The Photosponse

Oh joy of joys, today I came across a wondrous thing: a public exhibition showing just how incredibly engaging and productive creative response assignments can be in higher ed. Please, please check out Photosponse, English 365: Photographic Responses to 18th-century Texts. Photosponse, English 365 is a portion of a private class blog made public because, as the “About” page states, the student artwork is “just too good.” I swear, people, the proof is in the pudding, and this pudding is delicious. Creative assignments, especially ones that ask for some sort of critical reflection to accompany them, work.

“With this photo I tried to capture the wonder of discovery that was so apparent in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia and in science in the eighteenth century in general. I used my cellphone camera to take this picture with the help of a focussing lens taken out of a laser pointer (picture). Using my camera enhanced with tweezers and elastic bands, I set off about my house taking extremely close-up pictures of whatever I could find. I took pictures of fruit, plants, soap, napkins, and dozens of other things around the house, but my favourite is the one that you see here: salt.” From: Photosponse, English 365

Learning How to Talk

Lars Hagberg for National Post files

Lars Hagberg for National Post / Queen’s University

The National Post has reported that a “civility clause” in a Queen’s University psychology class has “sparked debate”: the gist of the issue is that the clause threatens an immediate loss of 10% of a student’s overall grade if she or he engages in “Discriminatory, rude, threatening, harassing, disruptive, distracting and inappropriate behaviour and language” (“You Can’t Grade Students’ Behaviour,” Nov. 12, 2012).

Debate indeed. This issue raises a lot of concerns & anxieties surrounding teaching & learning in Higher Ed today. Let’s give those anxieties a bit of an airing here. Take a deep breath, and repeat after me:

increasing class sizes; decreasing tenure-track faculty numbers; downgrading of education to lower-paid, lesser-supported professionals; decreased public funding of post-secondary education; decreasing respect for instructors; tenuous academic freedom for contingent instructors; plagiarism & academic dishonesty; grade inflation; the battle for students’ attention; attention span v. screen culture (or, video killed the lecture hall);  low attendance; low student engagement; post-secondary degree inflation; poor academic job prospects; student infantilization; classroom disruption; incivility in the classroom; the degree-factory university; and the list goes on.

These are the monsters that lurk in the fathomless dark beneath Higher Ed’s bed, most of which are conjured quite effectively, if unwittingly, by The Post‘s Nov. 12 article.  They are truly terrifying monsters. And they are no less real for their ability to attack in packs: you can rarely conjure one without conjuring with it a host of others.

And they are all important issues. But today I want to focus on just one: incivility in the classroom.

Incivility in the Classroom

The author of the contested civility clause, Associate Professor Jill Jacobson, defends the clause as a pre-emptive measure against bullying in the classroom: “I mostly instituted the clause to protect TAs in lab sessions from being threatened and disrupted — basically being bullied by an irate student,” reports The Post.

On the other side of the debate is the academic affairs commissioner for the Alma Mater Society at Queen’s, who takes up the defense of free speech in The Post‘s article.  She raises an important concern: “The inclusion of a civility clause, especially when it threatens a student’s academic standing, would actively discourage the exchange of critical inquiry and free speech which are foundational to a quality undergraduate education.”

I believe that  instructors in Higher Ed are increasingly torn between the desire to engender “open” discussion and debate, which is conducive to critical inquiry and deep learning; and the desire to maintain safety in the classroom, for both students and instructors.  Is this true of your experience? I wonder, too, how do lecture halls and tutorials feel for the students out there who might be reading this? Do you wish for more safety, and less openness, or vice-versa?

I personally fear that in classes that deal with sensitive subjects like race, colonization, gender & sexuality, students feel that lecture halls and tutorials are neither safe nor open. I also personally don’t feel that this is due to any shortcoming of the instructors of courses like this. On the whole, I think students do find instructors (both faculty and TAs) approachable. But there is a palpable fear amongst students of “saying the wrong thing”–and in a course that deals with discourses of race in early Canadian literature, for example, or with the history of colonization in a British Lit survey, “saying the wrong thing” might not simply mean that a student appears academically incorrect, but immoral or unethical. There is moral, ethical and civil weight behind words describing race, sexuality, gender, and disability. Instructors and researchers studying in these areas spend a lot of time learning about the weightiness of discourses that stick so readily to the body and subjectivity. We spend a lot of time learning how to talk about such sensitive subjects. Students are not there yet. And I’m worried, too, what happens if they get there. Are students learning how to talk about race, for example, without learning to think about it critically?

In any case, students need to be able to speak to begin, no? And to err in order to learn, yes?

I can’t point to any band-aid solution to these questions. But I can point to many, little measures instructors can practice in order to try to find a comfortable balance between critical, “open” inquiry and safety in the classroom. Acknowledgment, assigned-role discussions, becoming familiar with accessibility and equity offices at your institution, and collaborative civility contracts are a few that I can think of on the spot. I’m reminded, too, of Mary-Ellen Wiemer’s recent post in her Teaching Professor Blog, where she writes: “We have to stop imagining that learning skills develop just because students are present in a learning environment.” We have to remember that learning skills develop as a set of practices, practices which include discussion, questioning, criticism, analysis, reading, and writing.  Shutting down the practice of those skills and modes of learning with punitive measures cannot be the way out of the problem.


