Speech at the SAA Business Meeting

This past Wednesday, April 5, I was asked to say a few words about my concerns regarding US border policy and its effects on the Shakespeare Association of America. I thought I might share that speech below. I didn’t get to read it myself because the heavens were being hammered by Thor himself, sadly, though I want to thank SAA President Heather James for reading it into the record for me.

I would like to start off by acknowledging that this conference is taking place on the traditional territories of the Creek peoples, whose settlement, Standing Peachtree, lent its name to the street upon which this hotel stands. I mention this because such an acknowledgement highlights the empty seats that have always been among us, unrecognized.

The SAA has prided itself for years on its seminar model; it is what makes the SAA unique. For several decades now, the tables that we meet at have been growing larger as more scholars have been welcomed. Chairs have been taken by scholars of all sexualities, nationalities, religions, races, backgrounds. The constitutional amendment to Article III.3 exemplifies that commitment to diversity of membership and is a part of a series of initiatives, outlined in the President’s Letter of February 2017 but begun over the past few years, to bring more people to the table.

This year we can see that we have empty seats that should be filled. LGBTQ+ scholars, Muslim scholars, black, middle eastern, aboriginal and Asian scholars are absent.

As the project coordinator for the Canadian Shakespeare Association, I know there are Canadians who haven’t come this year and who might not come again. For many who did decide to come, like myself, it was an agonizing decision weighing access and professional duties against, in some cases, personal safety and continued isolation. The SAA must address itself to those who feel that this nation does not welcome them and the changes the SAA makes to bring those people to the table must be effective and permanent, implemented as soon as possible.

To that end, I suggest the following:

  • An agile system of response to government initiatives. That is, as we only meet once a year, that means we have only one opportunity to engage in an open forum to discuss issues as a group and propose a statement that addresses the concerns of the members.
  • An online forum for all members (even if it begins as a facebook group). We need a permanent online forum (or set of online spaces) that will allow for us to discuss policy issues as they come up.
  • Podcasted/Vodcasted seminars and/or plenaries. Although electronic “presence” is never quite the same thing as physical presence, it can provide a much-needed bridge for those who have been excluded. In addition, making certain parts of the conference available publicly will help to reach out to a wider public and membership. These could also be useful for teaching and research purposes
  • A new officer of the SAA or committee of the trustees specifically devoted to addressing membership inclusivity issues.
  • A formal commitment to regularly hosting the annual meeting (say every three years) outside of the United States, be that in Canada, the Caribbean or somewhere else in the Americas.

These suggestions require, in some cases, constitutional change. As a part of a permanent process of inclusivity, however, they seem necessary. There have always been empty chairs at the table, but by making formal, permanent commitments online and in the constitution, we can hopefully supply those empty spaces.

I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Unless I Do): Emotional Labour in University Teaching

Some friends of mine do a podcast called Witch Please, about the world of Harry Potter. They are scholars out of the University of Alberta and much of what they end up talking about it related to teaching and pedagogy at Hogwarts. I often completely agree with them (for instance, that Hufflepuff is the only house that really values education); I often completely disagree with them (honestly, I may be a monster, but Cedric Diggory’s death was just SO contrived). Nevertheless, they have recently been talking about emotional labour in their podcasts and somehow it has got into the back of my head.

Seriously, go check it out.  I’ll wait.

Emotional labour is one of those feminist issues that I’ve never really dug into before. No real reason I guess, just never really thought too much about it. Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment, universal course design, students with disabilities, and my increasing sense of frustration and exhaustion and I’m wondering if the concept of emotional labour might help me to articulate what it is I’m feeling regarding teaching.

“That is, when a professor’s ability to assess a student’s capacity to participate in the discourse or discipline is removed or hindered by the administration in a misguided (mis-)application of universal instruction design — in other words, passing a student because the student will be emotionally traumatized by failure — the course ceases to be about participating in a discourse or discipline and becomes instead infantilizing, othering, and disenfranchising.”

