radio… active learning

This Thursday, I’ll be giving a guest lecture on Thomas King’s Dead Dog Cafe (also available on YouTube). Dead Dog Cafe is a radio drama of sorts, or a radio comedy, I should say. To be precise, it’s a radio show about a radio show; in a way, it’s a CBC Radio One version of 30 Rock, with a few exceptions: it precedes the American network show by half a decade, it explicitly engages with First Nations culture and politics in Canada, and, of course, it’s about a radio comedy hour, rather than a t.v. sketch show. You could say Dead Dog Cafe is about First Nations issues; you could also say it’s about humour, and you would be right in both assertions. But I think it’s also trying to get at what listening is all about– and how the experience of listening to oral narratives and oral literatures differs from that of reading written literatures.

So that’s Thursday: lecturing about listening. Ha. On Tuesday, though, I’ll be handing in a short written  assignment that marks the culmination of a three-week project for the Education 750 class I’m taking here at Mac through the Centre for Leadership & Learning. I and a group of other students are supposed to submit a “reflection” on a research topic we’ve developed ourselves. Our chosen research topic is lecturing; specifically we’ve been interested in learning more about introducing active learning to the lecture hall. It just dawned on me today how intimately-related these two projects are–lecturing about listening, and writing about lecturing–and not simply because they both tackle lecturing in one way or another.

These two projects are fundamentally connected, in my mind, because ultimately, they are both about listening. To prepare for a lecture about a radio show one should not think about how to lecture effectively, or how to tell one’s students what they need to know about the topic. Instead, a lecturer needs to think about how people listen, and how to listen well; about how to be receptive, and how to be received; and, finally, about how to invite reception. Listening always involves a two-way interplay; lecturing, on the other hand, might be uni-directional; it can be solitary, lonely, and, ultimately rather self-centred.

So introducing active learning to the lecture hall means thinking about how you can get learners to not only listen, but to respond. How can a lecturer get her learners in on the conversation? How can a lecturer open up a dialogue with her learners? How can a lecturer listen?

Active Learning in the Lecture Hall

After researching this topic for the last few weeks, I’ve come across a  number of practical answers to these questions by the way of in-class exercises and activities. These include “think-pair-share,” “one-minute papers” and even establishing discussion groups akin to tutorial groups. Studies have overwhelmingly shown these practices work– students retain information better if these active practices are deployed in the classroom than if they are not (and yes, actual studies have been conducted in classroom settings that follow rigorous academic and scientific research standards; these studies offer quantitative proof of the efficacy of active learning–i.e. in terms of student performance on tests, etc).*

Pretty straight-forward, right? Just walk into a classroom, do A, B, and C, and BAM! you’ve got yourself some active learning. With some trial and error, you may even find yourself facilitating active learning in a classroom with some success.

But thinking about Tom King’s radio show has got me thinking about the problem of lecturing–of talking, and of listening–from a wholly different perspective. The research surrounding active learning in lectures is, not surprisingly, rather “scientific” in nature. Conducted by scientists and social scientists, the research necessarily betrays or displays a scientific approach to learning. It sets up trials, believes firmly in the measurability of results, and carefully breaks down active learning into mechanistic parts, where A causes B, which, in turn, results in C, of course! It’s all very logical, you see. Listening to Dead Dog Cafe, however, has not at all been a logical endeavour. Not only does King’s comedy persistently overturn “logic” to highly humourous ends, it is also a highly sensational experience, by which I mean that I found myself highly aware of my senses as I listened to his show. I found myself chuckling along whilst stitching the binding to a quilt, and straining to hear Jasper Friendly-Bear over the sound of the hot water running as I washed a sink full of dirty dishes. It was a positively  strange experience. I felt immersed in the sounds of the Cafe, sounds which somehow produced a sense of light, scent, and touch, all while I was simultaneously very much immersed in the physical world around me, in the smell of the dish soap, and the feel of the warm water running over my hands, and the sight of the bright early-spring sunshine streaming through the kitchen window. What a positively strange, and yet, too, positively pleasurable experience listening to talk radio, or narrative radio, can be.

Feeling like I was in two places at once, and yet not fully in either, got me thinking: there is something the literature on lecturing and active learning is overlooking. It is overlooking what types of listening a speaker can provoke. It neglects to recognize that listening involves multiple modalities. Really, it fails to engage with the fact that there are many different ways to listen, and, as a result, the literature on active learning in the lecture hall cannot see that different modes of listening have the potential to invoke wildly different responses.

