Managing Risk in Class Discussions

The words “open” and “secure” don’t often find themselves in the same sentence; in a risk society that organizes itself around projections of financial, biological, environmental, and even moral risk to the lives of individuals, populations, businesses and economies, these two words are diametrically opposed.

Eric Ritskes at Beyond a Degree: Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed, however, has recently posed the question of how instructors might balance the two in classroom discussions, and, I gotta say that I like his approach to the subject. Eric bluntly calls attention to the barriers to creating a truly “open” learning environment, barriers that include not only the instructor’s own politics, but also the power play involved in any group work. Anyone who works with others will be familiar with these power dynamics, yet the clarity with which Eric at Beyond a Degree approaches the subject brought the point home to me in a new way. Eric criticizes any who might claim to offer a truly “open” and objective learning environment and their “naive belief in objectivity,” and he rightly points out that “[w]e all have our agendas and politics.” I would go even further in this regard and suggest that we should all have our agendas and politics in the classroom; we should be aware of them to be sure, and aware of how we want to share them with students.

Eric’s post at Beyond a Degree highlights another important point: power in the classroom can be held disproportionately not only by the teacher, but also by certain students. “[P]articular students,” he notes, can “dominate the air space, choose who gets represented how, and deny space to others.”  This power play may be intentional and aggressive, or it may be unintentional and accidental. But whatever the intent of the students involved, the results can be equally alienating, frustrating and hurtful to students who find themselves without a voice with which to speak or a space in which stand.

So, I thought I’d bring the discussion Beyond a Degree began last week to Dry-Erase Writings, and share with you one strategy for balancing (as best as one can) openness and security in a large group or class discussion. I originally learned of this strategy from a former colleague, Erin Aspenlieder (now an educational consultant at Simon Fraser University) and was more recently reminded of it by Marie Vander Kloet, an educational consultant here at McMaster. Here’s my take on it:

Assigning Roles in Large Group Discussions

I randomly assign students the following roles: facilitator, questioner, & public record-keeper, and these roles then rotate each week. More than one student can take on the same role in a single discussion, as well.

I usually assign one student (or two) the role of facilitator. Another few might be assigned the role of querier (they jot down a few questions as the discussion progresses and are obligated to ask at least one question of another student in the course of the discussion). The role of public reporter (she or he keeps a record of the discussion on the board) is voluntary, which allows shier students to participate more frequently, not to mention take ownership over that participation.

A variation that I haven’t tried, but would like to, is to set up a class blog dedicated to these group discussions. The reporter for the week would then post her/his records on the blog, the queriers would post their questions, and students could respond to those questions as they like.

Keeping it Open

There is one role that does not rotate in this scheme: the role of note-taker. I, as the instructor, usually fill this role.This allows me to step back from the discussion and give students the opportunity to take the floor. For this tactic to be effective, it is important that the instructor make her/his role as note-taker or observer clear to the class. As per Erin’s advice, at the beginning of each role-assigned discussion, I remind the class that as note-taker, my head may be bent to my page quite a bit, that I will only be able to participate sparingly, and that this means that if I do not make eye contact or do not respond to students directly, it is not because I don’t value their input. The result is that students tend to address one another, rather than me. My lowered eyes and passive body language sends a clear message that I am neither the discussion leader nor its critic; this, in turn, solicits openness and participation. It’s like magic. I swear. Well, most of the time, anyway.

There is one more benefit to explicitly acknowledging your role as note-taker to the class. Explaining to students that you will not be an active participant in the discussion doesn’t just remind themthat you do not sit in on the discussion as judge does on a court case; it also reminds you— yes, you, the knowledgeable instructor, so accustomed to instructing–that this is not your role in the discussion.  Yes, I am that type of teacher. At times, I actually need reminding to put away my teacher’s gavel. Or, at least to relax my grip on it a bit. Maybe even to stop waving it around at the head of the classroom like a viking with a mace.

Hey, did vikings even use maces?

What am I even talking about?

Similes are dangerous when you’re an idiot.

