heart_in_the_margins: (Hardworking)
(Not that anyone reads this journal aside from me, at this point, but names of people and specific university institutions are changed or omitted because I don't want this to be connected to my RL identity.)

I just got back from day one of a three-day teaching institute, run jointly by the graduate teaching center and a center for teaching and new media. I mostly applied for it because my department doesn't offer enough (what I am I saying, it doesn't offer any) teacher training, and I really care about teaching, so I want as many opportunities as possible to get involved in larger conversations about pedagogy and what, exactly, happens in the classroom. However, since it's being co-run by this center for new media teaching, the focus is very much on how we can make use of technology (which almost always seems to mean preexisting internet-based platform) to enrich students' classroom experience.

The problem that I have with this, off the bat, is that this is not how the institute was pitched to me. It was pitched as an institute for creating and polishing "innovative assignments" that institute participants could implement in their future courses. Unfortunately, I assumed that they really meant "innovative" and not strictly "technological." I can think of a lot of important and innovative assignments that I want to run in my classrooms that actually require no additional tech; what's innovative about them is how they are structured or how they engage the assumptions of the class, department, and discipline. And yet what I am expected to produce by the end of Day 3 of this institute is a plan for a technologically-involved assignment -- not just an innovative one.

Don't get me wrong, I think there are a number of ways that technology can fundamentally improve the ways we teach. I love the idea of having online discussion forums to encourage student participation, of posting reports online so that all students can have access to the information their peers discover in their research, etc. But I also don't really think that counts as "innovative," and in fact a lot of the things I want to do that actually feel more innovative require less high-tech material. (I'm thinking specifically about the Jane Austen class I want to teach, in which I want to offer students the option to write their own Austen adaptation in order to let them discover firsthand that adaptation is an act of interpretation; merely arguing that creative responses ARE critical responses is radical, much less assigning a creative response as the final project for an entire class!) It also doesn't help that the class I'm going to be teaching next fall isn't one in which I have a lot of leeway in terms of assignment structures -- I am only allowed to grade final drafts of student essays, none of their homework and none of their in-class participation -- and I feel bad about trying to integrate something that will take more time and effort from myself as well as my students if I'm literally not allowed to grade them on it.

I have to write up a much shorter formal response about what I learned today, but before I get to that, I just want to write up some of the things I found particularly interesting or annoying or revelatory in a less formal manner, just to get things down on paper.

---> Just because I'm not quite sure how I can effectively use tech in the classroom I'll be inhabiting next fall doesn't mean that this institute has been unhelpful regarding ways to consider tech in the classroom. I really liked the idea, suggested by one group, that the problem with the media/technology/online platforms most of our students use is that they  conceive of them as being primarily private, personal spaces; we need to teach them how to view things like discussion forums, blog posts, and who knows what else as public, academic spaces. I'm fannish so it doesn't seem like a stretch for me at all to conceive of the internet as a tool for creating and enhancing intellectually rigorous debate, but most of my students won't be (and even some of them who are will operate on the Tumblr model of fandom as opposed to the LJ/DW model, which is the problem -- I think all that I want from my students is to make use of discussion forums for the class the way I make use of LJ/DW, where long posts are responded to with thoughtful commentary, but I don't know how to make them understand this model if they aren't fannish). In my mind, technology serves educators best as an extension of the classroom, but I don't know how students are going to respond to that expectation. 

---> Technology doesn't belong everywhere. I don't believe in laptops being used during seminars, because if we're at a small table together I want to see your face instead of a computer screen. I understand and agree with the use of computers in lectures because they're just better for note-taking for many people, but I also understand the drawbacks of allowing kids to use them if they're just going to let themselves be distracted. Where this is really an issue for me is in preparation for my future Undergraduate Writing (UW) class. It's standard protocol to provide students with your assigned texts as PDFs that they are then expected to print out and bring to class with them. The last time I was in a class where all readings were PDFs, I used my iPad and GoodReader to do all my course reading because it saved money, time, and somewhere down the line probably a few trees. Especially with undergraduates, I worry that I may end up with a scenario where no one has the text because they haven't printed it out; however, also especially with undergraduates, I worry that those who read on screens instead of in hard copy won't mark up their texts sufficiently. One suggestion a classmate of mine had for alleviating this issue was to give students an annotation assignment -- forcing them to turn in their hard copy or e-copy and reading over the ways they take notes -- but while I like this in a lot of ways, I also realize that it only keeps students accountable for the particular text you've attached this assignment to. I have no way of measuring whether they will actually mark up their future readings this closely.

