Reflecting on Teaching & Elections

The Canadian federal election took place on Monday October 21st. This post is an offering in the form of a reflection.

Tune in next time for Part II from Joanne Tompkins!

I wake up groggily.

My body urges me to hang onto sleep. But, my mind has other plans: I need to check my phone. I flop my arm out toward my nightstand, instinctively thumb my way to the interwebs, and pry my eyes open so that I can read the news. Nothing has changed in the time since I fell asleep: the Liberal Party of Canada won the most seats in the 2019 federal election and will seek to form a minority government.

Elections Canada

I spend the next forty-five minutes in a daze, scrolling through news and my social media feed. There is no lack of potentially unsettling items – election commentary, the popularity of the hashtag #weexit, signalling a surge of interest in Alberta’s separatist movement – but mostly I feel relieved that I didn’t wake up in an alternate reality where the balance of governmental power swung to the far right. It’s a low bar, but in the context of western politics this year, it nevertheless earns a sigh of relief from me.

Despite my relief, I’m grateful I’m not in a classroom today, an indirect result of teaching during the 2016 American election.

As you may remember, in the fall of 2016, Donald Trump ran against Hilary Clinton in the American federal election.

That same fall, I taught my first university course as an instructor. I was teaching an upper level theatre and performance theory class.

I’m largely proud of the pedagogical work I did in that class. Behind the scenes, however, it was what I would politely refer to as a shitshow. I was figuring out the online learning system and the specific potentials and constraints of the classroom space; I was doing huge amounts of prep work; I was playing with my style as an instructor; I was writing my dissertation prospectus; I was completing articles, and I was doing all of this while caring  for my mother who was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer (I should say here: while she still has the routine tests, she’s currently healthy and there have been no signs of cancer since she finished treatment in 2017). It was, in short, not the easiest autumn for me.

Then, about three weeks into semester, I realized something: I’d scheduled my feminist theory class for the day after the American election.

Oh boy.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t do that on purpose, but it mattered that I hadn’t. And, it mattered, in particular, that semester. As November approached and the campaign filled the ether, I kept looking at my syllabus. There was no way that topic on that day was not going to be a thing.

Feminism & Theatre

Six weeks later, I was proven right.

Generally speaking, I’m a pretty emotionally even-keeled human. But, the results of the American election – wherein Donald Trump, after a vitriolic, racist, misogynistic, ableist, xenophobic, islamaphobic (to name a few of the plethora of “ists” that might be included here) campaign, became president of the United States of America – intersected with the challenges of my personal life and shook me. I cried most of the 45-minute drive to campus.

And, then, as teachers do, I pulled myself together, walked into class, and looked completely normal.

Things were not normal, however.

Even though I was teaching in Canada, I could see that the election results had significantly affected many of the students. They looked tired; their shoulders were slumped; their expressions were solemn, sad even. And yet, there they were, in their theatre and theory class at 10 in the morning, looking at me.

I could feel the teaching moment open-up in front of me: the next 80 minutes could be a lesson that bridged the classroom with the world, that created space for the plethora of student experiences (including those that were ambivalent or happy about the election results), and that prompted genuine dialogue.

Opening

And, just as quickly, I knew that I couldn’t capitalize on that opening. I was too new as an instructor and too personally exhausted.  I performed my lesson plan, and it went fine. But, it wasn’t transformational. It wasn’t even particularly good. It was just a lesson.

I know that many postsecondary teachers see elections as opportunities to generate dialogue or to meaningfully connect the classroom to the world at large. I respect that a great deal.

As an early carer instructor, however, elections have often felt like elastic bands around my teaching practice. The opportunity of the added tension is palpable but so are its constraints:

How do I capitalize on the increased political awareness that tends to accompany elections?

How do I encourage inclusive, respectful, dialogue?

How and to what degree do I perform my own political values?

How do I balance all of these questions in relation to my role as a contract instructor, in a workplace where many of my colleagues have positions that grant them more job stability, and by consequence, more room for error and conflict?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I offer them, and my election reflections, as a gesture to the other teachers who don’t either.

