As any reader of this blog knows, I teach Developmental Writing (some excellent posts from my archives linked right there, folks). These are, studies have shown, some of the most vulnerable students in higher education; the statistics show that these students typically drop out and never finish a degree of any kind. I work at an institution that has dismal completion rates. With public pressure mounting, we are becoming more and more aware of the issue of retention. More and more, the pressure to “retain” students is trickling down to the individual instructors.
This week in my peer-driven classes was amazing. We finally put in concrete terms what was going to be expected of them during the semester. We decided what our major and minor assignments would be and how much of their final grade each part would be worth (yes, we decided to go with good, old-fashioned grades, awarded by me. One class pointed out that they didn’t want the responsibility and the other saw it as too time consuming).
Each class is going to be completely different. The first class (the class that is less self-motivated and less vocal) will run in a much more conventional way. We decided to get our “required” paper (the essay that all students must write) out of the way first. In preparation, we will read the section of our textbook on “Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class.” We will decide collectively which readings we will do for homework and what sort of discussion questions we should address. Homework in this class will be worth 50% of their final grade, as an incentive to stay on task. Once we have completed this section and the required paper, we will move towards being a little more non-traditional in preparation for a final “project,” which can be done in groups.
The other class more closely to what Cathy Davidson imagines for her next peer-driven class. The students are already in groups (with one exception; the class decided that they wouldn’t force anyone to be in a group, so there is one student working solo), working on different sections of the textbook that they found the most interesting. Each group will come up with a proposal for a two-class lesson plan and project on their section. Once the proposals are approved, they will work on their lesson plan and project. Each group gets two classes to teach/present, with the rest of the class expected to read and participate. Once that is done, we will move on to working on our “required” paper, our final task. This class also decided to put together a rather draconian attendance policy because, as one student put it, how can this class be peer-driven if you’re not here?
I was so proud of my students. They recognized their strengths and their weaknesses, developing a class that met their needs. One class wanted more from me as their instructor, the other class, not so much. While they were intrigued by the idea of contract grading, at the end of the day, this class as a concept was radical enough; it seemed they wanted the familiar comfort of grades, as something to hold on to. I can’t say that I minded; it gives me something to hold on to as well, some remnants of “control.”
I realized that we hadn’t discussed a rubric or “scoring” guide in my second class. This worked out well, as we were going to be discussing rubrics during our weekly #FYCchat. As the chat progressed (check out the archive here), it became clear that we were of two very different minds about rubrics; some of us swore by them, while others shunned them as one more way we limit students’ creativity. I panicked; what had I done? I communicated with the students that we might want to develop a rubric. But clearly this wasn’t a concern of theirs. What if they were going to do one just because I had suggested it? Was I in the process of messing with a good thing?
And then the concept of badges (again from Cathy Davidson) did the rounds on Twitter. Why wasn’t my class using badges? Why were we using grades at all? My panic increased. The students decided, I said, but what if the students really didn’t decide, and they were just doing what was comfortable, or worse, what they thought I wanted them to do. Did I not present the concept well enough for them to feel comfortable with it? Am I still being too traditional, conventional? Was I failing my students? I’m not requiring them to put together a digital project or use social media. Should I? Am I doing enough to push my students outside of their comfort zones?
I could no longer see the success of my class, only all of the ways it could (already) be interpreted as a failure.
My students were able to accept where they were in terms of their comfort level with a peer-driven learning environment. One class needs more guidance than the other. I need to accept that my own level with peer-driven learning as their teacher is also evolving. I need to accept where I am just as much as they have accepted where they are. This is a learning process for all of us. In the same way that I try to provide positive support, encouragement, and patience to my students, I need to do the same for myself.
This will not be perfect. There will always be thing that get left out, left behind, and things that could be done differently. In a peer-driven learning environment, I have to trust that the direction my students have chosen to take is the right one. I also have to trust that I am doing my best as well.