---> Having increasing access to data is not the same as knowing how to access data, or to filter it to best meet your needs. My sister's utter inability to use quotations to delimit a basic internet search are a symptom of a much larger problem, one that only grows when you hit academia and need to learn about all kinds of specialized search and research tools and databases.

---> I care a lot more about teaching skills than content, though I don't think you can actually teach any skills without content. When I look back on my undergraduate English experience, it seems like the most important things I learned weren't names or dates or figures but how to write essays (and I don't just mean thesis statements, topic sentences, evidence analysis, etc. -- I mean the whole process of writing, from concept to product). Especially in UW, I feel like my job is to provide students with content that engages them so that they will be more likely to care about the skills I'm teaching them to allow them to engage that content more deeply.

A few innovative assignments proposed by other people that I really liked:

-- Impress upon students the importance of close-reading by taking a famous phrase or saying and changing a single word to a synonym. How does it change the saying? Move on to working with sentences from the assigned text. What words can be changed without radically changing the meaning? Which ones need to stay the same? What does the original word do that the new word doesn't? (This assignment has the added benefit of providing reasons why your students shouldn't just replace words willy nilly with Word's thesaurus tool.)

-- For an art history class: curate an exhibit choosing 10 works and writing up a curator's statement plus the wall text for individual works. (Pick a certain portion of works beforehand that MUST have been works explicitly discussed by the class, as opposed to works that the student finds on her own.)

-- Construct an alternative syllabus for this class. Which texts and assignments would you keep? Which would you change? How would your syllabus represent a different take on the same topic?

-- Ongoing student response blogs in which students are required to reference each other's arguments in subsequent blog postings

A few innovative assignments I've done as a student and really liked:

-- Create an edition of a poem (closely related to my adviser J's final paper option to provide your own footnotes for a span of pages in a text that we read as a class but which was very sparsely footnoted)

-- Write a creative response to the text. This can be an additional chapter, an imitation of the author's style but touching on a different subject, an adaptation or a proposal for an adaptation. This particular kind of assignment forces students to take creativity seriously, allowing them to see their adaptations, additions, and imitations as interpretive acts in their own right.

-- Ask students to generate the material that will be discussed during a particular class period. The romanticism prof A, for whom I TA'd last semester, asked students throughout the semester to contribute to a shared folder anything that they thought related to the themes and interests of the course, and she based her penultimate lecture around the content they generated.

A few innovative assignment proposals I'm contemplating as potential outgrowths of this institute:

-- UW wikispace. This includes a lot of potential components:
  • Group lexicon building. As we learn new terms or develop terms in class to talk about the essay, students volunteer to write up the definitions we've agreed upon and post them online. Students can then link and group related terms. This could also be used to record difficult terms and concepts we come across in our readings (not necessarily terms related to talking about essays). 
  • Class recaps. Assign 1-2 students per class to be "course reporters," responsible for posting at the end of class their summary of the 3-5 most important pieces of information that we learned today. They would be able to link to previous lessons and to concepts in the dictionary. Students would then have a growing online narrative of the course to complement the connections made by the teacher at the beginning of each course. As part of this project, "course reporters" might also be responsible for opening the subsequent class by reminding us what just happened.
  • Shared hyper-text mark-up of key passages, possibly entire texts. These would include both the essays assigned as readings for the progressions and some sample essays for each progression.
  • Summaries of additional/outside resources and material. These could range from reviews of style handbooks to links to important databases or research locations. Instead of merely bringing them into class as the teacher, I would in advance provide a sign-up sheet to students, who would be responsible for sharing one resource per day and talking in class about how that resource is relevant to the day that they have been assigned. (Resources might include physical things like the Writing Center, or digital resources like the OED...? I'm less sure about this idea than I am about the previous ones; I think it would work better as a way of creating an annotated bibliography in a class where more critical material exists. Possibly save this notion for After Austen.)
-- Argument and counterargument. This would be a really simple assignment that probably wouldn't make use of very much tech. It would require students to condense their argument into 1-2 sentences; then, each of their peers (possibly those in their review group?) would have to suggest one assumption or counterargument; finally, the original student would have to respond to each of the counterarguments. At least one of those responses would be required to be present in the final paper. 