Sometimes, we don’t, or can’t, capitalize on teaching moments. And, that’s okay. Others will come along.

In my case, I hear another federal election cycle is on the horizon in the United States. As you can imagine, I can hardly wait.

Being a Student Again: How Taking Classes Made Me Reflect on Teaching Classes

I feel like I’m in high school again, and it’s been an unexpectedly good thing for thinking about teaching.

I recently moved to Montreal and decided to take French classes. As I filled out the online registration forms, I thought to myself, “A little morning routine, a little french, and the possibility of interaction with other humans in the brand new city I’ll be google-mapping my way through? This is a great settling-into-a-new-city-plan.”

I wasn’t wrong: the classes have been immensely useful for grounding my first couple of weeks. They have also been unexpectedly helpful for thinking about my own teaching.

Here are the top three things that being a student has got me thinking about:

The Vulnerability of Learning

As a kid, I was in French immersion – a Canadian public school program where students from non-French speaking families take most of their elementary and high school classes in French. So, technically, my French is decent. Practically, it is not.

Trying to find my knowledge of French has been felt like being in the movie Inside Out: I spend my morning classes running around my brain, searching for old memories. Much to my dismay, it seems that many of these memories have been dumped to make room for new skills and knowledge.

To the shock of no one that knows me: I have a robust set of feelings when I’m not instantly good at something. So, when my teacher hands back my homework, and I see the 1003 minor grammar errors, I can’t help but wince a little.

Other than the hit to my ego, this has been a critical reminder of the the vulnerability of not knowing, of not understanding, of trying but not getting it right the first, second, or even the third time. I try to acknowledge this vulnerability when I teach but sometimes I forget how amplified it can feel for students.

Exams

Three weeks ago, I could not have told you the last time I took a midterm. That changed, last Wednesday. And, much to my surprise, I think that’s a good thing.

As a university instructor, I know that tests can be good evaluative and pedagogical tools, and I do incorporate final exams into some courses. But, I also know that tests favour certain learning styles over others and can prompt huge levels of stress and anxiety for students. In the context of rising mental health crises across American and Canadian post-secondary campuses, the stakes of stress and anxiety can be concrete and significant. It doesn’t help that, even when test-related stress is contained to the classroom, students generally hate exams.

Actual archival evident that I took a French midterm some time after high school.

In my French class, I was no different. I did not want to take my midterm. In fact, I briefly considered refusing to do so (me: at my most mature).

After having a little chat with myself, however, I decided to write the midterm. This meant I had to study. And, you know what? Studying prompted me to engage with the material in a way I’d been avoiding: I went back and reviewed some of the core concepts; I memorized the rules; I did mock exercises.

Did it bring back a whole bunch of weird want-to-succeed-in-evaluative-contexts feelings? Why, yes it did. Did it also light a fire under my learning feet? Most definitely.

On Mattering

As a university instructor, I’m aware that, within the context of a classroom, I am in a position of power. As a student, I am am actively reminded of how this power looks and feels.

The teacher – who is like every french teacher I can remember: energetic, kind, passionate, precise – is the point toward which I, and all the other students, are oriented physically and intellectually. And, boy oh boy, do we notice everything she does:

  • I notice that she tends to stand on the right side of the white board (likely so she doesn’t have to cross when she needs to start to write a sentence). This means that she often unintentionally favours the right side of the class, who are physically closer to her.
  • Another student feels that she pays more attention to those with stronger language skills.
  • Another student feels her pedagogy is better than any of the other instructors they’ve had.

Even for adults with diverse areas of expertise and experiences (the class of twelve includes adult learners from 7 different countries who work in a range of fields from health care to hospitality to academia) the teacher matters, and that mattering often articulates in very embodied, and sometimes very emotional, ways.


I already knew all of these things, of course.

After all, I’ve spent big chunks of my adult life as a student. And, even though I’m done with formal coursework (phew!), I’m an active learner. I take professional development workshops, praxis sessions, and all kinds of classes. And not all of these classes are in areas where I excel either. I, Kelsey Blair The Historically Inflexible, take yoga classes.

