fast feminism · generational mentorship · intolerant shrew · slow academy · teaching

The unbearable privilege of cynicism

Ron Srigley is doing it again. Last fall, he was in the LA Review of Books bemoaning the unrelenting vapidity of today’s university students, the soul-crushing inanity of teaching, the hollow commercialism of pedagogy, riven with “fads” like student-centred learning and the flipped classroom. And now again in the Walrus. Students are stupid and lazy. Teaching is meaningless. The university is hollow. “Pedagogy” is a farce. It’s a race to the bottom.

Only Srigley knows better, has standards, cares.

Much of the press has lapped it up. He is a truth teller, bravely thumbing his nose at power! He is leaping over the wall of the ivory tower to share its dirty secrets with parents! He says difficult things that need saying! Even if we don’t want to hear them! (Except everyone seems to want to hear them and say them, at least people who are not actually university professors, or university students, or pedagogy scholars). He’s the Donald Drumpf of higher ed.

Many reasonable people have produced thoughtful responses to the substance of what he’s written, some from a collegial perspective, others simply on formal logical grounds.

That’s not what I’m thinking about today. I’m thinking about how ready the world is to hear such things from Srigley, and why. Of course, conservative publications love him: he confirms their dim view of the university as a kooky liberal bastion of anything-goes hedonism. But why Srigley? I suspect it’s because he looks like many people expect a professor to: male, fluffy white hair, dark thick-rimmed glasses, a serious look. You go Google image search him. Then click on this: if you dare.

“Everybody is stupid, except me!”

What I’m saying, first is this: Srigley walks into the discussion with view that people are primed to want to hear. And he walks into the discussion with this tremendous amount of identity privilege. He is a living, breathing confirmation bias for everyone who only knows about university from watching movies.

How powerful is this privilege? Powerful. I’m going to say this advisedly and carefully: you will see Srigley described over and over as “professor of philosophy.” He is a career adjunct, touring North Bay and Sudbury, Ontario, and on annual contract at the University of Prince Edward Island. Powerful and conferring high status this career is not. His CV proudly lists a book published with the Edwin Mellen Press–you know, the one most famous for suing Dale Askey, for naming them as a vanity press of the first order. But no one links Srigley to adjunct employment conditions (dire) or the question of status among institutions (barbaric) or the notion of maintaining a research profile in an itinerant and no doubt heavy teaching career (an impossible bind). Nope. He’s just Professor. Expert. Authority. Because he says things that confirm people’s authoritarian biases and distaste for youth, and because he looks the way he does: white, male, cranky.

I am going to guess that hell would have to freeze over before Srigley self-identified as “adjunct” or even “teaching-track”. I’m going to guess he knows, implicitly and calculatingly, that he would lose status through this identification. And status is something he can fabricate out of thin air. Or out of privilege.

So Srigley becomes famous, basically, for complaining. And he’s a hero. For complaining. For calling his students and his colleagues stupid and shallow. For this he’s called brave.

Contemplate for a moment how far up the ladder of prestige and esteem such a strategy would get you, dear Hook & Eye readers, you marvellous and hard-working women teaching your hearts out as graduate students, as tenure-track faculty, as teaching track faculty, as Associates, as sessionals. Is the world ready to boost your voice when you decry classroom overcrowding? When you lament you have no office? When you suggest you are not sufficiently trained to do the main part of your job, and you want help? When structural constraints push you into Scantron multiple-choice exams when you would prefer essays? When you note that students don’t want Friday classes because they’re working at jobs for 20 hours a week to pay for tuition? And perhaps that’s why they’re not so perky in class? Probably not.

In fact, a key status-building activity for Srigley and his ilk lies precisely in the sort of move he makes in his op-eds: call everyone else stupid, and disavow, especially, teaching–the dirty work of the academy, the care work, the feminized labour.

The Srigley Manoeuvre(tm) is, thus, really only available to conservative white dudes, and the glory of it is you get plaudits for not doing a damn thing at all. (See also: I’m a liberal professor and my liberal students terrify me). Me (and you, I imagine), I hold a tiny bit of my soul in my hands every class I walk in to. If today’s group work didn’t work, then I’m going to redo next-day’s lesson plan to try it a different way. If the writing on the final paper is poor one year, I’m going to rejig the whole course so it’s writing-focused from day 1. If my students don’t know something I think they should know I try to teach it to them. And I sit in committees on curriculum. And I attend teaching workshops. And I engage my students every day as if they were human beings who mattered, who have stories.

Could this sound any more like care work? Could I feminize this description any more, make it sound less like what many expect to be “the life of the mind” and any more like exactly the sort of “handholding” Srigley stakes his whole career against? Probably not. It’s exhausting but it’s my job and I’m actually doing it and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but it is my duty and my vocation to teach my discipline to the students who enrol in my courses and by God, I’m going to try.

So are you. Srigley is not: he’s climbed on his high horse and mistaken throwing insults for revolution, hot air for hard work, his rejection of 2016 for a principled stance for classical values.

