pedagogy

Empathy and the Danger(s) Disengagement

 

 

 

For the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping a list.

Admittedly, it’s not an original concept, being a mental exercise adapted from one of many optimistic Pinterest boards encouraging meditative mindfulness and gratitude in the upcoming New Year. Instead of coming up with a soon-to-be neglected resolution, this effort at self-improvement requires little more than keeping a record of positive memories, noteworthy events, or otherwise “good things.”

In addition to brown paper packages tied up with strings, my list of “Good Things to Remember from 2016” ranged from personal achievements, to exciting sport victories, cultural and artistic high points, and celebrated milestones: in February, the Carolina Panthers – my home state’s football team – made it to Super Bowl L, where a spectacular halftime performance by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter called attention to the Black Lives Matter activist movement on the biggest stage in televised sports. In April, Knowles-Carter released her powerful visual album, Lemonade, an unflinching tribute to black women, honoring their voices, and acknowledging the struggle of living while black in the United States. My sister was married in May, my brother graduated from high school in June, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s transformative musical, Hamilton, was nominated for sixteen Tony awards, and won eleven. After nearly eight months of intensive study, at the end of September I successfully passed my department’s Ph.D. Oral Qualifying Exam, and I subsequently took an impromptu celebratory trip to visit an old friend in Halifax.

Looking back, however, it’s easy to see the gaps in the record. Sometime around early June, the number of items in the list began to dwindle, and around mid-November, the documentation completely stops.

2016

Unsurprisingly, as pieces of cultural commentary, Internet memes are more productive and illuminating than many realize.

To say that the year 2016 has been fraught with tension is a tremendous understatement.[1] As Thomas Paine wrote, these are the times that try men’s [and women’s] souls, and in these past twelve months, it seems like we’ve run the gauntlet, a hundred times over. This is the year that Taiwan may be the first East Asian nation to achieve marriage equality, and the year that the deadliest shooting in American history was carried out against LGBTQ+ people at the Pulse Club in Orlando. This was the year of the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, of the spread of far-right populist fervor across Europe, and the rise of white supremacist ideologies in the highest political offices and pulpits in the United States. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw, for the first time, a Refugee Olympic Team competing as independent participants, and this is the year that the Syrian Refugee Crisis reached its most desperate peak.

Political forces and governmental stratagems seemingly out of control dominated the domestic and international landscape, plaguing media outlets with misinformation and fake news. We watched tragedies unfold in real time,[2] counted the deaths of too many beloved and inspiring figures, and anxiously waited for the other shoe to drop, and keep on dropping.

In the face of all this, we have prepared to resist, and continue to call others and ourselves to higher standards of vigilance and accountability. We must continue to read, to think, to create, to teach and engage. This month’s series on empathy and education has attempted to provide a space for admitting our fears, confronting difficult questions regarding possible failures, and supply encouragement for the task now, and ahead.

Every winter, my family stages a viewing of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the scene captured above, from The Two Towers, has always proven to be enormously compelling. Coming at the end of one of the film’s two climactic battle scenes, Frodo’s haggard vulnerability and Sam’s motivational speech resonates with pathos, and displays the power of oral tradition, the written word, and the driving force of narrative in general.

While stories may drive us, oftentimes, “most fantasy provides an excursion from the normal order of things, in the same way that carnival and Saturnalia were an inversion of the normal order, a letting-off of steam in order to facilitate a return to business-as-usual.”[3] Following the Electoral College’s dispiriting conformity to historical tradition, and several weeks after the initial shock, we find ourselves now couched in the festive spirit of holiday celebrations, and all-too-ready to turn over a new leaf. It may be tempting to “get on with our lives,” as the president-elect lately urges, and to pull back from the front lines, and not necessarily forget, but forgive and quietly disengage.

In times like these, although stories remain important, I think more often of the impassioned plea Merry issues to the Ents on their decision to abstain from action, to “weather such things as we have always done.”

“You are young and brave,” the hobbit is told, by much elder and wiser folk, then cautioned, “But your part in this tale is over. Go back to your home.” His friend Pippin tries to reason with him and says, “It’s too big for us. What can we do in the end?”

Fiction can no longer serve only as an escape from reality; academics can no longer afford to distance themselves from that which appears too startling, too surreal,[4] too beyond our capabilities to successfully engage. My list of “Good Things to Remember from 2017” may be a bit more difficult to attend to, but one of the first things at the top of that list will be the opportunity to keep on teaching, and to lead students through learning about race and literary texts, to seek out difficult yet productive discussions, and to foster communication and understanding.

There is good to look after, and our part in this tale is never too big to fight for.

[1] For those in need of hopeful optimism, it is equally important to recall that a lot of positive changes have been put into effect this year. To begin, here is another list, this one detailing “99 Reasons 2016 was a Good Year” (https://medium.com/future-crunch/99-reasons-why-2016-has-been-a-great-year-for-humanity-8420debc2823#.6zrnibfvu)

[2] In an insightful piece on the consciousness of language use and suicide, Chinese author Yiyun Li complicates the concept of a tragedy in terms of private pain and public acknowledgement: “That something is called a tragedy, however, means that it is no longer personal. One weeps out of private pain, but only when the audience swarms in and claims understanding and empathy do people call it a tragedy. One’s grief belongs to oneself; one’s tragedy, to others” (“To Speak is to Blunder.” The New Yorker: Personal History. 2 January 2017 Issue).

[3] This fascinating article analyzes the differences of empathetic and intellectual effort necessary when engaging in the genres of science-fiction versus fantasy, and analyzes the models of resistance offered up by key texts from each genre: https://godsandradicals.org/2016/12/03/models-for-resistance/

[4] Ultimately, instead of “fascism,” Merriam-Webster selected “surreal” as the 2016 word of the year.

 

Empathy and Education: Fight or Flight

“A good teacher will lead the horse to water; an excellent teacher will make the horse thirsty first.” – Mario Cortes

Inside the academic classroom, we instructors face a number of pedagogical challenges, ranging from constant apprehension regarding proper time management, to confusion over how to best incorporate new media technologies in diverse lesson plans. If the multitudes of our profession may be encompassed by so simplistic a maxim, a good amount of the efforts toward leading our students toward the proverbial well of knowledge involves acknowledging the limits of our ability to engage, and the students’ ability to stay engaged.

