What Am I Not Hearing?

IMAG0647Hey, so I take  my cat for walks. Not on a leash. I just leave the yard and head out into the long grass that surrounds it, and he takes off. He sticks pretty close, except for when we get too close to a tree, and then he promptly scampers up it, ears back, a hint of the maniacal to his head whipping left and right, eyes round, tail twitching.

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Teaching Criticism

from the "English Grad Student Shaming" tumblr.

“What Mom always said doesn’t go far in grad school…” (from EnglishGradStudentShaming.tumblr.com)

This post attempts to puzzle through the impulse to critique and criticize in literary studies; in particular, it considers a grad-student culture of shame via the newly-created tumblr “englishgradstudentshaming.” What happens when grad students and instructors feel like they “can’t say anything nice about books anymore”?

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Monsters in Literature

"How the Sea Monsters got into Sense and Sensibility."

From the cover of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Ben H. Winters

Last week, I asked, “Is it the instructor’s job to disabuse students of their woeful misconceptions of what literature does?” I might broaden the scope of the question and ask if it applies to any class. Certainly profs and instructors must challenge students, and hopefully all teachers will facilitate flashes of insight in their students that crack open the subject matter with the joy and anticipation you might bring to a hungry assault on a Christmas filbert. But should we seek to convince students that personal, emotional, or so-called trivial approaches to a subject are wrong? Unscientific? Shallow?

I don’t know. But I appreciate Deborah Britzman’s thoughts on the subject: she baldly calls this desire to control student response to a curriculum monstrous. And, according to Britzman, all teachers have something of the monster about them.

I want to let Deborah speak for herself on this one. She’s got this elliptical way of writing that is confusing, sometimes even grammatically off (she particularly favours comma splices), which leaves gaps in meaning for her readers to ponder. This impressionistic style likely comes out of her background in psychoanalysis: her writing refuses tight linearity and strict logic as if it were anathema to true meaning-making. So, yes, her writing can be frustrating. It can feel like she’s being deliberately unclear, even lazily non-specific, but those gaps in meaning, those elliptical gestures to a not-quite-said something have the uncanny ability to create moments of deep insight in her readers. She allows her readers to fill in the gaps with their own knowledge; we make meaning right alongside her.

So, as a Christmas gift to you, and by way of “farewell, until next time”–next time being the new year, when I return to Dry-Erase after the holidays– I give you your very own pedagogical Christmas filbert to crack open:

The Monstrous in Teaching

from Novel Education: Pyschoanalytic Studies of Learning and Not Learning, by Deborah P. Britzman, p. 114-117.

“I wished the course title “Monsters in Literature” would convey, in miniature, the whole story of what students could expect to learn. I would present to the class, whom I had never met, a series of literary monsters that would lead them by the hand to critique the monstrous in real life. The course title, so I thought, was a shortcut, a pedagogical telegraph, perhaps even a wish for pedagogical telepathy…. In sequence, the curriculum began with the fantastic, but in my head these actual monsters would only set the stage for encountering something terribly real and literally terrible: the inhumanity of the state apparatus, class inequality, racism, and genocide.

Admittedly, this was a very depressing curriculum, one that I would meet again and again throughout the course of my teaching career. Little did I know how depressed it would make me. Only much later would I learn to become more attuned to the students’ complaints, my own depression and even my role in their discomfort. When I began teaching, however, my rationalization for trading in such affect, [was] replacing their denial of false consciousness with my depressing truth…. My ignorance was performed through a pedagogy that tried to insist that works of art are communications to be received and corrections to be made. It took me many years to see in this wish something manic, a teacher’s defense against encountering both the literary and its excess and the students, all of whom had their own minds. The manic defense was a symptom of a kernel of the monstrous in my own teaching. ….

The idea that everything was political crowded my centre stage. I used literary monsters to convey the truth. And because there was a truth, it never occurred to me that there would be an argument with students…. They were adverse to using these creatures as a means to critique their society and to accepting my demand that everything, including the monster, is political. Simply put, they wanted to play, escape, and enjoy. ….

For the twenty-year-old that I once was, these psychological questions of significance and relation…–what it means to become human with other humans in the classroom–could not be recognized as the question par excellence. ….

220px-JekyllHyde1931After distributing Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, I worried that the novel was too difficult. I could not read the book through their eyes and, when preparing for the week’s lesson, my misreading of their abilities and interests persisted. Stevenson’s novel was to begin our social inquiry. Looking back, I realize that I must have thrown it in the curriculum only because there was an actual monster to encounter, only because there was some guilt with my false advertisement. And in that sense, I was right. After all, the course was called Monsters in Literature and not The Political in Literature and once I met the actual students, it dawned on me, in spite of my best defenses, that the students signed up for the Monsters part, not the literature.