And that he gets so much attention for it should remind us all how far you can go on pure privilege, and bashing those less powerful than you, how far you can go by slipping into the easy stream of gendering and deprecating care work and marking as manly and principled the act of saying “no” to anyone who needs your help.

advice · grading · protip · teaching

How to Grade Faster

Last week I covered how to get a lot of grading done in any given day, by managing the macro and meta elements: minimize distractions, take real breaks, fool yourself into working in chunks, etc.

But what about where the pen hits the paper, and the grade goes in the grade book? Many of us find this part hard as well. I have more tips. So this is a post about how to grade faster, which essentially means grading with more confidence, as it seems to me that we take sooooooo long sometimes because we’re not sure we’re doing it right. Alternately, we sometimes mistake grading harder for grading better. TL;DR: grade for some things but not everything, and trick yourself into thinking you know what you’re doing.

Basically, there are two parts to grading. First, marking the document, leaving comments, writing marginalia, crafting meaningful feedback. Second, assigning a grade. Let’s do both of these things faster.

Marking the document faster

My tip, basically, is this:

  • Know what you’re grading for.
Oh sure, easy to say, but what does it mean? Some people find rubrics really helpful: if you create a grid that lists the things that are being assessed, and use checkmarks in the grid to give feedback, you can be really focused. Rubrics are great for that. Rubrics also help students parse your feedback (and their grade) and that is also great. Rubrics can help everyone be more efficient: you look for the things in the assignment that match the rubric, and you assess. Me, personally, I hate using formal rubrics like that, because I find the format overwhelming and for me it makes me feel like it’s more work rather than less. But I can still get the same effect using other means.
I was lucky to attend a university Teaching Excellence Academy a bunch of years ago, where I was introduced to the idea of intended learning outcomes: for a given course, I identify several things I want the students to know, or be able to do, by the end of the semester. And then, miracle, I design the assessments around those outcomes. So for me, a key component of grading faster is to undertake more thoughtful assessment design.
For example, when I was starting out, I used to always assign big research papers in all my courses, because that’s what you do in English, right? So for a media history and methods course, I would get these 12 page final papers that I would helplessly pour over, looking for content mastery, and sophisticated and appropriate use of media theory or methodology, and good writing, and good research skills. It took ages. It was also, usually, just disappointing on all fronts, except for those 2 students who should just skip past the rest of the BA and MA and PhD and just get tenure right now. And half the time the students never even picked up their papers.
Now, sometimes I use exams to test content knowledge. I use group work to test interpretive creativity and flexibility.  I have small assignments where students apply a theory or method to a given text. I have assignments where they do research on a topic and make a bibliography. No one assessment is meant to be truly comprehensive; each assignment has one main point I’m trying to test and one main skill I’m trying to teach, so when I grade I’m just looking for a very small number of things. Annotated Bibliography? Are the citations in MLA format, did you find sources of different types, are the sources appropriate to your paper? I can grade that in five minutes–the first two points are purely mechanical, and so the last bit is where I spend four of the five minutes. 
My assignment sheets lay out, in bullet point, what I want, and I go over that very carefully with students ahead of time (which is a learning opportunity!), and then I have the assignment sheet in front of me when I grade, which functions like a rubric, sort of, but allows me to just give two or three sentences of holistic feedback.
Basically, to mark faster, you need to mark deliberately, and this comes from careful assessment design. Basically, I try to design assessments that give the maximum learning opportunity to students for the minimum amount of marking and grading. On my final exam, for instance, there’s a terms-and-definitions section. In advance of the exam, we take class time to brainstorm a giant possible list of terms from the whole semester, and work on crafting definitions. We’ll get something like 40 or 50. I tell them 15 will be on the exam, and they have to define 10. The learning is already happening in class in this exercise (and it’s no prep at all for me). And do you know how long it takes to grade 10 term definitions on an exam? It takes less than two minutes: you got it right, or you didn’t. On a topic and thesis statement assignment, I’m asking two questions: is the topic appropriate/to scale? and is your thesis arguable/to scale? 2 minutes to assess, 3 or 4 minutes to give feedback to aid in revisions.
So faster marking is a function of better assessment design, and really staying focused on one or two things that you’re really looking for.
And stop copyediting your students’ papers. It’s overwhelming for everyone, and it doesn’t help.

How to Assign a Grade Faster.

