What Is a Seminar?

…here pedagogy  seems to be invisible: seminar participants run the conversation themselves, pursuing the unfolding dialogue ideally through non-hierarchical interactions.

This post was written by Sarah D’Adamo* and Christien Garcia**, PhD candidates in English & Cultural Studies at McMaster University.  

Your Syllabus

Yes, it’s that time of year again: time to revisit your syllabi. My last post before the start of the Fall semester is all about asking your syllabus some hard questions. In it, I discuss how you might productively reflect on your syllabus by considering its tone, the message it sends to students about you, your course, and your field, and what its Accessibility Statement says about your approach to accessibility, equity, and teaching & learning.

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Teaching Depression

H.E.A.R.T.: An Introduction to Human Rights at McMaster

“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:


Protected Grounds

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.

Teaching Depression

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?

Show & Tell, vol. 2

It’s time for another installment of Show & Tell, where I share with you a blog post, article, or idea that I’ve come across in the realm of teaching & learning, university affairs, or what have you, and then you, fingers crossed, share your own in the comments section. Or maybe just comment on mine.

This is how I envision it happening, anyway; though in reality people are busy, with lives and the like. Part of this blog’s purpose is to try to make research on teaching and learning more of a commonplace practice in the lives of teachers, rather than an exceptional, rigorous, intimidating or last-minute sorta thing. Research can be as simple as clicking on a link and reading someone’s thoughts on a personal learning experience, or it can mean reading a peer-reviewed article describing the findings of an academic study. But in any case, I think the valuable end-result of doing your own formal or informal research on teaching and learning is that it invites reflection.

This week’s Show & Tell comes outta the swarm of internet buzz words in the world of education and professional development: “unconferences.” Notably, unconferences seem to draw upon many of the discussion facilitation practices with which Teacher’s Assistants, like myself, are already familiar. They attempt to invite open, communally-mediated discussions. They also try to avoid the traditional conference format that isolates speakers at the head of a lecture hall or hotel conference room, which in turn tends to render conference attendees passive audience members desperately in need of lots of bad coffee to keep immobilized bodies and silenced tongues awake.

So, my recommendation for the week is Amy Collier’s post on her experience with the unconference format in her post at The Red Pincushion, “A vote for unconferences.”


The 2012 John Douglas Taylor Conference
October 25th & 26th
McMaster University

And while I’m on the subject, I might as well plug the traditionally-formatted conference I, my supervisor, and his other students are organizing, to be held at McMaster this October 25th & 26th– Working the Frame: Comparative Approaches to Asian Canadian Literature and Culture (which is generously supported by the John Douglas Taylor Fund, the Department of English & Cultural Studies, and the Senator William McMaster Chair in Canadian Literature and Culture). It’s going to be awesome. You should come. The program  features a film screening with Richard Fung, a full day of panels and two keynote addresses from Lisa Lowe and Lily Cho the following day, and, to close the conference, an evening of discussion with a plenary panel of artists & activists: David Chariandy, Larissa Lai, Lee Maracle and Chantria Tram. It ain’t an unconference, but it is going to be oh-so, so good.

What do you think of unconferences? Any ideas for how the organizing committee for Working the Frame could open the conference to an online community? Got your own Show & Tell? Do share!

Learning Feelings, Part II

Since starting this blog a few months ago, I’ve been learning a whole lot about learning. I’ve learned about a few theories on how the brain processes new information. I’ve read studies on the effectiveness of particular teaching practices, like one-minute papers and the use of clickers in lecture halls.  Not only have I been reading academic papers on teaching & learning, I’ve learned that such papers exist as part of a recognized and well-established field of research. Why did I not realize this before ? I don’t know. I blame plain and simple slow-wittedness.  What else? I’ve developed a still-growing toolbox of active learning techniques to use in the classroom. And there has been more.

While it’s difficult to anticipate the unknown, I knew that actively researching the scholarship of teaching and learning would inevitably result in learning precisely the sorts of things I describe above: theories of learning, teaching technologies, and teaching techniques.

What I did not anticipate was how much I would be learning about the important role feelings play in the process of teaching and learning.

