Dealing with Fatigue

I'm often jealous of my cat - her biggest worry is weather to sleep in the box or on the bed

I’m often jealous of my cat – her biggest worry is weather to sleep in the box or on the bed

Let’s face it. We all get tired. Hell, I’m exhausted right now, and we’re only half way through term. It’s going to happen, so what are the best ways of dealing with burnout?

Well, the most obvious solution is to work less, and stave it off that way. But if you’re anything like me – in a precarious, high-volume teaching scenario – that just isn’t an option. Many of us have 4 courses (although often we have fewer preps), piles of marking, administrative duties, and an email flow that can make you feel a little bit like Sisyphus.

Thus, here are a few tactics I use, which I’m hoping people can adapt to their own needs:

1.Take at least some time off
No, I mean it! I know this seems impossible, and that you think you simply will not make it through the term if you do it, but taking a few hours off here and there really does make you more efficient. We all have research to do, papers to mark, and lectures to write – not necessarily in that order – but pushing through for an extra hour or two each day instead of taking a break is actually counter-productive. It tends to make people less productive, and in my case, it also significantly increases my rage-o-meter (for those of you new to my blog, let’s just say that I’m an individual who’s in touch with her inner Shehulk).

So, if you were waiting for permission, here it is! Watch that episode of Walking Dead, head over to the kitchen for some procrastibaking, hit the gym, or just enjoy the fall weather. I took a whole day off to cook Thanksgiving dinner this weekend, and while my pile of marking didn’t get any smaller, it definitely didn’t get any bigger either. It just sat there… and the world didn’t even end. Also, I legitimately needed that meal, especially the pie!

At Parc Omega, enjoying time off and feeding the goats.

One of my other recent “me time” activities – going to Parc Omega and feeding the goats.

2. Appreciate the little things
This time of year, you’re probably up to your eyeballs in the negative stuff: passive aggressive emails from colleagues, students demanding extensions or rewrites, issues in your personal life that decided to explode just as everything at work also seems to be going wrong. You might also be struggling with strategies for how best to accommodate students with special needs, or fending off parents that still want to be involved in their child’s education – even at the college or university level.

Me? I’ve been sorting through the voluntary mid-term evaluations that I have my students complete (and yes, some of those students were crankier than others) while nursing a sprained ankle. I’m also teaching a new course, which means I’m making all the usual errors that one makes the first time through and I’m painfully aware of exactly when and how I’m failing. It’s right about now that I can tell which students I’m losing, and I’m running out of ideas about how to help them because I’m barely keeping up with my basic prep.

But there is always good mixed in with the bad, and it’s important to take note of good stuff too. When students email to say thanks for the extension or to send a link they thought you might like, say thank you and accept the fact that you’ve made a difference for at least 1 student in the class. 1 person totally counts! Likewise, when colleagues do something nice – even if they normally drive you crazy – it’s worth remembering that although the system might be broken, not everyone working inside of it is a sociopath after all.

3. Remember you’re not alone
Burnout is somehow made even worse by the messed up assumption that: “OMG! I’m so much more behind than everyone else.” Newsflash, you’re not. You just don’t realize that everyone else is faking it as well, hoping that the momentum carries them through. Life’s a performance; but it’s also a show that no one has adequately rehearsed. Sometimes we lose sight of that fact because many of the people around us are good at sight-reading and/or improve, but it’s true nonetheless.

You can call it Scadenfreude if you want, but I really do find that once I remind myself that everyone else is just as lost and tired as me, things get a little easier. Sometimes it’s good not to be a special snowflake. If everyone else can muddle though, I can too. More importantly, if other people can afford to take a few hours off each day, I can too. And most important of all, if my colleagues and I are all this tired, my students are probably also near death with exhaustion. So yeah, in the end, we really are all in this together, and the more we realize that, the better off we’re all going to be.

