On taking a break!

Those of you who have been reading this blog from the beginning might remember that I am a fan of Giles Fraser, the priest in charge at St Mary’s, Newington (London), and a regular columnist at The Guardian. I’m not religious (though I do consider myself spiritually inclined, in a casual-but-curious sort of way), but Dr Fraser is not a zealot or even especially orthodox: rather, he’s a sensible, thoughtful, and inspiring thinker and writer who funnels his compelling imagination through his Anglican ministry. This past weekend he reflected on holidays – something of which, like most academics, I need more. As ever, his words inspired me above and beyond the call of the beach – and came at exactly the right time, as I contemplate an upcoming trip to the annual conference of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research, followed by a short trip to Salt Spring Island.

Here’s a taster; the link to Dr Fraser’s full article appears here.

Holidays are, of course, originally holy-days. Not just ways of recharging our batteries so that we can return more effectively to the world of work. At best, they are about relearning enchantment. Discovering second innocence. There is nothing wrong with the intellectual astringent of hard-nosed empiricism, in the right place. But if the world is only populated by things that can be weighed or counted, then the world is too easily conscripted by material production.


Read, reflect, relax, and enjoy!



On recognition

My colleague Sam Brennan, who blogs about fitness, feminism, and ageing at Fit, Feminist, and (almost) 50, recently wrote about her experience learning to row. She invited readers to share their own rowing stories, and this put me in mind of the term (long ago now) that I spent on the varsity crew at the University of Alberta. That experience embeds a teaching lesson for me, and in the context of Sam’s post it got me thinking about the crucial roles that listening and recognizing play in effective teaching practice.

I joined the UofA crew to do something different. I’d been a debating nerd since high school, but I’d grown weary of the pressures and the posing that characterized my university debate club. My friend Andrew was a rower and I admired his fitness and his dedication to sport. Thanks to his example, and to my debate fatigue, I decided I wanted to step way outside my usual box. I would remake myself as an athlete.

My first few times out with the club generated a steep learning curve; rowing is hard and requires a lot of balance, strength, and skill. I persevered, though, and slowly got more adept. I knew that I didn’t look the part of a varsity athlete: I was a bit overweight, not especially fit (yet), and not particularly coordinated (still a problem, sigh). This reality lurked always in my mind but didn’t bother me too much at the time; I remained committed to the training through the fall. It wasn’t lost on me, though, that the young women slated for the “A” boat all looked a lot more trim (and frankly a lot more feminine) than I did, even though we were all beginners.

About half way through our fall open water training we did an ergometer test to measure each team member’s relative strength. I have always been strong and I surprised the coach by sustaining a forceful pull the entire three minutes of the test. My score landed me in the top half of the group, and I was damn proud. I thought I’d won a place in the boat going to the next big regatta. The coach told me, however, that he needed to keep me back; my stroke wasn’t proficient enough. Naturally I was frustrated, and a fair bit angry. I thought I’d defied the odds: I thought I’d demonstrated that I was not the “fat” girl in the boat, but the “powerhouse” I’d been on the machine. I thought that I had managed to show the coach who I really was. I thought he had finally recognized me, seen me not for the person I appeared to be, but for the person I was trying so hard to become. When I realized I had assumed wrongly I got pretty depressed. I let that affect my commitment, and after the cold set in and the team moved onto land, I stopped attending practice.

When I look back on this episode now, I know I was upset with the coach’s decision in part because he was right: my stroke was really inconsistent. But I also know that I was deeply upset at the perceived injustice of that decision because I felt that the coach hadn’t made any real effort to help me to improve my stroke all those times we were out on the water; in fact, I often felt like he hadn’t seen me at all. He said barely anything to me during our morning workouts, and my guess is that he assumed from the start (whether he knew so or not) that I couldn’t cut it and that he doubted I’d last long. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he was right.

As a teacher myself now, I take from this (still very strong) memory a lesson about the extraordinary power that recognition – and a lack thereof – carries in classroom settings. I was reminded of this power recently by two very different scholars of teaching and learning. In “Desiring Recognition, Accumulating Affect” (in The Affect Theory Reader, 2010), Megan Watkins explores the affective exchanges provoked by the processes of recognition that take place between teacher(s) and student(s) in classroom settings. Examining a range of literature on affect and pedagogy, Watkins probes the role that affect accumulation within the bodies in a classroom can play in “promo[ting] the desire and capacity to learn” (279). For Watkins, classrooms are spaces of “mutual recognition”, and when teachers in particular take the time and make the effort to recognize their students – to see and then to understand their current selves, their current limits, their needs, their potential, and their efforts to grow – the results are often (though of course not always) a net gain for everyone in the room. Put simply: when a teacher gets excited about students’ efforts to figure out a problem, and builds energy towards the process of its solving, that energy “catches on” around the room, propelling further, often better, work.

