Students Can’t Multitask

From, "Your crotch can kill, claim Alberta ads." Feb. 21, 2013,

From, “Your crotch can kill, claim Alberta ads.” Feb. 21, 2013,

I found myself completely confused, mouth agape, as I stood in line at McMaster’s Wellness Centre this week. I was looking at one ad of what I now know is a series produced by the Alberta government. The ad reads: “Crotches Kill.” I stood there at the Wellness Centre, eyes darting from the bold letters (can we call it a slogan?), to the image of the lady looking really happy about (with?) her crotch; then my eyes dropped a bit, taking in the assortment of free condoms placed just below and to the left of the ad, and then they darted right back to “CROTCHES KILL.” WTF, right? W. T. F.

Okay, so eventually I figured it out. Texting can be a fatal distraction when you’re DRIVING! (I was worried for a minute there, that it might be catching, or something. But no (phew!), texting is not an STI!).

A great post from blogger Maryellen Weimer compels us to ask, however: Can texting be a fatal distraction from LEARNING?

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Reading to Write: Part II

Photo from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. The original caption reads: "Reverse Outlining can be a sticky (note) situation"

Photo from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. The original caption reads: “Reverse Outlining can be a sticky (note) situation”

A follow-up post on techniques for teaching writing by first teaching critical reading. In particular, I talk about reverse outlining: how to do it, why you might assign it, and some thought on its relationship to developing critical reading skills.

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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 "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!"

“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.

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 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).

Managing Risk in Class Discussions

The words “open” and “secure” don’t often find themselves in the same sentence; in a risk society that organizes itself around projections of financial, biological, environmental, and even moral risk to the lives of individuals, populations, businesses and economies, these two words are diametrically opposed.

Eric Ritskes at Beyond a Degree: Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed, however, has recently posed the question of how instructors might balance the two in classroom discussions, and, I gotta say that I like his approach to the subject. Eric bluntly calls attention to the barriers to creating a truly “open” learning environment, barriers that include not only the instructor’s own politics, but also the power play involved in any group work. Anyone who works with others will be familiar with these power dynamics, yet the clarity with which Eric at Beyond a Degree approaches the subject brought the point home to me in a new way. Eric criticizes any who might claim to offer a truly “open” and objective learning environment and their “naive belief in objectivity,” and he rightly points out that “[w]e all have our agendas and politics.” I would go even further in this regard and suggest that we should all have our agendas and politics in the classroom; we should be aware of them to be sure, and aware of how we want to share them with students.

Eric’s post at Beyond a Degree highlights another important point: power in the classroom can be held disproportionately not only by the teacher, but also by certain students. “[P]articular students,” he notes, can “dominate the air space, choose who gets represented how, and deny space to others.”  This power play may be intentional and aggressive, or it may be unintentional and accidental. But whatever the intent of the students involved, the results can be equally alienating, frustrating and hurtful to students who find themselves without a voice with which to speak or a space in which stand.

So, I thought I’d bring the discussion Beyond a Degree began last week to Dry-Erase Writings, and share with you one strategy for balancing (as best as one can) openness and security in a large group or class discussion. I originally learned of this strategy from a former colleague, Erin Aspenlieder (now an educational consultant at Simon Fraser University) and was more recently reminded of it by Marie Vander Kloet, an educational consultant here at McMaster. Here’s my take on it:

Assigning Roles in Large Group Discussions

I randomly assign students the following roles: facilitator, questioner, & public record-keeper, and these roles then rotate each week. More than one student can take on the same role in a single discussion, as well.

I usually assign one student (or two) the role of facilitator. Another few might be assigned the role of querier (they jot down a few questions as the discussion progresses and are obligated to ask at least one question of another student in the course of the discussion). The role of public reporter (she or he keeps a record of the discussion on the board) is voluntary, which allows shier students to participate more frequently, not to mention take ownership over that participation.

A variation that I haven’t tried, but would like to, is to set up a class blog dedicated to these group discussions. The reporter for the week would then post her/his records on the blog, the queriers would post their questions, and students could respond to those questions as they like.

Keeping it Open

There is one role that does not rotate in this scheme: the role of note-taker. I, as the instructor, usually fill this role.This allows me to step back from the discussion and give students the opportunity to take the floor. For this tactic to be effective, it is important that the instructor make her/his role as note-taker or observer clear to the class. As per Erin’s advice, at the beginning of each role-assigned discussion, I remind the class that as note-taker, my head may be bent to my page quite a bit, that I will only be able to participate sparingly, and that this means that if I do not make eye contact or do not respond to students directly, it is not because I don’t value their input. The result is that students tend to address one another, rather than me. My lowered eyes and passive body language sends a clear message that I am neither the discussion leader nor its critic; this, in turn, solicits openness and participation. It’s like magic. I swear. Well, most of the time, anyway.