My only other suggestion is, of course, coffee… lots and lots of coffee. If it’s the evening, perhaps switch to wine. In the meantime, I’d love to know how you muddle through. Leave your tips in the comments below.


Talking about Pornography in the Classroom: Part 2

These ancient pornographic jugs from Peru were on display in Montreal last year - unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to work them into my lecture.

These ancient pornographic jugs from Peru were on display in Montreal last year – unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to work them into my lecture.

As of today, I have given “the talk” in two out of three of my Gendered World Views classes. I’m not going to lie, it’s not been a comfortable conversation, but the experience of teaching students what feminists have said about pornography (and why), has been surprisingly rewarding. While I do not show any provocative images, my lecture does include reference to Catherine MacKinnon’s famous claim that: “Man fucks woman. Subject, verb, object.” Moreover, students get to listen to Andrea Dworkin’s very passionate and explicit testimony to the Attorney General on Pornography, so it’s not exactly PG either.

So, how have I decided to navigate this treacherous territory, and has it been working so far? Well, as you know from last week’s blog post, I really and truly believe that it’s important to discuss this material, but I was pretty panicked about whether or not I would be able to pull it off in a respectful and productive way. My main goal was to explain the feminist sex wars, then and now, and to make students reflect on the pornographic content that I was pretty sure they were all watching – and which, if I had to guess, they had been watching for quite some time.

Originally, I was going to take a strictly chronological approach, and start with the second wave, bringing it forward to the current controversy in roughly an hour and a half. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that doing it that way might alienate students, who tend to be uncomfortable with the second wave. A strictly chronological approach also didn’t afford me any opportunity to get a sense of their familiarity with – or thoughts about – pornography.

In the end, then, I decided to start with a modern case study, then go back to the beginning and work my way forward again. I showed 8 minutes of the Belle Knox interview on CNN – where the so-called “Duke Porn Star” defends her choice to become a sex worker and reiterates the initial arguments she made on xoJane. While my students were watching this, I asked them to complete an anonymous paper survey that I had handed out as they walked in. It asked:
1) Do you watch porn?
2) If you answered yes, do you like it?
3) Do you feel guilty after watching porn?

Why the paper survey, you ask? First and foremost, I wanted to get of sense of whether or not my students do indeed watch pornography. The answer to the first question would determine if I could move right into feminist responses to porn, or if I had to explain a little about what porn looked like first. All three questions taken together were designed to provide me with evidence that there was no one single experience that defined people’s relationship to porn. Expressions of guilt also signaled that there might be something to feel guilty about (well, that, and the fact that our society remains generally uncomfortable with sex).

As I handed out those paper surveys, students reacted in a number of ways. Unsurprisingly, many of my male students laughed and asked if I really believed that anyone in the room didn’t watch porn. I cautioned them not to rush to judgment, especially as other students (both male and female) recoiled or expressed shock when I handed them that little 3”x3” survey.

After the Belle Knox interview was over, I collected the surveys, and asked students to get into groups of 3 or 4, so that they’d have a little more privacy. I encouraged them to move around the room to find the other people that they felt most comfortable with, and assured them that they could get into all-male or all-female groups if they wanted. Then I asked them to figure out if doing pornography could ever be a feminist act. Silence.

Eventually, conversation picked up, and students in both my classes started asking each other the hard questions. What matters more, the individual choice or the system in which the person is making that choice? What type of porn are we talking about? Has anyone decided on what feminism “is” yet anyway? And so on, and so forth… I was both relieved and impressed.

When we came back into the large group, I explained to students that this would be the one class where I didn’t expect anyone to talk. The material that I had planned to pair with the porn lecture was much more interactive, and they could relax until then if they so desired. There was absolutely no pressure to comment throughout my lecture on pornography, but I would open the floor from time to time and they could comment if they wanted to.