Try as we might to liven up lectures on nineteenth-century textual portrayals of class and gender struggles, or lead animated discussion on symbolic content and elements of stylistic form, just to name a couple of personal examples, the passion of an instructor may not always yield a similar investment from those they teach. Here, the learning curve inherent in pedagogy applies to us as well. We acknowledge that students may have chosen to take our course for the purpose of filling out credit hours, anticipate the potential difficulties of teaching the disinterested, and yet do our best to construct inclusive syllabi, encourage open discussion, and foster an environment defined by dialectical learning.

Even in the face of such apathy, within the classroom setting, an instructor retains the authority to insist on certain standards of behavior. Students are expected to pay attention to the material, despite their personal level of enthusiasm for the subject, or lack thereof, and often must display their acquired knowledge through active participation.

Outside of the classroom, however, the authority to instruct has always been a tenuous thing at best, undercut by the style of one’s delivery, the power of one’s rhetoric, and the ongoing struggle to make one’s voice heard at all. There are no quantitative grades to earn in what so many have termed the “real world” outside of academic institutions; no controlled learning environment in which anyone is obligated to respect the notion of a “safe space,” and certainly no imperative to engage in critical discussion or any measure of empathetic self-reflection.

Moreover, in the wake of the U.S. Presidential election, the anti-intellectual impulse now seems to be morphing into a frightening American norm. Never mind leading horses to water – in a “post truth” world, if words aren’t enough, what is left?

fine

Artist: K.C. Green, 2013 Source: Gunshowcomic.com

Empathy, many say. Following a seemingly never-ending election season distinguished early on by threatening speech, stunningly vitriolic ideological premises, and outlandish promises now turned very real dangers, those grieving for the loss of a democratic ideal were told to empathize with those we had grown to view with fear, anger, and even disgust. Among increasingly convoluted dissections of what the concept of empathy means,[1] voices from all over the political spectrum, mainstream news outlets, and media platforms urged those on the “losing” side to swallow the bitter pill – at least for the next four years – and unite. Accept. Get over it.

In other words: don’t fight.

But for many of us, there is no other choice. At the end of the day, we are thinkers. Letting things go unquestioned, unexamined, and unanalyzed is something we cannot do. Easy acceptance and complacency go hand-in hand, joined together in a desperate flight from grappling with our own mistakes, and pushing to change what we cannot tolerate, much less endure.

Instructors, researchers, public thinkers and scholars affiliated with the academy have all been students at one point or another. As such, we consider the intellectual process as one requiring constant and self-conscious revision – not only must we often admit our own shortcomings, but we must also anticipate learning from those we may initially oppose.

Crafting a common vocabulary is perhaps the first step toward building a rapport with bored or uninterested students, but deconstructing the complexities of hegemonic ideology and the semantic battle over what has been fashionably debated and dismissed as “identity politics” takes the concentrated work of months, if not years. Effective communication becomes much more difficult with the assumption that empathy and cooperative understanding rests upon mutual mute compliance, instead of examination and accountability. Engaging in productive discussions with political opponents is far from impossible. Historically, however, conversations require equal measures of willingness to listen and learn from all those involved.

How do we reach those who see no reward in critical reflection, and harbor no desire for intellectual engagement? To what extent are we meant to empathize and “break bread” [2] with those who would much rather imagine the well of knowledge empty, than deign to be led anywhere?

In an Op-Ed piece from The New York Times, R. Derek Black shares another personal narrative tracing the unlearning of hatred-driven ideology through experiences at a liberal college:

“Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there – people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me – I began to realize the damage I had done. Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it…

People have approached me looking for a way to change the minds of Trump voters, but I can’t offer any magic technique. That kind of persuasion happens in person-to-person interactions and it requires a lot of honest listening on both sides. For me, the conversations that led me to change my views started because I couldn’t understand why anyone would fear me…

I never would have begun my own conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those I interacted with. Now is the time for me to pass on that outrage by clearly and unremittingly denouncing the people who used a wave of white anger to take the White House.”[3]

On one hand, there are no easy answers. But on the other, admittedly, easy answers aren’t our forte. We press for deeper truths than that.

Buck up, Academics. We have our work cut out for us.


[1] In this short interview promoting his new monograph, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom attempts to distinguish between what he terms “cognitive empathy” and “emotional empathy.” The former, he argues, is a mental exercise based upon rational thought; the latter is based solely in affective feeling, and actually “distorts goodness” in “direct[ing] our moral decision-making [and] reflects our biases.” Bloom’s argument, as presented in this interview, contradicts itself when he disparages empathetic feeling, yet then doubles back and claims “We need love, compassion and kindness.”

[2] In what has since been criticized as a short-sighted commentary reflecting a lack of knowledge on the lived experiences of Black (and fellow minority) Americans, Trevor Noah’s Op-Ed piece boldly states, “We should give no quarter to intolerance and injustice in this world, but we can be steadfast on the subject of Mr. Trump’s unfitness for office while still reaching out to reason with his supporters. We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve opposed us.” (“Trevor Noah: Let’s Not Be Divided. Divided People Are Easier to Rule.” The New York Times. 5 December 2016.)

[3] “Why I Left White Nationalism.” Black, R. Derek. The New York Times. 26 November 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

Empathy and Education: The Double Burden (Part II)

In the numerous fields comprising that artistic and cultural field we call “the humanities,” we who self-identify as scholars must constantly be on the defense regarding our own choice of profession. An increasingly corporatized world sees banks encouraging ballerinas and actors to become engineers and botanists instead, and federal agencies such as the CBO actively suggesting reducing federal funding for the Arts and Humanities, since “such programs may not provide social benefits that equal or exceed their costs.”

This cacophony joins with countless other voices in our own lives: those cautioning us about the shrinking opportunities of the academic job market, who gently chastise us for dabbling in a passion instead of pursuing a career that will prove economically viable, and otherwise reminding us that the humanities are not where the dollars – or pounds or euros, among other forms of financial credit – lie. There is no Wall Street of literature, no actual stock market of philosophical ideas, and little funding to be found in dusty bookshelves and puzzling over words, ideas, and their meanings.

Why even bother?