(Heh, it figures that this last part is the hardest, since it's only the thing I'm actually being required to do here...)

heart_in_the_margins: (Armful)
I should say a few things at the outset.

a. I'm talking only about a particular kind of pedagogy here -- that is, what goes on in classrooms where English literature is taught. I do think that pedagogy here is different from pedagogy in other fields, because other fields have facts. The closest thing to facts that English has is the text (which even then is subject to all kinds of mutilations, mistransmissions, elisions, editions, etc. and therefore not quite like a fact after all).

b. I recognize that professors have the right to teach classes in a way that benefits these professors and makes them care. Teaching is a relationship that needs to account for the professor as well as the student. My worries arise when the balance of interest in the class parallels the balance of power -- in which the teacher knows more and cares more and there's some relationship between these, in my opinion, that I'm interested in hashing out.

c. I understand there are people who get their PhDs in English because they care about research, not about teaching. I understand that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this orientation. But it is fundamentally ethically illegible to me, because I don't see how what I do matters if it doesn't involve teaching.

d. My approach to pedagogy is fundamentally linked to my thoughts about the primacy of reading in this discipline. Reading, in turn, is fundamentally linked to re-reading, with the potential for infinite reading -- and, as a result, the potential for infinite meaning. In lectures especially, the professor is the one who gets to make arguments about the texts, but the students who care, who have done the reading, will come to class with their own arguments, their own opinions and assumptions, their own reasons for caring about the texts. Sometimes these reasons will be different from the professor's reasons. Sometimes this means their interpretations will be different, too. But a fundamental principle of infinite interpretation is that any professor truly committed to this view of reading needs to be open to arguments not her own. 

With this in mind:

1. I will not teach a "book class" after I have figured out the argument I want to make in the book. It's a common enough phenomenon for professors to construct syllabuses that look like bibliographies-in-progress for their upcoming scholarly work. I'm not opposed to this. I love the kind of thinking that happens in the classroom -- particularly the seminar room, particularly with upper-level undergrads and grad students -- and I hope that the books I write will be challenged and bettered by this kind of thinking in conversation. What I am against is professors coming into classes with their arguments so ready-prepared that they aren't willing to hear dissent. 

2. I will not teach a syllabus centered around a restrictive theme. Ultimately, my arguments against the "theme class" are very closely related to my arguments against the "book class." The "theme class" often guides students' scholarly activity in ways that doesn't benefit them. If I'm a Victorianist, and the only Victorian lit class being offered this semester is "Shame in the Victorian Novel," of course I'm going to take it, but when it comes time to write seminar papers, it won't help my real research interests -- whatever they may be -- if I'm forced to write a paper focusing on shame in the Victorian novel. I think it's okay to organize your syllabus around a theme -- let's face it, you pretty much have to implicitly, if not explicitly -- but I think you should be candid about the ways in which your theme restricts the potential readings of the texts you've selected, and you shouldn't force a slavish adherence to this theme upon your students when it comes time to write papers.

3. I will not dismiss a student's contribution to discussion, nor will I curtail students' participation in discussion in any way unless their participation is negatively impacting the participation of others. This is English. This is not where you go for right and wrong answers. There will, inevitably, be interpretations that seem more "off-topic" than others, based on the general concerns of the course, or the shared knowledge base of the classroom, and I do believe that professors play an important role in moderating discussion so that all students can participate in it as fully as possible. But unless a student is factually wrong (and see underlying assumption a, English is a discipline with very few facts), I will never dismiss an interpretation outright. 

4. I will not grade students down for failing to meet expectations I have not made explicit. This one seems pretty obvious, but it's amazing how often I see this happening. When a professor says any variation of "It's surprising how many of you made the same mistake," it's probably not actually surprising -- it's probably the professor's fault, for not making it clear to the students that doing X counts as a mistake.

5. I will not let my students' performance on a single assignment change the way I view them as people or as scholars. I like to think of this as the doctrine of "we've all been there." Every professor was once a grad student, and an undergraduate before that, so why is it that so many of them seem to forget how hard it was? Judging a person based on a single paper (or midterm, or report, etc.) is subscribing to the implicit assumptions that a) this class is the student's top priority, b) the student's personal life is not relevant to their academic performance, and c) everyone is capable of doing equally well on the specific type of assessment being considered. I'm pretty sure that most of the time, none of these are true. 

6. I will not subscribe to a system of grading that does not reward radical improvement. The point of teaching is that students are always learning. The point of having multiple assessments over the course of a semester is to allow students the opportunity for improvement. If this improvement isn't represented in their end-of-term grade, then something is wrong with my grading system, because a grade should reflect what a student can do at the end of the class, rather than punishing her for what she couldn't do at the beginning. 