You can, again, use a rubric. They’re still awesome for all the reasons above. But I still find it really hard to use them. So I don’t. I have other tricks.
Teach a course several times, with the same assessments. Many of us have no choice at all in which courses we teach, but it is often the case that many courses we are assigned are repeats. Sheer familiarity with the assignments and experience of a range of possible student responses to those assignments will make it easier to assign a number to the very first paper you grab. You get used to it.
Ask colleagues or chairs what the average in the course tends to be. Sometimes you can pretty easily assess the merits of one paper relative to another (this one is better / worse than that one, and both of them are better / worse than this third one) but aren’t sure what number to assign. If you find out from your chair or ask colleagues who teach the same course what the average tends to be in that course, you have a kind of benchmark. You can also ask about the range of grades students tend to get. Maybe first year courses at your school tend to have an overall average final grade of 77. Or maybe it’s 87. Maybe student grades tend to run the breadth of 60-100. Or maybe they tend to clump between 76-90. Absolute grades are usually harder for newer teachers especially to determine, even if we know the relative rank of each paper against every other. Ask.
Do relative ranking in piles on the floor. As a first pass, if you’re having a really hard time assigning numbers, drop each paper on the floor after you have marked it up and written your feedback (that is, all that’s missing the number). First one goes in the middle. Next one is better (to the right), worse (to the left), or the same-ish (on top)–you’re making a right-left axis here. I tend to make piles in what I imagine are five percentage point increments, because otherwise the pile becomes a fan, and each paper gets harder and harder to place. I stagger papers on the pile, so a pile with six papers in it stretches further up, like a bar graph, than a pile with 2 papers in it (that is, this is the up-down axis). Once you’re done with all the papers, there will be a natural distribution visible. You can shuffle the piles to reassess outliers, but now you can say the big middle clump is going to be from 80-85, and then have a look at those six papers and slap a number on each, relative to the others in the pile. And then continue along the left-right axis until they’re all graded.
That’s it. Those are my tips. I’m brutally efficient at grading, and I almost never get any grade complaints: these mostly tend to be when I’ve entered the grade wrong in the spreadsheet, or lost someone’s assignment. It’s going to be okay: it’s important work, but no one is going to die if you give someone an 81 when they really should have got (perhaps) an 83. It is possible to grade a lot faster than you probably do, and if you do it right, student outcomes and student learning will be improved, not diminished.
As always, I’m happy to hear any of your tips in the comments!
advice · grading · teaching

How to Grade a Lot

This is my Month of Grading. I have 40 students in my first year Digital Lives class, and as this class counts as writing intensive, well, it’s also grading intensive. In practice, this means they have a 400 paper due week 4, which I give them extensive feedback on, leading into a revised version of this same paper due week 6. The back half of the term is about the research paper, and there’s a stepped assignment for that due every Tuesday from week 8 until week 12, when the final paper comes in.

So my grading issues are twofold. First, for the short papers, I have to give extensive formative feedback to guide their revisions, and then grade those new papers in light of the first round of feedback. Second, for the assignments building up to the essay (Topic and Thesis statement, then Annotated Bibliography, then Introductory Paragraph, then Draft Workshop, then Research Paper Final Version) I have to give formative feedback to guide the next steps, but I have to grade it really really fast: things get handed in on Tuesday, and I return them on Thursday, so that they can have the feedback in hand as they craft the next Tuesday’s assignment.

I’ve had a lot of years of trial and error to get this mostly functional for me. And I even get 8 hours of sleep, most nights. If you have to grade a lot, I have some tips. This week, I’ll cover the general useful tips, and next week, I’ll cover some specific tips on how I give individual feedback to 40 people without repeating myself too much or getting sarcastic or gouging my own eyes out.

Most general useful tips:

  1. put your phone in a different room
  2. if possible turn the internet off on your computer, if you need it to write feedback
  3. break the big pile into a series of smaller piles, and grade in units of Small Pile
  4. take breaks
  5. know thyself; plan assignments (and thus your grading) accordingly
Put your phone in a different room. I am very, very, very easily distracted. And grading is hard, and it’s a slog, and the mountain of stuff seems unclimbable, and so I really, really deserve to have a little break to check my Facebook, right? Except I noticed that when I keep my phone beside me, sometimes I take a little break in between reading a paper and giving feedback, and I lose my train of thought. Or I spend 10 minutes grading a bibliography, then spend 10 minutes on Buzzfeed. Or I start texting my sister. Or I decide now is a good time to start Googling landscaping companies. And when I put the phone down to get back to grading, I’ve lost my flow and my eyes are tired and I don’t really even feel like I’ve had a break. So now the phone is on the breakfast bar downstairs, and I am in my grading chair in my home office. Because I have no self-control: luckily, I’m lazier about getting out of my chair that I am curious about that penguin who thinks a human is his family.
Turn off the internet on your computer. If the phone beside you is like having a cupcake at your elbow and trying not to eat it, using your computer to grade while having the internet turned on (and your notifications running) is like putting the cupcake in your mouth and trying not to chew it. Impossible. Some online/grading is unavoidable. My course has online quizzes that only live on the intertubes. I grade those by first turning off my notifications, closing my main browser totally, shutting all my other programs and opening one lonely window that’s got nothing but quizzes in it. If my students submit longer pieces via a dropbox or otherwise electronically, I batch download them to my own computer, and then shut off the wifi. If I’m grading on paper, I put the computer in the room where the phone is, and pretend it’s 1990.
Break the big pile into a series of smaller piles. Today I’m going to grade 40 annotated bibliographies. Shit. That’s a lot. Picking them off the pile one at a time feels very unsatisfying and Sisyphean. No one paper reduces the pile by very much, or increases the Success! pile by very much. Grading one paper more or less doesn’t seem to matter, so it’s easy to just keep taking breaks, or having naps because none of it matters I’ll never finish anyways. So now I make piles. That pile of 40 will get sorted into five piles of 8. Now I only have five things to grade! I know that these assignments will take about 8-10 minutes to grade, so I’m looking at grading for about an hour, and being 20% done! Then I can take a break! Then grade for another hour or so, and I’ll be 40% done! I can’t quite explain how this effect works, but it does. Your piles might be bigger or smaller, depending on how much you can handle in one sitting. For exams, I grade 40 at a time, but one question only. For final essays, I plan the day so that the first pile has the most and the last pile has the least, because that’s really tiring work and as the day proceeds I need more breaks: 5 papers then a break, then 5 papers then a break, then 4 papers then a break, then 3 papers then a break, then 2 papers then a break, then one final paper. That’s 20 papers graded in one day, which, when I phrase it like that, seems impossible and awful, but in my piles system is entirely doable.
Take breaks. This is crucial. After I grade 8 bibliographies, I’m going to gather all the towels in the house, put them in a laundry basket, run them down to the basement, start the laundry, make a coffee, and run back upstairs. That is, I will move my body quickly for about 10 minutes, then get a treat. And then I will grade again. After that pile, I will put my shoes on and take the dog for a 15 minute walk. And then I will grade again. After that pile I will make a nice lunch and stare out the window for a while. It is essential that the break be the opposite of grading. Grading is sitting very still in my chair and thinking and writing words. So, Facebook is not a break, because I’m still in the chair writing words and thinking. My dog is the opposite of grading. Doing laundry is the opposite of grading. Making a potato pancake and watching the birds and squirrels in my backyard is the opposite of grading. You need to come back to the grading refreshed, to feel like you’ve really done something very different. And your break needs to feel like a real reward. Man, I really want to go outside with the dog today, but there’s 16 things to grade before I can do that.
Know thyself. I hate grading online, so I get my students to hand stuff in on paper. This has saved me endless procrastination and frustration. I always know everyone’s final paper grade somewhere on the first page of reading, so I’ve started making shorter paper assignments. Grading is really taxing for me, so I need to clump it into days at home where I can walk the dog or do my laundry and just really do nothing but grade and break for a whole day with no other obligations. So this is how I’ve organized my semester. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that the way I work is the way I work: I’ve tried to optimize my Best Way with what the students need, and I think I’ve been pretty successful. And my life is a lot easier now that I’m doing things the ways that best suit me.
All of these tips apply to all grading situations: quizzes, exams, papers, stepped assignments. These are the things I keep in mind or practice every time I grade, no matter what. Next week, I’ll write more about some specific situations: giving useful and individual feedback, how to make sure students use it, how to manage tone.
What are your tips? Margrit had some tips for us last year, some of which are different from mine! Discuss!
teaching · women

On Rereading Nicole Brossard

I have this distinct memory of reading an essay by Nicole Brossard back when I was a graduate student. The essay, “Writing as Trajectory of Desire and Consciousness,” outlines some of Brossard’s key terms. Her title, she tells the reader, contains some of the words to which she returns and returns. These words — writing, trajectory, desire, consciousness — contain everything that gives meaning to her life. For Brossard, whose multiple subject positions are central to her decades-long career, writing is a “wager of presence.” For her, writing — from the position of woman, of lesbian, of feminist, of French speaker, of mother, of friend — is a risk one takes in the presence, as a means of quite literally bodying forth the future you wish to inhabit.