In my first class, no one wanted to go there, not even some of my more outgoing male students who wanted to discuss their thoughts about the survey very loudly before class began. Small-group discussions had made everyone aware of the diversity of opinion in the room, and students seemed to sense that perhaps this was treacherous terrain. My second group, however, was less interested in small group and more interested in speaking as a class. The discussion was dominated by men, who felt more secure speaking about sexuality, but all of them – even the comedians – were serious, respectful, and reflective.

In order to fill the silence in the first class, and to augment the conversation in the second, I informed students that between one quarter and one third of their peers didn’t watch porn (at least not regularly enough to answer “yes”). More importantly, I told them, between one quarter and one third of those who did watch, felt guilty after consuming it. “Why might that be,” I mused, as I segued into the fraught female relationship with pornographic content.

From there it was pretty smooth sailing. Second-wave sex wars and the concept of rape culture. Dworkin and MacKinnon’s battle with, and eventual loss to, the sex-positive feminists. The rise of new technologies and new debates about the globalization of the sex trade. The issue of consent and the alleged growth in violent content. And the question of structure versus independent choice. To make the modern section a little less heavy, I included some less jargon-ridden and more pop-culture focused material, like a nod to the Good For Her Feminist Porn Awards, and a brief explanations of the anti-porn concern about porn addiction and erectile dysfunction among young men.

That brought us to the break (I currently teach night school in 3-hour blocks), and I closed off discussion by asking if anyone wanted to take a stab at deciding which group of feminists had it right. By that point, no one in either class wanted to attempt answering such a question, and they all needed a little time to process. So off they went.

After the break I talked about rape culture in the mainstream media as a way of tying things back to the same arguments without continuing on with a conversation about pornography that made many students feel uncomfortable. No one likes to think about rape, but at least everyone felt they could be more objective and retain a healthier distance from the subject… well, at least for the first 15 minutes or so. The more we brainstormed about ads, music, and video games, the more everyone started to feel a little more caught up in the system once again.

What really impressed me was that at the end of what was an undeniably exhausting class, one of my students put up his hand and said that he had decided that society needs to hear more about sex-positive feminism and feminist porn. The reason, he explained, was that he agreed with Andrea Dworkin and fundamentally believed that men were learning about sexuality from porn. From there, he moved to the sex positive position and claimed that people are always going to watch porn, probably from a young age. If porn is unhealthy, then male sexuality becomes unhealthy as well. Thus, if we want men and women to have healthier sexual experiences, we need to show them a healthier spectrum of what sexuality is so that they become healthier adults.

Other students told me that they never imagined that they would be talking about pornography in a classroom, but that it was a really important topic. And for the first time, I felt like I had managed to make a reluctant group of students interested in what are usually very unpopular feminist debates. I’m sure I didn’t reach them all, but I still feel like all my work and anxiety has been worthwhile. If even 10% of those students start to think more critically about sexuality and the sexually explicit material they consume, then I’ve done something valuable. I think we were all uncomfortable last week, but discomfort is the starting point of so much important intellectual work.

Facebook is a work tool. No, Really.

Facebook isn't just for food porn!

Facebook isn’t just for food porn!

First of all, this is not an attempt to cast Facebook as some benevolent or altruistic corporation that exists solely for the betterment of humankind. That would just be wrong. Anyone who knows how Facebook got its start, or who has read about Facebook’s recent mood experiments, knows that’s a tough argument to make.

I also realize that my Facebook feed and the way that I use the interface is different from what most people are seeing and how the vast majority of people are using it. I don’t get photos of nail art, have relatively few “friends” who link their Facebook and their Twitter, I unfriend anyone who plays Farmville, and have a contact list populated by people with PhDs. The most annoying thing that I’ve had to deal with on Facebook as of late is a flood of Ice Bucket Challenge videos, when what I’d really like to be talking about is events in Ferguson (OK, so the ads encouraging me to try the latest miracle diet pill or to join some sketchy dating site are slightly terrifying as well, but I digress).

