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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Cultures of Criticism

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

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Monsters in Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monstrous in Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

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.

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?