Similarly, in a recent article in the National Teaching and Learning Forum, James Rhem describes the work of Alan Schoenfeld on modelling best teaching practices. Schoenfeld is a mathematician, but his model is transferable and is based on the simple but ingenious premise that in order to understand how we teach, we first need to parse what we assume about the teaching of our subject – especially those assumptions we may take too much for granted. As Schoenfeld concludes:

The thing that characterized the true expertise of expert teachers is that they are superb at listening to their students, at hearing what their students are actually saying, meeting the students where they are, and creating a space where the students can learn productively. That’s a core part of their belief system. What happens is if you think it’s important, you can develop that skill, and that’s where that body of pedagogical content knowledge gets developed over the years.

I think it’s fair to say that had my rowing coach tried harder to recognize me – had he perhaps questioned some of his assumptions about who I was and what I could be expected to become – he might have been able to hear what I could not quite say to him, and perhaps he might even have been able to embody some of the energy I needed in order to develop greater strength and discipline of my own. This is not, of course, to say that I needed the coach to do my heavy lifting for me; that is not the point of either of these pedagogical models. Rather, it’s to suggest that the coach’s perceived failure to see or hear me as I wanted to be, and as I was prepared to work harder to become, prevented me from engaging in that hard work, hindering my progress immeasurably. I failed at rowing; there’s no doubt about it. But he failed me seriously, too.

So how, then, do we not fail our students on these fronts? How do we see, hear, recognize, and listen better? I’m the first to admit how hard this is. When I go into a classroom for the first time I take the time to meet all my students, asking them to introduce themselves to me and to one another using a variety of ice-breaker techniques. Despite this good practice, though, by the end of day one I am already starting to slot students into categories, working via a combination of precedent and assumption to get a read on everyone in the room. This is a stress management technique: I need to have some control over the space and I need to know where I stand within it in order to keep a lid on my natural performance anxiety. I “figure out” the students in order to manage my classroom stress (which of course also helps me to be a more effective teacher). But where does this leave them?

For years, in my youthful enthusiasm, I invited all of my new students to meet me in my office at the start of each term; I asked them to fill out a short survey about their experiences with theatre and drama and we’d use that survey as a starting point for a short conversation. I started to grow disillusioned with this technique, though, when I realized that I was directing almost all of the conversations exactly the same way. Again, stress management (and time management!) come into play: if I move from topic A to topic B to topic C, I’ll get you out of here in under 10 minutes and you’ll still feel like we’ve “met”. But will I have really encountered you? Will I have seen who you want to be, who you are already becoming?

During these brief introductory meetings I used to ask students to set themselves a goal for the term. Sometimes I’d do it with them; sometimes I’d set the task as I was guiding them out the door. It occurs to me now that this goal-setting exercise, done properly, might be a very useful way for the two of us – me and the student in the chair in front of me – to get to know each other better, for real. Perhaps this coming semester I’ll ask my new students to my office, invite them to sit, and then hand them paper and pen and ask them to develop a goal for the term with me. Perhaps we’ll each write down what we might each do to help advance that goal. Perhaps I’ll share my teaching goal(s) too. Perhaps we’ll begin to see each other, really.

Sensible grammar advice – as in, you’ll want to give this to your students!

My last post, about grading strategies, included some comments on the time I spend helping students to get their heads around grammar errors they likely do not know they have made. When I flag a grammar problem in an essay, I typically do so because the larger problem, of which the grammar error forms a part, is that a sentence or paragraph just does not make sense.

I’m a language geek, so grammar stuff is interesting to me just because, but as a teacher I know that grammar can be scary and confusing for a lot of students who did not learn it in primary school and then were just expected to “know” it once they got to high school. (I learned this the hard way in my office one day when a young woman who had come to see me about problems in her paper asked me sheepishly: what’s a verb?)

For me, teaching grammar needs to be framed by common sense and by the goal of achieving clarity on the page, not by harping on rules. I also consider teaching good communication skills (including, importantly, proper grammar use) to students to be part of my pedagogical activism. Only once your point is clear can I understand it, and follow you toward your next insight; only if I can understand what you are saying or writing can we work together to get over the next logical hurdle, or past the next communication barrier. Clarity is about recognizing each other’s insights across the obstacles that human differences create; thus, clear and comprehensible speaking and writing (in whatever your language of shared communication happens to be) is a big part of making social and cultural change for the better in a multicultural, multi-social world.

Gleefully, then, did I read this superb article by Thomas Jones this past weekend in The Guardian (11 May 2013); he writes with common sense in mind about which grammar rules are useful (death to the dangling modifier!), and which can easily be chucked (split infinitives? Who cares?). Pass it on to your students; I plan to attach it to all feedback on first essays I hand back in the new semester.


Marking mindfully

We’re into our exam term at Queen Mary, and that means marking, marking, marking. Lots And Lots Of Marking.

I’ve just completed my run of seminar papers and am awaiting my second marking duties (we second mark to ensure fairness and consistency; second marking is less onerous, but still a job). While I wait, I’ve been reflecting on how I try to use marking as a teaching tool and whether or not it’s working.