But for all of it’s flaws, Facebook still offers me a tool that no other program does – at least considering the field in which I work. Facebook is where I find the very best articles and blog posts, many of which are relevant to the material that I teach in my courses. And Facebook is where I meet fellow intellectuals to share knowledge, debate issues, and yes, also to procrastinate. Let’s be honest here: sometimes, terrible Buzzfeed quizzes or photos of space are what you need to get you through the day. Judge me, if you must.

Twitter seems like a good alternative, but it’s too restrictive, limiting commentary to 140 characters. Perhaps I’m too verbose, but I just can’t say what I need to about any given issue in that format. There’s also too much there, and it’s coming too fast. So while I do use Twitter, and follow a number of brilliant intellectuals, activists, and entertainers, I do not have the time or patience to sift through everything I see – and I definitely don’t have the opportunity to respond to important links in a thoughtful way. Twitter overloads my senses, and discourages nuanced response. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the best place to follow important controversies in real time; but for adjuncts or junior professors, it’s too time consuming, and also a little too public.

Then there’s IRC. IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, does for tech geeks what Facebook does for me. So it seems like a better, more secure interface where the NSA won’t read everything I say and where Mark Zuckerberg won’t play head games with me. The problem is that most humanists – with the possible exception of the Digital Humanities folks – are not on IRC. They’re on Facebook. So that’s where I am too.

So what’s the big deal? Why is the fact that I sit on Facebook all day, like a turtle sunning myself on a log, blog worthy? Well, there are a number of reasons. First, there is the guilt factor. I am constantly asking myself if I’m wasting my time, while simultaneously worrying that my peers are judging me for dicking around online when I should be writing my lectures or dealing with that ever-increasing stack of papers on my desk. Second – and this is the one that gets to me much more – there is the creeping feeling of hypocrisy. Facebook is frivolous and I’m an obnoxiously serious person. It’s profiling me, and is therefore also potentially dangerous, depending on who harnesses that information and for what purposes. I know this. I tell my Media Ethics class this. And yet, I use Facebook all day, every day, just the same.

Despite all this, I end up using Facebook more and not less as time goes on. Maybe it’s an addiction and I’m just in denial? Maybe, any moment now, I’ll slip into an envy spiral and spend my days Facestalking old friends and lovers until the days turn to weeks, and the weeks turn to months, and no one ever sees me again. If this happens, all I ask is that someone does me the courtesy of adding a post script to this blog, warning readers of how completely wrong I really was.

I don’t think I’m addicted though, and I really feel like I’m getting something valuable from the experience. Colleagues having been sending me articles about my latest obsession – the reinvigoration of the feminist sex wars – for my Gendered World Views course. Last year, the first time I taught Media Ethics, a guy I don’t even know sent me information about the scandal surrounding Liebeskonzil via a friend’s wall. I had no idea the movie even existed, let alone that it had been banned by the Austrian Government for insulting the Christian Religion. FYI, said ban was later upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. Fascinating, right?

Sure, I get into the occasional flame war, but even these not-always-productive and yet always enraging conversations help me to crystalize my thinking – often about topics that I discuss in the classroom. And any useless troll battling that I partake in is counter-balanced by the people who pop up and suggest new material that they think I should cover or offer feedback on stuff I’ve already done. Furthermore, Facebook allows me to access a younger perspective when I need feedback regarding curriculum and assignments, since I have a few former students who’ve kept in touch over the years. These people are all now working professionals in their own right, but they’re closer to the undergrad experience than I am, so I appreciate any suggestions they have.

Basically, I use Facebook as a sounding board for everything and anything, and so I will continue to take the good with the bad unless a better platform comes along. Until that happens, my goal is to feel less guilty about using Facebook, and to encourage more educators to do the same. After all, the more of you are on there, the better my sounding board gets.