Keeping it Safe

So you’ve put away your mace or gavel or whatever imaginary symbol of authority you weild in your mind. (My apologies if you’re actually not a total asshole and don’t think in these terms. I commend your non-violent imaginations). Students are talking with one another relatively freely; there are quiet moments in the discussion, and at times the discussion isn’t as lively as you would like it to be. But, on the whole, students in the class are each taking some level of responsibility for the class environment; they feel in control of things, the feel like they can voice their opinions, like anything goes.

Oh shit. Have we gone too far?

Before I send you to bed with nightmares of a class gone wild, or of calm, quiet students turned poltergeist spewers of hate speech by the heady taste of power and freedom, let me explain how this discussion management system balances the opennes it invites with security.

First, assigning discussion roles helps to balance the spread of who gets to speak and when in the classroom. And not just because, for example, whoever is the facilitator or a questioner for the week cannot avoid speaking. It’s also because student comfort can change based on who has the floor. I’ve seen students who are usually very quiet in “open” class discussions suddenly become much more voluble and relaxed during an assigned-role discussion facilitated by a friend, or by someone they’ve worked with previously in think-pair-share exercises.

Another benefit of this system is that it gives students a clear idea of what is expected of them; as a result, they tend to feel safer. Unclear expectations will keep many students quiet. Unclear expectations can also have the exact opposite effect on others: it can encourage some students to stray off topic into dangerous territory, dominate the floor, talk over others, or simply not listen. Making discussion guidelines and role expectations explicit allows students to self-police one another; it also gives you solid, communally-acknowledged standards to refer to in any case where you feel it necessary to step in to steer a discussion away from disaster, or to address any disruptive behaviours with the class.

And that, of course, is the final safeguard this system offers–you as note-taker are not entirely absent, or passive. You can step in if necessary, or revisit a touchy topic in weeks following if you don’t like how a discussion went. And, if you participate sparingly in these discussions–but still participate–students will not forget your presence. They will recognize that a higher authority does preside, ultimately, over the classroom, someone who will work to keep the classroom a safe, secure and comfortable space.

Now it’s your turn. How do you invite participation in the classroom? How do you try to create a safe, equitable classroom? I would love to hear from you.

the rigours of pleasure or the pleasures of rigour?

I’m still all over bell hooks. Last week’s post (“when teacherly desires meet rigid resistance”) was inspired by her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, and this week I’m back at it; I can’t stop thinking about hooks’ musings on pleasure and learning. If you are looking for some very readable work on teaching in the university (or teaching in general, really), hooks’ book is a great place to start. Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do is much more widely read, to be sure, and offers some very practical advice and techniques practiced by successful teachers and instructors. Bain’s book reads both like a teaching manual and an inspirational piece– if I were to go looking for it at my local bookstore I would be inclined to look for it in the “How-To” section and would likely find it sitting on a shelf next to Teaching for Dummies (such a book must exist, I’m sure). Failing that, I’d check the “Self Help” section. Is that a put-down? Possibly, yes. But as another instructor described Bain’s book to me: “It makes great bed-time reading.” And really, it does.

Teaching to Transgress is equally as readable as What the Best College Teachers Do, but hooks’ text differs from Bain’s in one very important regard: it does not exclusively seek to evaluate, analyze and classify the mechanisms of strong teaching as though teaching were, indeed, a mechanical process that can be broken down into component parts. hooks is more concerned with the politics of teaching; she uses her book to think through how teaching practices might best bring politics and social reform into the classroom. In my mind, politicizing the classroom is a must, if not an inevitability. There is nothing today that so resembles (physically, at least) the street-corner soapbox as the lecture podium, with the exception, perhaps, of the pulpit.

But back to pleasure. I find hooks’ insistence on the role of pleasure in learning refreshing. She writes:

“The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring. And if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere…. But there seemed to be no interest among either traditional or radical educators in discussing the role of excitement in higher education.” (hooks 7)

I agree with hooks that scholarship on undergraduate-level teaching tends to leave the question of pleasure in learning unaddressed. What’s going on here? As hooks notes, pleasure is a constant in literature on and discussions about teaching children (7). What happens after high school graduation? Do adults lose their faculty for pleasure?