There is one more benefit to explicitly acknowledging your role as note-taker to the class. Explaining to students that you will not be an active participant in the discussion doesn’t just remind themthat you do not sit in on the discussion as judge does on a court case; it also reminds you— yes, you, the knowledgeable instructor, so accustomed to instructing–that this is not your role in the discussion.  Yes, I am that type of teacher. At times, I actually need reminding to put away my teacher’s gavel. Or, at least to relax my grip on it a bit. Maybe even to stop waving it around at the head of the classroom like a viking with a mace.

Hey, did vikings even use maces?

What am I even talking about?

Similes are dangerous when you’re an idiot.

Keeping it Safe

So you’ve put away your mace or gavel or whatever imaginary symbol of authority you weild in your mind. (My apologies if you’re actually not a total asshole and don’t think in these terms. I commend your non-violent imaginations). Students are talking with one another relatively freely; there are quiet moments in the discussion, and at times the discussion isn’t as lively as you would like it to be. But, on the whole, students in the class are each taking some level of responsibility for the class environment; they feel in control of things, the feel like they can voice their opinions, like anything goes.

Oh shit. Have we gone too far?

Before I send you to bed with nightmares of a class gone wild, or of calm, quiet students turned poltergeist spewers of hate speech by the heady taste of power and freedom, let me explain how this discussion management system balances the opennes it invites with security.

First, assigning discussion roles helps to balance the spread of who gets to speak and when in the classroom. And not just because, for example, whoever is the facilitator or a questioner for the week cannot avoid speaking. It’s also because student comfort can change based on who has the floor. I’ve seen students who are usually very quiet in “open” class discussions suddenly become much more voluble and relaxed during an assigned-role discussion facilitated by a friend, or by someone they’ve worked with previously in think-pair-share exercises.

Another benefit of this system is that it gives students a clear idea of what is expected of them; as a result, they tend to feel safer. Unclear expectations will keep many students quiet. Unclear expectations can also have the exact opposite effect on others: it can encourage some students to stray off topic into dangerous territory, dominate the floor, talk over others, or simply not listen. Making discussion guidelines and role expectations explicit allows students to self-police one another; it also gives you solid, communally-acknowledged standards to refer to in any case where you feel it necessary to step in to steer a discussion away from disaster, or to address any disruptive behaviours with the class.

And that, of course, is the final safeguard this system offers–you as note-taker are not entirely absent, or passive. You can step in if necessary, or revisit a touchy topic in weeks following if you don’t like how a discussion went. And, if you participate sparingly in these discussions–but still participate–students will not forget your presence. They will recognize that a higher authority does preside, ultimately, over the classroom, someone who will work to keep the classroom a safe, secure and comfortable space.

Now it’s your turn. How do you invite participation in the classroom? How do you try to create a safe, equitable classroom? I would love to hear from you.

let’s scare the s*@# out of ourselves!

I thought I’d issue a challenge to myself, and to anyone who might be reading this, for the upcoming summer months: learn something new this summer. Hence the title of this blog post; learning something completely and utterly new is usually a somewhat terrifying experience. At the very least, it’s a discomfitting one.

If you buy this book, you'll be a better person. No, scratch that. A better woman. Men can't read this because it's got purple lettering on the cover, plus there's an old lady holding a cake. Nevermind that she's Eleanor m-----f---ing Roosevelt! Ladies only.
The quote, "Do one thing every day that scares you", was actually Eleanor's; apparently it has inspired this gem of a book as well as bathroom-stall scrawl.

But then I recalled the Oprah-esque graffiti that cheerily greeted me each day in the second stall of the second-floor women’s washroom in Mills Library this past semester: “Do something that scares you today!”

“Well f%#$ you, 19-year-old bubble-letter graffiti artist!” was my cheery response to that gem of wisdom. Why would I want to add more uncertainty to my life?  Awkward social encounters are pretty much a daily inevitability, and they’re pretty horrifying. They’ve gotta count for something, right? Listening to my pee rattle into the toilet bowl as I gazed at that happy scrawl, I would suddenly feel a very old 29, simultaneously wistful and resentful of the very young hand that I assumed had authored it.

Challenging oneself is a part of the self-improvement mantra that propels our lives, our purchasing practices, and our sense of self-worth. I don’t want to buy into that crap, and I certainly don’t want to be the one hawking it, either. But I have been thinking a lot about the experience of learning, and how us academics and/or teachers seem to forget what that feels like, despite our everlasting immersion in teaching and learning. I think a lot of teachers feel that they are experts in learning: we witness learning (or so we hope) all the time, and we ourselves have done a lot of learning in order to be able to teach others.

I want to suggest the opposite. If you are a teacher who has been at it for some time, or if you are a university or college instructor, seasoned in years of post-secondary education, then I think it more than likely that you have forgotten what it feels like to learn something new.