Reformatting: Summer School Edition


I teach summer school a lot, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. Students who take a summer school course mean business. Most of the time, they’ve either failed the course (or something similar and need the credit to graduate) or are fast-tracking their program. Either way, they’re hungry for the grade and will do just about anything to pass the course. After all, you have to have a good reason to show up regularly to learn about the humanities when the sun is shining, it’s 30 degrees outside and, especially in Montreal, there are a million beautiful patios where one could be sitting and sipping sangria instead of slogging through scholarly literature and listening to what can sometimes be rather abstract lectures.

So yeah, whenever I get the chance to teach summer school I jump at it. But every time I do this, I mistakenly think it will be “easy” to prepare for. It’s usually a course I’ve taught before, so there’s no prep, right? RIGHT?!?!? Wrong! Alas, it doesn’t seem to matter what format you were teaching in during the year – three 50-minute lectures, two 80-minute lectures, or a three-hour block – it never fits neatly into the summer format. Last time I taught summer school at university, I went from two 80-minute lectures per week to a summer school format that was 2.5 hours per day. Now, in CEGEP, I’m moving from a 75 minute format to one where I teach 2 hours and 5 minutes per day.

No matter how you try to slice those numbers, you’re never going to move seamlessly from a regular-term format to summer school without substantial revisions. This means trimming some lectures, expanding others, and probably outright ditching a few more – at least if you’re on the 4-week format, which is popular in Quebec. I tend to do this mostly based on my own sense of how important a topic is or isn’t (although I take the informal exit surveys that I give my students into account too). For example, if I can spot two topics that I want to discuss, but which I feel can be trimmed down, I do a little cutting and glue them together. But if there’s something that felt too constrained in the original format, I simply expand the talk. When teaching Western Civilization, I devoted a full 2.5 hours to different themes in the Industrial Revolution(s), adding a full 60 minutes to my original lecture. This summer, I will be doing the same thing when we discuss gender issues in Media Ethics.

This takes time, and for whatever reason, the job of reformatting never seems to get completely finished before you start teaching. Which brings me to the other thing that one always has to consider when reformatting for summer school: marking. Let’s assume that you – like me – are a mere mortal and you didn’t finish your lecture revisions in time. Don’t forget, that in summer school, you’re also likely to have assignments due or tests coming in every week or two, depending on whether you are on the 4-week or the 6-week schedule. This means you need to leave yourself time to mark all of these papers and exams, and revise your lectures and, of course, prep them before delivery.

The moral of the story? You’re going to have to reformat your assignment structure – and maybe the assignments themselves – as well. Remember, it’s not just that you need time to mark the stuff, but your students also need time to produce it, while still (ideally) keeping up with the readings. For a university history course, this often means stripping the course of its research paper component. This isn’t ideal, but the likelihood of students being able to produce a good research proposal and submit an A paper is not high. There’s simply too much going on and not enough time, even if they are only taking one course. Thus, when I teach history in summer school I assign a short primary document analysis followed by what I call a “researched book review” instead. The latter assignment requires that students read 2 articles related to the subject of the book in order to prepare their reviews.

This summer, since CEGEP assignments tend to be shorter and more numerous than university-level papers, I have simply removed one of the reflection pieces from the syllabus instead of altering the assignments. On top of this, however, I have still had to reduce the readings. In regular term, I only met with students twice a week, and they were assigned a mix of scholarly articles and newspaper articles. Since I meet them daily this summer, and we only have 4 weeks, I’ve had to remove about half of that literature. Some of it will reappear as in-class reading, but I was forced to part ways with one journal article altogether.

All this is to say that although I love summer school, it’s always a bit of a wild ride. So, to quote Jurassic Park: “Hold onto your butts, ‘cause here we go.”

In-Class Reading: The Round-Robin

Ok, so this is a Moorhen and not a Robin, but I'm strangely obsessed with the weirdness of these birds

 This is a Moorhen and not a Robin, but I’m strangely obsessed with the weirdness of these birds

Ok, so I promised to talk about my favourite variation on in-class reading. Here it is: the Round-Robin. I’ve done this with a class of 150 (although there were probably only 130 or so in attendance that day), and classes of 35. In both cases it worked really well, so I’m pretty sure that you can adapt it to whatever class size you’re working with. The trick is to make sure that your groups are no larger than 8 or 9 people each… and, of course, that you have the photocopy budget for all the copies.