Another way that this class is the most challenging thing I have ever done.
I think I’ve finally over-done it. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. After a summer of fabulous productivity in the writing department, I’m spent. I know I wrote basically the same thing exactly a week ago, but it seems that Thursdays, I hit a wall. Or, more accurately, Wednesday I hit a wall, but habit dictates that I face this reality on Thursdays when I try to write my Thursday night post for Friday.
I was desperate to find a way *not* to blog about some very real drama that is hitting one of my Peer-Driven Learning classes. It’s amazing how one bad, poorly-prepared, attention-starved apple can spoil the whole bunch. And now the class has decided to break out into working groups, with the Bad Apple’s group suffering from a horrible case of regression. Unlike the other groups, where learning and discussion is taking place at a fast and furious pace, this group’s other members have regressed back into sullen, defensive silence, the kind that I’m met with in most ordinary classes when asked to participate or do anything at all.
Programming Note: I’ll be taking a break from writing weekly Bad Female Academic posts, mostly because I don’t have anything left to add. That’s probably because I’m teaching again and am trying something completely new, trying to create a course based on peer-driven learning. So instead of Monday posts on gender in academia, you’ll be treated to posts on my ongoing adventure in allowing my students to decide for themselves what we’re going to learn and produce in our class.
I’m stuck. I don’t have writer’s block, but I am suffering from some pretty uninspiring writing. I volunteered to do a guest post on a pop-culture subject that I am (or at least I was) pretty excited about. And then, I sat down to write the thing. The words came, but once I got about three-quarters through, I stopped, re-read it, and hated it. It wasn’t bad; it was coherent, followed the rules of standard written English, and communicated what I had intended it to say. But it was so…boring.
Tomorrow is my first day of crowdsourcing my course, or, perhaps more accurately, working with my students to create a peer-driven course. We had our first class(es) on Monday, where I introduced the concept and we went through the syllabus, such as it was. I assigned two posts from Cathy Davidson’s HASTAC blog, as well as the Paulo Freire essay on the banking concept of education included in their reader, in an attempt to inspire and challenge them, to help them see things a little differently.
I’m currently working on an essay about how Nalo Hopkinson uses the (postcolonial, black, queer) body in her short story collection, Skin Folk. The female bodies in particular in her works, both short stories and novels, are very physical; they are pregnant, nursing, menstruating, eating, going though menopause, coming, and they come in all shapes and sizes, lovingly described. This element of her work has always resonated with me. In my research for my current paper, I came across the book Rites of Passage in Postcolonial Women’s Writing from Rodopi. One of the essays deals with the difference between “female” and femininity:
If femininity represents the socially acceptable, aesthetic side of ‘woman-ness’, then femaleness exposes its socially unacceptable, abject underside, the undesirable leftovers of existence. Thus, while abjection deals in the undeniably physical – the messiness of the body’s materiality – so aesthetics traditionally shuns the corporeal in favour of the polished, pretty veneer of femininity. (267)
The essay uses Kristeva and goes through the ways women’s (particularly girls on the cusp of or going through puberty) are policed. Good girls are sugar, spice, and all things nice (but, not allowed to be seen eating those sweet things). We smell good, we look good, we are clean and fresh.
I’ve never had a problem with being “female” so to speak. As a tomboy or growing up as “one of the boys,” I never felt ashamed of the messiness of being female; it was just something that happened, like the messiness of being a male. Growing up with the boys and their locker room talk just meant, to me, that bodies and bodily functions weren’t anything to hide.
Of course, I quickly learned how wrong I was and what the double standard was for me and my female body versus males and their bodies. But being feminine just didn’t fit with my personality or my body. I loved to eat, which I could do when I swam almost 30 hours a week. One might be tempted to discuss eating as a substitute for…something I was missing growing up, but for me eating was a simple pleasure that I would not give up simply because it was “un-lady-like” to stuff my face with the boys after a long practice.
