminars over the first year, raising my hand at needless intervals (participation marks!) and reiterating information from the text that I had poured over the night before. In short, I was the cliché of the eager, ungifted first year student.

As I continued through my under grad experience, I cast aside the habit of back to school shopping and began ferreting used pens from the junk drawer before heading to my classes. I focused on the relationships and the connection between what was happening in the text and the world around me. I didn’t do all my reading, but I thought a lot more about what I did read with fresh, critical thinking. I relaxed. I became more open to letting my studies flow into every aspect of my life, rather than compartmentalizing it into a structured, efficient environment.

In short, I became undone.

I was recently talking to a friend who was lamenting a new professor in her faculty. She is nice, professionally dressed, crisp and efficient. She has structured lectures that are everything a lecture should be, but she’s missing a vital ingredient – being undone. She is openly nervous when conversation veers off of the lesson plan and is uncomfortable with unplanned questions or comments arise.
Again, nothing wrong per say, but the absolute best professors I have ever had were the ones that had a personality that shone though their lectures. Who swore when it was necessary. Who openly wept when they lectured on the inequality of women, both past and present. Who made jokes about their hips, pierced their eyebrows, sat on their desks to lecture, talked about their families and listened to their class.

Those were the professors that were undone. Who were willing to let their personality, interests and professionalism collide and to help shape their students beyond the classroom. Many of the readers on this site are professors just like this and I send a giant cheer your way.

Thank you, for being undone.

What steps did you take as a professor or student to relax and let your personality and your work meld into one? Did it come naturally for you?