Pedagogy

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.

PC.png

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.

“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.

mcb3f2

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.

Adventures in academic-land

No one likes to come off as stupid (or not smart enough) at a gathering, big or small.

Right now, you might be disagreeing with my statement and telling yourself or whoever is sitting beside you, “That’s not true! I don’t mind being ignorant because not everyone knows everything. At least, I get rid of my ignorance by being a good listener!” I used to tell myself that too. But if I was being really honest, I knew that whenever I heard a huge academic term like “heteronormative” or “historicize” and didn’t know what it meant in the given context, for a split second I would feel quite stupid. Now imagine the feeling when you start dating someone from the field of academia!

That feeling of stupidity increased exponentially whenever I was around my partner’s friends. They would talk about microagressions, cultural zeitgeist, postmodernism, cryptic eroticism, antiquity, etc., and I would nod along with a smile on my face, all the while trying to wrap my head around the concepts they were talking about. Yeah, I have been through many a Joey Tribbiani moment.

You know where it gets worse, though? When you work on a university magazine with intelligent and witty undergraduates who seem to be fluent in the same rhetoric. They could start a conversation on social issues that intersect across myriad identities with a panache that would put many members of the Congress to shame. It was not just awareness of the times they were living in; it was the eloquent way they could sum up their thoughts using the words that the situation warranted. It is as inspiring as it is intimidating.

And this is where I feel cheated with my undergraduate education. I had decided I wanted to be a journalist when I was in high school. I followed the straight and narrow path during my undergraduate degree to achieve that goal. And no one stopped me to help me realize that there were other things I could learn on the way. For my professional parents, law, medicine and engineering were the careers for winners. To get them to allow me to pursue journalism was hard enough: imagine telling them I wanted to take up gender studies as even a minor. Queer theory was OUT OF THE QUESTION!

Thankfully, though, having met a group of sharp-as-a-whip undergrads and dating a very intelligent academic opened up opportunities for me at graduate school. As a business student, I could not use my credits for classes at the Hall of Languages. After all, if I want to run a successful business in the future, I have to learn about analyzing financial statements and conducting effective market research. So, even with the limitations I faced, I realized I could sign out books about marginalized sexualities and genders from the library, talk to my personal academic about the hypersexualized representation of black men, and chat with my other academic friends about the chauvinistic depictions of women in the media. In hindsight, I realize that to understand myriad identities and their history will probably make me better at my craft.

To engage in these conversations and immerse myself in issues that interest me makes me happier—if not less stupid. I have a long way to go, though, before I can actually be even as smart as the undergrads I spoke about.

To move out of our comfort zone and learn something beyond our immediate curriculum is an important ingredient for our personal and professional growth. It helps broaden horizons and creates perspectives that we hadn’t encountered before. It creates a nuanced thinking process. And graduate school presents the perfect opportunity for all that. Thankfully.


Aishik Barua is a 2nd-year MBA student concentrating on media marketing. He is particularly in love with TV shows (from The Sopranos to The Flash), books (from The Little Prince to the Harry Clifton series) and a myriad number of modern era conspiracy theories. When he is not screwing his eyes at some website’s Google Analytics page, he could be found doodling with his sketch pencils, cooking a new dish or simply engaging in general goofiness.

History’s Fiction Problem: “Selma” and the Value of Fictionalized History

In a recent piece for SalonAndrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg take aim at both Selma, the newly released film about the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through Selma, they critique Hollywood more broadly for its lack of anything truly meaningful to say about history.  In the process, they also dismiss seemingly all (or at least most) historical fiction. They suggest that there is a measure of historical truth that historical fiction can obtain—but only if it remains firmly ensconced in the responsible, well-trained hands of those housed in the discipline of history.  Fiction’s tendencies to romanticize and to provide narrative closure, they seem to suggest, works against a nuanced appreciation of history.