Pleasure v. Academic Rigour

A quick scroll through the numerous comments provoked by James Ricky Cox’s recent polemical blog post, “Academic Rigor: Lessons from Room 10,” gives us some insight into the cause of the reluctance to mention learning and pleasure in the same breath at colleges and universities. In post-secondary education, pleasure, fun, and comfort are often invoked as evil nemeses to the noble, heroic trio of rigour, challenge, and productive discomfort. Many comments on Cox’s post clearly demonstrate the recognition that pleasure and rigour are not mutually exclusive; others, however, clearly do not.

The debate on Cox’s blog, and the rigorous zeal with which some commenters there have defended academic rigour is enlightening. It demonstrates just how difficult it can be to discuss the merits of pleasure in a culture so deeply invested in rigour, where merit, intelligence and one’s pay scale is often attributed to years of arduous learning, exacting solitude and solemn self-sacrifice.

Rigour is a strange word. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it outside the walls of the university. When I do hear it, it has the smack of the paddle to it– when that word crops up in a conversation on campus, it carries with it the distinctive ring of discipline. It’s the type of word you hear at your thesis defense: “Would you describe your research as rigorous? What methodologies did you employ to ensure that you researched your project rigorously?” It quite literally puts you on the defense. Alternatively, concerns about rigour are mobilized in academia as measures of preemptive defense– academic journals “rigorously” review the submissions they receive, and conference organizers reject applicants based on “rigorous” selection standards. Academic rigour is invoked in efforts both to conjure fear, and to ward it off. It’s a semi-magical, but very powerful, incantation in the academic world.

If you can’t already tell, I’m a bit suspicious of academic rigour, and of those who wield it like a weapon. Its use in connection to fear makes me think that it is also closely linked to anxiety, perhaps to the growing anxiety surrounding the diminishing role of the university in North American society, and the diminishing status of professors and the questionable or uncertain value of graduate degrees. Last week some fantastic friends helped me move; as a group we were comprised of four Ph.D. students and one engineer, plus my partner, a millwright. When cleaning out the basement– a scary-ass dungeon-like space full of spiders and motors, tools, pipes and wiring– I picked up a few large coils of hose (used for what purpose I have no idea), and, having slung one each over a shoulder, proclaimed, “Look at me! I’m a worker! See, I do things… with things.” A friend then picked up a massive spool of wiring; I yelled, “Look! You do things too!”

We spindly-armed academics can get pretty anxious about the wider world not recognizing that we do, indeed, do “things,” albeit abstract things. We lament the lack of recognition of the hard labour that we do, and we worry that people don’t see value in our work. Invoking the need for academic rigour is one way for an academic to flex some intellectual muscle; it’s the equivalent of a weight-lifter “just happening” to flex his/her biceps during a tense meeting with the boss, or when meeting someone new.

My own comment on “Lessons from Room 10” sums up my concerns pretty clearly: “claims of maintaining the supposedly fast-eroding standards of academic rigor ring false when high demands are not coupled with a strong dose of empathy…. Empathy is so important to any work that involves people. There is nothing more alienating than to be treated as though you are not a whole person, but exclusively as a student, or as some sort of student-automaton.”

Why Student Feedback Might Be Misleading

If one way out of the pleasure-rigour divide is to temper any productive discomfort with empathy, then we must keep in touch with students to ensure that productive discomfort doesn’t derail into debilitating fear. This is where feedback and student evaluation comes in: if we wish to challenge students, we must also check that the challenge is paying off, both in terms of how students feel in a classroom, and how they perform.

The pleasure-rigour divide is not so easily bridged, however. What if a student defines pleasure as the least amount of effort required of her or him? Or as the absence of pain and discomfort? In their study on active learning (“Is Active Learning Like Broccoli?”), C. Veronica Smith and LeeAnn Cardaciotto found that active learning, though effective in improving students’ performance, does not necessarily result in positive student feedback. “It appears,” they conclude, “that active learning may indeed be like broccoli: Although it is good for students intellectually, their overall impression Sad Broccoli (who_stole_my_bike) Tags: of it may not be completely positive” (58).