Things got especially difficult once I hit puberty and it became clear that I was, despite my best efforts, not one of the boys. I didn’t and don’t possess a boyish, athletic body. My femaleness became obvious, in fact, it became hard to ignore. It is one thing to be pretty and feminine (think Betty Draper on Mad Men), it is another when your sexuality is on display (think Joan Holloway on Mad Men). I’m a Joan. As the show observes, it is difficult for “Joan” to be taken seriously, and I learned that many, many times over.
well said, it’s a completely pernicious system in which everyone higher up the pecking order is incentivised to exploit those below. at the end of your piece i was wondering though – why DO you do it? possibly you will say, because you love it. I’m wondering when the tipping point comes : when love of one’s job becomes the privilege of those who can afford it?
These are two questions that I have addressed in the past (why I came back to teaching and who will be our future professors). I wrote the former post almost exactly a year ago, when I was about to start teaching again, full-time, after a year of under/unemployment. Many reasons I outlined there haven’t changed; I still need the money and there are very few employment opportunities where I am currently living. Why not move? My husband and I decided, very early in our relationship, that if we were going to decide to be together “forever” that we were going to be together. So I am still place-bound and limited, therefore, in my employment opportunities.
But, and Worst Professor Ever is going to be mad at me for saying this, capandgown is right insofar as that I love what it is that I do. I am invigorated and excited to have the opportunity to completely reimagine and reformulate my classes. I have written elsewhere that it is liberating to “only” be an instructor, and I wonder if I would have had the courage or conviction to do what I am doing this semester if I was on the tenure-track. This job still has something to offer me (other than money), and me to it.
I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. And, that might be the problem. I’ve spoken before about my failure of imagination when it comes to how I see and understand my classes. I have the same problem when it comes to my career trajectory. For so long I could only see myself in front of the class, in higher education, eventually moving up the administrative ladder. Of course, that vision has shifted somewhat, but not much. Maybe it’s in part because of where I am living, with limited economic opportunities. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been particularly entrepreneurial. Or, and I think Cathy Davidson would agree, the vision I’ve had for my life has never really been seriously disrupted enough for me to take a step back and really rethink things.
When I say that my job still has something to offer me, I mean that it allows me to go outside of my comfort zone, even if it’s only in the relatively safe confines of the classroom, a place where I feel most at home. Maybe these small steps I am taking to change the way I look at the educational experience will help me build up the courage and the vision to look at my own career trajectory differently. Four short months ago, I was lamenting my inability to radically change the way I teach. Now, I’m making it happen.
Eight months from now, maybe I’ll see more things just a little bit differently as well. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I love and what challenges me. I’m pretty lucky that way.
I finally finished Cathy Davidson’s new book Now You See It. It comes out today (August 18th). I am so glad that I decided to adopt this book for my Freshman Writing class on “The Future.” I am excited and invigorated by the hopeful and optimistic tone that the book takes. This is a book that everyone should read.
To believe that the new totally and positively puts an end to the old is a mistaken idea that gets us nowhere, neither out of old habits nor finding new ones better suited to the demands of that which has changed. John Seely Brown calls the apocalyptic view of change endism. Endism overstates what is gone…When I talk to my students about the way we select the worlds we see in our everyday life, they often ask how they can possibly possibly change the way they see. It’s easy, I always answer. I’ll assign you the task of seeing differently. And you will. That’s what learning is.
I needed to read that tonight, staring down the reality of trying to teach my course differently, in order to get the students to see things differently. I’ll be writing a more detailed review later, but I wanted a chance to be emotional, a little hyperbolic, and effusive in my praise for this book.
Buy this book. It will change your life because it does exactly what Davidson does with her students. She assigns you the task of seeing things differently in this book. It is a book that demands to be re-read, reflected on, and discussed. I hope you buy it, share it, talk about it, and have the courage to allow it to change you.
And remember, if you’re on Twitter talking about it, use the tag #NowUCit.