In some of the studies I’ve been reading regarding education and working with students with learning disabilities, I’m not surprised to see that students who feel that their instructor is empathetic and approachable end up doing better. For instance, 

  • Ouellett (“Faculty Development and Universal Instruction Design” in Equity and Excellence in Education 2004) notes that there are many advantages to profs knowing their students, not least of which is tailoring appropriate supports to students who may need extra help.
  • Rose and Meyer (Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age 2002) argue that “affective networks” are necessary for engaging and motivating students, especially students with disabilities. Getting to know your students allows you to communicate your passion for the material and thereby motivate them to do well.
  • Another study (Elacqua et al Perceptions of Classroom Accommodations Among College Students with Disabilities 1996) came to the somewhat unsurprising conclusion that, for students with disabilities, the experience of asking for accommodations can be stressful. Such stress is reduced when students feel that the professor is empathetic and supportive.

I know, none of this is terribly surprising to me, either. Teaching is a very personal thing, predicated on individual relationships that sometimes last an entire lifetime. 

There’s a big distinction in my mind (at least at the moment) regarding setting up a classroom in which everyone is respected and reasonable accommodations are met for a wide range of disabilities and setting up a classroom in which the professor is asked tacitly or explicitly to take on the emotional labour of the students. I worry that the latter is the conclusion that some university and school board administrations are coming to from studies like the ones I just quoted (and others). That is, when a professor’s ability to assess a student’s capacity to participate in the discourse or discipline is removed or hindered by the administration in a misguided (mis-)application of universal instruction design — in other words, passing a student because the student will be emotionally traumatized by failure — the course ceases to be about participating in a discourse or discipline and becomes instead infantilizing, othering, and disenfranchising.

Students with strong social networks and well-developed relationships with professors will tend to do better in classes, this is true. It’s one of the reasons why I give my students access to my Facebook, my Twitter, my YouTube, and whatever other social media I belong to. I want students to use me as a resource. If you want to learn about Shakespeare or poetry or theatre or what have you… I’m here to help!

That said, I can’t be anyone’s friend while they are my student.  Obviously. 

Montaigne probably put it best. One cannot be friends with someone who has power over you because you will always be beholden unto that person. Students want something from professors – to pass the course. It is perverse to demand both a hierarchical organization of power and a distributed organization at the same time about the same topic. It’s not that professors are like princes were to Montaigne – better than their subjects. It’s that when it comes to the particular topic at hand (for me, Shakespeare), the professor is the expert in the discipline who is judging the student’s capacity to participate in that discourse. Yes, I’m always judging you. That’s my job.

Further, I maintain the right to choose my friends based on my own personal inclinations and desires. I don`t think anyone will judge me too harshly for keeping that right to myself.  Friends do emotional labour for other friends. We cry on each other`s shoulders and we get drunk with each other when one of us goes through a break up. It`s a labour that is unpaid, that is shitty, that is hard, and it is incredibly difficult. You can`t pay people enough for genuine emotional labour. It has to come from a choice.

In the attempt to set up a classroom that is empathetic and supportive, I worry that it is too easy for those terms to slip over into emotional labour. It isn’t always the case, but it can certainly happen that administrators and even professors themselves can start to see themselves more as the student’s advocate and friend than as the person who is assessing them. A professor can be a part of a student`s “affective network” – but only so much. At some point we have to step back. We have to assess them, after all. We have to say, “Yes, you have mastered this discourse,” or “No, you have not the skill yet.” 

This is further complicated by the fact that, for many students, failure to master the material in a course or to satisfactorily participate in a discourse represents a statement about their personal self-worth as a human being. Obviously this too is not true. I mean, I’m only telling a student that they did poorly in Shakespeare – I have no idea if they are a decent human being or not!

“Friends do emotional labour for other friends. We cry on each other`s shoulders and we get drunk with each other when one of us goes through a break up. It`s a labour that is unpaid, that is shitty, that is hard, and it is incredibly difficult. You can`t pay people enough for genuine emotional labour. It has to come from a choice.”