I had some broccoli last night for dinner that had been left in the fridge a bit too long–it tasted like water-crunch-mush-gross, and it somehow bore the faint reminder of, well, pee. Let’s hope active learning is not like broccoli.

Nobody in the entire world likes plain, steamed broccoli. Maybe, just maybe, there are four people total who think that it tastes alright. These are the type of people that feign joy while chomping down a dry carrot stick whilst you sit their eating your doughnut. You’re a kind and generous person, so you got them one, too, but no, they “really, really like” dried-out, old-ass carrots. “Really,” they say, “truly, I’m happy with my carrot stick.” What do you do? You stare back at them angrily, with slitted eyes. (Slitted eyes indicate suspicion. People who profess love for such bland food should be watched).

If you’re going to eat broccoli, why not make it delicious? How about broccoli with sliced, caramelized garlic & red chili flakes? Or, squash, peanut & broccoli stew? Listen: kids will eat their broccoli if it doesn’t taste like ass. Or urine.

You can see where I’m heading with this. Deliciousness and vitamins do not need to be mutually exclusive. Neither do rigour and pleasure. But in order to plan some strategies to introduce both pleasure and rigour to a classroom, it is necessary to figure out what, in fact, constitutes or produces pleasure in a learning environment. Broccoli plus lemon or garlic or yoghurt-dill dressing, balsamic vinegar, salt & pepper, cheese, chilies & peanut oil, roasted almond flakes and so on… all of these things added together equals pleasure. A good cook knows this. But what equals pleasure in the classroom?

Teaching as Ars Erotica

The division between rigour and pleasure in post-secondary teaching may in fact trace the age-old fault line that tears its way between the mind and the body in Western thought.

This is a point that hooks raises, implicitly, in her chapter entitled, “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process,” which is a must-read, especially if you want a few real-life examples of what passion in the classroom can actually look like. hooks writes:

“Professors rarely speak of the place of eros or the erotic in our classrooms. Trained in the philosophical context of Western metaphysical dualism, many of us have accepted the notion that there is a split between the body and the mind.” (191)

And, in an earlier chapter, she notes:

“as a black woman, I have always been acutely aware of the presence of my body in those settings that, in fact, invite us to invest so deeply in a mind/body split so that, in a sense, you’re almost always at odds with the existing structure” (135).

It’s a strange world that asks us to check our bodies at the door, that demands that learning be a mystical, free-floating, out-of-body experience, when, in fact, history, race, class, individuality, emotion and thought all speak, in one way or another, through the body. As a woman of colour, hooks can’t leave her body at the coat check, and neither, do I imagine, would she want to.

How Wikipedia visualizes out-of-body experiences. Enlightening, no?

hooks proposes bringing “eros,” or love into the classroom, and if you’re wondering what she means by that, I’d have to say quite simply that, well, she means love in the fullest meaning of the word: empathy, good will, caring, and, of course, desire. Scary shit, yeah. Love means intimacy, maybe even getting to know students. And desire, well, desire has a pretty bad rep; when power is involved, desire becomes that-which-shall-not-be-named for fear of the heady concoction the two, when combined, can make.  Erica McWilliams, in her work on love and desire, is helpful in understanding how we might define eros or passion in the context of teaching. She talks about teaching as an ars erotica founded on both “a love of knowledge and a knowledge of love” (307). And Steven Ungar, upon whom McWilliams draws, talks about powerful teachers as “professors of desire.” Ungar’s words are themselves quite powerful:

“A teacher who confesses or professes desire can no longer be scandalous except to those who still believe that the so-called life of the mind has nothing to do with the rest of the body.” (82)

McWilliams sums up the issue perfectly. “Despite a trend to the disembodiment of pedagogy via information technology,” she writes, “the teacher is still some body who teaches some body” (312).  It amazes me how such common sense can be so mind-blowing.