As I sit down to formalize my lecture for the upcoming week, I’ll give you a sense of where I’m going with this: there is captive listening, where a listener cannot leave, and must listen; there is what might be termed “redemptive” listening, where a listener seeks the deeply private, the confession; there is passive listening, to be sure, and there is dialogic listening, where a listener is expected to respond, to answer; there is listening that is interpellative, listening that calls or hails you, and thereby in part forms how you might or can respond and even who or what you are in that moment; there is, too, listening where no one is addressing you, where you are not even recognized as the audience– this, of course, is eavesdropping.

Listen Up!

I want to consider what forms of listening occur in a lecture. What happens in a lecture? Are learners addressed directly, or do they eavesdrop, in a way, on a scholarly conversation with which they are neither entirely familiar nor comfortable? I also wonder how a lecturer might actively and purposely facilitate these different modes of listening in her classroom. Can we turn passive listeners into sly observers, eavesdropping on a secretive, unfamiliar or half-heard conversation; can we call on them to be non-judgmental receptors of heated confessions;  can we transform them into critics and judges, or, perhaps, detectives and analysts? In the Humanities, we seek critical thinking. In English, we specifically look for critical reading. But what about critical listening? And, perhaps more importantly, what about empathetic listening, non-judgmental listening, or imaginative listening?

These questions about listening bring me back to the experience that began this inquiry: listening to Dead Dog Cafe while busying my hands
with a piece of sewing, or some soapy dishes. This Thursday, I hope to explore how different forms of listening function in King’s radio show, and I’m particularly interested in Krista Ratcliffe’s thoughts on the subject in “Eavesdropping as Rhetorical Tactic: History, Whiteness, and Rhetoric.” Ratcliffe describes eavesdropping as that which situates a listener “outside, in an uncomfortable spot, on the border of knowing and not knowing, [thereby] granting others the inside position, listening to learn” (90). Was this the effect King was looking for, when he invites his listeners into the Dead Dog Cafe to eavesdrop on conversations, asides, and banter that do not officially comprise the show itself? I think so–when listening to Dead Dog Cafe, I was both inside and outside the fictional cafe of the show’s title; I was granted the insider’s position, and yet I most certainly was an outsider, vaguely and sometimes pointedly uncomfortable as I overheard conversations that I could not fully understand. Again, what a strange, and yet wonderful, experience.

*Selected Readings on Active Learning: 

Biggs, J. “Constructing Learning by Aligning Teaching: Constructive Alignment.” Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does. First Ed. 2007. Print.

—. “What the Student Does: Teaching for Enhanced Learning.” Higher Education Research & Development 18.1 (1999): 57-75. Online.

Bleske-Rechek, April L. “Obedience, Conformity, and Social Roles: Active Learning in a Large Introductory Psychology Class.” Teaching of Psychology 28 (2001): 260. Online.

Huerta, Juan Carlos. “Getting Active in the Large Lecture.” Journal of Political Science Education 3 (2007): 237-249. Online.

Michael, Joel. “Where’s the Evidence that Active Learning Works?” Advances in Physiology Education 30 (2006): 159-167. Online. 

Smith, Veronica C. and LeeAnn Cardaciotto. “Is Active Learning like Broccoli? Student Perceptions of Active Learning in Large Lecture Classes.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 11.1 (January 2011): 53-61. Online.

Stead,D.R. “A Review of the One-Minute Paper” Active Learning in Higher Education 6 (2005): 118-131. Online.

sex in the classroom


Who: Me, and students enrolled in a first-year English Lit. course 
What: Discussion of characterization in Mrs. Dalloway 
When: Modernist London…. as pictured by Virginia Woolf
When (like, for real): Last week
Where: Tutorial

twenty minutes in…

Me: “She keeps hitting us over the head with it, doesn’t she? Smacking us in the face with that dick, with that dick-knife / knife-dick symbol, over and over and….”

Sometime later…
Student: “And then I found out she was old. So, she has wrinkles. Right? And you can’t see her breasts, because, like, they would be way down here.”

(I think her hand hits her hipbone here, to indicate the exact level of saggage all the women in the class can look forward to.)

And, a few hours later, in my other tutorial…

Me: “Well, she’s sitting on the floor, cross-legged, isn’t she? She doesn’t cross her ankles demurely, she opens her legs for all the world to see. And she chops flower blooms from their stems– she only wants that feminine opening; she violently removes the phallic part of the plant. And in every way she is described as open, inviting, attractive. Basically, she is a walking vagina.”

Sex in the classroom. We never know quite what to do with it, do we? This past week, I put the portrait-drawing contest that I described in my last post to the test, again. It was a bit of a gamble. Whereas previously I had used this activity to talk about characterization in a highly realist novel–where the author gave a detailed physical description of each character, one that unapologetically aligned outward appearance with each character’s interior life–this week, I chose to use this activity to discuss characterization in Mrs. Dalloway. I chose a few passages, and asked the students to become portraitists, to draw a portrait of the character the assigned passage described– a tricky task when faced with Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style. She is a writer who rarely gives a catalogue of physical traits; instead gestures, symbols, and the inferences and associations that a character excites in another are what define how we, the reader, envision that character.