Skepticism from trained historians is nothing new; historical fiction has increasingly earned the ire of many historians.  Such critiques almost invariably revolve around questions of “accuracy,” as historians ruthlessly pick apart the novels, films, and television series for every incident that is not “how it really was.”  Burstein and Isenberg voice a common desire among many of those who study history, for they suggest that in films “romantic truthiness supplants history.”

Such a critique overlooks so much of the richness and complexity that fiction, in film, in television, in novels, in poetry can offer to readers trained to be able to see it.  True, there are many flaws in these expressions of history, but isn’t it time to stop pretending that they don’t have any historical value, or that they don’t have a particular vision of the truth to offer?  Isn’t it more productive to study the ways in which these texts work, to look at conventions of narrative and other aesthetic considerations, to situate them in their political moments—not just to find out what they say about their present moment, but about how that moment understands history?  Work like Burstein’s and Isenberg’s poses the danger of foreclosing on any possibility of appreciating and studying these texts in all of their complexity, and shores up the already incredibly tenuous distinction between fiction and truth as if one does not have something to say about the other.

I currently teach a course entitled “Race and Literary Texts.”  Part of my intentions while designing my syllabus was to include fiction that helped to make clear to my students the ways in which history, the accumulated sediments of past actions and processes, continue to intrude on the present.  Utilizing texts ranging from Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy to Richard Wright’s Native Son, my pedagogy emphasizes reading literary texts as theoretical texts. We take them seriously as theories of history, and draw out the ways in which they articulate historical visions. This is an incredibly rewarding experience, as we negotiate the ways in which writers, poets, directors, and studios grapple with the how to engage with the intractable problems posed by the past.

For our first close reading activity, we read the vexing poem “The Change,” by Tony Hoagland.  I love and hate this poem, for it represents so much of what I will attempt to convey to my students this semester.  In this poem, the speaker observes a tennis match between a white European and a young black woman from Alabama, secretly hoping that the former will win. Through the match, he wrestles with the intractable nature of history, of momentous (and, to the speaker at least, cataclysmic) social change.  While I condemn the poem’s obvious racism and white paranoia, I can’t help but acknowledge the ways in which it seeks to articulate a theory of history, to wrench a measure of intelligibility out of the chaos and terror of historical change (to riff slightly on Philip Toynbee’s famous statement about good writers grappling against the intractableness of modern English).  When the speaker says:

There are moments when history

passes you so close

you can smell its breath,

you can reach your hand out

and touch it on its flank

one can almost feel him grappling with the idea of history as experience, of the individual come face to face with the terrifying nearness of forces over which he has no control.  The line breaks struggle formally to come to terms with the effects of history, with the sense that a moment is simultaneously passing and has already passed.  Indeed, by the end of the poem he seems to have done so: the last phrase “we were changed” echoes like the closing of some door. The mantra forms a powerful reminder not only of the contradictions of history–as both ongoing process and recollection of the past–but also of the exclusionary power of “we.”  This is in many ways an elegy for white hegemony, and while I find it personally repugnant, I acknowledge that it does offer truth about history—even if it’s one with which we vehemently disagree.

Fiction, whether in the form of the printed word or the moving image, can offer us meaningful and powerful insights into the workings of history.  As Brittney Cooper puts it so forcefully in her own Salon take on the question of historical storytelling in Selma:  “being more accurate does not mean one has told more truth.  Read any Toni Morrison novel and you’ll learn that novels often tell far more truth than autobiography. DuVernay tells us many truths in this film about the affective and emotive dimensions of black politics, about the intimacy of black struggle, about the spirit of people intimately acquainted with daily assaults on their humanity.”  To continue to overlook these texts’ engagements with the past is to do both the texts and us a grave disservice. This shouldn’t stop us from critiquing those theories of history that continue to marginalize and disenfranchise those who have long been excluded from power, of course.  But it’s time that, instead of constantly critiquing and wringing our hands, we move into doing something more interesting and more fruitful: to engage in a more thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the relationship between fiction and history.

 


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

Feeling Testy: Assessing our Assessments

Tests and assessment make people angry.

image
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.

image
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.

output_RWVbu5

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.