Pleasure and the Body

If “the teacher is still some body that teaches some body,”  it’s important to remember that pleasure–even intellectual pleasure–is a physical, bodily experience. With that in mind, I want to close with Vicki Davis’  “Typology of Cognitive Pleasures in the Classroom”, where she discusses how eight cognitive pleasures known to make gaming addictive (discovery, challenge, narrative, self-expression, community, cognitive arousal, thrill and sensation) could potentially transform learning into a lifelong addiction.


hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge: New York, 1994. Print.

McWilliam, Erica. “Touchy Subjects: a risky inquiry into pedagogical desire.” British Educational Research Journal 22.3 (1996): 305-317. Online.

Smith, C. Veronica 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.

Ungar, Steven. “The Professor of Desire.” Yale French Studies 63 (1982): 80-97. Online.

when teacherly desires meet rigid resistance…

After nearly two weeks off spent packing, moving, lifting, cleaning, painting, hefting, panting, sweating, digging & planting, this morning I stepped into the monastic cell that is my office here at McMaster with a sigh of relief. My ever-sharp and scientific mind immediately noticed two things: 1) at the sight of my stained office chair of unknown age and origins, which usually induces in me about as much excitement as a hairshirt, I instead felt a foreign but distinctive sense of pleasurable anticipation stirring in my tired, tired loins; and, 2) awaiting me on the radiator was a sunshine-yellow paperback, beckoning; I knew it wasn’t mine, but it’s sunny invitation was as irresistible to me as the mystery chair of filth with all its sweet, sweet (and falling apart) padding.

I took my seat, grabbed bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom off the radiator, briefly thought about what it meant to transgress the unspoken code of office-mate-ship (ask before you “borrow”!), shook aside such bothersome considerations of thoughtful consideration and began practicing some serious freedom by flipping open its happy-yellow cover. I read the following:

“One semester, I had a very difficult class, one that completely failed on the communal level…. For reasons I cannot explain it was full of ‘resisting’ students who did not want to learn new pedagogical processes, who did not want to be in a classroom that differed in any way from the norm. To these students, transgressing boundaries  was frightening. And though they were not the majority, their spirit of rigid resistance seemed always to be more powerful than any will to intellectual openness and pleasure in learning.” (8-9)

Rigid resistance, a desire for openness, and pleasure in the classroom. hooks (rather inadvertently, I think) picks up on the politics of desire that enter into any classroom experience. We often hear the question, “What do students want out of a learning experience?” Student desires (more often framed as expectations) are solicited openly by teachers; teachers’ desires, on the other hand, are not always so explicit, or transparent. I want to consider more this rather erotic threesome, and, as you will see, rigorous research has led me from the third member of the threesome–pleasure–to the first two–desire and resistance.

Google “pleasure in the classroom”…

And… well… yeah. As serious scholars of good repute most of you wouldn’t Google a phrase like that, would you? Because you would know, in advance, that such an idiotic query would not return the type of results you are looking for.

Well. I Googled it.

And “frisky big titty freshman giving oral pleasure in a classroom” was only the third hit. (I did not make that up. Really).

So there, you snooty scholars.

I started thinking about that frisky big titty freshman. Um, not about any particular actress or person (I’m trying to maintain at least a thin veneer of respectability here), but about the language used in the YouTube link that let me know, with only a glance, that it was pornographic. Porn has its own jargon, its own idiom. There is only one context in which you would describe anything or anyone other than a cat as “frisky,” and it’s porn. We all know this.

But sometimes domain-specific jargon gets lost in translation. I wonder if this was in part responsible for the difficulty hooks reports in her anecdote. She explains that students were resistant to “new pedagogical processes;” this resistance impeded the sense of excitement and pleasure she wanted to generate in her classroom. But when she phrases the problem the way that she does, we can see that it’s not exactly a mystery, is it? I mean, who the ‘eff would not be resistant to “new pedagogical processes”?

hooks, however, attributes the difficulty she experienced in that class to two factors: the early morning hour, and a few recalcitrant students. I’ve experienced both in my tutorials, and the results were the same: the class felt difficult, and I don’t think it was a particularly pleasurable experience for anyone. What do we do when faced with such a gap between theory and actuality? hooks concludes: “More than any other class I had taught, this one compelled me to abandon the sense that the professor could, by sheer strength of will and desire, make the classroom an exciting, learning community” (9). That one, difficult class taught her that her excitement for a chosen topic may not actually translate very well, if at all, to her students.