But holy crap, did we have fun with this activity. And by the end of it, with 25 minutes left in tutorial, we had plenty of time to discuss each portraitist’s “artistic” choices. Students clearly and carefully relayed their interpretations of the text to the class; they explained how they translated text and metaphor into image. Truly fantastic. These were students doing close reading at its best, but with interest, and humour.


Mrs. Dalloway’s take-home message: clock towers are a lot like giant penises.

Sex quickly entered the discussion because, well, it was Woolf’s work we were discussing after all. How funny it was for us all to recognize just how prevalent sexual symbols are in her text. They are everywhere. There is the phallic penknife, opened and closed, opened and closed, by Peter Walsh; there is Big Ben all erect at the centre of the text, penetrating each scene with its ominous noise; there is that orgasmic crowd scene, with every face turned to the sky to watch an airplane reach higher and higher, eagerly awaiting the release of each smoky letter written (you might even say spurted) in the sky above them; there is Sally Seton, castrating a bunch of flowers, divesting each bloom of its stem to display their feminine openings, unaccosted by any hint of masculinity; there is a frothing fountain at the centre of Clarissa’s memory of Peter, and an open vase, a jug, or ewer or whatever attached to her memory of Sally.

But is there a line, an invisible line that I should know about, or perhaps even set, which I am not supposed to trespass? Should I be setting some sort of “tone?” My gut instinct says, no, not really. Short of jokes about sexual violence, I’m pro-sex-in-the-classroom. Sex ain’t sacred–I know because Foucault told me so! Plus, I think Foucault is right to laugh at those who ask us not to laugh at sex, to mock those who admonish us immature gigglers, snorting at the mention of the word “labia” or “balls.” Right? I mean, just try saying “labia”  out loud and not cracking a smile.


What are your thoughts? Balls in the classroom– yay, or nay? And, another few: what about labia? Mons? Vaginas? Clitoruses (clitori???)? Female masturbation!??!!? I ask because weirdly enough, female sexuality is still taboo, no matter how much or how loudly I yell about my vagina when drunk at the pub. The same (female) student who joked about saggy breasts this week also commented one day, during a discussion of gender performance, on how women and men must sit differently. Commented, and demonstrated: sitting slouched, with legs splayed, she asked, “Who would want to sit beside this?”–whilst pointing derisively at her own crotch–“It’s gross, right? I mean, I know it’s not gross, but really, if I saw you sitting like that, I don’t think I could even look at you.” Should we be looking more closely at female sexuality in our classes? And can we open up the discussion to include everyone, even men? Are male students allowed a voice on sex in classrooms? Do you fear what they might say as much as I do? Honestly, what do you think?


Sally Seton. Am I right?

pencil crayons & police portraits… in the classroom!

Can I get more creative with my assignments? I mean, can I include colour, and images?”

This question comes from a former design student, now registered in a series of engl. lit classes. How might you respond?

I can imagine a number of perfectly reasonable responses that I might have to a question like this. I might be intrigued. On the other hand, my eyes might just glaze over as my mind beats a desperate retreat inward, screaming along the way: “this is an english class, not a fine arts class, and neither is it kindergarten, for that matter!”

It is just as likely that english profs & tas might respond with fear & anxiety. Images can make us literary people anxious. in a field increasingly caught up in the world of cultural studies, however, it’s not exactly clear why this might be so.

Scary Pictures

Let’s consider a suite of theorists and their thoughts on photography. Susan Sontag describes the photographer as a hunter, tracking its prey, and links photography to nostalgia, often a dirty word in the humanities. Roland Barthes argues that those photographs best able to communicate to and with a viewer are those that puncture, or penetrate. pretty nasty sounding, right? He notes, too, that photographs, unlike film & video, lack “protensity,” which is to say that photographs have a tendency to freeze their subjects in time, to make them seem immobile, and unchanging. An ethically murky place to find oneself in, this sounds. Not to mention, of course, all of the possible “might have beens” that the photo cannot capture, that remain unseen. Trauma theory also has an anxious relationship with the photograph: some critics fear that the photo only functions to re-inflict the trauma that it documents, as it assaults new victims unprepared for the violence they see in the film, on the page, or on the screen. And, finally, Allan Sekula reminds his readers that photographs are not neutral; subjects pose or are posed, scenes can be staged, the lens limits the view and the photographer’s eye- both her physical eye, and what you might call the eye of her imagination- limits and frames that view even further. Really, though, what sekula wants us to remember is that photographs are political objects, political objects that yet have a tendency to mask and deny the very relationships of power and contingencies of production that bring them into being.