The weekend before our discussion of the novel’s beginning, I panicked, imagining the students would hate it and would never be able to read it. I worried they would hate me as well…. Yet there the students were that Monday morning. And, too, there was a sheepish student teacher to be greeted by their enthusiasm over the novel. In this difference between what I imagined and what occurred, the students began to be real because I could take no credit for their existence. …. And no matter how difficult the prose, how archaic the English, they read on, enjoying the suspense, identifying with what was monstrous in themselves and others, but not because they needed to change the world. Just the opposite, they wanted the world to take them in. Essentially, and like Shelley’s Frankenstein, they wanted to be recognized, even adored, for all their foibles, phantasies, and desires.”

Merry Christmas!

“Book Club” Ain’t in the Course Description

“I realize that I must have thrown [Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde] into the curriculum only because there was an actual monster to encounter, only because there was some guilt with  my false advertisement. And in that sense, I was right. After all, the course was called Monsters in Literature and not The Political in Literature and once I met the actual students, it dawned on me, in spite of my defenses, that the students signed up for the Monster part, not the literature.”

–Deborah P. Britzman, Novel Education, 116

From retreatbyrandomhouse.ca: "We know all book clubs, like snowflakes, are beautiful in their own, unique ways — and we want to hear all about why your book club is the best book club in Canada!"

From retreatbyrandomhouse.ca:
“We know all book clubs, like snowflakes, are beautiful in their own, unique ways — and we want to hear all about why your book club is the best book club in Canada!”

The quandary Britzman describes above will sound familiar to many literary scholars. It will likely ring true to teachers in any field where “reading against the grain” is an accepted methodological practice, from History to Anthropology to Sociology. I think, though, that instances of what might be called “false advertising” are particularly pronounced in the teaching of English Literature, not because English profs are dishonest, or because students today are woefully naive, but because in the field of literary studies, there is a great deal of anxiety about the role of fiction studies in Higher Education and, subsequently, a lurking desire to escape fiction, aesthetics, and literature itself. Or, at the very least, a desire to distance the study of English Literature from the much-maligned book club.

A Crisis in Literary Studies

Albert Braz’s recent article, “In Praise of Literature,” claims that “It is hard for anyone actively involved in the life of an English department in the last few decades not to notice the way English professors have become ambivalent about our ostensible raison d’être. Whenever one discusses the future of the discipline, it soon becomes apparent that most people feel that if it can be saved at all it will be by embracing some related field, such as film studies, cultural studies or that academic catch-all that goes by the name of theory –anything but literature” (University Affairs, 1 Nov 2012).

“This jeremiad is neither accurate nor new” is Terry Goldie’s response to Braz, and he’s right: Braz’s concern for “the seemingly permanent crisis in literary studies” (Braz) is not new. It betrays a nostalgia for a golden age in literature that perhaps never existed. And yet, I agree with Braz, or at the very least I agree with his suggestion that “the most striking aspect of… “the Age of the Critic” is its antagonism toward the literary imagination.” Braz takes up Paul A. Cantor’s description of the twentieth-century as the Age of the Critic and applies it to the early twenty-first century; in so doing he points to the centrality that literary scholars have ascribed to criticism–to being critical–in literary studies today. What Braz calls “the literary imagination”–by this, I take him to mean “creative imagination”–gets pushed aside in the scholar’s scramble to deconstruct the text. In literary studies, it seems difficult to talk about whether one likes a work of art or not in certain streams of literary studies. It seems increasingly difficult to ask why some works of art appeal, and others don’t. In literary studies today, questions of aesthetics seem dangerously uncritical, and so, too, do questions about reader responses, and finally, what art might have to say about what it means to be human.

But, is this not what students “get” when they read literature for an English Lit. class, at least in part? Perhaps this is even what they are looking for when they enroll in literature courses. Is it the instructor’s job to disabuse students of their woeful misconceptions of what literature does?