As the old adage goes, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” A bastardized proverb, perhaps, with uncertain origins, and appropriated right and left – often by the political and ideological Left and Right – for various ends. The myth of linear progress haunts us with these lessons of the not-so-distant past. Especially in the awareness of unavoidable pitfalls, regressions, and obstructions in the hard-fought effort forward and upwards, we take into consideration the wisdom of looking over our shoulders and consulting voices that tell tales of suffering and horror never to happen again.

For those of us working in the fields of analyzing literature and encouraging critical thought, our reasons for choosing to engage with such materials on a day-to-day basis have long found ethical expression in empathy. We aim to broaden awareness of self and others, and to celebrate multicultural differences by considering multiple avenues of theoretical exploration. This is why we construct syllabi with an eye toward incorporating more writers outside the realms of canonical literature, the majority of these names belonging to women writers, and writers of color. For many of us teaching at the collegiate level, or in higher education in general, critiquing the norms of institutions, modeling thoughtful self-reflexivity, and teaching students how to close-read all goes hand-in-hand.

On some level, either personally or with boisterous confidence, we all wish to believe in our role to “Make America Smart Again.” Our faith in education fueled our optimism in a future defined by intelligence and inclusivity, and many a liberal-leaning Op-Ed piece declared the one advantage of Britain’s recent referendum to leave the European Union as both instruction and a tale of warning:

“One of the few good things about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is the rich curriculum of lessons it offers leaders and electorates in other democracies…

Across Europe and in the United States, politicians can either respond to these cries of protest or face something worse than Brexit.”[1]

Was such belief a stroke of overconfidence?

Following November 8th, with electoral results and statistics rushing in from all sides, bleak disappointment followed closely by crushing realization began to settle in. These gut-reactions mingled with irritation at the instantaneous, yet contradictory impulse to assign blame:

“Why Did College-Educated White Women Vote for Trump?” (The New York Times)

“Blame Trump’s Victory on College-Educated Whites, Not the Working-Class” (New Republic)

“Trump Won Because College-Educated Americans are Out of Touch” (The Washington Post)

Such was, and still is enough to shake one’s faith in purposeful education. In the face of all this, what is the point of what we teach? These are the questions to haunt us now: does the work of our lives actually take any root? Should intellectuals shoulder the blame of having morphed into snobbish cultural elites?

Does investment in efforts toward empathy really yield any ideological change?

merriamwebster

 

In the days and weeks that have followed the 2016 Presidential Election, attempting to navigate and teach in this new reality has proven unsettling. All of a sudden, we have swerved from the academic postmodern into a maelstrom of media-influenced misinformation, Twitter rants, and unprecedented threats against freedom of speech, critique,[2] and intellectual or creative expression.

Welcome to the new American age, where everything about knowledge is made up, and apparently, points of truth and facts no longer matter. While Merriam-Webster considers its top result of 2016, The Oxford Dictionary has chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year. As NPR reports, “The word has been around for a few decades or so, but according to the Oxford Dictionary, there has been a spike in frequency of usage since Brexit and an even bigger jump since the period before the American presidential election…feelings, identifications, anxieties and fantasies, that’s what actuated the electorate. Not arguments. Not facts.

Perhaps this struggle we now face started long before Election Day; now, it seems more urgent than ever. From a fake news epidemic of so virulent a strain that that Pope Frances felt compelled to condemn the “sin” of perpetuating misleading information, to a linguistics battle over how to address the Ku Klux Klan-backed “Alt-Right” White Supremacy movement, words, ideas, and the ideological weight they hold have become weapons and flashpoints.

Caption: “Hey! A Message to Media Normalizing the Alt-Right”

Source: Late Night with Seth Myers, 7 December 2016

Speaking truth to power has never been an easy task, and the struggle against the normalization of silencing dissent is, and will remain difficult. While we elegize and self-reflect, we also turn to writers such as Zadie Smith to remind us that “history is not erased by change…progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive.”[3] Likewise, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of the dangers of complacency and neutrality – and goes a step further to remind us of the boundaries of empathy:

“Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of ‘healing’ and ‘not becoming the hate we hate’ sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.”[4]

Words can obfuscate, enlighten, and entrap – and these complexities are elements we anticipate and enjoy when working with literary texts and critical theories. Although the questions surrounding a liberal or humanities-affiliated education may still haunt us, nowhere else can one find a space more prepared for the deconstruction of flashy rhetoric and the unpacking of ideology. Beyond the humanities, critical engagement with disparate voices, texts, and the ideas they represent pertain to disciplines all across the board, and intellectual endeavors of all stripes. We have many more lessons to teach, and much left to learn. This is our task, and may we rise to meet it.

[1] “Learning from Britain’s Unnecessary Crisis.” E.J. Dionne Jr. The Washington Post. 26 June 2016.

[2] Most recently, the union president representing workers at the Indianapolis branch of Carrier Corp. criticized the business deal the President-elect enacted late last month. Chuck Jones, the leader of United Steelworkers Local 1999, challenged Trump to authenticate his claims, and soon afterwards began receiving anonymous death threats.

[3] “On Optimism and Despair.” Zadie Smith. The New York Review of Books. 22 December 2016 Issue.

[4] “Now is the Time to Talk About what we are Actually Talking About.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The New Yorker. 2 December 2016.


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

Empathy and Education: The Double Burden (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, toward the end of our class’s unit on “Thrills, Sensations, and the Ethics of Nonfiction,” I assigned my students the University of Chicago’s Welcome Letter to the Class of 2020 alongside Sara Ahmed’s thought-provoking “Against Students” (June 2015). The former, a document separately decried or praised as patronizing and oppressive or timely and appropriate, comes from a private University that prides itself as “one of the world’s leading and most influential institutions of higher learning,”[1] and has a notorious reputation among academics for fostering an ultra-competitive – and potentially hazardous – environment for its students.

Following a word of congratulations, the letter states:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority – building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

A number of think pieces had their say, and the talking heads gave comment. In response, educators and administrators from various institutions defended their policy of creating safe spaces and giving trigger warnings; using the same terminology, they all argued for the same purpose: academic freedom and “moral responsibility.” Proponents of the University of Chicago’s pedagogical stance lauded this strike against so-called “political correctness,” insisting that incoming students should stop expecting a protective safety net to cushion controversial speech and difficult issues. Safe spaces, it was implied, or outright declared, are a cocoon of muffled sensitivities freshmen ought to have outgrown by their first semester of college.