But being in a semi-intensive, pass-or-fail class with medium-level stakes for most of the students has reminded me, at a bodily level, of what it feels like to be a student.

This, in turn, has reinforced something I already suspected: being a student, particularly in moderate- to high-stakes environments, is invaluable to the development of my teaching practice.

Two Questions (and a whole lot more about decolonizing the classroom) – guest post by Anna Griffith

Friends: I’m honoured to share this guest post by Anna Griffith. Below, Anna reports on her on-the-ground experiences decolonizing her theatre history and performance studies classes at the University of the Fraser Valley.

I’ve learned so very much from this post – I hope you do too.

***

“I didn’t learn anything…I have way more questions than when I started.”

This piece of feedback was delivered in a final presentation about what students had learned during the capstone performance theory course I taught two years ago. I am grateful that the student was brave enough or frustrated enough to say it, as it helped me crystalize two important things. First, that my framing around my classes and my attempts to decolonize need to be clearer and better communicated to the students. Second, if I am to experiment with class structures, class content, and ways of learning that challenge dominant forms of teaching and learning, then I should get used to hearing this.

On Decolonization

I teach as a sessional instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley in the Theatre Department, a place that is forward thinking in its focus on teaching innovation, Indigenization, and commitment to decolonization. Within this environment, I have been experimenting with how I can decolonize not just the content of my classes, but the structure of them as well. Although some people frame this kind of practice as student-centered learning, experiential learning, or active learning (which it is), I prefer to focus on how instructors can use these forms of learning to challenge the continued colonization that occurs through education, and thereby promote decolonization.

As a white instructor from settler ancestry teaching on unceded Sto:lo territory, I have been trying to overtly mark the ways in which alternative pedagogies can move settlers closer to understanding Indigenous forms of teaching, learning, and knowing. I am interested in how embodied pedagogy can promote learning that emphasizes the importance of holistic knowledge as it is drawn from embodied experiences and focuses on bodies as relational, within social structures, and foundational to the ways we make meaning. In my classes, I try to move us towards a place where Indigenous pedagogies, methods, and knowledge can be engaged with (not exploited or used to add a flavour of diversity).

Embodied Pedagogy

My pedagogical approaches, through embodied pedagogy and applied critical theory, see me trying to create a third space between colonial educational systems that privilege certain forms of cognition and discourse-based learning, and Indigenous pedagogies and learning systems that might radically transform our societies if we embraced the aspects offered to us. I see this pedagogical change as part of the settler work required in order to create social and political change more broadly.

In their excellent article titled “Applying Indigenizing Principles of Decolonizing Methodologies in University Classrooms,” Dustin William Louie, Yvonne Poitras Pratt, Aubrey Jean Hanson, and Jacqueline Ottman write: “We contend that institutions of higher learning need to move away from the myopic lens used to view education and implement Indigenizing pedagogies in order to counteract the systemic monopolization of knowledge and communication” (17).

The authors share with us how they apply Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s 25 Indigenous projects as inspiration and guidance to reimagine their pedagogy and teaching practice (18), and suggest them as a good starting place for non-Indigenous scholars and teachers frustrated by their “lack of knowledge, training, or confidence to incorporate Indigenous knowledge or methods of education into their classrooms” (22). Although my work started before reading this article, I strongly agree with the authors and have seen fantastic growth in my students when applying a decolonial approach to the Theatre History course I teach at UFV.

What follows is a glimpse into how I offer this course and my attempts to decolonize both its structure and content. I then give you a sneak peek into a performance studies course I am offering next term that extends this wrestling match.

Theatre History: Antiquity to 1642 – Day 1: The Negotiation

Our first three-hour class together is about framing and negotiation. In my introduction, I disclose that I am incredibly excited by and focused on embodied, active learning, and arts-based methods of inquiry and that for the rest of the semester we will incorporate an element of this into each class. I also reveal that I am working to decolonize my classes in order to challenge power structures and systems of education that often don’t include the learner’s voice.

