What Is a Seminar?

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

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

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? 

Continue reading

The Letting-of-Words-and-Thoughts-Hang-in-the-Air

Or, the Art of Storytelling…

I’m all over “fluff” lately. Some might call it “pulp.” Others, “crap.” My partner might describe it as “sh*t spray.” Although admittedly this last descriptor would likely arise more out of a commitment to seize any chance at scatological one-up-man-ship than out of any real feeling of judgement or criticism.

I am talking here about genre fiction. I’ve been asking myself these past few months: why genre fiction? Why am I suddenly so absorbed by fantasy, romantic fantasy, post-apocalyptic narratives and post-human science fictions? And why do I get so bloody riled up every time some “respected” author approaches the genre and ruins it entirely with postmodern disruptions of plot, conventions and credibility?

At the same time that I really started getting into these particular genres I was also thinking about why I liked listening to stories so much. A well-told story is pure magic. A well-told story just feels so good. It is sensational. I mean, I sense it; it is a bodily thing. Perhaps because it is intimate; listening to a good storyteller, you’re drawn right in.

Am I just tired of the novel–of the literary novel, that is? Of the internal monologues and endless recycling of narratives of personal growth and enlightenment? Yes yes yes yes, frick yes,I am tired of this perpetual telling of the inner life of the modern individual.

But that’s not the whole story. I have this feeling, this gut feeling, you see, that genre fiction is a lot like oral storytelling. Both are bound strictly, in many ways, by convention. This isn’t some surface or formal resemblance. Generic conventions set up a sort of covenant between speaker and listener, text and reader. The reader of genre fiction anticipates while she reads based on this generic covenant, or contract. This anticipation is a sort of foreknowledge. She is writing the story before and as it develops; she is participating in the articulation of knowledge before the text can even articulate it. And so it goes with listening. With listening we try to anticipate where a speaker will lead us; with oral storytelling, the storyteller uses devices with which we are familiar to allow us to attempt this anticipation, to feel as though we are a part of the meaning-making process as it unfolds.

Oral storytelling is often described as dialogic; that is, it is supposed to open up a sort of dialogue between storyteller and listener. Sometimes, this is because storytellers use devices that call on the listener to actively participate. These devices might be as simple as silence; or, to give this practice its proper due, we might better describe it as the letting of words and thoughts hang in the air. Silence tends to be taken to mean absence, end, closure or lack. The letting-of-words-and-thoughts-hang-in-the-air is something different all together; it denotes a fullness and a loitering of meaning. It allows the space and the time for listeners to respond, either inwardly to themselves or outwardly to the storyteller, via audible or visible gestures. Call-and-response is of course another, well-known oral storytelling, dialogic device.

The thing I never really got before about listening to oral stories is that this dialogic or participatory function is not merely geared toward entertainment. When you listen to a story and it feels like magic it is because you feel at once like worlds and meanings are appearing, like magic, out of the fabric of someone else’s voice, but also like you are there, somehow, part of that creative act. Yes, I get that this happens with written literature as well, and the big-L “Literature” I lambasted. But a well-told oral story has the power to make you feel intimately tied to its creator and to the act of its creation in a way that reading can’t. Except maybe for the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

Perhaps you can guess now why I’m rambling on about genre fiction, oral storytelling and generic conventions in a blog that’s supposed to be about teaching and learning: because bringing learners into the process of knowledge production is key to deep learning, authentic learning, or whatever it is you want to call it.

If this were a didactic story, I would leave you here with a few lessons. I would explain to you precisely how we can learn from oral storytelling as teachers and learners. And I’ve gotta yell you: I am a teacher (sort of), and I write about teaching (kind of), so the keen desire to tell you WHAT IT ALL MEANS is damn difficult to ignore.

But ignore it I will. I’ll let the words loiter, here, on the page … at least I will, once I say just one … or two … more things. Or, in fact, once I invite a few others to say a few things.

Kimberly M. Blaeser, in her work on contemporary Indigenous literatures in North America, writes that “Native authors… attempt to encourage a response-able way of reading” (qtd. in Neuhaus 12). J. Edward Chamberlin, in an essay on oral storytelling called “Boasting, Toasting and Truthtelling,” claims that “It is style that certifies truth–not the subject or the sincerity of the speaker, except insofar as that sincerity is an element of style, as spontaneity might also be” (39). And Chamberlin, when paraphrasing classicist Milman Perry, adds this: “style, not language, constitutes thought in oral performance” (39).

Is your teaching “response-able“?

Is performance a part of your pedagogical lexicon?

Does the spell of style disperse with the end of the performance?

Does performance obfuscate real meaning?

Do you like how I’ve included gaps between these questions as though giving you the opportunity to respond?


Do you?


Works Cited

Blaeser, Kimberly M. “Writing Voices Speaking: Native Authors and an Oral Aesthetic.” Talking on the Page: Editing Aboriginal Oral Texts. Eds. Laura J. Murray and Keren Rice. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999. Print.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. “Boasting, Toasting, and Truthtelling.” Orality and Literacy: Reflections Across Disciplines. Eds. Keith Thor Carlson, Kristina Fagan, and Natalia Khanenko-Friesen. Toronto: U of T Press, 2011. 21-42. Print.

Neuhaus, Mereike. That’s Raven Talk: Holophrastic Readings of Contemporary Indigenous Literatures. Regina: CPRC Press, 2011. Print.