Nevertheless, I worry that the 20+ years of educational theory’s focus on changing the role of the professor away from the “sage on the stage” and towards being a part of an “affective network” can be (mis-)understood as being the role of the professor to be the friend of the student as the student sees their academic worth as being inexorably tied to their self-worth as a person. Friends worry about friends’ self-worth as persons. As a professor, I’m only paid to worry about a student’s capacity to participate in a discourse. To ask more of me is to ask me to engage in emotional labour for free.

It’s something of a two-pronged problem. On the one hand, students are brought up with an expectation of their own academic sufficiency such that failure to navigate the terms of a discipline is met with overwhelming emotional distress — just look at the droves of students who are being treated for anxiety disorders.  On the other hand professors are being encouraged to take on a culturally feminized position of caregiver and friend, while not being compensated for the emotional labour that position entails.

Please note, I’m not of the Snape school of pedagogy. I’m not saying that the other role that is available to teachers is to start humiliating our students and belittling them, like Snape does to Harry Potter. Rather, what I think I am saying is that we have to, of course, 

  1. create syllabi that are universal in design; 
  2. help our students to recognize that failure is always an option and that doesn’t mean the end of the world, and; 
  3. protect ourselves from being forced into emotional labour that we don’t want to do, in the name of a job that doesn’t repay us for such labour.

In the end, I’ve made friends with many of my former students. Some are quite close friends now (though I haven’t cried on any of their shoulders, that may say more about my propensity to cry in general). That said, I like to think we chose our friendship, rather than having such a relationship forced upon us by the mandarins of educational theory.

I don’t know – maybe I’m just sour at the moment. I’m certainly open to having my mind changed. What do you think? Am I just being a privileged, white, male prick/Snape-wannabe? Or am I missing something altogether from my reading of the problem? Please let me know in the comments.

Five Minute Papers

School has returned – huzzah!  I’ve never liked the feeling of being out of school.  Now, the woody smell of freshly sharpened pencils from my childhood has been replaced with the ozone of computers turning on, but the same energy and anticipation is in the air.  Also, I get a paycheck again!

One of the things that I am trying in my classes this year is a modification of a technique that I have used for many years.  Five minute papers are a well discussed pedagogical technique to help students reintegrate the information that they have just learned over the past 50 minutes or so, so as to help them put it into long term memory storage.  They also help me get to know my larger lecture classes a little better.

For those of you who don’t know, Five Minute Papers are short assignments that you use perhaps once a week (any more than that and they tend to lose their value).  At the end of the class, set aside five minutes in which students will be posed a question or a few short questions and they can answer any way they would like.  The questions are designed to help them re-entrench the class content, so they can be either content based or more general questions.  These papers (just completing them) can be then fed into participation marks for larger lecture classes.

In recent years, I have gone for more general questions in my Five Minute Paper assignments.

  1. What have you learned? (From this lecture, from this class, from this semester?)
  2. What do you want to learn? (About the topic, the play, the material?  Or anything else?)
  3. A question of the day, often times having something to do with the play at hand, just to make sure they are listening.  (Hamlet is prince of what nation?)

This year, I’m going to change it around.  Students often don’t come to class thinking about what questions haven’t been asked yet, what they have learned so far, so inevitably the first two questions are a little broad for them.  They struggle for a few minutes to process and then scramble in the last two minutes to write something down.

I figure this year, I am going to make it two parts.  First, I’ll ask the students a question that is pertinent to the content of the plays, yet reasonably broad in scope.  For example, “Why did Shakespeare turn back to the history of England early in his career?”  Second, I will have them ask ME a question.  They will always know that they have a question to ask me coming up, so they can think of that as they go through the plays.

I’m hoping that this will help to focus things a bit more.

That is one thing that I have learned (from teaching): It’s all about the tweaking.

One thing I want to learn is how to reach them all, if that is even possible.

And I guess my question of the day is – what is a pedagogical technique that you use or have seen used in a classroom that you feel is particularly useful or worked particularly well?  Do you have a “signature” assignment?

Raise the Bar: Bars Should Be Fun

I’m going to take this opportunity to finally talk about an initiative that I have become a part of that is setting out to create spaces in the bars of downtown Guelph where sexual harassment and assault will hopefully become a thing of the past.  We are setting out to Raise the Bar, because Bars Should Be Fun (hence the catchy name).