Ahmed’s piece, while predating the University of Chicago’s letter by almost a year, exposes similar “sweeping” generalizations made in critiques of higher education, while laying bare the ideological contradictions the letter claims to espouse. Students who are often blamed as oversensitive, coddled, and otherwise too entitled to address “difficult issues” bear the brunt of critique in the wider battle of, and backlash against the dreaded brand of PC-neoliberalism. In actuality, those who oppose trigger warnings often do so at the expense of marginalized groups and students as a whole, and not in service of a wider range of critical discussion.

“The idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that describes offendability as a form of moral weakness and as a restriction on “our” freedom of speech. Much contemporary racism works by positioning the others as too easily offendable, which is how some come to assert their right to occupy space by being offensive…

This is how harassment can be justified as an expression of academic freedom.”

Rhetorically, those who use this toxic, masculinist mantra to “man up and quit being so offended” imagine its directed audience as a bunch of whiny, thin-skinned spoiled brats. It has become a “no guts, no restriction of hateful speech, no glory” approach modified for instructional spaces. Unsurprisingly, it represents yet another attack upon we Millennials of the generation of participation trophies; we special snowflakes-turned-Social Justice Warriors; we who dare protest for a minimum wage of $15/hour, refuse to consider any human being “illegal,” and demand equal rights under the law for an ever-expanding catalogue of identities, intersectionalities, and sexualities.

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The thing about we who make it our job to deal in words is that we know what they say about us. Sometimes, we respond with sarcasm and memes.

Apparently, to many, intellectual boldness – or the tricky concept of free speech in general – is incompatible with thoughtfulness, compassion, or the necessity of imagining and reflecting upon the consequences of such speech. But at its core, intellectual efforts rest upon a foundation of empathetic engagement, curiosity, and responsible efforts to give voice to those who have previously been silenced.

For the most part, we who teach are expected to keep personal politics out of the classroom. Each student ought to have their say, and must not fear their grade may suffer due to a difference of religious, political, or personal ideological belief. The classroom is a place for critical engagement and analytical inquiry, but it should not act as a place of conversion, or the base of any particular soapbox.

On the other hand, we introduce students to the concept of ideology, and invite them to critically question previously held beliefs; we encourage students to critique ideas, and not the individual espousing them. Disagreement should not deter discussion, so long as speech remains respectful and productive. We are all here to learn, is the unspoken catchphrase of the liberal arts education, and we learn best when we question what it is we think we know.

I presented the University of Chicago’s welcome letter to my class without trepidation – not because I expected every student to agree with the material, or to contest it straight away; rather, their job was to consider the rhetorical strategies being employed, and foster an interpretive reading based upon textual evidence. Thus far, we had studied texts through the framework of social critique and purposeful writing, interrogating the usefulness of nonfiction texts that have outlived their writers. We questioned the boundaries of truth and fiction, fantasy and reality, and spent a good portion of the semester discussing the importance of readers’ ethical responses to texts presenting themselves as unproblematic, factual, and objective. They held productive class discussions on tone-policing, white privilege, and the conflation of violence with sensational journalism and the commodification of wartime horror. These students, most of them incoming freshmen, rose quickly to the challenge of tackling these subjects, with vigor and great respect for the material, and one another.

The students of this generation “aren’t snowflakes, and they don’t melt,” Yale professor Steven Berry writes, in admiration of the resiliency of students who were still able to attend class and complete an exam the morning of November 9th. The same resiliency we admire in our students becomes so much more difficult to embody when we, students and scholars and educators alike, consider how much more dangerous our world has suddenly become.

Ten days after the U.S. election, eight hundred sixty-seven hate incidents were reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the majority of these occurring in K-12 schools. Since then, an organization named Turning Point USA, which purports to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish,” has created a Professor Watchlist, with profiles of “professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls” – the majority of those listed professors being women and persons of color.

post-election-hate

“Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election” Source: Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/20161129/ten-days-after-harassment-and-intimidation-aftermath-election

Without giving into paranoia, the project of providing safe spaces appears more daunting than ever. Despite this, while the classroom may not be a pulpit or a soapbox, it nevertheless remains a platform for instruction. Our determination to forge ahead despite fear and anger represents both the privilege and the burden of educating with empathy, and an ethical responsibility we owe to ourselves, and those we aim to instruct.

[1] This quote comes from the University of Chicago’s Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Chicago); the university’s homepage and admissions proudly greets visitors as “a private, nondenominational, culturally rich and ethnically diverse coeducational research university…committed to educating extraordinary people regardless of race, gender, religion, or financial ability.” (http://www.uchicago.edu/)


Vicky Cheng is a fourth-year Ph.D. student whose research and teaching interests center on nineteenth-century British literature and culture, with a specific focus on queer and feminist readings of Victorian texts. Her proposed dissertation project finds its structure through queer methodology, and will investigate Victorian novels and conflicting representations of gendered bodies within. Other scholarly interests include mediations between textual description and visualization, the structures of power surrounding the interplay of non-normative bodies and disruptive desires, and the complexities of embodied sexualities.

Appreciating Space: “Minecraft” and Empowerment

For the last two summers, I’ve worked as an instructor for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Kid College program, which is basically a mix between a summer camp and course series about technology for kids aged 9-14. Most of the classes I taught were about game design, and the most popular courses by far were the ones about Minecraft. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, it might be described as an infinitely large, semi-randomly-generated world made up of multiple types of blocks that players can use to build structures, craft items, and fight off monsters. I tended to describe it to parents or adults as “digital Legos with fighting and exploration mixed in.” (Avid players might say it is a bit more complicated than that, but let’s work with that for now.)

In the course of teaching, I have occasionally had parents voice the concern that their child has been “spending too much time on Minecraft” and ask me for some advice on how to change that. Now, those sort of parental decisions are above my paygrade at this point in my life, and how one ought to approach limitations on computer activity depends too much on parenting styles and a child’s personality for me to say anything useful in that regard. But the way they phrased the question points to a bit of a misunderstanding of what the game really is: kids are not on Minecraft, they are in Minecraft.

