Time for a Change: Integrating Peer-Driven Learning

After a summer of research (four articles submitted, two book proposals ready to go), I’ve turned my attention back to preparing to teach. And this year, I’m finally putting my money where my mouth is; I’m making my 200-level Writing II class entirely peer-driven, student-driven, and crowdsourced (and by crowd, I mean the class). I’ve taken my inspiration from the great Cathy Davidson and we will spend the first four week of the course shaping the final thirteen. 

Why have I done this? I think my students are capable and should be encouraged to take ownership of their educations, as well as learn to work collectively. I also think that it’s about time that I learn, I mean really learn, what it is that they know and react accordingly, rather than assuming up front and correcting my teaching. 
Why I am only doing this in my 200-level class? Mostly because these are student who (in theory) have already learned the “basics” in their 100-level Freshman Writing class. I am hoping that the extra experience will help them feel more comfortable with the arrangement. I also hope that this means we can focus on what we are writing about versus how we are supposed to write about it.
If you would like to see my syllabus and offer comments, please do so below, rather than directly in the document. Please remember that this is a first draft of the document and I will be continually refining it and reworking it right up until the semester starts on the 19th. I hope to receive some good feedback here so that this class is as successful as possible.
I am also going to be using Cathy Davidson’s new book Now You See It, which is excellent (more detailed review to come) in my 100-level class, where the theme will “The Future.” After we read the book (which will take up about the first third to half of the semester), I will turn the class over to the students and we will read/watch/write works of their choosing based on the theme. At least, that’s the plan. 
I have to say, I am at once terrified and exhilarated. I am looking forward to the challenge and I am optimistic that this will work. But I am also terrified that it will fail horribly, either due to my inability to let go or my students’ unwillingness to break free of the way they have been conditioned to learn throughout their educations. I guess I have a little less than two week to chicken out and revert back to my usual dictatorial style. 
Please feel free to offer words of encouragement in either direction.

Bad Female Academic: Not Interested in Passing

(See what I did there? That’s the second post in a row where I’ve come up with a clever title with two possible meanings, both in the traditional academic sense and in the socio-economic sense. Anyone? Anyone? Alright, I’ll get on with it.)

When Dr. Crazy was talking about gender and class, she brought up the concept of “passing”, or being able to move up and fit into a different socio-economic class. Women, especially, have been practicing this since, well, since there were marked differences between different groups of people implying an hierarchy.* I think if this Bad Female Academic series has shown anything, it’s that I am not very good at passing myself off as a “traditional” academic.
But writing this series has forced me to look back at my personal history both inside and outside academia, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I have never really been interested in passing, and in fact now seem to be actively seeking out situations where it would be impossible for me to pass. 
Let me explain, and bear with me if we take a short voyage into my non-academic past.
In elementary school, I was the only girl in my class who didn’t at least try to figure skate or do ballet. This was an offense punishable by being mean-girled for all of elementary school. I swam. I never hid the fact that I swam, nor was I interested in giving up swimming in order to “fit in.” In high school, too, I wore my hideous swimming jacket as a badge of pride, marking my difference from the rest of the group. It was also in high school when my parents got divorced and I was suddenly thrust into a different economic reality, a reality that was much different from that of my friends. Swimming, while a welcome escape for me, was also a place where I didn’t quite fit in, as I was one of the youngest and only girls. 
After a particularly difficult two years at a private CEGEP, where I decided that I couldn’t join the socio-economic elite I was going to school with, nor did I have any desire to beat them, so I wore sweatpants for two years, I left to go to a French university. I knew I wouldn’t, couldn’t pass as a French person, but I didn’t care. The impossibility of passing was liberating. 
After my PhD (where I probably tried too hard to pass, failed miserably, and was miserable), after getting married, after adjuncting while pregnant, I got my tenure-track job. At an HBCU. Once again, while pregnant. There was no hope of passing, in fact it would have been insulting and ignorant to even try. But I liked that. I had realized that letting go of the pressure, the desire, the desperation, to be something I wasn’t, I learned more, was more open, and a better teacher. I wasn’t wrapped up in whatever I needed or thought I needed to do, so I could focus on what my students needed me to be. 
Think about that for a second. If we just stopped worrying so much about what our colleagues or administrators or “the elite” want us to be, maybe we can be better teachers and researcher, actually attuned to what they need from us, and what we need from ourselves. 
Now, I am an instructor in the South. My accent marks me as different. And that’s perfectly fine by me. Maybe by being myself, I can teach my students (and my children) that it’s ok to be yourself and to be different. 
*I don’t use the term “passing” without realizing that it is a problematic term; I’ve worked at an HBCU and I study Black writers, so I am well aware of the history of “passing” for African-Americans in the US. And even the fact that I have the choice to be able to pass marks me as being a more privilege position. And my apparent rejection of that privilege is also not unproblematic. I don’t see what I do as “slumming it” but instead a conscious effort to do things differently. 

