On the limits of empathy in pedagogy, this post starts with a query from Deborah Britzman before moving into a consideration of a 1993 article by Anne DiPardo, Professor of Education at the University of Colorado. DiPardo’s account of a semester-long relationship between a student writing assistant at a college writing centre and a student learner is thought-provoking.
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.
In my different jobs and duties at McMaster this year, I’ve been working closely with a number of people required to take various leadership roles in the classroom, from TAs to seminar leaders and student presenters. I’ve listened to myself repeat the same advice to a number of different people in regards to a number of different situations. In a workshop for new TAs, an anxious colleague asked what they might do if faced with an unbreakable wall of silence, or a consistently quiet tutorial week in and week out. In a session on teaching writing, an experienced TA asked how he might teach students how to write well when he didn’t know how he had learned to write well. How do you teach others what you feel you know so little about? And, in a session on creating safe and open discussion environments, one participant explained that he wanted to know not only how to prevent exclusions and offensive behaviour, but also what to do once a bigoted comment was made, or a homophobic slur was said.
To each question, I confidently replied: “Acknowledge it.”
Acknowledgment is neither band-aid nor magical incantation. It does not heal wounds or ward off evil spirits. But there is a certain magic to simple acknowledgment: it can bring a touch of warmth and comfort to a room cursed with cold silence, and can transform ignorant comments and hurtful language into those mythic creatures called “teaching moments,” which flit about the fairy world of teachers’ hopes and dreams only to make intermittent but inevitably mischievous appearances in our classrooms.
But it wasn’t until last week–almost a full month after I had so confidently counseled acknowledgment as the path to teacherly enlightenment–that I really thought about the magic behind its use.
I was working with a grad student who was worried that her English pronunciation would confuse her peers during a seminar she was required to lead. Her solution was to use powerpoint to give the rest of the class visual cues that would signpost key ideas and transitions. I suggested that she might also acknowledge that English was her second language, and that she was concerned she might not be as clear as she wanted to be. I made this suggestion in the hopes that her candor might have two positive effects. First, it might make her feel more at ease, because she wouldn’t feel as thought she had anything to hide or cover up. Second, it might encourage her peers to ask questions, just as they would if they didn’t understand a presenter whose first language was English. If she didn’t acknowledge her concerns, her peers might be hesitant to ask for clarification, for fear that they would be drawing attention to a sensitive issue, or a weakness.
And, really, how could speaking two or more languages possibly be construed as a weakness?
So without much thought, I added: “Also, just something to think about: you don’t have to apologize for it, either.”
Apology and Confession
Unnecessary apologies work their own sort of magic: they have the power to make you disappear, or, at the very least, cause you to diminish rapidly in stature in the eyes of others. But refusing to apologize for something not worthy of apology is more than just sleight-of-hand in the game we play in interpersonal relations. If we acknowledge something only to apologize for it, we risk undoing the powerful work of acknowledgment itself. Acknowledgment demands recognition. Apology, on the other hand, pleads forgiveness.
The act of apologizing can be very similar to that of confessing. I’m thinking here of Wendy Brown’s reading of Foucault on the subject of confession. She explains:
“Confessional revelations are … constructed as liberation from repression or secrecy, and truth-telling about our desires or experiences is construed as deliverance from the power that silences and represses them…. What Foucault terms ‘the internal ruse of confession’ is reducible to this reversal of power and freedom: ‘Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence; truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an original affinity with freedom.’ In believing truth-telling about our experiences to be our liberation, Foucault suggests, we forget that this truth has been established as the secret to our souls not by us but by those who would discipline us through that truth.” (42)
Such is the trickery of confession–its “internal ruse”–that we feel rebellious, free, completely liberated from discipline and control just as we affirm our own need to transgress the limits placed on us. In apologizing for our transgressions we re-affirm the logic that defines certain behaviours and certain ways of thinking as transgressive. In confessing to a deeply held secret or taboo truth, we give credence to the way of thinking that named it secret or taboo in the first place.
Learning to acknowledge challenges in the classroom without apologizing for them is important not because saying sorry might make you appear weak or somehow lessen your authority in the eyes of judgemental or unforgiving students, but because apologizing for the challenges we face in teaching and learning suggests that learning should be easy. By definition, learning is not easy. It might be fun, challenging and exciting, but it is not easy.
So, to that grad student anxious about how her peers might receive her and her pronunciation, I advised: acknowledge it, but do not feel like you must apologize for it.
Funny, though, that her reaction made me both smile and question my advice immediately after giving it. One moment she was calm and attentive; the next, she was a flurry of movement: her hands flew to her face, her shoulders shot to her ears, and with a bit of a laugh, she said, “But that’s what we do in my country!” I think a lot of Canadians can empathize with her. We practice a culture of apology. I think women, especially, are trained as apologists. But, in apologizing for ourselves, do we risk re-inscribing the lines that fence us in?
Brown, Wendy. States of Injury. Princeton UP, 1995. Print.
“There are many types of disability,” she explained, “including visible disabilities and invisible ones, like mental illness.”
This was a brilliant, (seriously) amazing, articulate, and engaging Program Officer talking; she works for the office of Human Rights & Equity Services here at McMaster. I had attended a presentation that she and a colleague gave a few years ago. In only an hour or so she was able to engender in her listeners a deep understanding of the difference between accommodation & accessibility, the difference between focusing on accessibility vs. disability, and with both words and body language was able to communicate the important point that rather than being based in fear (of giving offense, or of looking bad or closed-minded), in pity (for people with “problems”), or simply in trying to avoid awkward or tense moments, accessibility is about creating a positive, open culture, wherever you are.