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Like many contemporary games, Minecraft is as much of a space as it is a system of rules. Each time they make a new world, players are dropped into the middle of a sprawling landscape which is constantly generated based on a set of algorithms (an operation known as procedural generation, in game terms). Grasslands and deserts, mountains and jungles, cave systems and mushroom-filled islands, even villages and abandoned temples have a chance of appearing every time a player reaches the edge of the known map. And this process never ends: the world only gets bigger and bigger as the player explores. With no mini-map to aid them initially, players are forced to make meaning out of the environment – taking note of landmarks, following the curve of riverbeds, getting to higher ground – as they seek out shelter before nightfall.

Besides being infinitely vast, the worlds of Minecraft are also infinitely transformable. Players can harvest, collect, or mine just about every type of block in the game and use them for their own creations, whether that’s smelting iron to make a sword or placing wooden planks down for the walls of a house. In this way, players are constantly leaving their mark on the environment and making it their own. Every hastily-made shelter, every empty mine shaft, every scar in the mountain or crater in the earth becomes imbued with meaning as sites of the player’s failures and accomplishments. But these structures and stories do not remain confined to the game world: they are shared by players across every medium available to them, whether through screenshots, videos, or merely word of mouth. Every voxel has a ballad, and every player becomes a bard, expanding the space of the virtual world even further into the material one.

Minecraft 4.png

That may have gone a bit too far into the poetic, but there is a sort of magic to a game space that (for many people) doesn’t make the transition to the real world. This is especially true for kids in my hometown of Anchorage, a city which has long winters, not insignificant criminal and animal dangers, and long distances between destinations – not to mention the general lack of a safe “third place” for youth to gather and play of their own accord. Yet Minecraft is a place that is infinitely traversable, a place children can exercise their agency and reveal their intelligence, a place that they can make their own without the help of adults and where they can play with their friends on top of it all. Is it any wonder why this is the place kids decide to spend their days?

I understand the danger in gaming compulsion – it is very addicting to find such a place of empowerment. I also understand the necessity of getting outside – you can’t grow up in Alaska without getting at least some taste of that lesson! – but there is so much more to Minecraft and similar games than sitting in front of a TV or killing time with YouTube videos. The only way to truly understand that fact is to take the game for what it is: a place of empowerment as well as play.

Minecraft 5.pngMy reaction to the parents who are skeptical about the value of games or who think their child is playing too much is to first ask them much they know about Minecraft. Some have watched their children play the game or even have an account themselves, but more often than not they have only heard their child speak about it ad nauseum while having very little familiarity beyond the confusing jumble of jargon and technical language that is frankly hard to keep straight unless you have seen it in action.

And that is exactly my piece of advice to these parents: let your child show you their space. Treat the experience as if you were a tourist trying to get an understanding of a different country. Ask questions, try out the language, pick up the controls and let your guide coach you if need be, but give them a chance to show you what this virtual space means to them. Only after understanding what it means to exist in this space can you truly understand what it would mean for them to lose it. Perhaps you can show them what they love about the space can be found elsewhere as well.

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The same advice can really be said of almost any game and almost any social relationship: if you want to know someone’s feelings, let them show you the places they like to go. In the spirit of that mindset, I want to show you a place I like to go when things are not particularly bright. But that is a task for next week.


John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.

“Of Course You Know…”: Deconstructing the Privilege of Knowledge

Some time ago, a colleague of mine was leading discussion in class, and he offhandedly remarked that, of course, we all knew that Aristotle had spoken of the same issue we were discussing in his Nichomachean Ethics. The way in which he made the utterance made it clear that, if we did not, in fact, know this reference, we were somehow lacking, that we had clearly missed out on some key part of being a truly educated person and that, equally clearly, graduate students in an English department should certainly be conversant with these sorts of (seemingly offhand) references.

Now, as a Classics major in undergrad, I was passingly familiar with Aristotle’s works (though I will admit that I had not read Nichomachean Ethics in approximately 10 years, so obviously my recollection of it would have been rusty to say the least). However, even I felt that this was somehow a thinly-veiled attack on those in the classroom who, for whatever combination of socio-economic and educational reasons, might not have had access to that same store of shared knowledge that my colleague was referencing. Whether or not the attack was malicious is impossible to say, but there was no question that there were many in the classroom who felt alienated by this comment–and, just as importantly, by its delivery–and that a valuable moment of shared learning was therefore compromised.

What distressed me the most, however, was how built into that moment of not-so-subtle shaming was a profound sort of privilege of which my colleague seemed to be utterly unaware. It no doubt never occurred to him that some of us may have come from high schools or undergraduate institutions that did not place such an emphasis on the Western canon, or that emphasized other important works of western philosophy that were not dominated by dead white men. So embedded was my colleague in both his class and knowledge privilege that any alternative to his ways of knowing seemed to exist beyond the pale of acceptability.

Nor is this sort of privileged posturing and knowledge shaming limited to graduate students (who, it must be said, often face their own challenge. The pressure to perform one’s expertise is particularly acute in the graduate classroom). I have, on numerous occasions, heard faculty from departments from various universities and departments dismiss the level of “basic knowledge” that today’s undergraduate students possess, implying that they have somehow fallen down on the job in terms of preparing themselves for their college education. This is not to say that the faculty actually think this, mind you, only that it is often heavily implied in the way in which these critiques of students are delivered.

This is not to say that there aren’t real deficiencies in the preparation that many high school students undergo as they prepare for their academic futures in college. What troubles me is the implication that somehow the students are to blame and, relatedly, that our privilege as learners and knowers is somehow natural and that this renders us somehow superior to the students we teach. Rather than attempting to understand the unique perspectives that students bring to the classroom–including and especially their socioeconomic status–these assumptions presume that there is a standard to which everyone should be held, regardless of their background.Periodically, I will catch myself making assumptions about the body of knowledge that my students bring into the classroom. I have become so entrenched in the world of academia–in particular, I have become accustomed to being around my graduate school colleagues in a private, well-funded institution–that it sometimes doesn’t occur to me that not everyone has had the same privilege that I do. When I lose track of that privilege, when I assume that my students have a knowledge and then shame then when they don’t, I lose a valuable sharing opportunity.

As a result, I have begun making a conscious effort to meet my students where they are and to help them access and share the same love of knowledge and learning that I have always possessed. I encourage them to ask me if they do not understand something or if I make a reference (or even a word) that they do not grasp, because only by doing so can I ensure that we are all learning and engaging with knowledge together. Rather than ensconcing myself in my privilege, I actively work to deconstruct it.