I have more thoughts than this, and I am not sure that I fully own all of these thoughts, so maybe you should read them like my prof A reads the letters of John Keats, more as workings-out of ideas than assertions of them, but here they are, working themselves out.
heart_in_the_margins: (Regency reader)
I'm a woman in academia so naturally sometimes I think about what, exactly, that means.

One of the other women in my cohort, N, has been working to put together some kind of women's forum within our department that would provide a safe space for informal discussion between grad students and professors about how gender figures both in our scholarly works and in or day-to-day lives. I don't think that the academic culture of my university is such that there are glaring problems with the way women are treated (as cis- and hetero-identified, I won't venture to attest to the way the atmosphere seems for any queer or trans* members, but I haven't heard any complaints), but even in the absence of glaring misogyny the patriarchy is real and a thing whose assumptions need to be challenged, even if only on a small level, on a daily basis. And sometimes that gets exhausting, and it's useful to talk with other people -- professors and peers -- who are engaged in the same sort of daily grind. I don't have time in my schedule to head up this thing myself, but I told N that I don't mind at all taking on a second-in-command role and I'm excited to see where this goes.

At any rate, we had a sort of trial meeting for this potential forum today and my current romanticism professor, A, spoke about her own experience as a woman in graduate school, particularly in classroom situations; she brought up a few interesting situations and scenarios that got me thinking, and that I want to record.

-- She made what I think is an interesting point about the relationship between pedagogy and privilege. A is a cis, hetero married woman who is also a member of an ethnic minority. She said that, especially in undergraduate classrooms, she tries to keep her sexuality her own business -- to the extent that she refers to her husband exclusively as her "partner" in the presence of students, because she doesn't want to be a glaring example of her own privilege as part of one type of majority; let her students assume what they will. On the other hand, she's typically more open about her status as a member of an ethnic minority. I really appreciated this because I've been thinking for a while about how a) I want gender-neutral relational words to become more popular as a way of unsettling or at least making apparent the gendering of language itself, and b) I don't want to "be" my sexuality to my students -- I want to be myself, which includes sexuality but isn't only sexuality, and I certainly don't want my students to think that, because I do identify as a cis hetero woman, I am unsympathetic to the concerns of people with different identities. 

-- We talked a bit about strategies for dealing with everything from small daily doses of patriarchy to outright in-your-face misogyny, and A related a story about a man in her grad school cohort who often used literary theory as a crutch for making horrendously misogynist statements. When certain of A's profs did nothing about this, the female students took it upon themselves to create what A called an "alternative hierarchy of expertise": instead of responding with rage to this man's misogyny and the failure of their professors to correct it, A and her cohort developed methods for turning his misogynist contributions into starting-points from which to affirm the knowledge of the women in the room. For example, one of A's friends had read all of Foucault in the original French, so if Mr. Misogynist ever tried to use Foucault to make a point, A or a member of her cohort would redirect the conversation to that friend based on her position of superior knowledge; if he started to talk politics, other women would ask A for her input because she's well-read in 19th-c political thought. In some ways it is tiring to always have to deflect, but I like this strategy because while it does work by deflection, it redirects power rather than changing the subject.

-- Then A shared a story that made me angry. Yes, the other ones made me angry, but in this case, I felt like the response she described -- and with which she seemed to agree -- was utterly inadequate. Mr. Misogynist gave a fairly phallocentric presentation on a Dickens novel; one of A's cohort-mates asked him a question which called him out on his failure to mediate this view, bringing up a couple of examples in the novel that contradicted it; his response was to turn to the professor of the course and say to her, sarcastically, "I thought you only let in smart people."

When I heard this retold I literally shuddered. What kind of idiot thinks he has the right to say that? To interact with the professor instead of the peer who's asked the question, to dismiss her body of knowledge outright, and to do it to her face and in front of a colloquy of her peers?! If I had been that professor, my response would have been some variation on, "Apparently not, since we let you in. Now get out of my classroom and don't come back until you can respect the intellectual validity of your peers." In A's retelling, however, the professor responded calmly, did not kick the student out of the class, and instead told him that his comment wasn't contributing to any kind of pedagogy and that he shouldn't speak if he couldn't contribute something of value to others.

I understand that rage typically isn't the kind of thing you want to present in a classroom. I understand that more respect is accorded to professors -- male or female -- who can deftly handle a situation. But I promise you, if I were in a similar position, I would have been furious and I would have let some of that anger show by critiquing this student to his face, since he felt it was alright for him to do the same to his fellow student.

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