Charlotte Canning Interview Part 2

As promised, here is the second half of my chat with Charlotte Canning. Last time, we talked about her (amazing-sounding) grad course and the value of teaching reflection. In the second half of the chat, we delved into public pedagogy, the value of making mistakes, and some of Charlotte’s favourite resources.

KB: What does it mean for you to be a public-facing, activist, teacher?

CC: Until graduate school, my life as a student was all in private schools. So, I didn’t have the public school experience as a young person. Having taught at UT for a very long time now, I am one hundred percent committed to public education. The kinds of diversity of students that we have — not just stuff that we work so hard on like class, race, sexuality, gender but also the experience of first generation students — that’s astonishing to me. It’s not an experience I thought about until I came to a public school.

It forces me to think about important questions: What does it mean to teach and have a public responsibility? What does it mean in terms of being citizens of the state? In terms of access to our work or the kinds of things we should be doing? 

Also, because we’re a state institution, we have a relationship to things like public disclosure laws and open records. Most of what we do is findable by the public. Our salaries are public. We have a very specific relationship to the First Amendment [which addresses freedom of speech, religion and assembly] that our colleagues at private schools don’t have. We have a lot of leeway in terms of speech which is really significant. Sometimes, it makes life more difficult but it’s really valuable. Being in a public institution is something of a gift. At times, it can be frustrating, but at the end of the day, thinking about education as a public good is a profound responsibility.

KB: How does your investment in feminism intersect with your pedagogy?

CC: Feminism is where I came from with all of this. I think about identities. Thinking about access and privilege is crucial to me as a teacher. I have a wonderful colleague in the School of Education, Dr. Richard Reddick. We did a video together on diversity statements for faculty. He came out of a school teaching background. When he came to speak to my students we were talking about privilege, and he’s an African American man, and that he always felt like he had it, when it came to diversity and inclusion. He always felt good. He felt focused. Until one day, he was working with a researcher about gender in the classroom. She observed his teaching over a considerable period of time, and she presented these statistics to him that he called on boys more than he called on girls. He was shocked and appalled, and he fixed it right away. In telling that story, what I heard him say to students is: don’t assume that because you’re savvy in one way that you are in all the ways.

I always say, if you set yourself up as the master and authority, then you can only be threatened when you make a mistake. But, since you’re human, the mistake part is inevitable, so you might as well start off with a sense of collaboration and a sense of learning and changing. So, when those things happen you can easily fold them into the experience for the students rather than it being a barrier, or an embarrassment, or having a detrimental impact with your relationship with the students. I don’t know whether that’s deeply feminist, but it feels very feminist to me. Certainly, thinking through how to create as diverse a pool of teachers out in the world as possible is incredibly important to me.

KB: What is the best pedagogy resource that you’ve pointed students towards?

CC: I change it up a lot every year. I have this secret passion for the history of universities. So, one of the things I have students read is Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University.  It gets them thinking about teaching in higher education as something that has a history and a context and isn’t just the way it is because that’s the way it is. I want them to think of it as a construct that evolved in a certain way over time, and that their ability to change or intervene in that construct exists. It didn’t come from the sky.

I also really like James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. The premise of the book is that it often takes years to make new courses and to create relationships between courses, if you’re ever able to do that at all. So, he asks: What can we do tomorrow to make our classes better? I find that really helpful. It’s changed my teaching.

For example, he presents compelling evidence that small quizzes everyday are a great way to help students with retention and ownership of the material. I used to be against quizzes but the way he lays out the research converted me to the idea that giving students multiple ways to recall things is going to help them learn and retain that knowledge. I return over and over to Paulo Freire and bell hooks. I consult Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia constantly.

KB: Any final thoughts?

CC: The final thing I’d like to share is an exercise I developed a few years ago for my university teaching class. I get intensely nervous every time I do it, yet the students respond well.

I have a midterm. I don’t tell them what the midterm will be. I always say, Just review the materials of your notes and you’ll be fine.

For the “midterm,” they have to draw a scenario from a hat. They read the prompt aloud and then they have one minute to think. Then, they have to start talking. And I take notes while they’re presenting. Then, they take the prompt home and have four or five days to write about it and evaluate what they chose to do in class. It gives them a chance to think through what they would’ve done, if they’d had time to prepare.

The scenarios are always real scenarios that I or someone I know has encountered. They range from “a student says something racist in class” to “at the end of the semester having to leave office hours before seeing all the students after no one has come for all those weeks” to “students who express transphobia to a student whose drugs fall out of their pocket.” So, a huge range of possible scenarios.

After we’ve done the midterm, I tell them that the thing I don’t know how to teach them is that so much of pedagogy is thinking on your feet. As you know from being an actor, or whatever, the more you train on your feet, the more likely you are to do a good job of it. So, they get these scenarios totally randomly.

‘Sure, but can you THINK on your feet?’

The students have all said positive things in class about it. They are usually very anxious at first because they worry about getting it right or wrong. But, I always say that one of the points is that there isn’t an easy or obvious right or wrong. We have to rehearse.

Then, we have a class where we talk about the experience of taking the midterm. I identify for them which of the prompts were ones that actually happened to me, and I talk about how I handled them. I emphasize when I did a good job and when I didn’t. A couple of them were from my first year of teaching, and, in retrospect, while I didn’t do anything wrong, I was not as adept as I would be now.

One of the things I really struggle with teaching teaching is: how do you teach the intangibles? You can teach someone how to structure a syllabus or to think about a  lesson plan. But, when you’re live in the room with the students, you need to be able to be adept. So, you can’t just think about the content. You also have to think about how you act in the moment and how that will or won’t be efficacious for learning.  I think that’s the hardest thing to teach. So, what I do in the class is try to help them think about the speed bumps or scary moments, so that they know if they don’t get it one hundred percent right, that’s okay. You can come back. You can talk to the students again.

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