Teaching Criticism

from the "English Grad Student Shaming" tumblr.

“What Mom always said doesn’t go far in grad school…” (from EnglishGradStudentShaming.tumblr.com)

This post attempts to puzzle through the impulse to critique and criticize in literary studies; in particular, it considers a grad-student culture of shame via the newly-created tumblr “englishgradstudentshaming.” What happens when grad students and instructors feel like they “can’t say anything nice about books anymore”?

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Teaching Depression

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

“There are many types of disability,” she explained, “including visible disabilities and invisible ones, like mental illness.”

This was a brilliant, (seriously) amazing, articulate, and engaging Program Officer talking; she works for the office of Human Rights & Equity Services here at McMaster. I had attended a presentation that she and a colleague gave a few years ago. In only an hour or so she was able to engender in her listeners a deep understanding of the difference between accommodation & accessibility, the difference between focusing on accessibility vs. disability, and with both words and body language was able to communicate the important point that rather than being based in fear (of giving offense, or of looking bad or closed-minded), in pity (for people with “problems”), or simply in trying to avoid awkward or tense moments, accessibility is about creating a positive, open culture, wherever you are.

So I emailed her when I knew I had a week to prepare for a workshop I had volunteered to lead, titled, “Creating Safe & Open Discussion Environments in Tutorials.” (Catchy, eh?). I wanted to communicate that sense of positive excitement to workshop participants. I wanted to be able to emphasize that working towards greater inclusion is a positive, creative process, and not just a question of fearfully avoiding exclusion.

Isn’t that nice and warm and fuzzy? The people at Human Rights & Equity Services do the topic better justice than I do. In any case, this is all by way of explanation for my involvement in a discussion of visible and invisible disabilities. Not to mention my response to the statement that opens this entry.

That response was: “Huh.”

With that  sage utterance, my eyes slid from respectful, attentive eye contact until they hit the ceiling–the point at which my eyes could not have gotten any shiftier without rolling right back into my head. So yeah, they kinda just slid to a stop there, staring vacantly at the perforated ceiling tiles.

Let me try to transcribe the incisive analysis that was going on inside my head at that time:

Visible and invisible disabilities. Got it. Check. Mental illness can be seen as a form of disability. Right. Makes sense.

Hey, isn’t depression a mental illness?

Wait. I have depression.

Sitting there slack-jawed and all thoughtful, all I could come up with was:


Protected Grounds

Everything the Program Officer was saying made a lot of sense. She did not offend me. She did not say anything offensive, or exclusionary. In fact, everything she said was helpful, and insightful, and she was able to effectively and carefully communicate that the protected grounds that Ontario & McMaster recognize in their anti-discrimination policies are in many ways limited and limiting.

It’s a familiar catch-22. Recognizing “difference” creates space for those who might otherwise be excluded. But it also implies that there are those who are “normal” or “average,” who are the norm from which all others who are different deviate. Difference becomes deviance. Thinking about difference in this way is problematic because it requires accommodation on the part of so-called normal, healthy, regular people. However, creating labels or categories surrounding identity allows some people to be legally or professionally recognized for who they are, at least in part. It gives people the legal framework by which to assert themselves as whole persons, as legal subjects, as worthy human beings. But, labels are also notoriously ill-fitting.

If I understood the Program Officer at HRES correctly, I think her point was not only that people need to recognize difference and protect it, but that we also need to recognize that difference is everywhere and ever-present; difference can be small or invisible but it can also be noted and stigmatized; that we are different people, even, from one day to the next; and that, finally, difference doesn’t exist so much as ubiquitous diversity does.

So what made me go all strange, then? I did not feel like I was being called a name, or was being forced into a category. I did not chafe at the idea that having depression might be thought of as a disability. Because there are times when I am most certainly disabled by depression. There have been times in my life in the past few years where I have literally been unable to emote. At all. Happiness, anger, interest, gratitude– I recall meetings where eye contact was nearly impossible, and where focus certainly was unattainable. This was the case only last week. In fact, the past few weeks have been a bit difficult. At times in the past few days I’ve felt great. At other times, I feel alien in my own body. When I get feeling like that–foreign to myself–it can be incredibly uncomfortable being with people. I can recognize the people around meke as people I like, and as people I would like to engage with. I can also recognize that I’m in a social or professional environment, which demands certain behaviours from me–smiles, nodding, uh, you know, all those tricky things like verbalization, acting like a human being, whatever. I can recognize these things, but I cannot act on them. My body seems to disconnect from my mind; at the same time, my mind disconnects from my body and the moment it’s living in; it might decide to take a wander or go ’round in squirrely circles much like this.

People with more severe depression may experience it in a way that is much more disruptive to their professional and personal lives than this, to be sure.

So recognizing mental illness as a disability does not irk me. That’s not what threw me off during my meeting at HRES. What got me was that in order to ensure that my depression might not become grounds for discrimination, or feel confident that I can seek accommodation for having a rogue mind or a vacant automaton body at work, it’s not just that I would have to claim a disability–that I might be less or differently-abled than those around me, say–it’s that I would have to first claim to be mentally ill.

Not mentally different. Mentally ill. Unwell. Unhealthy. Mentally not-good.

Teaching Depression

It’s funny for someone with I-dunno-how-many years of formal education to be deemed mentally not-good. Eff you, medical system! But why I’m writing today is because talking with the kind and knowledgeable Program Officer at HRES about accessibility has allowed me to recognize both that I’m excited about the shifting discourse surrounding accessibility and equity in North America,  and that there are aspects of this discourse that make me uncomfortable. I think this is what people in the biz (the teaching biz, of course) call “productive discomfort.” I also think this is whay we might refer to as “good teaching.”

My meeting at HRES reminded me of what a strong, competent teacher is capable. She is able to teach and inform, lead and guide, but she is also able to make that learning process open–open in the sense that it becomes multi-directional and open-ended. The Program Officer at HRES  showed me that a strong teacher has the ability to give you the space and the authority to feel discomfort, and to feel it comfortably, if that makes any sense. I left that meeting ready to explore something that has nagged at my for quite some time: not why being called mentally ill might be problematic (that one’s self-explanatory, I think); but why education projects aimed at destigmatizing mental illness make me feel creeped out, and perhaps a little bit angry.

And that’s the point to which I hope to return next week: how could I possibly be against the destigmatization of mental health disorders?

Science Lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.