I ask these questions because they are questions I have badly needed to ask myself. Deborah Britzman, whom I quoted at the beginning of this post, returns to her first experience teaching English–at the age of twenty, to a ninth-grade English class–to describe how, at the time, “[t]he idea that everything was political crowded [her] centre stage” (115). I appreciate her word choice. Her older, more experienced self does not refuse or undermine her youthful belief that “everything is political”; instead, she explains that this concern crowded out other concerns. In a way, the question, “How is this political?” blinded her to other questions literature compels readers to ask. For the younger Britzman, literature and the human, personal response it compels from readers was secondary; the politics “behind” it: “truth,” and this zealous investment in criticism ultimately blinded her to the people in the classroom. “Students were missing,” she writes, “as was the teacher” (114). In other words, she overlooked “what it means to become human with other humans in the classroom” (116). This is what Britzman calls “the literary and its excess” (115)– the excessive in literature, or what ideologies, ways of thinking, or even scholarly methodologies cannot account for or speak to in literature. Fiction is excessive; it speaks to things that cannot quite be said. It gestures. It creates anew with metaphor in an attempt to take readers off the beaten track, to see things, suddenly, a little askew, to give a feeling of something else. And this newness, this sideways glance out of the corners of the literary eye, can be terrifying, nauseating, and disturbing, for sure, but it may also be joyful, hopeful, self-affirming, calming, and downright pleasurable.

Critical Creativity

I can look back and see a younger version of myself doing the same things that Britzman recalls in her anecdote. I can clearly remember–and I’m sure, so can many of my friends and colleagues, probably with a cringe–a younger, haughtier version of myself dissatisfied with students who confused my tutorials for a book club. In my mind, they weren’t doing literature right. I knew how to do it; they didn’t. Over time, though, as I increasingly become aware of and gain respect for students not as students, but as human beings, I have also come to deeply respect the variegated approaches to literature they bring to the classroom. And not just to literature, but to theory, to politics, and to how all three are articulated in their daily lives. Not only that, I have also come to value the creative, productive side of literature–you know, the writing process that results in the stuff we get paid to teach, and, too, the writers that produce the works we read. I’ve come to value creativity, experimentation, storytelling, self-expression, belief & faith in a new way; I’ve come to value creativity just as much as criticality.

Last week, Joseph Frank, author of the blog Verba Americana, commented on the photosponse as a mode of “critical creativity.” My still perhaps over-zealous grad-student self wants to translate that to, “creative criticality.” (Yes, Joe is rolling his eyes as he reads this). Regardless, Joe has captured a fullness of meaning in that term that the more commonly-used, and more mechanistic, scientific or even mercenary phrase “active learning” can communicate. In the scholarship of teaching and learning, active learning is associated with measurable student success, “deep” learning, and the lowering of student “attrition” (or drop-out) rates. Thinking about active learning as a form of critical creativity has the potential to move active learning away from an ends-oriented teaching tool to an open-ended, student-driven mode of inquiry.

Works Cited

Braz, Albert. “In Praise of Literature.” University Affairs. 1 Nov. 2012. Online.

Britzman, Deborah P. Novel Education: Psychoanalytic Studies of Learning and Not Learning. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006. Print.

Cantor, Paul A. “The Primacy of the Literary Imagination, Or Which Came First, The Critic of the Author?” Literary Imagination 1.1 (Spring 1999): n. page. Online.

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

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.

Mapping Kinship

Perhaps you have noticed a trend here at DryErase Writings–a multi-coloured, infantile trend (see previous posts involving colour & drawing here and here). Today I’d like to continue that trend by sharing with you yet another way you might introduce pencil crayons & drawing to your classrooms.

Have you ever considered having your students draw kinship maps?

Kinship maps are interesting from a teaching perspective for many reasons:

1. They can translate textual narratives into visual, spatial ones, and therefore provide another way of knowing a text, concept or history.
2. They can function as time-keeping devices, like a timeline might. But unlike timelines, kinship maps can translate linear time into something more complex. They can translate a linear history into something multi-directional.
3. Like any map, kinship maps are good mnemonic devices. They help you remember sh–, er, I mean stuff. And the relationship between stuff.

Asking students to draw their own kinship maps makes active all of these important processes. Drawing a kinship map in class might facilitate the analysis of a narrative, the recording and interpreting of a particular history, and the memorization and comprehension of how different concepts, moments, people, etc. relate to one another.

Beyond Pretty Colours

Cut and paste your face! It’s easy!!!

But kinship maps are also interesting teaching tools because they represent a particular way of knowing, and a particular methodology. And, both are tied to a particular history: to European history and, as we shall see, especially to European colonial history.