And so begins the negotiation. I hand out a syllabus I created that has already attempted to integrate aspects of the western canon with theatrical forms from non-western perspectives. I then ask students to look for holes in my representation, to consider what they are interested in learning about, and to explore what they think they should know by the time they leave our class. We do this through small group activities culminating in a large group discussion, and I find that even if we don’t change the syllabus much, it offers students more buy-in and a structured way for their perspectives to be integrated.

Again working in small groups and then as a larger group, we generate the overarching questions that will guide us through the term. We negotiate the weight of assignments and co-create the first rubrics (an activity we repeat for each assignment). We brainstorm what they expect in a teacher, and what they expect from themselves and their peers as students, and together we come up with an agreement on how we will conduct the class.

All of this takes time, and I generally budget 30 minutes for each part of the negotiation (content, overarching questions, and class expectations), except the rubric creation which takes longer (I plan on one hour for this). We have three hours together each class, and the first day really sets up the kind of engagement and participation I expect, which is a lot. 

I ask the students for their voices and their perspectives on how to create a fair and interesting course, and although there is sometimes resistance, for the most part students are quite engaged in the process. It helps when we discuss the skills they are practicing through this experience: metacognitive thinking, synthesis and organization of ideas, democracy. Beyond that, I frame this work as the central preoccupation of a theatre historian: someone who makes decisions about what information is important (what should we study?) and how to analyze it (what issues or big themes are we going to pursue? What assignments get the most weight?). At the end of the tussle, this is what my class ended up studying this term:

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Our negotiated weekly schedule outlining the focus of each week, the region or theatrical form studied, a play and any secondary source articles for each week, and assignment due dates. Theatrical forms covered: Greek Tragedy, Mesoamerican Performance, West African Griot Performance, Roman Comedy, Indian Sanskrit Drama, Japanese Noh Theatre, Chinese Yuan  Drama, Commedia dell’Arte of Italy, Elizabethan Theatre of England

The culminating work of the class is a final creative project, which asks students to synthesize information from class and express it through an artistic medium accompanied by a written text, and presented to the class.

We start this process by creating the rubric together. In small groups, students design individual rubrics, based on the criteria they think should be assessed and what excellence in each area looks like. We then start the long process of blending them. Our discussions include defining what each criterion means, what might be excellent as opposed to very good or average work, and debating whether or not the wording reflects academic requirements while still allowing personal creative freedom.

Here is how our co-created rubric turned out:

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The final creative projects students presented were insightful, contained deep synthesis and understanding of theatrical form and political/social context, were highly entertaining, and demonstrated to me how hard students will work when they are motivated, engaged, and inspired.

Our projects this year included: masks, songs, a storyboard, a set of film notes, a Commedia cake, a comic strip, a musical score, and a mini-series trailer, to name just a few examples.

Clockwise from top: “The Tempest” comic strip created by Talia Tvergyak; contemporary Pantalone mask riffing on the current global political climate created by Coco Bedard; Anatole Smith and Keegan Zaporozan performing, with masks, costumes, and lighting design created by Linnea Balt; Commedia dell’Arte Cake created by Aimee Payeur and Ali Slack.

While one Theatre History class isn’t a fix for the ongoing acts of colonization that happen daily within western university practices, it does offer the students a louder voice in their learning, positions me as a facilitator rather than an expert, and changes power dynamics for a brief moment. It is tough and messy stuff, and I will continue to build on this experiment in the performance studies course I am teaching next term, which I’ve called Performing Bodies/Performing Identities.

Continuing the Experiment in Performing Bodies/Performing Identities

I am still fleshing out my draft syllabus, but here is where I’m at so far.

I have three main categories that frame the course: citational performances (things like drag, cosplay, or religious fashion), disciplinary tactics (bodybuilding and CrossFit for example), and modifications (think of tattoos, piercings, or cyberware). Since there are so many amazing people writing about fantastic things related to how we perform our bodies, I have compiled a smorgasbord of articles and artists we could engage with.