This is a valuable lesson, but I would like to suggest that it isn’t just a teacher’s enthusiasm that can get lost in translation, but also one’s teaching philosophy. The epigraph that opens hooks’ book, from Paulo Freire, reads: “…to begin always anew, to make, to reconstruct, and to not spoil, to refuse to bureaucratize the mind, to understand and to live life as a process–live to become…” (n. page). A lot of good teachers are guided by principles like these. And while they are commendable, if high, desired learning outcomes, pedagogical desires such as these are  difficult to translate in the classroom. Such high-order learning outcomes are especially difficult to accomplish. And this, unfortunately, can lead to differing levels of blame being placed on “resistant” students, on students who are seen as close-minded, who lack the “will” to learn, who are not “cut out” for university or a particular discipline, and so on.

The Blame Game

Backing away from “the blame game,” and instead recognizing the gap between our own teacherly desires and the real worlds and circumstances in which we find ourselves, is a much better solution to the problem of a difficult class. Like hooks, teachers desire “intellectual openness”; we lust after mind-blowing epiphanies and ecstatic light-bulb moments. But these teacherly lusts (usually somewhere in the order of, “This is gonna blow their frickin’ minds” or, “Fifty minutes is enough time to cover queer theory, with a break for coffee, too!”) can be as laughable as male-chauv, hetero porn (could she really be enjoying that? And seven times in a row, no less?). Let’s remember that undergrads often take five courses, at least twice a week. Plus, I also hear they have personal lives!

There may in fact be no way to “solve” a tricky class. Like hooks points out, sometimes no matter what you do, you cannot “fix” a class gone wrong. You can’t fix the clock. But it’s also important to remember that you can’t “fix” a student or his/her priorities. Who is to say, anyways, that those priorities are out of order? I spent my undergrad years with school work ranked the highest out of all of my responsibilities. I’m glad for that dedication today, for many reasons. But I also regret it; I see now that I lived by what was in many ways a faulty ranking system, and, as a result, that I missed out on a lot of learning outside the classroom.

I think it’s important to actively think about teaching in such a way that recognizes not only lofty goals, but the diversity of students, of individuals and individual values that we meet. hooks argues that “any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is acknowledged” (8). She is so right. Every student’s presence must be acknowledged, and must be valued, even if she or he does not meet an internalized standard of the ideal student.

What do you think? Can acknowledgement actually change a difficult classroom dynamic? And how so?

show & tell, vol. 1

I met a few grad students at my local cafe today and we got to talking shop– not thesis shop, but teaching shop. It was great. This renewed my conviction that I need to spend more time listening to teachers talk about teaching. As this blog shows, I’ve been doing some academic research on teaching, but academic writing can just be so dry, so very, very dry. Yes, it is informative, and sure, it can even be inspiring, but research on teaching and learning can also be totally, completely and undeniably dryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Consequently, journal articles don’t always quench that thirst for community a solitary grad student like myself might so desperately long for.

So, it’s time for show and tell. Would you please share here a favourite blog or blog post on teaching, learning, pedagogy, grad-student life, faculty woes, university politics, or whatever catches your fancy? It would be so very much appreciated if you do.

I’ll go first: Check out Maryellen Weimer’s post on about using concept maps in your syllabi. If, like me, you’ve always thought syllabi were simply instruments of discipline–somehow written in such a way as to excite both terrible boredom and stark fear–then Maryellen’s post will give you some insight into how syllabi can actually be teaching tools. Crazy thought, eh? 

So once again, I welcome your comments and any links you might want to share.