So I emailed her when I knew I had a week to prepare for a workshop I had volunteered to lead, titled, “Creating Safe & Open Discussion Environments in Tutorials.” (Catchy, eh?). I wanted to communicate that sense of positive excitement to workshop participants. I wanted to be able to emphasize that working towards greater inclusion is a positive, creative process, and not just a question of fearfully avoiding exclusion.
Isn’t that nice and warm and fuzzy? The people at Human Rights & Equity Services do the topic better justice than I do. In any case, this is all by way of explanation for my involvement in a discussion of visible and invisible disabilities. Not to mention my response to the statement that opens this entry.
That response was: “Huh.”
With that sage utterance, my eyes slid from respectful, attentive eye contact until they hit the ceiling–the point at which my eyes could not have gotten any shiftier without rolling right back into my head. So yeah, they kinda just slid to a stop there, staring vacantly at the perforated ceiling tiles.
Let me try to transcribe the incisive analysis that was going on inside my head at that time:
Visible and invisible disabilities. Got it. Check. Mental illness can be seen as a form of disability. Right. Makes sense.
Hey, isn’t depression a mental illness?
Wait. I have depression.
Sitting there slack-jawed and all thoughtful, all I could come up with was:
Everything the Program Officer was saying made a lot of sense. She did not offend me. She did not say anything offensive, or exclusionary. In fact, everything she said was helpful, and insightful, and she was able to effectively and carefully communicate that the protected grounds that Ontario & McMaster recognize in their anti-discrimination policies are in many ways limited and limiting.
It’s a familiar catch-22. Recognizing “difference” creates space for those who might otherwise be excluded. But it also implies that there are those who are “normal” or “average,” who are the norm from which all others who are different deviate. Difference becomes deviance. Thinking about difference in this way is problematic because it requires accommodation on the part of so-called normal, healthy, regular people. However, creating labels or categories surrounding identity allows some people to be legally or professionally recognized for who they are, at least in part. It gives people the legal framework by which to assert themselves as whole persons, as legal subjects, as worthy human beings. But, labels are also notoriously ill-fitting.
If I understood the Program Officer at HRES correctly, I think her point was not only that people need to recognize difference and protect it, but that we also need to recognize that difference is everywhere and ever-present; difference can be small or invisible but it can also be noted and stigmatized; that we are different people, even, from one day to the next; and that, finally, difference doesn’t exist so much as ubiquitous diversity does.
So what made me go all strange, then? I did not feel like I was being called a name, or was being forced into a category. I did not chafe at the idea that having depression might be thought of as a disability. Because there are times when I am most certainly disabled by depression. There have been times in my life in the past few years where I have literally been unable to emote. At all. Happiness, anger, interest, gratitude– I recall meetings where eye contact was nearly impossible, and where focus certainly was unattainable. This was the case only last week. In fact, the past few weeks have been a bit difficult. At times in the past few days I’ve felt great. At other times, I feel alien in my own body. When I get feeling like that–foreign to myself–it can be incredibly uncomfortable being with people. I can recognize the people around meke as people I like, and as people I would like to engage with. I can also recognize that I’m in a social or professional environment, which demands certain behaviours from me–smiles, nodding, uh, you know, all those tricky things like verbalization, acting like a human being, whatever. I can recognize these things, but I cannot act on them. My body seems to disconnect from my mind; at the same time, my mind disconnects from my body and the moment it’s living in; it might decide to take a wander or go ’round in squirrely circles much like this.
People with more severe depression may experience it in a way that is much more disruptive to their professional and personal lives than this, to be sure.
So recognizing mental illness as a disability does not irk me. That’s not what threw me off during my meeting at HRES. What got me was that in order to ensure that my depression might not become grounds for discrimination, or feel confident that I can seek accommodation for having a rogue mind or a vacant automaton body at work, it’s not just that I would have to claim a disability–that I might be less or differently-abled than those around me, say–it’s that I would have to first claim to be mentally ill.
Not mentally different. Mentally ill. Unwell. Unhealthy. Mentally not-good.
It’s funny for someone with I-dunno-how-many years of formal education to be deemed mentally not-good. Eff you, medical system! But why I’m writing today is because talking with the kind and knowledgeable Program Officer at HRES about accessibility has allowed me to recognize both that I’m excited about the shifting discourse surrounding accessibility and equity in North America, and that there are aspects of this discourse that make me uncomfortable. I think this is what people in the biz (the teaching biz, of course) call “productive discomfort.” I also think this is whay we might refer to as “good teaching.”
My meeting at HRES reminded me of what a strong, competent teacher is capable. She is able to teach and inform, lead and guide, but she is also able to make that learning process open–open in the sense that it becomes multi-directional and open-ended. The Program Officer at HRES showed me that a strong teacher has the ability to give you the space and the authority to feel discomfort, and to feel it comfortably, if that makes any sense. I left that meeting ready to explore something that has nagged at my for quite some time: not why being called mentally ill might be problematic (that one’s self-explanatory, I think); but why education projects aimed at destigmatizing mental illness make me feel creeped out, and perhaps a little bit angry.
And that’s the point to which I hope to return next week: how could I possibly be against the destigmatization of mental health disorders?
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.
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
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….”
(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.
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?