This more nuanced understanding of socio-economic and knowledge privilege allows me, I believe, to be a more compassionate and effective educator. I can use my knowledge, accrued and developed through years of undergraduate and graduate training, to meet students on their own terms and show them new ways of thinking and engaging, even as they also educate me. Rather than viewing their lack of knowledge as a problem to be corrected, I see it instead as an opportunity.

And that, I think, benefits both myself and my students.

 

Zen and the Art of the Course Description (19 February 2016)

Course descriptions bridge the gap between the university’s corporate model and the classroom’s pedagogical space, aiding in achieving satisfactory enrollment “numbers.” In this way, the description of a class has to do the work of both an advertisement and an infomercial, appealing to students as well as cuing them about the course’s content. Despite our idealistic desires about learning for learning’s sake that might suggest otherwise, it is important, then, that a course seem interesting or “fun” so that students will actually register for it. However, this can be a fine line to walk: if an instructor goes overboard with trying to make the course appealing, students who do take the course can end up with something like academic buyer’s remorse—feeling that the course they signed up for is not represented in the classroom they occupy. Typically, this means that the student expected to have a lot of fun and (surprise!) the course turns out to be a lot of work. A balance must be struck between appealing to students’ interests and hinting at the rigorous intellectual labor required of a college course. The course description can be the first clue (and compelling advertisement) for how students and instructors will achieve these ambitions together.

As I tried to formulate my own course description for a class I plan to teach next Fall semester (ETS 181: Class and the Literary Text PLUG!), I began to consider how the course description is the first glimpse into what the educational future holds for students. For some, this tiny blot of text is the first step into opening their mind (and consciousness) toward the fundamental questions of the humanities: Who are we? What are we doing in the classroom? What are the forces that shape our world? How can we be engaged members of our classroom, society, and world? These are, of course, age-old questions that teachers have asked for hundreds of years. As I meditated on how to describe the content and objectives of my own course, I came to realize that a profound dialectic of instructional philosophy found in Zen Buddhism could also be found in the humanities classroom.

The practice of Zen Buddhism can be conceptually described as having two schools, each of which can represent different pedagogical ideologies that surface in humanities classrooms. Rinzai Zen practice is centered on the use of the koan, an absurd or impossible question engineered to push the mind away from dualistic thinking and toward “enlightenment,” a state of total awareness and detachment. The most well known example of a Rinzai Zen koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” A practitioner may work on the same koan for weeks or even years. Working through the experience of frustration and confusion that results from a koan allows a student of Buddhism to better understand the limits of their own internal logics.

Many humanities classrooms follow a strikingly similar logic as Rinzai Zen, asking students to formulate their own answers to questions of aesthetics, ethics, and ideology like “What is beauty?” or “Can society achieve equality?” that are as seemingly absurd or impossible as any koan. For many humanities instructors, the goal of asking such questions is not for the student to answer, once and for all, what beauty or truth is, but to get the student to ask “Why is it important that we must ask these questions?” This metacognitive approach can seem like the equivalent of a student’s enlightenment: finding a contemplative state rooted in higher-order concerns that engender critical thinking.

However, this goal-oriented approach is not the only way for students to come to a greater understanding of their role in the classroom. As many instructors have experienced, sometimes it is in the least-planned moments that students learn the most. Soto Zen, Rinzai’s competing school, rejects the centrality and formality of the koan as well as the goal of a particular “enlightened” state. For practitioners of Soto Zen, there is no goal to be achieved beyond the practice itself; the only object is to be awake and aware of the here and now. Translated to the humanities seminar, this practice asks the students to be fully immersed in learning, but also to move outside of ideology into subjective and intuitive experiences of the classroom and the world. In my experience, some of the best discussions come from this place of open awareness and improvisation. By letting strict lesson plans and pre-designed questions take a backseat to the participation and engagement of students in the moment, instructors can encourage students to seize their own agency, develop a community of ideas, and make the classroom their own.

Getting students to that “a-ha” moment of realization can be rewarding for the instructor, but often times, students get the most sustained intellectual value from pedagogical experiences that remain open-ended. By moving pedagogy away from structured goals, and, yes, even grade-oriented experiences, students can continue to build their knowledge years later, rather than leaving their experience, and their transcript, at the door of the classroom.

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Every student learns differently. For some people, the Rinzai approach to the humanities will best allow them to reach their educational aspirations, and they will emerge from the University system with a degree that is the material evidence of a more “enlightened” state. For these students, a course description should explain exactly what they will learn—the why is less important. For others, education is a lifelong process that doesn’t start and stop on an academic schedule. These students might benefit from a Soto approach that allows them to “sit” with their new knowledge and apply it to their life inside and outside the classroom. For these students, a course description should explain why they want to be in that class now, and why it will still mean something to them in 2, 10, and even 50 years. A well-balanced course description hopefully appeals to both types of students and ideally makes them excited about the possibilities their learning experience holds. But regardless of why the students are there, the course description has facilitated the most important function of a classroom: the students have chosen to find their way to it.


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.

Don’t Eat The Flatware: Balancing Instruction and Interpretation in the Classroom (5 February 2016)

For this month’s posts, I will focus on how engagement with social media, popular culture, film, and video games can inform the work we do in humanities classrooms. This week, I look at how criticism of humanities instruction on Reddit might help us understand why the practice of interpretation leaves some students with a negative impression of this field.

To do this, I want to examine one particular Reddit thread about the Oscars that quickly segued into a discussion about students’ expectations of interpretative arguments and pedagogical assessment in humanities classrooms. Initially, this forum comments on a controversy among Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Spike Lee, and Janet Hubert, Smith’s co-star on the ‘90s television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This disagreement concerns celebrity reactions to the despairing lack of nominations of people of color for marquee positions at the last two Academy awards, which in turn has engendered the resurfacing of the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite as an attempt to return public awareness to Hollywood’s historical marginalization of people of color. In their own call to action, Pinkett Smith, Smith, and Lee have advocated boycotting the award ceremony. However, this decision, in turn, has been met with resistance by actors of color such as Hubert, who claimed that Smith’s boycott was a temper-tantrum over not being nominated for 2015’s Concussion rather than an expression of race solidarity (for more on this debate click here).