What most of this criticism points to is the “evidentiary” (to borrow Barthes’ term) function of the photograph. It just looks so damn real. In fact, it often stands in for the real; it is documentary proof of the world beyond our immediate view- beyond the purview of sight, and beyond the reach of the present. This is what can make literary and cultural theorists wary of the photograph: reality and representation blur in the photograph, or, more accurately, the image takes on the role of evidence; it points to its referent unerringly, distracting the eye- or, the critical eye, anyway- from the conditions of its own production, and its circulation in economies of meaning in excess of that which it supposedly represents.

So, does the photograph document, or construct? Does it record, or produce? And why should we not engage with photography and “the cult of the image” in a literature course, where these same questions arise again and again and again?

And again. We can only yammer on about histiographic metafiction for so long, ya know?

My suggestion? Ask your students these questions. And to avoid the dumb stares and rolling eyes when you ask them, all you have to do is bring a box of pencil crayons to tutorial.

Portraiture &  Literature in Tutorial

The Composites was featured in People Magazine this week. Thanks to everyone who contributed and shared ideas. Please continue to send them in and look for new work this weekend, after I’m finished running Joyland’s table at the AWP conference. (And I’ve been busy with this as well!)

The Composites: "images created using law enforcement composite sketch software and descriptions of literary characters."

This tutorial exercise comes from Erin, a former PhD student and TA at Mac, not to mention a fantastic teacher and expert on teaching & learning. Erin divided her students into groups and assigned each a brief character description from the novel they were studying. Based on that description, students were to sketch the character, and then answer the question: does the physical appearance of the character tell us anything about her/his personality?

The benefits of this assignment are multiple. First, students have fun. Even if they think it’s kind of stupid. Which it kind of is, right? It doesn’t feel very scholarly, anyway. But that is precisely the draw– it makes learning a little less formal, it asks students to engage in the text in a new and interesting way, and, finally, it gives students the opportunity to socialize. I firmly believe that university, and tutorials in particular, are a space for learning how to be in relation with others, and yet, students so rarely get a chance to practice this. Drawing childlike portraits in tutorial gives students a bit of a break,or a release, and, talking about movies, parties and family while they do so only enriches that learning experience. Really. I swear.

But i digress. Back to the academic: students practice close reading with this exercise. they begin to see representation as intentional, and representative of more than simple “truth.” They begin to recognize the politics of representation in asking, for example, why an author might choose to dress a female protagonist in a trench coat, or to refrain from mentioning race or noting any ethnic markers.Now to add something to Erin’s original exercise, a variation that might be especially productive to include in your “colouring session:” at the end of tutorial, show your students some slides; bombard them with modern mug shots, passport photos, composite police sketches, and perhaps older instantiations of all three.

The Body & The Archive

Why mug shots? As often happens, teaching choices reflect research interests, and this particular idea was prompted by my reading of Nancy Armstrong’s Fiction in the Age of Photography, which explores the pictorial framing and type-casting of the social world the novel has historically partaken in and produced, even before the photograph itself began to circulate in abundance in an economy of taste. This, in turn, led to a re-reading of Allan Sekula’s “Body and the Archive,” an analysis of 18th-century police portraits and the “science” of phrenology and physiognomy. both tackle the near-ecstatic transmutation the photograph can undergo from product to evidence and from representation to social reality.

Ezra Pound

So: after surprising your students with a series of scary-looking mug shots (and why not include some hilarious/creepy/kind-of-gross celebrity mug shots while you’re at it, is my thinking on the subject), then you can explicitly ask your students: does the photograph, or a sketch, faithfully reproduce, or does it produce something else altogether? What frames a photograph, or our vision, in general? and, an interesting question to pose to your students is: what happens when you imagine your character sketches as police sketches? What sort of criminal do you see? Is it possible to recognize the criminal in your character sketch at all? And if not, what prevents you from doing so?

In short, this exercise provides another entry point into a discussion of “the frame.” In subsequent tutorials, it might lead to discussions about the function of narrative, the line between fiction and non-fiction, history, historiography and myth, and even the old standby, Linda Hutcheon’s concept of historiographic metafiction. But, further, this exercise ushers the image into the literature classroom. I suddenly feel compelled to type: “we live in the age of the image,” despite my essay-marking-self cringing at the mere thought of such a platitude. It’s true, though. And its beginning to seem increasingly idiotic to ignore that fact when teaching critical reading in the classroom.

Any other ideas on how you might introduce the world of visual representation to your teaching of literature? Or how you might get students to think critically with the likes of pencil crayons, photo-shopping programs, or old-school collages? I would love to hear about them.

And, thank you…

To that design student whose inquiry started this entire train of thought.