I love this idea. When I read it as a graduate student it absolutely cracked my world open. Here was a writer who could name her different identities, and then talk about how writing and talking and thinking about those different identities was an actual, proactive means of pushing against oppression.
I returned to this essay last week, when I was feeling the physical weight of misogyny in Canada, in academia, in everyday life. I returned to Brossard’s essay on Monday, when Jian Ghomeshi’s trial began and when I heard the news from my colleagues down the road that the administration had gutted their Women and Gender Studies Program. I returned to Brossard, as I return to Audre LordeSara AhmedMaggie NelsonSachiko MurakamiDionne BrandEl Jones, (and the list goes on) because she articulates so clearly her own way through the tangled and oppressive inequities  we each live through in our own bodies. She articulates her own privilege, and her own outsider status. She writes about how hard it is to name abuse, or misogyny, or racism, and then she continues writing.
The physical weight I was feeling last week hasn’t dissipated. Every time I go on social media, which I seem to do obsessively, I encounter either innumerable headlines violently questioning the testimony of witness #1 and Lucy de Coutere, or I encounter brilliant, but also unavoidably heavy accounts of women who have also had their experiences of gender based violences questioned. I feel the weight of my own responsibility to witness the hurt of others, and to use my training as a teacher and a writer and a reader of culture to try to articulate why we need to trust victims even when their way of surviving doesn’t look like what we have been taught to demand of them. I feel the weight of my own experiences of gender based violences — big and small, physical and emotional. It’s heavy.
Brossard talks about that bodily experience of heaviness. She calls it an effect of “ritual with shock”
…the necessity of ritual with shock is especially linked to a discomfort, a profound   
dissatisfaction, a revolt against the monolithic patriarchal sense which seems to shatter fervour, aspirations, memory, and women’s identity. In your head words crash into each other: the word, woman, is thrown against Man, the word insanity against reason, the word passivity against violence, the word intuition against logic. Ritual with shock translates a conflict of values, repeatedly bumping into the binary, antagonistic, and hierarchical structure of misogyny and patriarchal sense. 
Constantly bruising against the systematic oppressions of patriarchal culture actually changes how we move through the world. For Brossard, that realization is shocking. Turning the shock of recognition into self-sustaining and world-making energy is where the ritual comes in. She writes
When a woman invests a word with all her anger, energy, determination, imagination, this word crashes violently into the same word, the one invested with masculine experience. The shock that follows has the effect of making the word burst….Thus the word regard can change into vision, woman into lesbian, love into identity.
Remembering that Brossard wrote this in French allows us read more into that word “regard,” which in the French means “to look” and in English means “consider or think of.” Brossard carries that bruised language to another place and transforms it into the means by which women and others left outside the strictures of patriarchal culture can see and consider one another. What a thing, isn’t it? What a thing, to be able to carry language through to another place. What a thing to have been taught to read this way. I wouldn’t have learned to read this way without classes in feminist theory…
Here is what Brossard’s writing reminds me: It reminds me that we need to learn how to read context into events, and that language is itself an event. Take, for example, they ways in which many mainstream media outlets are questioning the testimonies of women. Take, for example, the way an administration guts a women and gender studies program without a thought to anything more than a budget line (or worse, that they did). Take, for example, the fact that we still don’t seem to have a public language to speak the nuances of experiencing gender based violence. Learning to read Brossard and other writers like her has given me some tools to name the micro- and macro-aggressions of living in a patriarchal culture.
It has given me the language to try and help my students learn to read context for themselves.
risk · teaching

A pedagogy of provocation

Boyda’s excellent post from yesterday, on how to cultivate a healthy detachment in teaching, got me thinking about my own pedagogy of care. I’ve long since made the move that Boyda describes, of sticking to her guns and not over-explaining or apologizing for decisions on deadlines and readings and attendance policies.

Here’s something I’ve found, as I grew comfortable teaching that way. When the rules of engagement–the contractual parts of the course–are clear and consistent, it creates a boundary around the classroom and students come to feel more supported and more secure. Everyone knows there are going to be five quizzes and they’ll all be about the textbook. Everyone knows there is a final exam. Everyone knows that every day there will be informal writing, and group work. Everyone knows I’m actually really serious about having the reading done before class, and that I will in fact answer absolutely any question if someone bothers to come to my office hours to ask it in person.

From that security and predictability comes the possibility to push into what I call the pedagogy of provocation.

The pedagogy of provocation means pushing back against my students’ ideas, letting them work through contradictions, prompting them to consider alternative views, correcting them on facts, asking them to differentiate between opinion and scholarship, to name the methodology or theory from which they draw their arguments.

Yesterday, I provoked my first year Digital Lives students. Just for context, I will note that this is the first time I’ve taught it where the classroom demographic skews 90% to Math and Computer Science and Engineering students and the vibe in the room is palpably different. Much of the course content interrogates tech culture, from innovation to business practices to digital divides of various sorts to web culture to Silicon Valley. I’ve never taught a cohort who so clearly mark themselves as invested in the tech industry as programmers, entrepreneurs, or engineers.

We opened class with two questions I’d written on the board:

  1. What happens to your digital stuff after you die?
  2. What is “free speech” on Twitter? What is “criminal harassment”?

I gave everyone 10 minutes to write notes towards answers for these questions, and prompted them to think through some of the material we’d already covered: what do we know from the history of media technologies that sheds light on these questions? What are some different scholarly approaches to these questions? Are there technical answers, or legal answers, or regulatory answers, or geographically specific answers, or cultural answers?

And then we discussed.

The first question revealed that notions of “property” and “ownership” are complicated online, and that regulations about willing property to beneficiaries is not readily analogous to taking over someone’s iTunes library. Or that maybe I want to have my Facebook persist as a memorial after I’m dead, but I want some way to nuke my account without my family ever knowing it existed. Students offered their ideas, and I pushed back (“Are you sure?”) or I grabbed keywords (“Aha! But you don’t ‘own’ your music on Spotify! How is subscription different from ownership?”). Some of it was frustrating: it turns out there’s no easy answer, and not one answer, and that different answers are more or less true in different ways on different services in different contexts.

The second question was a little more contentious. Many of us are free speech absolutists. Others pointed out that in Canada we don’t have free speech but rather “free expression.” Some were Darwinist in their belief that the strongest Twitter users should set the pace and tone of the service. Others wanted Twitter to act as arbiter in cultural norms disputes. Someone looked up the legal definition of “legal harassment.” And then we debated the fuzziness of “reasonable person.” I told them about my own Twitter experiences with hate speech, and those of my friends. “Why?” one student asked–“Because I am a lady on the internet, talking about ladies on the internet” I told them. People furrowed their brows, shot their hands up, nodded yes while scribbling. Some crossed their arms and snorted.