The Day One Negotiation Class will have students select what they are interested in learning about, or find what they are interested in studying within the course theme and pitch it to me. My hope is that the content will reflect the students in the room and their interests.

In this first class they will also set up their blogs (the main place that will house their assignments) and we will discuss labour.

Re-Thinking Assessment

Inspired by Asao Inoue’s work in Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future, I am trying to find ways to measure the labour of the class. A big part of Inoue’s argument is that our assessment of writing often privileges students who write like we do (favouring the clear, academically rigorous writing of our discipline, and the students who already know those codes), and punishes students who fail to do this. He argues that there are implicit racial (and class) biases in what is judged as acceptable academic writing that are further complicated by issues of access.

Asao’s suggestion is that if grades are based on the labour and effort put into achieving high levels of academic writing, then the playing field becomes more even and doesn’t automatically privilege certain students with existing expertise. I am trying to integrate Inoue’s work in two main ways (aside from majorly checking my assumptions in how I assess).

First, I have created a weekly blogging assignment where students will engage with the text or artist’s work. I am drafting a rubric (to be negotiated) focused on depth of understanding, critical engagement, and critical analysis, but then will offer students a choice about what they do with their blogs each week (answering questions, narrative inquiry, creative response, or synthesizing and responding to other people’s ideas). These weekly marks are based on the labour of having done the response in a critical way and on time, but the expression of that knowledge can be chosen by the student.

The second way I am engaging with Asao’s ideas is through a process-based research paper. Students will submit the first draft, get feedback (possibly peer-reviewed), revise, submit a second draft for feedback, revise, and then submit for a final time. I am trying to emphasize that writing, learning, and creating take time, effort, practice, and revision.

Their creative final project will be a praxis-based performance art or public art piece that engages with the class materials and discussion in some way and allows theoretical knowledge to be translated into arts-based practice with an emphasis on personal voice. My ways of practicing decolonization through revisions in structure and changes to content are now being pushed farther to consider how and what I assess. I oscillate between feeling exhilarated and terrified by this.

Two Questions

I am a sessional instructor acutely aware of the precariousness of what that is. Working as I do requires a lot of labour up front (finding articles, researching artists, planning activities and exercises), and it feels very risky at times since my fate seems determined by course evaluations written by students. It is a tenuous place to be.

However, the benefit is that I get to approach each semester as if it is the last time I will teach this course.

I always ask myself: if this is the last time I’m here, what is the most innovative, exciting way for my students and I to engage with the material?

And now I ask myself a second question: if I measure every part of this class against my claim of decolonization, am I really doing it?

***

Anna Griffith is a sessional instructor in the Theater Department at the University of the Fraser Valley in BC. She earned her Ph.D. from York University in Theatre and Performance Studies, and her current work focuses on embodied pedagogy, decolonization, and Indigenization. She lives in Vancouver, BC, with her husband and their two small children. 

Productivity probs? Try this?

Last Monday was the Thanksgiving holiday here in Canada. (Americans: don’t freak out! It’s timed to coincide with the harvest.) My fella, D, came down on Sunday night to drink gin and eat leftovers; then, on Monday, we cooked turkey and stuffing and all the bits and pieces. We walked the dog and went to walk the escarpment stairs and ate the heck out of that birdie.

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(Not my actual thanksgiving turkey. But you get the idea!)

Then, on Tuesday, D wanted to rest.

But I – ah, I.

I. Had. To. Work.

It’s a funny thing, this HAD TO WORK. After all: it was reading week. (No classes.) I had an overdue chapter to complete, but (as my therapist has helpfully reminded me) there is no such thing as an academic emergency. All deadlines wait, once you’ve graduated. (Nope: they really do.) Marking? Sure, but: see reading week.

Stuff. Could. Actually. Wait.

I just didn’t want it to. The truth is, I struggle hugely to relax on a weekday, regardless of the weekday. Weekdays are work days!!! This baffles D a bit. He works a shift schedule, and he’s also a naturally grounded and less anxious human being than I am. He asks, quite reasonably, why I need – REALLY need – to work on any given weekday.