A number of things have conspired in the past few months to encourage me to move into the field of activism.  For any of you who read this blog, you will know about the rape chants on Guelph transit that were repeated (and added to) in Facebook.  There have been other incidents as well.  The more I have publicly spoken out about the issue, the more people have come forward to talk to me about what has happened to them and the people that they love.

We are still in the formative phases right now of the project, but already we have begun partnering with a number of local groups and organizations.  We have had unprecedented support from all sides.  We are talking with the local hospital, the Women in Crisis Centre, the University of Guelph, the Central Student’s Association, The Crown Attorney’s Office and many others to make this happen.

I’m not going to go too far into the project details at the moment, as those are going to be worked out in the next little bit.  The goal, however, is to reduce the incidence of sexual violence and harassment in the downtown of Guelph.  If you support this goal, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me – we can certainly use all the help we can get.

As a part of the campaign, we have created an initial Facebook page.  You might want to check it out.  Share your stories and let’s help make Guelph a place where everyone can have fun!


A Speech from Gandhi to his Students 1 December 1925

Think of last Tuesday, when I began my fast.  Why did I take that step?  There were three ways open to me.

  1. Punishment: I could have followed the easy road of corporal punishment.  Usually a teacher on detecting errors on the part of pupils would flatter himself with having done a good thing if he punished them.  I have been a teacher myself, though my preoccupations prevent me from teaching you during these days.  As a teacher I had no opinion but to reject this accepted method for I know by experience it is futile and harmful.
  2. Indifference: I could have left you to your fate.  Not unoften does a teacher do so.  “It is enough,” he argues, “That the boys do their lessons tolerably well and reproduce what they are taught.  Surely I am not concerned with their private behaviour.  And even if I was, how am I to keep watch over them?”  This indifference could not appeal to me.
  3. The third was the method of Love.  Your character is to me a sacred trust.  I must therefore try to enter into your lives, your innermost thoughts, your desires and your impulses, and help you to detect and eradicate impurities, if any.  For inward cleanliness is the first thing that should be taught, other things must follow after the first and most important lesson has gone home.  I discovered irregularities amongst you.  What was I to do?  Punishing you was out of the question.  Being the chief among the teachers, I had to take the punishment on myself in the form of the fast that breaks today.

I have learnt a lot during these days of quiet thinking.  What have you?  Could you assure me that you will never repeat your mistake?  You may err again but this fast will be lost on you if you do not realize the way out of it.

Gandhi, M. The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. “138. ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’.” Ed. Raghavan Iyer. New Delhi and Oxford: Oxford India Paperbacks, 1990. 228-9.

Education, Integrity and the Zero

The concept of the zero was introduced to medieval Europe through Arab mathematicians in Spain.  There is some contradictory evidence of the Greeks and Romans having access to the concept, but not being able to articulate exactly what would be an integer that meant “nothing, naught.”  Point of this history lesson?  It is really hard for people to grasp the zero.

In Edmonton, AB, there is a teacher who has recently been suspended for assessing students who have not handed in any work (despite regular and repeated extensions) at zero.  They don’t do any work, so they don’t get any credit.  He has been suspended because the Edmonton Public School Board’s Ross Shepard High School has a “no zero” policy.  To quote the CBC article on the matter:

The thinking behind the policy is that failing to complete assignments is a behavioural issue and marks should reflect ability, not behaviour.

It is not a surprise, I’m sure, that I offer my wholehearted support to the teacher in this case.  There is no point in coddling students through their education.  Indeed, it does the students a tremendous disservice to suggest that total inaction can lead to a partial grade, as that is simply not how the world outside high school works.  You can read more about the individual reactions to this in the comment thread beneath the article, if you want.

What I am more interested in is that this kind of policy is percolating up into university classrooms where, until recently, professors had the duty to assign zeroes to assignments that were unacceptable, not handed in, sexist, racist, incompetent, etc.  