Acknowledgment without Apology

In my different jobs and duties at McMaster this year, I’ve been working closely with a number of people required to take various leadership roles in the classroom, from TAs to seminar leaders and student presenters. I’ve listened to myself repeat the same advice to a number of different people in regards to a number of different situations. In a workshop for new TAs, an anxious colleague asked what they might do if faced with an unbreakable wall of silence, or a consistently quiet tutorial week in and week out. In a session on teaching writing, an experienced TA asked how he might teach students how to write well when he didn’t know how he had learned to write well. How do you teach others what you feel you know so little about? And, in a session on creating safe and open discussion environments, one participant explained that he wanted to know not only how to prevent exclusions and offensive behaviour, but also what to do once a bigoted comment was made, or a homophobic slur was said.

To each question, I confidently replied: “Acknowledge it.”

Acknowledgment’s Charms

Acknowledgment is neither band-aid nor magical incantation. It does not heal wounds or ward off evil spirits. But there is a certain magic to simple acknowledgment: it can bring a touch of warmth and comfort to a room cursed with cold silence, and can transform ignorant comments and hurtful language into those mythic creatures called “teaching moments,” which flit about the fairy world of teachers’ hopes and dreams only to make intermittent but inevitably mischievous appearances in our classrooms.

But it wasn’t until last week–almost a full month after I had so confidently counseled acknowledgment as the path to teacherly enlightenment–that I really thought about the magic behind its use.

I was working with a grad student who was worried that her English pronunciation would confuse her peers during a seminar she was required to lead. Her solution was to use powerpoint to give the rest of the class visual cues that would signpost key ideas and transitions. I suggested that she might also acknowledge that English was her second language, and that she was concerned she might not be as clear as she wanted to be. I made this suggestion in the hopes that her candor might have two positive effects. First, it might make her feel more at ease, because she wouldn’t feel as thought she had anything to hide or cover up. Second, it might encourage her peers to ask questions, just as they would if they didn’t understand a presenter whose first language was English. If she didn’t acknowledge her concerns, her peers might be hesitant to ask for clarification, for fear that they would be drawing attention to a sensitive issue, or a weakness.

And, really, how could speaking two or more languages possibly be construed as a weakness?

So without much thought, I added: “Also, just something to think about: you don’t have to apologize for it, either.”

Oh no; Alice has grown small.

Apology and Confession

Unnecessary apologies work their own sort of magic: they have the power to make you disappear, or, at the very least, cause you to diminish rapidly in stature in the eyes of others. But refusing to apologize for something not worthy of apology is more than just sleight-of-hand in the game we play in interpersonal relations. If we acknowledge something only to apologize for it, we risk undoing the powerful work of acknowledgment itself. Acknowledgment demands recognition. Apology, on the other hand, pleads forgiveness.

The act of apologizing can be very similar to that of confessing. I’m thinking here of Wendy Brown’s reading of Foucault on the subject of confession. She explains:

“Confessional revelations are … constructed as liberation from repression or secrecy, and truth-telling about our desires or experiences is construed as deliverance from the power that silences and represses them…. What Foucault terms ‘the internal ruse of confession’ is reducible to this reversal of power and freedom: ‘Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence; truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an original affinity with freedom.’ In believing truth-telling about our experiences to be our liberation, Foucault suggests, we forget that this truth has been established as the secret to our souls not by us but by those who would discipline us through that truth.” (42)

Such is the trickery of confession–its “internal ruse”–that we feel rebellious, free, completely liberated from discipline and control just as we affirm our own need to transgress the limits placed on us. In apologizing for our transgressions we re-affirm the logic that defines certain behaviours and certain ways of thinking as transgressive. In confessing to a deeply held secret or taboo truth, we give credence to the way of thinking that named it secret or taboo in the first place.

Learning to acknowledge challenges in the classroom without apologizing for them is important not because saying sorry might make you appear weak or somehow lessen your authority in the eyes of judgemental or unforgiving students, but because apologizing for the challenges we face in teaching and learning suggests that learning should be easy. By definition, learning is not easy. It might be fun, challenging and exciting, but it is not easy.

So, to that grad student anxious about how her peers might receive her and her pronunciation, I advised: acknowledge it, but do not feel like you must apologize for it.

Funny, though, that her reaction made me both smile and question my advice immediately after giving it. One moment she was calm and attentive; the next, she was a flurry of movement: her hands flew to her face, her shoulders shot to her ears, and with a bit of a laugh, she said, “But that’s what we do in my country!” I think a lot of Canadians can empathize with her. We practice a culture of apology. I think women, especially, are trained as apologists. But, in apologizing for ourselves, do we risk re-inscribing the lines that fence us in?


Work Cited

Brown, Wendy. States of Injury. Princeton UP, 1995. Print.

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?

show & tell, vol. 1

I met a few grad students at my local cafe today and we got to talking shop– not thesis shop, but teaching shop. It was great. This renewed my conviction that I need to spend more time listening to teachers talk about teaching. As this blog shows, I’ve been doing some academic research on teaching, but academic writing can just be so dry, so very, very dry. Yes, it is informative, and sure, it can even be inspiring, but research on teaching and learning can also be totally, completely and undeniably dryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Consequently, journal articles don’t always quench that thirst for community a solitary grad student like myself might so desperately long for.

So, it’s time for show and tell. Would you please share here a favourite blog or blog post on teaching, learning, pedagogy, grad-student life, faculty woes, university politics, or whatever catches your fancy? It would be so very much appreciated if you do.

I’ll go first: Check out Maryellen Weimer’s post on FacultyFocus.com about using concept maps in your syllabi. If, like me, you’ve always thought syllabi were simply instruments of discipline–somehow written in such a way as to excite both terrible boredom and stark fear–then Maryellen’s post will give you some insight into how syllabi can actually be teaching tools. Crazy thought, eh? 

So once again, I welcome your comments and any links you might want to share.