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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Cultures of Criticism

Cultures of CriticismThe thinking behind this post began with some of the work done at The Thesis Whisperer– an insightful and immensely readable blog and resource for grad students. Dr. Inger Mewburn’s post about the “chameleon” reaction to criticism got me thinking: how do cultures of scholarship effect the culture of the classroom? Are the two cultures more intimately linked than one might first think? Might the culture of one inhibit the growth of the other? 

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“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.

Learning How to Talk

Lars Hagberg for National Post files

Lars Hagberg for National Post / Queen’s University

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

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

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

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

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

Incivility in the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?

Science Lab

Hey, I’m wondering: does science ever enter your classrooms?

“Transfusions” by Lynn Randolph in collaboration with Donna Haraway, appearing in Modest Witness (1997).

Has it ever swaggered in, a bit over-confident and disturbingly self-assured, stepped on some toes and maybe even stampeded over the class? Or does it await an invitation, like the vampires of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, hovering at the window, requiring permission before it can enter, all pale-faced and menacing? Perhaps you  invite it in, ask it to visit your Humanities class under the condition that it behave, that it not step on any toes and stay strictly on topics of so-called scientific fact?

Or, perhaps those of you in the Social Sciences are less wary of “Big-S” Science than some of us in the Humanities, perhaps you are invested in teaching scientific objectivity and methodology to your students.

My word choice is not accidental. Science and biotechnology can be scarily pale-faced: it can appear colourless and colour-blind, and can pose as genderless and classless, even when saturated with racism and even when invoked in the defense of white, hetero-normative standards of health and “normalcy.” I need only think of a woman’s yearly visits to the doctor’s examining table, feet up in stirrups with thighs all a-tremble, to know that medical practice is highly gendered. It doesn’t matter that the doc doing my pap is a woman; that she still uses a cold, gleaming metallic speculum to prod her female patients every other year or so in defense of their ovarian health when, for hundreds of years, women have been using much more comfortable materials for the mechanistically similar but sensationally different practice of masturbation, is just idiotic. We in the West have developed, marketed and bought in the millions all forms of silicone utensils for our non-stick, teflon-coated cookware, can we not just figure it out already and lube up a freaking bright orange spatula and give it a go up there?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–over the past six months or more, really–about race, science, technology, and pedagogy. Thinking about how people approach definitions of race with science in-hand is really interesting to me. The spectre of eugenics haunts discussions of race to this day, which has in part resulted in people in the humanities skirting the intersection of race with scientific inquiry and theory. The problem I have with this approach–with an approach that emphasizes the social or “constructed” nature of race to the exclusion of its phenotypical and biological aspects–is that it neglects to address the fact that for many people, race cannot be dissociated from the body, and, as a result, neither can it be separated from how we understand (accurately or inaccurately) biology. That being said, I equally dislike approaches to the topic that attempt to separate “pseudo-science” from “hard science,” i.e., approaches that over-simply and assert that phenotype exists; race does not.  When Science is invited into the room to act the authority on the subject and to “explain away” the “fiction” that is race, I get real nervous.

But this is quite literally the stuff of an entire dissertation–I hope to investigate this topic further in my own thesis. I’m not doing it justice here. In fact, I’m actually digressing from my original inquiry: in what ways does science/Science enter non-science classrooms? In discussions of race, gender, sexuality? Or, do these topics constitute ground too shaky for the academic and cultural heavyweight, Science?

These questions were prompted by Mark Brown’s recent post over at Whose University, where he talks not only about the need for greater scientific knowledge amongst the (American) public, but also about the need for a particular type of scientific literacy: one that recognizes the sociopolitical dimensions of scientific inquiry and applications.  This form of literacy is what Donna Haraway refers to as “situated knowledges” (11) in Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse (1997) (Not exactly a shocker, is it, that a title like that dates from the 90s). Haraway promotes a defintion of scientific literacy that  involves learning “how not to be literal minded” (15). A non-literal literacy (I love it!) would allow us to tackle the myriad and ever-present intersections of science with our everyday lives–both social and biological. It would allow us, in Haraway’s words,  to “engag[e]promiscuously in certain moral and political inquiry about feminism, antiracism, democracy, knowledge, and justice in certain important domains of contemporary science and technology” (15).

So I’m wondering, is it my job to promote this form of scientific literacy? Is it yours? Is it something that demands a place in the Humanities and Social Sciences? In what ways have you encountered science in classrooms and learning experiences?

the rigours of pleasure or the pleasures of rigour?

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

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

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

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

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

Pleasure v. Academic Rigour

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Student Feedback Might Be Misleading

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching as Ars Erotica

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

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

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

And, in an earlier chapter, she notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pleasure and the Body

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


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

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

Smith, C. Veronica and LeeAnn Cardaciotto. “Is Active Learning like Broccoli? Student Perceptions of Active Learning in Large Lecture Classes.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 11.1 (January 2011): 53-61. Online.

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

when teacherly desires meet rigid resistance…

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

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

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

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

Google “pleasure in the classroom”…

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

Well. I Googled it.

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

So there, you snooty scholars.

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

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

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

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

The Blame Game

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

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

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

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