I’ve used the same marking technique for seminar and lecture-class essays for more or less my whole teaching career, though of course I’ve tweaked it over time. I read a student’s hard copy, making copy-edit corrections as I go (or tracking changes if I’m marking an electronic version – something I hope to be able to do more of starting next semester!), and numbering spots in the paper that require further comment from me, or further clarification on an edit. Then, when I’m finished reading the first time, I return to the spots I have flagged, go over them again, and type up numbered comments to correspond with the flags I’ve placed in the hard copy. Finally, when I’ve finished working through the flags, I type summative comments at the end of the single sheet of paper (plus or minus a few sentences) the student receives as feedback.

The flags, for me, are the most important part of the feedback I offer: they represent detailed engagements with students’ arguments, sometimes offer queries or counter-arguments if I think a student has misrepresented evidence or misunderstood an idea, and, most frequently, provide clarification of grammatical points. It’s no secret that my students, in general and in both Canada and the UK, are receiving (or absorbing) a good deal less training in grammar and punctuation than I did during my primary and secondary education, and the result is some pretty confusing and convoluted prose. (Recently a group of academics in the UK was chided for writing an ungrammatical rebuke to Michael Gove, the Education secretary; read about it here.) Even though I’m no proper grammarian and not a trained writing instructor, I try to help students see what’s going wrong at points in their papers where their meanings are fundamentally unclear, and then I try to suggest grammatically correct phrasing alternatives.

In the summative feedback at the end of my numbered comments I try to give students a clear sense of why their papers have earned the grades I have assigned, and I try to indicate how specific, focused improvements may help them to leap over their current grade barriers (say, from a C to a B, or from a 2:1 to a 1) next time around. I use these comments to cheerlead if I can, but also to be direct and honest when warranted. If a student has turned in a fundamentally lazy piece of work – something that happened to me last week, when I received from one student what looked like an early draft banged out at 3am, complete with internal, self-directed comments like “GET REFERENCE!”) – I say so clearly, and I indicate what impression that piece of work has left on me.

So here’s the thing. I’ve always been proud of offering comprehensive feedback like this (and although this style of marking might look like a lot of work, I should say that, now that I’m practiced at it, it’s not as time-consuming as it seems on paper). And I’ve always imagined that students who read it and take it on board will be pleased with it and will use it to their advantage in the future. Honestly, though, I have no concrete evidence to support this imagining, and less and less anecdotal evidence. This semester, for example, I had a really large number of students make exactly the same kinds of small but pernicious errors on their major papers as they had made on their shorter ones, indicating that they may not have read in detail – or even read at all – the feedback I provided in the first round. That grates, but also disheartens.

Thus, I’d like to collect some strategies for upping my marking game: not to make more work for myself (god, no!), but to ensure students hear and understand the implications of the feedback I provide more clearly, and without feeling threatened or anxious (if possible). I know that one solution is to ask each student to visit my office to receive and discuss his or her essay after the essays have been marked, but that’s onerous for one thing, and for another not something my department currently sanctions as a feedback norm. I’ve also considered handing student papers back in lesson and devoting part of that lesson time to students’ explorations of their feedback, giving them the chance to work together and with me to understand it. I’m not sure how well that would go, though; I remember myself as a student placed in similar positions, and I remember panicking, being embarrassed, and not wanting anyone to see the feedback on my paper. (In fact, I remember faking illness in my Grade 12 IB calculus class to get out of just such an exercise!) If my students are anything like me as a young adult, they may balk at such a task, and very possibly not turn up for it.

Over the years I’ve collected articles about exciting and dynamic grading re-thinks (including Cathy Davidson’s compelling “crowdsource” grading scheme – here and here – and Kelly McGonigal’s reflections on “forward looking assessment” and using peer assessment effectively), and I’ve worked with colleagues at Western University on developing some of these strategies in my own courses, but none of these have satisfied me fully so far, and these days I feel in a bit of a rut. I’d love, therefore, to hear readers’ comments on marking strategies that have worked well for them, and I’d especially like to hear from students or former students who would like to reflect on what kinds of feedback were especially helpful for them.

The floor is yours!


In a bad week, glad news at last

It’s been a hard week – loads of marking (more on that tomorrow), some difficult meetings, general exhaustion. Then, today, just in time, some excellent news: my colleague Roberta Barker and I have won the Canadian Association for Theatre Research (CATR) Patrick O’Neill award celebrating the best anthology published on Canadian performance in 2012 for our New Canadian Realisms: Eight Plays. Hooray!

This brings me particular joy because that collection was designed with our students top of mind; it represents our commitment to, and the inspiration we draw from, learning with those we teach. It was born from Roberta’s and my mutual interest in expanding the way we understand what the genre ‘stage realism’ means in Canada today – which is to say, from a firm research interest – but that interest in turn had been provoked, for both of us, by the excellent, intelligent, exciting work of our students over the years, in both seminars and studio classes. Hats off to all of us, then, in celebration of this prize: we are thrilled, honoured, humbled.