The Letting-of-Words-and-Thoughts-Hang-in-the-Air

Or, the Art of Storytelling…

I’m all over “fluff” lately. Some might call it “pulp.” Others, “crap.” My partner might describe it as “sh*t spray.” Although admittedly this last descriptor would likely arise more out of a commitment to seize any chance at scatological one-up-man-ship than out of any real feeling of judgement or criticism.

I am talking here about genre fiction. I’ve been asking myself these past few months: why genre fiction? Why am I suddenly so absorbed by fantasy, romantic fantasy, post-apocalyptic narratives and post-human science fictions? And why do I get so bloody riled up every time some “respected” author approaches the genre and ruins it entirely with postmodern disruptions of plot, conventions and credibility?

At the same time that I really started getting into these particular genres I was also thinking about why I liked listening to stories so much. A well-told story is pure magic. A well-told story just feels so good. It is sensational. I mean, I sense it; it is a bodily thing. Perhaps because it is intimate; listening to a good storyteller, you’re drawn right in.

Am I just tired of the novel–of the literary novel, that is? Of the internal monologues and endless recycling of narratives of personal growth and enlightenment? Yes yes yes yes, frick yes,I am tired of this perpetual telling of the inner life of the modern individual.

But that’s not the whole story. I have this feeling, this gut feeling, you see, that genre fiction is a lot like oral storytelling. Both are bound strictly, in many ways, by convention. This isn’t some surface or formal resemblance. Generic conventions set up a sort of covenant between speaker and listener, text and reader. The reader of genre fiction anticipates while she reads based on this generic covenant, or contract. This anticipation is a sort of foreknowledge. She is writing the story before and as it develops; she is participating in the articulation of knowledge before the text can even articulate it. And so it goes with listening. With listening we try to anticipate where a speaker will lead us; with oral storytelling, the storyteller uses devices with which we are familiar to allow us to attempt this anticipation, to feel as though we are a part of the meaning-making process as it unfolds.

Oral storytelling is often described as dialogic; that is, it is supposed to open up a sort of dialogue between storyteller and listener. Sometimes, this is because storytellers use devices that call on the listener to actively participate. These devices might be as simple as silence; or, to give this practice its proper due, we might better describe it as the letting of words and thoughts hang in the air. Silence tends to be taken to mean absence, end, closure or lack. The letting-of-words-and-thoughts-hang-in-the-air is something different all together; it denotes a fullness and a loitering of meaning. It allows the space and the time for listeners to respond, either inwardly to themselves or outwardly to the storyteller, via audible or visible gestures. Call-and-response is of course another, well-known oral storytelling, dialogic device.

The thing I never really got before about listening to oral stories is that this dialogic or participatory function is not merely geared toward entertainment. When you listen to a story and it feels like magic it is because you feel at once like worlds and meanings are appearing, like magic, out of the fabric of someone else’s voice, but also like you are there, somehow, part of that creative act. Yes, I get that this happens with written literature as well, and the big-L “Literature” I lambasted. But a well-told oral story has the power to make you feel intimately tied to its creator and to the act of its creation in a way that reading can’t. Except maybe for the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

Perhaps you can guess now why I’m rambling on about genre fiction, oral storytelling and generic conventions in a blog that’s supposed to be about teaching and learning: because bringing learners into the process of knowledge production is key to deep learning, authentic learning, or whatever it is you want to call it.

If this were a didactic story, I would leave you here with a few lessons. I would explain to you precisely how we can learn from oral storytelling as teachers and learners. And I’ve gotta yell you: I am a teacher (sort of), and I write about teaching (kind of), so the keen desire to tell you WHAT IT ALL MEANS is damn difficult to ignore.

But ignore it I will. I’ll let the words loiter, here, on the page … at least I will, once I say just one … or two … more things. Or, in fact, once I invite a few others to say a few things.

Kimberly M. Blaeser, in her work on contemporary Indigenous literatures in North America, writes that “Native authors… attempt to encourage a response-able way of reading” (qtd. in Neuhaus 12). J. Edward Chamberlin, in an essay on oral storytelling called “Boasting, Toasting and Truthtelling,” claims that “It is style that certifies truth–not the subject or the sincerity of the speaker, except insofar as that sincerity is an element of style, as spontaneity might also be” (39). And Chamberlin, when paraphrasing classicist Milman Perry, adds this: “style, not language, constitutes thought in oral performance” (39).

Is your teaching “response-able“?

Is performance a part of your pedagogical lexicon?

Does the spell of style disperse with the end of the performance?

Does performance obfuscate real meaning?

Do you like how I’ve included gaps between these questions as though giving you the opportunity to respond?


Do you?


Works Cited

Blaeser, Kimberly M. “Writing Voices Speaking: Native Authors and an Oral Aesthetic.” Talking on the Page: Editing Aboriginal Oral Texts. Eds. Laura J. Murray and Keren Rice. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999. Print.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. “Boasting, Toasting, and Truthtelling.” Orality and Literacy: Reflections Across Disciplines. Eds. Keith Thor Carlson, Kristina Fagan, and Natalia Khanenko-Friesen. Toronto: U of T Press, 2011. 21-42. Print.

Neuhaus, Mereike. That’s Raven Talk: Holophrastic Readings of Contemporary Indigenous Literatures. Regina: CPRC Press, 2011. Print.