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(Google “work less, do more.” Yup.)

On Tuesday, then, I required a compromise. After all, I had suggested D spend Tuesday with me rather than heading home. Hilariously, he had misunderstood and thought I was teaching, so hadn’t brought a laptop to work on. It would have been total pants of me to work the day away while he sat on the couch trying to watch Netflix on my iPad.

So, I pulled out the countdown timer.

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You’ll remember last autumn, when I decided to start a writing diet of 2 hours, or 1000 words, a day in the service of my nearly-due book manuscript. Sometimes I went by the clock in the upper right hand corner of my screen; sometimes I used a countdown timer. Two hours on the clock, and away we go. When the bell rings, that’s time – stop and pack it in until tomorrow.

I cannot properly describe how good it felt to work to that kind of hard and fast deadline! I realize that we are all different, and some of you are reading this right now and literally cringing at the idea of hearing the bell, finishing the thought, and that’s it. But for me, who has always been HUGELY deadline-driven, the gong was the most satisfying sound of the day. Whether I’d made enormous progress or torn out half my hair, I knew I’d had a good run of it, and could regroup tomorrow. And that felt amazing.

On Tuesday last, knowing I had to do some stuff (for me) but didn’t have to kill it (because reading week!!), and that D really did need me NOT to spend my whole day, or even half my day, tapping along on my computer, I said this:

How about I set the timer for an hour, and after that we take the dog for a trail hike, and then we have lunch, and then I set the timer for another hour, and after that we play some tennis and make dinner?

Turns out the timer works just as well for mundane admin and marking stuff as it does for the writing. In the first hour I answered a bunch of emails and dealt with a couple of outstanding peer review responses to authors I’m currently editing, sent a reminder message to one of my classes and some marching orders to a group of seminar participants. It all fit tidily into 57 minutes – probably because I was so motivated by the clock that I didn’t over-think the emails, and didn’t over-proof the responses or marching orders.

And then we went to the waterfall with Emma the Dog.

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(The actual waterfall, Tews Falls in Dundas, ON. Not my actual photo. I was hiking!)

Anglo-American cultures have a problem with productivity: we are all apparently working 5-day, 35-to-50 hour weeks in order to seem respectfully “busy”. But recent evidence from New Zealand (and elsewhere) reveals that folks working 4-day weeks are at least as productive if not more productive than we are – and way happier.* Lots of us are wasting shedloads of time on snacking and making coffee and taking out the garbage and looking at social media rather than getting shit done in the time we have at the desk. That waste of time is why many of us seem to be working a lot but not getting any further ahead.

Now, look. I seriously get that some of us have way more work to do than there are hours in the day (hi, British academic friends!!). I often feel that way too. But D reminded me on Tuesday that it’s actually not as dire as I tell myself it is in my overcrowded brain. And the countdown timer reminded me that if I set a very clear limit on my work (maybe several clear limits several times a day, depending on the day), things are likely to go a lot better than if I wake up, make coffee, look at the Guardian, and go: fuck! I have SO MUCH WORK I need to get done!!!

So if you’re in the poop right now, give the countdown timer thing a try. It may surprise you the way it surprised me.

Cheers to more time!

Kim

*Click here to listen to all the dirt on episode 55 of Reasons to be Cheerful with Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd.

Tired already? Let Them Teach Each Other! (Trust me. It will be good for you.)

It’s the first week of October, so no denying it any more: school’s back in session. Shit has gotten real.

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I know I’m in the fortunate chair this term, on sabbatical. (Nope, I don’t plan to stop mentioning it anytime soon. Sorry!)

But that doesn’t stop me feeling the autumn vibe through friends, neighbours’ kids, and through the growing chill in the air. Which is why, when the latest Tomorrow’s Professor post, on encouraging students to teach each other, rolled across my desk Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice how ideal it is for just this moment in the term – when stress levels are rising, the thick of the marking and the prep is looming, and the chaos of midterms is starting to glance over the parapet.