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Will Smith and Aunt Viv (Hubert) in Fresh Prince (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank via AP Images)

 

This celebrity pseudo-family feud has promoted discussion of the institutionalized racism that persists in US culture, but I am particularly interested here in how one Reddit discussion connects the #OscarsSoWhite debate with the institution of the university, a dialogue that I think can offer those of us instructing in humanities classrooms a unique window into students’ experience.

Commenting on Hubert’s response to the Academy Awards boycott, Reddit user “hashbrown” associated her reaction with their own experience of receiving a disappointing grade on an interpretive community college essay assignment.

Hashbrown writes:

“I have a story that relates.

Last year I had an English class at the biggest community college in California. My African American teacher made the topic of the entire class revolve around black literature. One of the videos we watched talked about how African Americans need to start “helping” and empowering each other out [sic] by only watching black television, shopping at black stores, and volunteering in black communities.

I wrote my paper on how self segregation was a form of racism itself. Why should black people not shop at stores because of color of the owners skin? Why should people not watch white or asian actors?

In the end my teacher ended up giving me a C and wrote that I wasn’t understanding the material.

A year later and I’m still bitter about that class.”

Hashbrown articulates a common misconception about the value placed on interpretive analysis in the humanities—the notion that any ideological position on a text, regardless of its merit, is valid if properly argued. Missing from this perception is an important aspect of the interpretive process, in which students must take into account the contexts that inform their claims. In this case, hashbrown’s assertion that African American engagement in community activism equates to “self segregation” fails to account for the history of structural racism in Hollywood cinema, and the result of this lack of context was a C grade–hardly a failing score and a nearly universally accepted marker of “average” work in undergraduate study, indicating a need for improvement. Despite hashbrown’s possible “bitterness” over the grade itself, it seems to me that their frustration also might indicate a miscommunication in the instructor’s expectations.

While one could easily dismiss these kinds of complaints as quests for minor revenge by disengaged students turned internet trolls, the sheer number of responses that echo hashbrown’s frustrations suggest there may be something more here. Coming to hashbrown’s defense, other Reddit users noted how experiencing an instructor’s criticism to their subjective interpretations of texts left them with a cynical outlook on the project of humanities instruction at large. Reddit user Rainator writes, “I learned in English that the way to get a good grade was to just parrot whatever nonsense the teacher said.” User OneFatGuy described a similar experience, commenting, “I had a professor that would only agree on arguments based on his ideas, and anything other than his ideas were wrong or weak arguments.” From the perspective of the frustrated student, these users articulate a fundamental miscommunication that can occur between students and teachers concerning the pedagogical interplay between instruction and interpretation.

I believe that effective pedagogy embraces a dialogue between instruction—the teacher’s role of providing proper historical and cultural contexts that inform effective humanities study—and interpretation—the practice of synthesizing information from texts and developing an understanding of its meaning. This allows students to form interpretations that are unique, creative, and grounded in an enriched understanding of the text rather than construed from initial, unexamined reactions or previously fortified ideologies. However, when the prioritization of one element leads to the neglect of the other, the result can be the regrettable alienation of the student and/or the demonization of the instructor.

For Hashbrown and many other students with similar experiences, pedagogical focus on subjective argumentation is understood as a license to assert any of all possible readings of a text, even those that do not account for the specificity of material histories and social contexts. To be fair, the focus on rhetoric in many humanities classrooms makes this an easy misperception, even for advanced students. It is especially common in lower-level composition and survey courses, where the responsibility for providing such contextualization usually falls solely on the instructor. This problem is magnified in English and Literature Studies, where students are encouraged to form nuanced interpretations of texts that deal in complex and even contradictory aspects of culture and society, such as racism. However, focusing too much on contextualization over interpretation can be a problem as well. As Rainator’s response points out, when teachers over-prioritize instruction, students can feel that they have no agency in the discussion and simply parrot back information rather than engage in a critical practice.

This experience can be as frustrating for instructors as it is for students. One instructor in particular voiced on this thread their frustration at students’ mishandling of the “tools” provided by instruction claiming, ”It’s like I prepared you dinner and you ate the cutlery.” Engaging critically with such issues often involves confronting unsettling aspects of culture, society, and even our own experiences—a prospect that can be difficult for students and instructors alike. However, by providing historical and cultural context for the texts students read, and setting clear expectations about how student interpretation will engage with this context, instructors can prevent turning students off to the valuable practice of critical analysis and perhaps even help our students to have their cake and eat it, too!

Next week I will continue to think about how engagement with the public can inform humanities research and instruction, so grab your knives and forks and let’s eat!


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.

Feeling Testy: Assessing our Assessments

Tests and assessment make people angry.

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Yes, this is a terrible film.

No really — tests, and the entire idea of assessment, can produce positively splenetic displays. The comments section of Christopher B. Nelson’s recent essay critiquing assessment provides an apt example. As the federal government pushes to hold colleges responsible for providing students with the best “value” for their dollar, and universities push assessments in order to prove (or expose a lack of) efficiency and excellence, it is easy to shout “crisis!” It’s equally easy to imagine testing companies’ CEOs and CFOs salivating over the money to be made from implementing standardized tests to assess whether university students have met desired (perhaps national) learning outcomes. Common Core Goes to College.*

I have a vexed relationship with testing. I’ve helped edit and write tests professionally. I also majored in secondary education at a school that emphasized a modified-Constructivist pedagogy; I was taught that learning is an active, continuous, individual process shaped by students’ previous experiences and which cannot be assessed using a tool that punishes or unduly stresses students. While there are valuable ongoing high-level conversations about assessment, including what sort of assessments are the optimal measure of learning (multiple-choice versus essay, national standardized tests, measures of student engagement, etc.), I want to focus on an assessment instructors control: midterm and final exams.

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Exams: one of the many things that has killed Sean Bean.

Take my intro-level film course. To produce nuanced interpretations of films (a major learning outcome of the course), students must be able to apply a vast store of terminology relating to the compositional elements (sound, editing, cinematography, and mise-en-scène), as well as terms relating to broader processes. No essay assignment, or even series of them, could realistically require the use of even three-fourths of the course terms. I’ve found that even when students correctly define and apply a term on their quizzes and exams, they still might not do so in class or essays. I’ve administered a range of quiz types (multiple-choice, short answer, brief essay) and spent days crafting my exams, but I wasn’t satisfied that I was accurately measuring my students’ learning. During a final exam review session, surrounded by my sweating, overly-caffeinated students, watching them scribble down, word-for-word, the answers they and their peers provided to their practice questions, I realized maybe one culprit was the sort of memorize/regurgitate/forget culture tests can perpetuate.