It was super difficult and it was great. The discussions managed to address most of the methodological and historical questions from the readings, through the lens of a contemporary controversy (or two). By the end more students were leaning forward in their chairs than leaning back. The material had become interesting and no one, in a first for the semester, began packing up their bags before I dismissed the class.

For me, it was hard. The stakes feel high when an 18 year old with an expressed wish to move to Silicon Valley and work with a startup tell me how progressive social media companies are and I answer “Why do you think that? Because Twitter has more guys named Peter on their board than they do women. And they have zero people of color.” I expose my own blind spots when a student from Eastern Europe puts a caveat on our discussion of libertarianism and what it is–a core belief in the freedom of markets is a feature particularly of North American libertarianism, not all libertarianism. Quite right.

There’s a chance, of course, that by constantly provoking my students like this I risk alienating them, losing them. They may find me disagreeable or biased (although I try to poke holes in my own favorite arguments as well). I hope to make this pedagogy feel a little safer for them by showing them how dependable, consistent, and fair I can be by crafting a detailed and full syllabus with all readings and tasks and due dates in advance, by having the quizzes and papers graded so quickly, by affirming everyone’s efforts, particularly those students who want to challenge something *I* have said. I never let myself get upset by things they say, but to always remain detached enough from my own emotional responses and preferred outcomes that I can stay attuned to what they need to say and to hear in order to learn.

So that’s my pedagogy of provocation. Make all the mechanics of the class, from reading to attendance policy to returning marks quickly, very very predictable and stable–but turn the classroom space into one where any idea might come up, and be thoroughly tested, and the outcome might be surprising.

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.

classrooms · teaching

Ice breakers

Some friends were asking around on Facebook last week: what sorts of ice breakers do you use on the first day of class? Ice breakers, of course, are those get-to-know-you exercises that classroom leaders, workshop coordinators, event runners and others in charge of large groups of strangers employ to, well, thaw the polite distance that keeps strangers isolated from each other, even when they’re sitting right next to one another.

Ice breakers not only help students relax a little, and get to know each other’s names, but also break up the terrible tedium of The Reading of The Syllabus and the Laying Out of All the Rules and the Sorting Out if You Are Registered that is most of the business of the first class. The first class never really seems to reflect what the other 23 meetings are going to be like: there’s a lot more lecturing and reading along, and no one laughs at my jokes, hardly, and everyone seems nervous and bored at the same time.

My ice breakers vary depending on several factors: smaller classes or larger classes, survey course versus specialized seminar, undergrads versus grads, etc. Sometimes I put students in pairs, get them to introduce themselves to each other, then make pairs of pairs where students now introduce each other to each other. Sometimes I go around the room, asking students to tell me what program they’re in, and what their research interests for the course are. Sometimes I ask each student to just say their name, and one weird thing about themselves that I probably won’t forget, and then I try to see how many names I can get right at the end. Sometimes I do show-of-hand polls like, “How many of you were born in this city?” and “How many of you speak another language at home?” and “How many of you are left-handed?” and other silly questions and then we laugh at our commonalities and our differences.

Often, the ice breakers are for my benefit. I’m really, really terrible at learning people’s names. Like, really terrible. Once, when my husband and I had been dating for over a month and I was deep in the honeymoon stage of infatuation, he came unexpectedly to my postdoc office to take me out for lunch. “Hey!” he said, leaning in the door, “I came to surprise you with lunch!” You know how I responded? “Oh! Hi … dude!” Because I forgot his name, being deeply engrossed in some fact-checking.

Anyhow, the ice breaker I use with my first year Digital Lives class is one of those ones that’s mostly for me. On the first day I assign them the following homework: “Use the email utility of the courseware management system, and write me 200 words of who you are, where you’re from, and why you’re here. Attach a photo of yourself, with your name somewhere visible.” This is a great exercise, because it immediately ensures that everyone can access the course website, and their university email. It is also great for learning names, because what I do is take all the photos, and make a screen saver slideshow out of them: it’s like names-and-faces flashcards for me, and it really really helps me learn their names.

But you know what else is great? It helps me connect with my students as human beings. The students I meet in emails are nothing like those scared / bored / nervous / skeptical poker-faced lumps that often populate the first-day-of-class classroom. They’re funny, accomplished, unique, cosmopolitan, pedantic, curious, naive, serious, driven, aimless people. They come from all over the world, including the neighbourhood where I live. They have cats, and friends, and weird hobbies. They take wild selfies. They screen grab their imgur posts. They create fake Instagram accounts to make me laugh.

I answer every email with a little tidbit of my own, a kind of reciprocal humanity. I will share some of their stories in class, in the aggregate, to help them get to know each other. But for a couple of days, my inbox is a marvel of little Hello World statements and pictures, 40 new people–young people!–that I am privileged to get to know.

enter the confessional · grad school · grading · teaching

Show your work: modelling scholarship in teaching

This week, no one did the readings, and we had a great class anyways.