The “no zero” policy seems to be linked the quantification of education that came out of the US in the late 90s/early 00s and is really encapsulated by the Bush-era “No Child Left Behind” law.  The problems with that particular act are manyfold, but it is the question of quantification that I take umbrage with here.  The philosophy behind the act, which is that there should be quantifiable and objective measures of educational outcomes, imposes an industrial and capitalist model of production onto what is (in the case of universities) an inherently medieval institution that was created and sustained through the centuries because it was a social good.

As university departments are increasingly called upon to quantify their students’ performance and the abilities of their staff to reach the educational goals merely to justify the departments’ continued existence, the possibility of genuine education recedes into the distance.  What do I mean by genuine education?  

Not comfortable…  learning.

Education requires discomfort on the part of the person who is learning.  They have to be put into a situation where they do not know how to act/what to think/where to go and that is anxiety producing.  Think of learning to drive manual transmission.  No one knows, naturally, where to put their feet, when to shift gears, how to “feel” for the car.  You start off anxious, driving poorly, and then… you get better.  That is genuine education.

You start off poorly, then you get better… but you begin in anxiety.  You begin in confusion.  You begin at zero.

The zero is an incredibly difficult concept to grasp.  It is anxiety producing in the extreme.  It is a sign of no sign.  It is a cipher, a stand in, not for something, but for nothing at all.  It doesn’t follow the laws that other integers follow – it is unique.  It is a sign of failure for some.  It is a totally alien concept for others.

I’ve always wanted to structure my classes like a video game where all students start at zero and as they complete assignments, they move up the levels/grade chart.  I couldn’t do that if I was in a department that was under threat of its own existence, however, because that implies that my students could get zero by not playing the game/showing up to class.

I know of university professors who have been unable to fail students on papers where those students have shown a gross negligence regarding the use of the English language (misspelling a common three-letter word).  All because departments need to maintain their funding.  Zeroes will get you zero funding in a climate keyed to capitalist models of production.

And we all know how well capitalist/corporate models of production have worked…

Educators need the zero.  We need anxiety.  

Teaching Assistant Advisory Council – Jigsaw Groups

So, among my other endeavours, I am a member of the Teaching Assistant Advisory Council (TAAC), a body run through Teaching Support Services here at the University of Guelph. I was deeply involved in Grad Day orientation and TA Day presentations, offering an introductory speech before the student body and two presentations on Preparation for Your First Day of Class and Top Tips for TAs.

Top Tips for TAs did not go so well, but the Preparation for Your First Day went quite well. Spent too much time giving theory – not enough tips. Live and learn I guess.

Anyhow, TAAC is creating a newsletter for all TAs to be distributed electronically (Save those trees), which will deal with recent articles on education, offer interviews with experienced teachers/TAs, offer strategies and keep people generally up to date about the whole TA experience here at Guelph.

I am the general editor of the newsletter and I have the pleasure of writing about a strategy for group work called the Jigsaw Method. My article is as follows:

The Jigsaw Method is ideal for students who take responsibility for their own learning to teach each other about various aspects of a given problem or issue. One caveat though: this method is not for the disorganized TA. Divide the class into small groups (3-5 students). Each of these group will become experts on a given problem, a section of the text, or an issue under discussion. For example, the Blue group will work together to answer a certain question posed to them. Then, halfway through the session, each of the groups will split up and form into groups composed of a different expert from every previous group. That is, the Blue group members will all join different groups where they will have to teach the other students what the Blue group has learned about the particular aspect of the problem they were assigned. Ideally, this allows students to cover a great deal of information very quickly, learning from their peers in an interactive environment.

Though this was originally developed for elementary school classrooms by Elliot Aronson in the early 1970s, it has been applied in university settings and the workplace because of its versatile, interactive, interdependent learning model. It empowers students and encourages co-operation all at once.

Of course, what you see above is just a first draft – I’ll have to shorten it, while still making it seem clear and half intelligent. But the basic idea is there. I may ask the graphic designer guy we have to make up a picture to illustrate the idea. The only thing I can find online is somewhat obscure. Nevertheless, I think it makes sense….