So, here’s what to do. Take 4 different documents, each of which approaches the theme for that day’s class in a completely different way. I usually try to create a mix of primary and secondary sources and I choose excerpts that do not exceed about 1.5 pages. Students then get broken into their groups at random. In the small classes, I only create 1 group per document. But in bigger classes, it’s sometimes necessary to double or triple the groups – that is, to have 2 or 3 groups reading the same document. Make sure there is at least 1 strong student in each group, but otherwise, a random distribution of butts in seats seems to work just fine.

Once everyone is in their groups, hand out the readings. I give students 15 minutes to read, and faster readers often start talking amongst themselves as they finish. Students who take longer to read can either finish reading once we enter the discussion period, or stop where they are and try to glean more information from the discussion. After the reading period is finished, students get another 15 minutes to talk the document out in their groups. At this point, depending on how advanced your students are, you might want to give them some guiding questions. For example, when I did this in my History of the British Empire course, I asked them how each document “characterized the east.” When my Media Ethics class did the same exercise as part of our discussion about privacy on the Internet, we looked at a series of documents and asked: “what does it mean to be seen?”

Once everyone seems comfortable with their document, having become an “expert” on the literature they were assigned, mix up the groups – hence why I call it a Round-Robin. If you want, you can try to create some sort of elaborate rules about how people should circulate around the room. Since, however, this exercise is as much about team work and peer-to-peer learning as it is a lesson about the subject matter at hand, I actually don’t give them instructions. Instead, I tell my students that the new groups must be roughly the same size and contain at least one person who knows about each document. This creates temporary chaos, but within 5 minutes they have usually – and quite impressively – sorted themselves in the appropriate manner. Sometimes there will be a group here or there that is missing an “expert” on 1 of the 4 documents, but that’s easily fixed by asking a group that has multiples to send someone over to the group in need.

At this point, the new groups get another 15 minutes to talk through the same question. Again, depending on how long you’ve been working with these students, you might want to give them instructions about how to proceed, or you might not. When I did it with the large group I explained that “experts” should present their document to the group before they began informal discussion, so that everyone was on the same page. This was because a class of 150 students, by its very nature, won’t have much experience with group work and will need some extra direction. In my smaller classes, my students intuitively knew what to do since they’d had a lot of practice, and they began explaining what they had read to one another without any prompting.

It's probably best not to give them anything in original format -- for example, this -- but otherwise, you're pretty free

It’s probably best not to give them anything in original format — for example, this — but otherwise, you’re pretty free

But it’s this last phase where things really get interesting! If you’ve chosen your documents well, and asked interesting questions, students are often keen to compare notes. They ask questions of one another, and some groups end up Googling things in order to find more information. Some settle into consensus fairly quickly, and others fight it out (in my experience, such disagreements have always been respectful, but that does not mean that they haven’t also been heated). At this point, it’s essential that you circulate through the room. I tend to do this for the duration of the class, but at this point it’s even more important because some groups will require a little prodding, while you might want to throw some cold water on the more aggressive ones.

When the majority of the groups have finished their discussion – don’t feel bad about cutting some discussions short, because some of these debates could go on forever – call the class back together and go over the topic one last time. This might seem repetitive but it’s actually quite useful because it evens out the overall experience and ensures that your students have at least some common information despite all the simultaneous (and not necessarily parallel) discussions going on in the room up to this point. It also allows students to fill in their notes. Because the exercise itself is very “hands-on,” almost none of your students will have had the time or the forethought to jot down more than a few cursory thoughts while they are chatting with their peers, and they will appreciate the time to get this information down in an orderly fashion.