How can it be week 11 of the semester already? The students in my graduate seminar on Writing the Self Online have already done two or three response papers, produced an autobiographical writing project online, cultivated an audience, and written a short analytical essay about their experiences, and, last week, submitted proposals and bibliographies for their final projects. I collected those last into a pile very early Friday morning as I handed back their projects.

This is a little bit a story about how it soon became pretty obvious that no one had done much more than skim the readings, hoping that others would have done so more carefully and they could float through. They’re really busy with the flurry of end-of-term assignments coming hard and fast now, both the ones they are producing and the ones they are grading. It’s dark, they’re tired, I get it. It’s easy to write about this. But this is mostly a story about how I wasn’t really as prepared as I wanted to be to teach: it’s dark, I’m tired, I’ve been hauling ass for several weeks assessing SSHRC apps, graduate course proposals, extra office hours, travel, grading assignments.

What we did was this: broke into groups of four, each group assigned one of the three scholarly articles, and produced reading notes and lesson plans. Each group spent 25 minutes cobbling together their best notes on the article. Then the timer went off and they shifted to 15 minutes of producing a credible lesson plan so that they could teach their article to the other groups.

To begin, I put up on the white board my own process–how I take notes on materials I intend to teach, and how I build a lesson plan from there. I told them to snap a pic of the boards, that this was information they could apply to any teaching situation. We went meta: the class became as much about time management and note taking and lesson planning and teaching as it was about Twitter and collective life writing.

It went so well, I had to increase the time.

Each group took a turn to teach their material, instead of simply presenting it. Everyone else took notes. We debriefed afterward about what parts of which teaching were most effective. Students looked way more awake, way more engaged, and way more confident that they knew the material.

In one of the presentations, a student asked all of us to take a moment to craft a Six Word Memoir (hat tip to Laurie McNeill’s book chapter on Life Bytes!). I took a risk and wrote this for mine:

“Grading done, lesson not done–crowd source!”

I was so impressed with how the class had pulled a really creditable session together that I felt I had to fess up: I was overwhelmed and under prepared too, and I knew it had nothing to do with motivation or interest. That I was in exactly the same boat as they were, but we could do something great anyways.

I’m trying to do more of this, more of the explicit modelling of scholarship and teaching by making visible the cracks and fissures in my work as much as I share tips and tricks to make it all manageable. There’s clearly something valuable in me teaching my students to read efficiently and make useful lesson plans. Of course. But there’s something just as valuable perhaps in showing that the reason I need these tricks and tips is because I run out of time too. Out of patience, out of breath, out of energy, out of ideas, but can find a way to keep going that’s based in compassion for myself and compassion for others, to keep the the whole apparatus on track.

It’s possible that I could have lectured for three hours–I did know the material, even if I hadn’t pulled together a real lesson plan. I could have wagged my finger and chastised them for not doing their part of the work. Probably class would have been pretty dead: me asking pointed leading questions about the readings and then glaring at them as they struggled to find answers. This would have been an impressive display of my moral rectitude, greater knowledge base, and authority. But it would have been awful and no one would have learned anything.

It’s a lot easier to say; “Ugh, my students didn’t do any of the readings barely! Kids these days!” But it’s a lot more productive to say: “You know what? I feel like I ran out of time this week, too. It’s a hard, and busy time of the semester. What can we do in our three hours together to get back on track?”

All semester, my students have been impressing me with their smarts, their diligence, there creativity. I told them so and I will keep telling them so, even when they didn’t do the readings this one time. Because I know, because we’re all in this together, and maybe we can learn something new now, about how to ask for help, how to work together, how to make something great simply by admitting we’re not ready to do it alone.


I got this: duration, persistence, expertise

It’s my twelfth September as a faculty member at Waterloo. A lot of those Septembers were spent agonizing with imposter syndrome, or struggling to craft a syllabus like an expert, or building new courses from scratch, or trying to teach someone else’s ideas, and failing to manage my email. Teaching is always front and centre in the fall for me–after the summer research term, I find I’m out of my teaching rhythm and prey to all the same insecurities as ever.

So I was surprised to gather my first grad class of the fall, and to teach them something, easily, on the first day of class. And then last week, they really took to the material and asked all kinds of hard questions about it and I was amazed to hear supportive answers fall out of my mouth: “ah, read this person who works on that very question!” or “oh, I know where you went astray there, let’s look at this page” or “we’re taking that up next week!” or “that would be a good research paper, and I have a ton of stuff for you if you want to come to my office.”

My syllabus came together really easily. I wasn’t trying to shove All The Readings in there to mask my lack of expertise. I wasn’t afraid that there wouldn’t be enough material, either. I just somehow started to really understand the constraints of a 12 week semester and how much we can take on and how much we just have to leave for another time. I’m assigning canonical texts–but now I know their authors. Sometimes the canonical text is by me.

I’m not scared. I’m not nervous. I’m not worried about being unmasked as a fraud. I’m confident about the assessments I’ve devised. I’ve got guest speakers. I seem to have the pacing under control.