Attending the Idea Exchange held at Mac in June on community-engaged learning–where I had the pleasure of hearing Daniel Coleman and MarieAnge Brouillard talk about their experiences as instructor and student, respectively, in the “Voicing Hamilton” course, the pilot for the Discovery Program*–made the important connection between teaching and feelings even clearer for me. In my last post, “Learning Feelings,” I talked about how the speakers at the Idea Exchange reminded me that learning feels. It feels exciting. It feels encouraging. It feels self-assuring, even as it feels challenging. It feels good.

This week, I am excited to report that Daniel and MarieAnge have kindly agreed to share a portion of their presentations on Voicing Hamilton here. What follows are their thoughts on the Discovery Program, teaching, and a love of learning.

*The Discovery Program was conceived as a way to connect McMaster to the broader community in Hamilton, and vice-versa, by offering “university-level non-credit courses to Hamilton residents who face barriers to post-secondary education” (McMaster University).

from Daniel Coleman:

I have taught for thirty years and I have to say that [Voicing Hamilton] was one of the most moving and profound teaching experiences I have ever had. In part, it was profound because I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know how remedial the class would need to be. Instead, the class was incredibly resourceful: time after time, we’d have a need, somebody would run into a snag with their work, and time after time, someone else in the class had a solution. We needed to get everybody to McMaster for the graduation ceremonies at the end of the class; how would we get there? One student had a bus! Another was wondering how to bind her seventeen poems together for the group exhibition of our work; and yet another student brought a coiler to class. It made me wonder how often a classroom full of resourceful people are reduced to passivity by the usual lecture and listen format that dominate so much university teaching.

And here’s the big thing: education comes from the Latin “educare,” to lead out. An education leads out the potential knowledge and wisdom you already have within you.

More than this, I felt nurtured and encouraged as a person, as a teacher in the room. The classroom was full of people who did not take learning for granted. For different reasons, every single person in the room had had their chances to learn curtailed, sometimes repeatedly, in their lives. So they were vigilant about taking care of each other’s learning, of making sure that no one was left behind or made to feel fragile or excluded from learning. Including me. They wanted to make sure I had the best chance possible of delivering a good class.

So I learned that the people who often can be perceived as lacking resources, who may appear to be marginal in downtown Hamilton, that they are remarkably resilient and resourceful and creative. And they cared about me and my chance of being a good teacher and learner. This made me feel a new level of belonging in the city in which I live. Lots of us feel alien in our environments, or at least in parts of the city that have been neglected or that are struggling economically, as is the case with downtown Hamilton. But the class made me feel the vitality of the city and of the people who live there.

Finally, the class helped me see what I do everyday in a new light. It’s easy to take education for granted, or to reduce it by seeing it only as a means to a job. The students in this class reminded me that learning grounds a person’s dignity and self-respect. That the chance to do something creative builds resilience and confidence. That knowing the history and geography of the place in which you live can give you a new sense of belonging in a place and community. And here’s the big thing: education comes from the Latin “educare,” to lead out. An education leads out the potential knowledge and wisdom you already have within you. It gives it a shape or channel to flow and grow into, but the point is that it helps you to see what you already have and to grow in confidence that it’s there in the first place and then in thinking of what to do with it in the world.

I came away from the Discovery class having grown in confidence that I am a teacher, I can adapt to the needs and interests of people very different from me and help draw out what’s in them. That makes me very grateful to the students and Jeanette [the course coordinator] and the student support team who collectively drew this confidence out of me.

from MarieAnge Brouillard:

Our class was composed of people ranging in age from early 20’s to late 70’s. People who never had the opportunity to attend university, because of familial responsibilities, for lack of money, for being single parents, for being marginalized, presumed not “good enough” because of mental, health, or physical disabilities.

Attiwandaronia – Waters Shining Bright
A history of its original inhabitants upon this native land and the changes brought by Europeans.
Final Project, Voicing Hamilton.
MarieAnge Brouillard, metis artist, 2011

When you put a digital camera in the hands of someone who’s never used one before, the chances of getting something amazing are slim. But add encouragement from your classmates, guidance from the student support team, as well as from your teacher and coordinator and you get surprisingly insightful results […].