There will always be a range in the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the group discussions; however, I guarantee you that working with the documents in this way will make the material much more memorable than a traditional lecture or reading a set of texts at home ever could. Moreover, if you choose the documents well and your students are excited about the topic, more than a few will want copies of the other 3 documents that they didn’t read. This is why I always make everything available on the online forum right after the class.

My one word of caution about this exercise is that, much like when you plan a seminar, you really do have to choose your readings wisely and this takes time. The in-class period will be less labour-intensive for you as an instructor than a lecture, but the preparatory time will be roughly the same. That having been said, even though it won’t save you much work time, the change of pace is often a welcome one and in-class reading exercises like this have saved my sanity on more than a few occasions. Both my students and I sometimes need of change of pace, and this is an effective way of breaking the monotony while still making sure that students are actively engaged in the learning process.

Things My Students Have Reminded Me Of

Term is finished and I had my students fill in another anonymous (and voluntary) survey. Therefore, I’ve decided to talk about that, and come back to in-class reading assignments next time. Don’t worry, this will be short and sweet, I promise.

So what did my students have to say? The results of the survey weren’t surprising, but they did remind me of a few important things. In no particular order:

  1. The things which show up under “things I liked best” are often the same things that show up under “things I liked least.” This year, it was the lecture of the public sphere and our discussion of sports media that peppered both the best and worst lists.
  2. Peer-to-peer learning and well-conceived group work are always popular.
  3. No matter how much or how little reading you assign, it is always “too much.”
  4. I still speak too fast.
  5. How much information one does or does not put on the PowerPoint slides is constantly in need of negotiation.
  6. Students appreciate being treated like adults, even when that means you ask more of them.
  7. You can actually convince students to read and think about something that is bloody hard to understand, but they will not enjoy it. Sometimes learning is a lot like Buckley’s: it tastes awful, but it works.
  8. Enthusiasm matters in a classroom, and students will be more tolerant of your occasional errors when they can tell you’re really trying and that you really care.
  9. People like it when you’re topical (this was easy to do when teaching media ethics, but is slightly more challenging when teaching Tudor/Stuart Britain).
  10. Sometimes, you need to leave space for silence. Real learning requires space and time to digest information and, occasionally,  it’s helpful to pause.

That’s all for now. But next time, I really will talk about my favourite in-class reading assignment.

In-Class Reading

Some of you will recall my piece on the need to teach critical reading alongside analytic writing. There is a difference between reading something literally and reading that same piece critically. It often takes students a very long time to understand what the difference is and how to become a critical reader. Although critical reading is a hard skill to teach, there is a general sense that practice is a must. That having been said, we all know that getting students to actually do their readings is a hard, even at the best of times. So how do you make sure they’re getting the practice they need, especially when it comes to the really dense or difficult texts? You know the readings I mean. Anything post-colonial is a good example.

Things you might want to make sure you read literally

Things you might want to make sure you read literally

It’s true, giving students a reason to do the readings is a great way to ensure that they do their work. I have colleagues at the CEGEP level who give pop quizzes on reading material for this reason. My personal strategy is to choose my readings carefully – that is to try to pick enough material that is written in an engaging and accessible manner and place it alongside the things which are really hard. I also vary my approach to discussing those readings when it comes time for class, and my students do all sorts of different group work, engineering questions about the readings which they can then ask their peers, doing think-pair-share exercises, and sometimes even having a formal debate.

But I’m a realist, and even my most heroic efforts to make the learning process exciting and genuinely appealing sometimes just aren’t enough. This is particularly true at the start of the semester – when students are still deciding whether I’m good crazy or bad crazy – and at the end of term – when they are flat-out exhausted and over-burdened with other work. And so, I’ve started doing more in-class reading.