Last semester, I taught the course again and tried a tactic I hoped would decrease student anxiety and increase net learning. Throughout the semester, I emphasized the ways in which our class discussions, short papers, and tests were all opportunities to confirm or refine their knowledge of course terms so they could produce exceptional final essays. At midterm and finals, my students took an individual and a group exam. If a student achieved a set score on the individual exam, then I would average their individual and group scores to calculate their overall exam grade (though only if it improved on their individual score).

During the group exam, they were instructed to talk through each answer to come to a consensus, so that students who made mistakes on their individual exams would be corrected by their peers. The exams themselves were a mix of short and long answer questions. For example: Identify 15 of these 20 terms in your own words and provide, for each, an example from a film screened for class. The individual exam was still a scene of frenzied writing (and sweating), but the group exam was a scene of teaching. Students argued about the difference between a long take and a long shot and whether US cinema had widely adopted color film stock during the Golden Age or after WWII. I took the questions most often answered incorrectly on the midterm and incorporated them into the final exam. For example, to see if they had finally grasped high versus low key lighting: List and describe four formal conventions of film noir, one of which must concern lighting, using appropriate terminology.

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Images from http://filmschoolonline.com.

In class, in essays, and on their tests, my students deployed course terms with more frequency and accuracy. On my evaluations, students frequently cited these exams as both less stressful and more conducive to their learning, particularly because of the way in which they had to explain their answers to their peers and pool their collective brainpower. Some students will always see tests as an exercise in short-term memorization, and standardized assessments continue to creep into higher ed, but I think the current assessment fad is a valuable opportunity for us as instructors to examine and potentially revise our course assessments to assure they are best serving our and our students’ needs.

 

* Note: I am using Common Core here metonymically to represent the whole media discourse of “bad testing” — the Common Core Standards themselves present a much more complicated set of issues, and I’m not commenting on their relative merits or demerits in this post.


Lindsey Decker is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying Film and Television in the Department of English.  Her dissertation examines questions of transnational cinema in self-reflexive British horror films.

Unruly Instruction: Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Unruly Woman

Hello world! It is a pleasure to be the blogger this month for Metathesis and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on a few different topics with our readers. Don’t forget—if you like this blog YOU, TOO could be a contributor. Check out our CFP here

For my first post I thought I would share a (very) condensed version of a paper I presented at Syracuse’s annual Future Professoriate Program Conference in Spring 2013. Last year, a colleague of mine (and, full disclosure, editor of this blog) organized a panel on “embodied pedagogy” and invited me and a fellow colleague to participate. I had never deeply considered the term “embodied pedagogy” before, yet a recent course evaluation had me questioning my physical presence in my classroom and its relationship to my pedagogical strategies. On an evaluation for my British Literature survey course, a student responded to a prompt to “comment on the quality of instruction in this course” with this remark: “She reminds me of Lena Dunham if she were a professor (This is a huge compliment).”

What was I to make of this?

Given my own research interests, I often discuss topics related to feminism and gender within my courses, possibly linking me with the self-proclaimed feminist Dunham.(For one of many examples of her discussing her feminism, you can read excerpts of her interview with NPR’s Terry Gross.) Yet I could not shake the feeling that, along with the contents of my course, my very body was enabling this comparison.

For in addition to her feminism, Dunham is also often discussed in terms of her physical appearance. A brief scandal erupted when New York Times writer Ruth La Ferla commented on Dunham’s “pulchritude” (a word associated with fatness) in relation to Dunham’s appearance at the 2013 Emmy awards, and it is perhaps no surprise that the artist’s rendition of this very photo which recently appeared above a critical essay of Dunham seems to exaggerate, among other features, her weight:

Horrible

 

Dunham herself has suggested that one of the most positive aspects of her show Girls is its refusal to hide the bodies of “women who are not a size 0” or restrict them to weight-loss driven plotlines . Dunham’s feminism is linked, for many critics, reviewers, and fans, directly to her body and her refusal to cover it up.

Like Dunham, I am frank about my feminism. And, like Dunham, I occupy a body that does not easily fit into the Western ideal of beauty. What caused my student to compare me to Dunham, I believe, is best described by the scholar Kathleen Rowe in her book The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (1995)

Taking Roseanne Barr (among others) as a primary example, Rowe argues that women who refuse to bend to the will of patriarchy are ‘unruly.’ Specifically for Rowe, an unruly woman is characterized by her inability or unwillingness “to confine herself to her proper place.” She is often “excessive or fat, suggesting her unwillingness or inability to control her physical appetites,” speaks in an excessive “quantity, content or tone” and “makes jokes, or laughs herself.”  Her behavior might even be “associated with looseness and occasionally whorishness” and she is often perceived as a woman on the margins of polite society. I would argue that Lena Dunham, like the subjects of Rowe’s book, challenges patriarchal authority through her unruly behavior. Indeed, the recent outrage over some of her admissions regarding previous sexual experiences in her memoir Not that Kind of Girl underscore my point.

Now what does this all have to do with “embodied pedagogy?” From the tone of my voice and gesticulations to my dress size, my body’s unwillingness to be bound by patriarchal norms of femininity underscores the feminist commitments of my pedagogy. My insistence on voicing feminist challenges to patriarchy, particularly in a potentially unlikely class like a British Literature Survey implicitly codes my pedagogy as unruly for it refuses to limit conversations about gender to sanctioned academic spaces such as our Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Coupled with my occupation of a fat body, I signal as excessive and uncontained. By being a loud, large, female graduate TA who espouses explicit feminist concerns, I embody my feminist pedagogy. Thanks to Kathleen Rowe, I have a lens through which I might understand this at first perplexing, but now flattering, student response.

 


Melissa Welshans is a PhD Candidate in English at Syracuse University and is currently working on her dissertation The Many Types of Marriage: Gender, Marriage and Biblical Typology in Early Modern England. Melissa’s research is concerned with issues of gender and sexuality in early modern England, especially as it pertains to the institution of marriage. In her free time Melissa practices her nail art skills and snuggles with her husband and their two cats.