When you give pen and paper to someone who throughout her past has been made to feel she has no voice, that she has no opinion, and you get poetry filled with pain yet with hope showing through time and again, hope for a better tomorrow, a better life….

Or the immigrant, new to the country, to the city, unfamiliar with the language, to be allowed into a group of people that gives respect, understanding, and the opportunity to voice aspirations and dreams, to realize that he can write a guide to help new immigrants to Hamilton, something he never thought would be a possibility but now is becoming a reality.

And yet others who worked menial jobs their entire lives wondering ‘what if’ and never thinking that one day that ‘what if’ would become an opportunity to learn the answer.

Beautiful paintings produced by a brush when put in the hands of someone whose voice is too soft to be heard. Someone whom, because of this class, has grown the tremendous courage to look up at the world instead of down at the sidewalk on his walk home… This is what this class has given us as students, as people: a voice that indeed does matter. […].

Over a short 8-week period, I came to know a group of absolutely fascinating people. We all come from different places; have different lives, and different life experiences. To come to this class sharing this richness made the experience that much more personal for all of us. The fellowship and support we all gave each other was a special and wonderful experience for each person involved. We encouraged each other to reach higher, to expand our horizons, and this blossoming was nothing short of amazing! […].

Last summer, if someone had told me that I would be working out the logistics of attending McMaster a year later, I would have laughed.

Another unexpected result has been students building the courage to go out of their comfort zone, to have the confidence to move into their own place, to find work, to become students at Mac, to be published, to have their voice heard.

[…T]his mix of students produced well researched, well thought out projects showcasing amazing talents in writing, photography, painting, drawing and cinematography. During this class, we were encouraged to explore further, to ask questions, to discuss. The spirit of sharing featured big in each class time. Because of this, we began to learn not just about Hamilton but more importantly about ourselves. We were made to realize that we could attend university, that this class opened windows of opportunity for many of us we thought would never open. It showed us that we are good enough, that disability, where you came from, and poverty do not matter and for that I am thankful.

So, here I am today, representing the voice of our class. To be given the opportunity to attend a university level class when such a dream had long ago died of loneliness was nothing short of a dream come true for all of us. Those 8 weeks were an experience I never thought I would be a part of. I learned so much about Hamilton, about my classmates, about our history, our stories and how they all connect to Hamilton’s humble beginnings but most importantly, because of this class, I have been accepted to McMaster as a part time student for the fall term. Last summer, if someone had told me that I would be working out the logistics of attending McMaster a year later, I would have laughed.

Learning Feelings

“Learning grounds a person’s dignity and self-respect.”

I was at  an “Idea Exchange” here at McMaster last week on community-engaged learning when Daniel Coleman, one of my committee members, knocked me on my ass (figuratively, of course) with that statement.

Daniel was there to talk about his experience as the instructor for the pilot course for the McMaster Discovery Program, which “offers university-level non-credit courses to Hamilton residents who face barriers to post-secondary education.” Daniel’s simple statement, and the entire Idea Exchange event, was a much-needed kick in the ass for me. Why? Because as a grad student with a disgusting number of years of formal education under her belt, sometimes all I want to do is TURN OFF THE LEARNING.

That did not happen at the Idea Exchange. Instead, I learned a lot that day, and met a lot of people whose excitement about community-engaged learning was wonderfully infectious.

Feeling Good about Learning

Marie Ange Brouillard, a student from “Voicing Hamilton,” the Discovery Program pilot course, spoke about the class and its interactive, inquiry-based format. In a recent article she wrote for Hamilton’s Women’s Press, Marie Ange explains that she originally intended to write her final project (a history of the native peoples in and around the Hamilton area before and after European settlement), but that she ultimately chose to tell that history via traditional pictograph drawings. At the Idea Exchange she emphasized how much this open-ended, explorative, inquiry-style project allowed her to learn in an engaged, creative way.

How I think I feel.