In-class reading has several advantages. First of all, if you want to introduce students to a really difficult text and make sure that they actually try to get all the way through it – instead of just giving up and waiting for the “answer” to come in class – this is pretty much the only way to ensure the work gets done. By setting aside time in class, you remove the temptation to give up and watch TV. Moreover, you create a built-in support system. Students see that everyone is struggling, and they are given the space and time to commiserate with their peers. But after some initial venting, they are also able to work with their fellow students to try to put things together and recreate the argument in laymen’s terms. In most cases, different students will be able to decipher different bits of the text, and they can then work together to recreate the argument in the same way that a group of friends might assemble a jigsaw puzzle together.

Even though everyone reads at a different pace, students who finish early can begin to speak quietly while their peers finish the text. As more and more people complete the reading, groups of 5-8 students can be formed. This brings me to the second advantage of in-class reading: it makes each student’s initial reaction to the text useful, and builds on gut reactions instead of letting those first impressions fizzle and die, breeding complacency and disinterest. Conversation about in-class readings usually starts with students asking one another what they thought about the text. The result is that different opinions about the same text can then be used as an entry point to discuss things like significance or methodology, which might otherwise seem too difficult or abstract. The process encourages the students to think about how the texts work and not just what they say.

Finally, even if your class ends up universally hating the reading in question, they will likely resent the process less than if they had been asked to do the reading at home. At least this way, the offending literature hasn’t taken up any of their flex time. At the same time, doing a reading in the classroom – no matter how hard the text might be – allows you to break away from a lecture format, and vary the presentation of course material. The change of pace is often welcome to both teacher and students alike.

I have tried projecting smaller excerpts on my PowerPoint and reading them aloud (or having a student volunteer do so). In these scenarios, I usually follow the excerpt with a brief think-pair-share exercise, wherein students have a moment to think on their own and then discuss with their neighbor. When that is done, we discuss the excerpt in greater detail as a class. This has been successful, especially in the really big classes; however, it is very limited in terms of what it can accomplish. Thus, I tend only to take this approach when trying to illustrate the mood of a historical period, or a single concept.

Things that perhaps the marketing team should have read more critically

Things that perhaps the marketing team should have read more critically

If you want to actually get into critical reading, you have to give them photocopies, although it is important to stick to relatively short excerpts here as well. Remember, your students have not been to grad school, and they haven’t yet mastered the art of either speed reading or skimming. And many of them aren’t accustomed to reading anything longer than your average blog. Even a lengthy op-ed can be too much for them, and I never give more than 1-2 pages at a time. Even then, students still need roughly 15 minutes to be able to do it, and some of them will really struggle to make it to the end.

Regardless of what reading you choose, students will need some guiding questions. When I’ve done this in history courses, I’ve assigned things like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, and asked students what Fukuyama thinks the end of history looks like. From there, we move into bigger questions, such as “is it possible for history to end,” and “what types of categories should we use to think about how history progresses?” In this particular case, I was using the reading to introduce 150 students to the content of my modern European History course – and we circled back to the same material at the very end of the course – but I have also used in-class readings in my ethics classes, which are much smaller.

In ethics, we read Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill on two separate occasions. Ultimately, the goal was to compare their moral philosophies. Later in the course, we also read about Ubuntuism, which I’m pleased to report was shockingly successful. In each case, students were asked what defines right versus wrong – according to the author in question – and then how the reading compared to other thinkers that we had examined. They were also asked whether or not they felt like the text in question was useful when discussing the modern media, since ultimately the course is an applied ethics course that focusses on the media and the public sphere.

I won’t lie, the first few minutes the first time I do this exercise in any given class tends to result in palpable annoyance and some very loud grumbling. But as students ease into it, on the whole, they seem to enjoy the exercise. What’s even better, their ability to dissect a text is notably improved by the second time we go through the process. And while they might still all complain about the difficulty of some of the readings when we get to the end of the course, I feel like they understand things like Fukuyama or Kant in a way that they wouldn’t have if I had simply lectured on the topic or told them to read it at home.

That’s it for now, but next week I want to continue this discussion by writing about one of my favourite ways of adapting this exercise. Until next time!