But how can I say this, to you, dear lady, who just started karate last year,  with your academic arms accustomed only to the strain of typing, and your legs atrophied beneath your office desk? Or  to you, tenured prof, who you just bought yourself a second-hand sewing machine and are teaching yourself how to sew a french seam, and stitch a button hole? Or to you, keen grad student, tackling phenomenology for that final dissertation chapter that just won’t die? My bet is that while you may experience some discomfort in these endeavors, that discomfort does not compare to the bewilderment a student in first-year university can face.

The Research

Let me hit you with some really dry research on teaching and learning to give you an idea of where I’m going with this:

“[T]heory and data suggest that as individuals proceed from high school to college and beyond, what they know (i.e., knowledge       structures) may play a more important role, in comparison with standard aptitude measures, in predicting academic and occupational success” (Ackerman & Rolfhus n. page).

This will come as a shock to no one. It has the ring of common sense to it, doesn’t it? And yet, that we learn based on what we already know is something easily forgotten by people who have done a lot of learning– people for whom a strong knowledge base has been established so thoroughly that they forget its presence and function when approaching new, unfamiliar material.

And, a bit more on how we “build” knowledge:

“Knowledge is accumulated through complex experiences that are stored in schema, a structured representation that captures the information that typically applies to a situation or event (Barsalou, 1992). Schema and categories form some of the basic structures that underlie knowledge and memory. We rely on these structures to encode and retrieve information” (Cherney 152-53)

As was the case with Ackerman & Rolfhus’ study, the findings of Cherney’s research come as no surprise. Accumulated experience allows us to build knowledge structures; these knowledge structures, in turn, colour how we perceive, code, and retrieve new information. Cherney even makes use of a pre-existing knowledge structure to get her point across: in using the language of computer programming (ie, information, memory, encode), she aptly introduces unfamiliar knowledge to us wrapped in a familiar metaphor–that of the mind-as-computer.

And these findings, though seemingly self-evident, in fact say quite a lot.

Esoteric Learning

First, these findings remind us that university learning is in many ways a deeply esoteric process.  The word “esoteric” is in and of itself esoteric–it’s a word that is not widely known, or used. A quick Google “define’ search will tell you that “esoteric” describes knowledge that is available only to a select few, or to an inner circle. What that search won’t tell you (at least not right away) is that esoteric knowledge is described as such not because it is elitist per se, but because it is associated with religious and mystical traditions that value a form of apprenticeship in religious and spiritual learning. Esoteric knowledge is any knowledge that requires a great deal of study and learning before it can even be approached. To recall Ackerman & Rolfhus’ wording, then, esoteric knowledge does not necessarily depend on aptitude; instead, esoteric knowledge is based on the building and establishment of certain (often canonized) knowledge structures.


Second, these findings add renewed value to a concept in teaching that, to my ears, has been endowed with that gratingly high-frequency tone of the cliche: scaffolding.  The idea of instructional scaffolding makes visual the process of knowledge building teachers might attempt in the classroom. To me, scaffolding can be a matter of assessing and building on the experiences and knowledge structures that stroll into university classrooms each year–knowledge structures that are there for the taking, like  pre-fabbed homes waiting to be built. Or, it might mean asking how new knowledge structures can be built from the ground-up; it might mean asking what foundations might be necessary before a structure can be built, or what concepts must first be learned in order for others to be understood. In any case, scaffolding re-frames a discussion of teaching from that of knowledge transmission to a method of practiced accumulation, apprenticeship, or construction.

One final note about this concept of scaffolding–a metaphor that I find particularly appealing. Why? Well, because it reminds those of us “up there”, looking down from the rickety heights of our lofty university educations, that those just beginning in our field of expertise are no less intelligent.  We were once there, ourselves. But it’s more than that. It’s the impermanence of scaffolding that draws me to this metaphor. It’s the thought of myself on that scaffolding–not working confidently at the rising structure at its centre, but gripping the rail white-knuckled, tummy a-tumbling–that makes this concept so damn appealing.  I mean, holy crap, let’s not forget that clambering up the rickety, wobbly scaffolding that structures the Humanities is not necessarily something to be desired. It can be a  pretty shaky climb at times. Yea gods, sometimes I find myself looking down from my own lofty position as a grad student and TA–ha!– and wonder, “what the frick am I building, anyway?” And I swear, it’s not just the size of the paycheque that makes me question where I’m at, or wondering whether I’ll ever be anywhere other than the outside, looking in. It’s also what I haven’t learned, or what I don’t know, that leaves me wondering. In this learned love affair with text and critique in which I now find myself so very deeply entangled, have I missed out on other educational love affairs?

A fairly accurate representation of the view from the English & Cultural Studies Department, McMaster University. Especially the gargoyles.


Ackerman, Philip L. and Eric L. Rolfhus. “Knowledge Structures and Adult Intellectual Development.” College Board Report 98.3 Online.

Cherney, Isabelle D. “The Effects of Active Learning on Students’ Memories for Course Content.” Active Learning in Higher Education 9.2 (July 2008): 152-171. Online.

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.

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.