Consider this: the ubiquitous family tree found at the beginning of many a memoir or available to any with the inclination and the money at genealogy.com has its own particularly European family history. In her article, “Family Trees and Their Affinities,” anthropologist Mary Bouquet shows that the genealogical maps with which we are familiar today–picture here a simple graph in the shape of a tree, or perhaps in the shape of an upside-down tree–have their roots in Judeo-Christian family trees that recorded and regulated lineage, reproduction and the inheritance of property. These semi-sacred, semi-regulatory roots later branched in the nineteenth century into the sciences: into philology (the study of the history of languages) and evolutionary theory. From the sacred domain of the Church, then, to the no-less sacred domain of Science, and from a concern with class pedigree to a concern with biological heredity, genealogy carries a lot of baggage. Add to this their more recent use in anthropology at the turn of the twentieth century, when anthropologists relied heavily on the study of kinship in their ethnographic work, and we can begin to see why borrowing the kinship map for a tutorial or a class might involve more than just getting your students to play with a box full of pretty colours.

Bouquet explains that at the turn of the twentieth century, understanding a culture’s kinship system–how a community defines social relationships amongst one another–was deemed of primary importance for the study of any “foreign” culture. This is because how a culture or community defines relationships tells a great deal about that culture, and understanding this can allow an anthropologist to recognize just how large the gap might be between how he or she views the world, and how another culture might. In the West, kinship has historically been defined according to specific, so-called “natural” biological ties. But ethnographic studies of non-European cultures have made any such claim to the “naturalness” of defining kinship in these terms untenable.

This, I think, is the magic of anthropology: it allows you to recognize that systems and ways of living thought natural or intuitive are in fact often constructed and arise out of specific cultural conditions. Despite this, what I find really interesting about kinship maps is that while they might try to capture non-European ways of understanding social relations, the map itself, and its tree-like appearance, reflects a particularly European understanding of kinship and family. The kinship map can easily misrepresent what (or whom) it seeks to describe, and it has historically been tied up with colonial projects to understand, document or assimilate colonized peoples. Bringing kinship maps into your classroom therefore introduces a rich teaching moment to a lesson: it get students actively involved in a meaning-making project, and simultaneously gives instructors the opportunity to draw attention to the ways in which meaning is, indeed, made, framed, or, as it were, mapped.

Back to the Box of Crayons

By way of conclusion, I would like to share with you a possible application of this idea. Last week I drafted a sample lesson plan for a second-year Canadian Literature class. First up on our list of readings for tutorial was one of my favorites of the year: Brian Maracle’s “The First Words,” a re-telling of the Iroquois creation story. Warren Cariou, Professor at the University of Winnipeg, describes it as “an act of living, historical memory” and stresses the importance of “[s]eeing this narrative as a kind of history, rather than as a myth or a legend” (Globe and Mail, Dec. 2004). I love reading and re-reading Maracle’s text. And I love discussing it.

So, I leave my draft lesson plan with you. And along with it, a few questions, too, that jostle around uncomfortably in the back of my mind:

Are exercises like these too juvenile for the adult classroom? Do you think they undermine the seriousness and importance of the subject matter?

Draft Tutorial Lesson Plan: Brian Maracle’s “The First Words”

Materials Needed: pencil crayons and scrap paper.

Intended Learning Outcomes: By the end of this tutorial, students will…

1. Have a clear understanding of the relationships between the personages described in Brian Maracle’s interpretation of the Iroquois creation story.

2. Consider how those relationships are described by Maracle, and the values they might speak to.

3. Recognize and question the assumptions a reader familiar with settler culture and history might bring to their understanding of the relationships in the text.

Explain briefly what kinship maps are: like genealogical trees, they indicate who descends from whom, and what relationships people have with one another. As an example you might draw your own family tree on the board. This could be a traditional family tree, but it could reflect non-biological kinship ties.

Explain to students that they can decide how they will indicate what type of relationship different people in the map share (ie, brother & sister, parents & children, friend, etc). They could colour-code, for example, or simply draw lines connecting people, or they could write captions explaining relationships.

Give students 15 minutes. Then check in:

1. Who is represented in your kinship maps? Is there anyone missing?

2. How did you indicate the relationship between the First Woman and the grandson of the sky woman? Is she like a daughter? Or is their relationship different? How did you represent the relationship between First Woman and First Man? Why?

3. Did you include any animals on your kinship maps? Why/why not?

4. What about the land? Is the land related to some of the people in the story? How so?

Ask students to return to their kinship maps and make any final revisions that they would like. They might want to add/change things after the discussion you just had. If you like, let students know that you are collecting them, and that next week at the beginning of tutorial there will be a contest: the class will vote for the what they think is the best kinship map (most creative, most robust, etc).

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


image

 
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.

image

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.

Labia.

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?

image

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.