There are no words today, only action

I was all set to write a post about how we remain obsessed with the Ivies and those top, elite colleges, to our own detriment. And I’m not just talking about how families will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get little Jimmy and Suzy into Yale or Duke, but how we, in academia and the media, keep pushing these colleges as the standard, for better or for worse. Three items:

Nothing from a regional state school (or community college). Nothing from a PhD from a less than elite program. Nothing about the variety of experiences that are found in higher education, from how English is taught to the experience of the workforce therein. 
And then, I read about an adjunct professor in community college who killed himself. 71 years old, history of depression, and all I can think is, did he not get help because he didn’t have health insurance? And I remember reading about another adjunct who worked through his cancer treatments because he couldn’t afford not to. He passed away from the cancer (sorry, no link; I saw it on facebook, in a private note, and I don’t have permission to share). And how some are trying to create an Adjunct Emergency Fund. And. And. And. And.
So, I’m sorry if your experience at Brown and with elite MBA students isn’t all that you imagined it would be; most of us are teaching our “mediocre” and “non-elite” students how to write quite well, thank you very much. And, I’m sorry I’m not the kind of role model you’re looking for in English. Or, maybe I am, but you can’t be bothered to meet me. Finally, I’m so, so happy that you’re academic fairy tale has come true. Doesn’t mean that it has for most people.
Ivory tower, indeed. 
For the rest of us, it’s real life, and it’s about time others started realizing that. Although, most people reading this blog already do realize it. Preaching to the choir. Now, it’s up to us to actually DO something about it. I wrote this. I’ll keep writing this. 
I need to figure out what else it is I can do. Because these words that I write, while reaching an audience, can only do so much. 

The Academic Elite: Who Are These People, Really?

So, class has been on everyone’s brain lately. Not the kind of class that is about to start in less then three weeks (I really need to get on that), but the kind of class that involves money, social mobility, and how to properly “fit” into higher education. I want to start with a little bit of a roundup of recent posts that are either explicitly or implicitly about class issues. If I’m missing any, please let us all know in the comment. 

Obviously, this isn’t all that has been written on class issues in higher education, but these seem to have all come to head, right now, online and in real life, at least for me. Thinking about my graduate and teaching career, I have one question that nags at me:

Who in the heck are these people who are forcing and enforcing a very clear and distinct set of class values on us? Seriously? Who are they?

Because it’s not the majority of people that I’ve met on my path to where I am right now. Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended an “elite” institution, either as a student or a professor. Maybe it’s because I self-selected the people I hang around with, naturally drawn to those with similar backgrounds to my own (my husband, for example, who is also an academic, is from the same socio-economic background as I am). Or maybe, like so much of what we believe about higher education, it’s all just a massive ruse that we’ve been blindly perpetuating.

I still remember being put in my place when I was an MA student by one of my professors. I was commenting on a novel we were reading, saying that it was written for “them” and not for ordinary people (or something like that). She took great offense to that, outlining all of the ways she was not one of them, in terms of her background. It was the first time I really took a step back and looked at the people in front of me and around me. Now, we did have a professor who was a stereotypical professor, in terms of both his class and attitude, but it was only one. And, I don’t remember one of my peers in the program who came from anything higher than lower-middle-class.

It was the same for my PhD. There was, again, one professor who was clearly “one of those professors” (he came from a very wealthy and influential family, apparently, and my colleague of mine was horrified when I revealed, no, sorry, never heard of them), but the rest of the professors were largely from working-class and immigrant families, as were my colleagues in the program. I’ve taught at four different universities in two countries and three states, and I have to say that the majority of my colleagues come form backgrounds similar to my own.

So why then does this obsession with class markers persist? Did we all get into higher education so we could be snobs? Really? And why do we keep requiring that aspiring academics perform tasks that we know they can’t afford? Go to conferences, work for peanuts, receive little institutional support both before and after the tenure-track job. Take on more and more debt, shop at the right stores, live in the right neighborhood, go to the right shows, the right conferences, etc.

We’re suffering in semi-silence. I can’t believe that, despite all of these voices speaking out, we can’t change higher education, if not structurally, then at least culturally. I refuse to meet certain cultural markers. I’m not good at “passing” (as Dr. Crazy writes about) and, judging by the comments and traffic my blog post has received, I’m not the only one who is either incapable, unwilling, or just plain burnt out about the whole thing.

I am serious, though. Where is this pressure coming from? Because, from where I’m sitting, there are more of “us” than there are of “them.”