Prof. Melinda Gough and a panel of students and community leaders involved in the Gender Studies and Feminist Research core-course called “Knowledge in Action” all spoke enthusiastically about “experiential learning,” which, for them meant combining the study of theory with practice. Students did a lot of reading for the course, responded to those reading in reflective papers, and then reflected on the principles expounded in those readings in the practice of working with communities outside McMaster.

Speakers on each panel also talked about important issues like ethics, the dynamics of inter-community relationships, the nuts and bolts of planning a community-engaged course or project, student evaluation (how do you evaluate a student’s engagement with the community?),  and so on. But what I really got out of these sessions was one, clear message: Learning is exciting. These people were indiscriminately care-bear staring a love of learning all over the place; I left the event practically dripping with the stuff. Their enthusiasm was incredible. It was also wonderful.

But that’s not the whole story! Yeah, I left the sessions in a sweet, sweet delirium of enthusiasm, optimism and excitement that shocked me right out of my grad-student ennui. But the speakers at the Idea Exchange were also trying to say that learning is exciting under particular circumstances. Learning is exciting when other people are involved, and when it is experiential, or active. Perhaps another way of saying this is that learning is exciting when it is meaningful. And how could something be meaningful if it did not closely involve others, and deeply involve oneself?

The thing is, though, that I’m typing this as I sit alone, in a small office on campus in the middle of summer. The only evidence of the existence of other people is the occassional sound of the toilet flushing down the hall, and the rolling back and forth of stray crumbs and other human detritus in the conditioned air of this shared (but currently unpopulated) office space.

Feeling Hungover after Feeling Good about Learning

Right. So, a lesson learned: don’t binge-drink bucket loads of learning-love and then try to write your dissertation in isolation. It will make you nauseous and give you a right awful headache. That being said, I’m off to buy a coffee from a woman whose job it is to interact with me like a real-live human being, whether she likes it or not! Then I’ll write in some more silence. And at the end of the day, if the heat doesn’t kill me, perhaps some of those ideas from the Idea Exchange will germinate into, well, I’m not sure what. That remains to be seen!

How I actually feel.

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.

writer’s block

A few weeks ago, I met Joanne Buckley* (author and co-author of a number of books on writing, including Fit to Print), who works at McMaster’s Student Success Centre and Student Accessibility Centre. In no time at all I found myself learning a number of strategies from her about teaching writing. What I’d like to share with you today is her strategy for tackling writer’s block.

When I or my students have writer’s block, I usually recommend lessening the pressure by cutting the project down in size. So, for a conference paper, I’ve started it by imagining it as a series of two-page response papers, and focusing exclusively on one “response paper” at a time. Last week I started my dissertation by imagining that, in fact, I’m not writing a dissertation, but that I’m writing a 10-page conference paper that just happens to be related to my thesis. I don’t know if I can write a dissertation– I’ve never written one before. But I do know I can write a conference paper. So I’m now happily knocking out 1-2 pages a day towards that “conference paper.”

Joanne offered another excellent idea, one that I think would be especially effective for undergrads: Begin your paper by first writing it as a powerpoint presentation. I think this might work as a tutorial assignment: TAs could get students to prepare a powerpoint of their proposed essays, and then ask them to bring them to tutorial to workshop with their peers. In any case, writing an essay first as a powerpoint removes a number of scary-ass hurdles from students’ paths. Students may feel more comfortable using powerpoint; indeed, its interactive feel might get their fingers moving. It also removes the pressure that the complications and length of an essay can produce. Finally, it gets students to create an outline! We all know the blank stares that the phrases “start with an outline” or “give yourself time to revise” produces in the classroom. Asking a student to write a powerpoint of their proposed essay might just show them the benefits of outlining a paper before they begin. How cool is that?

*Joanne Buckley  holds a few positions at Mac: she supervises the writing tutors at the Student Success Centre, and is also a Learning Strategist with the Student Accessibility Centre. Yes, fellow-Mac teachers, this means that there are writing tutors available, by appt, to undergraduates. In fact, there are five of them.  Plus a few academic skills counsellors.  Students can make an appointment on OscarPlus. I should add, too, that Joanne is wonderfully approachable and kind, which makes her a great person to refer students to in her role as a Learning Strategist.