What the hell happened? I don’t wish to come across as braggy–I’m listing the above simply to note that this feeling of ease and peace did not used to be my teaching reality. And now it is. And I like it.

There’s something to be said for growing into a role. A dear colleague of mine once counselled a much younger me that it takes three offerings of a course to get it right. And maybe it takes 12 years to become comfortable professing. I am tempted here to undermine myself by saying “I’m not too comfortable, don’t worry, there’s lots that’s hard or challenging” and while that’s true, I think that’s a pretty common idea. Rarer is this feeling of having the time and liberty to grow into a kind of grounding expertise and to have the freedom that comes from not being terrified or overwhelmed.

I feel like I have space to breathe. Room to move. Like, now that the voices in my head are not so insistently shouting my own incompetence at me, I can really listen to my students, really be in the moment. It’s a great feeling.

From duration, and persistence, and expertise, I have become both a better and a happier teacher. For those of you starting out in your teaching journeys, I will say: it gets better. For those of you running staffing and hiring at universities, I will say: this is why we need long term teachers, because this is a career, not piecework.

coping · DIY · emotional labour · empowerment · grad school · teaching · writing

#tacitphd: On Letting it Go (when it’s not perfect)

Last week, Aimée wrote an important post about graduate education and the tacit knowledge that is required to achieve success in the PhD. She wrote: 

“Graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying.”

Aimée’s post asked readers to join the conversation and make the implicit explicit using the #tacitphd hashtag, and several people took to Twitter to comment, in addition to commenting on her post. Both the tweets and comments are great, ranging from simple protocol, to deeper discussions on how to think about your thesis proposal, exams, and work/life balance. You can see the Storify here:

As several people pointed out, the how of the dissertation-writing process is one of the more difficult things to understand. Part of this is a normal not-knowing, in the sense that you can’t really understand how to do something like write your own original work until you start to do it. But part of this knowledge is, for whatever reason, little taught and infrequently discussed. I had furtive conversations about writing the dissertation with newly-minted PhDs, and occasionally my colleagues, and then, happily, I took a grad course from the Writing Studies department, which helped me think and write about the writing process, and pointed me to some great resources (How to Write A Lot is one of those essential books.) 
This summer, coincidentally, I’ve spent nearly all my time (aside from a few conferences/courses) writing writing writing writing the dissertation. And, as is normal, the Writing has been Hard. It is hard to piece together hundreds of different historical, literary and theoretical sources, and build an argument based on the evidence you discover. It is hard to shift your argument when it doesn’t seem to match what you thought when you first read the source two years previously. It is hard to revisit an author you read in your first graduate degree, and rethink what you thought then. It is difficult to make sure all the ideas you have cohere, and that they flow logically over hundreds of pages. It is hard to know where a section of writing should go: this chapter, the next, the introduction? It is also very hard to pass on that writing for someone else to read, especially when you feel it still has some major problems to be worked out.
There are, of course, the easy writing weeks, where the words seemed to fly out of your head and onto the page, where every morning you get a thrill opening up the computer, because you know exactly what you want to say next. These weeks are amazing, and exciting, and will make you remember why you started this PhD in the first place.
But the easy parts of dissertation-writing are not necessarily the parts that need the implicit made explicit. So, with that in mind, I’m offering one bit of advice with regards to dissertation writing, probably what I’ve found to be the most difficult: letting it go (when it’s not perfect).
One of the things we tend to think about the dissertation is that is has to be perfect. And, it seems, the longer we take working on something, the better it must be. Contrary to what you may think, however, the Dissertation is not the final product, the book ready-to-be-published. The dissertation-as-publishable-book-model is not a particularly useful one. Instead, it’s better to think of the dissertation as a first draft, something to return to later, a hoop to jump through to finish the degree. And get in the practice of being okay with your draft-y work being seen by many before it is as “perfect” as you think it needs to be. 
So, how do you get in the practice of letting go of your writing?
1. Join a writing group: meet up with a couple of colleagues/friends to exchange draft-y writing. If you don’t have a writing group, ask someone in your PhD cohort if she would be interested in exchanging her work with yours and commenting on it. One of the best experiences I’ve had in the PhD was exchanging writing with a friend while we worked together to write papers for a workshop. It helped keep me on track for the workshop, months in advance.
2. Send your stuff to your supervisor before you think it is “perfect”: If you’re anything like me, you would rather be stuck for weeks trying to fix a problem section of writing rather than sending it to your supervisor for comments when it is a mess. Don’t be like me. You will waste days, or perhaps even weeks, of your life. If your supervisor is willing to look at draft-y work (and most are, or should be), send it away. Don’t tinker for ages trying to make something perfect when what it really needs is another set of eyes, and some sage advice.
3. Trust your supervisor when she says it is ready to go to your committee: If your supervisor says it is ready to go, it is ready to go. Don’t wait for days to press send on that chapter. Your committee will thank you for giving them the extra time to read it, and your time to completion will be reduced.
How have you learned to let go of your writing? Do you have other dissertation-writing advice? Leave a comment, or add to the Twitter hashtag #tacitphd.