The author of this particular post, “Asking Students to Teach: Gardening in the Jungle,” is Tim Murphey, who teaches in the English Department at Kanda University in Japan. It comes from his chapter in the book Innovative Practices in Language Teacher Education (Springer, 2017).

It’s normal for me to get inspired by TP posts throughout the academic year, but it’s not typical for me to base an entire post of my own around one. In this case I’m making an exception, though, because Murphey’s insights and evidence from his teaching experiments echo my own, very positive, anecdotal experiences with different forms of peer teaching in theatre and performance studies classrooms.

I’ve long felt peer teaching to be an essential means of activating deep student learning, especially when it comes to applying and extending complicated theoretical concepts. Put bluntly, students learn way better when they have to explain stuff clearly to each other; it means they have to internalize, vocalize, share, and collaborate – even if they kind of hate doing it in the moment. (And of course they do. Sitting at the back and sort of listening to the prof while actively cruising Facebook or Snapchatting with friends is way easier, duh.)

Murphey’s research concurs with this assessment of peer teaching’s impact on student outcomes, but his article also notes more, and deeper, benefits.

First, he talks about how valuable peer teaching can be for teachers, both in terms of saving us time AND in terms of making us better at our jobs.

Second (and throughout, actually), he focuses on how important the practice of peer teaching is as an ethical, and a democratic, practice – for students, but also for faculty. Everyone benefits, he argues, when we share the hard work of making sense of our world, together.

Which also feels crazy timely to me, ya know?

Herewith, then, a bit more from Murphey, and me, on each of these terrific ideas.

1. Peer teaching helps teachers teach better. It teaches us to give up a bit of control, and to get comfortable with the idea that maybe we don’t know everything and that’s ok. It also encourages us to reduce over-prep and spend our teaching time more wisely – working ideas through in the classroom, in the moment.

Just in time for early October, Murphey opens his introduction with this slightly painful truth:

Too often first time teachers, and even many experienced teachers, work much too hard preparing too much material for their classes to fill the allotted time. I myself confess to over-preparing and planning too many activities and materials.

I’ve also overprepped for years. (I call it “prep creep“.) Worse, I’ve been actively working NOT to over-prep for years, and yet, still, there’s that voice in my head. That voice that says…

You’re going to get to the end of the prep and have no more to say and there will be 10 minutes to go and everyone will look at you and know you suck and are an imposter.

Friends, that voice is wrong. It is an asshole, that voice. Total douchebag.

First, under no circumstances will you ever run out of stuff to say. I’m pretty sure that you got your degrees because you like to talk about your research and stuff, right?

Second – and this is The Great Paradox of Teaching – the more you write stuff down to say it, the easier it is to *actually* run out of stuff to say. The more activities you program for your active classroom, the more rushed everyone will likely feel. You will be anxious. The students will become cross and confused.

Nobody will be happier, or will have learned more, because of the excess stuff on your pages.

Here’s where peer teaching is a genius short-cut to help us get in the habit of more classroom improv, less over-prep. Yes, of course, helping students learn how to teach each other well takes careful set-up, and regular practice. You need to decide what the students will work on figuring out together, and you’ll have to give some thought to how they will get from point A to point B. You’ll need to offer some guidance along the way.

But a lot of that guidance will happen in the moment, and will be dependent on what the students say, and what they find they need as they unpick the problem you’ve set for them. You can’t prep for that; what you need is to develop confidence in your role as a guide. That takes practice in real time, in front of anxious or bored or anticipatory faces. It’s risky. It means being willing to mess up quite a bit. But it gets better and easier with time – it really, really does.

We might think it’s our job to stand up and spit up the knowledge, but that’s a ruse; in fact, our job is to be the expert learner in the room, not the person who has completed the journey of learning.

Which is, of course, the other reason peer teaching is so worthwhile: because it reminds us that we, too, are always on that journey with our students.

2. Peer teaching is just basic democracy. It’s sharing the knowledge and the challenges knowledge poses. It’s getting to the bottom of complicated things.

I don’t know about you, but as I read the headlines these days, I mostly think to myself: these skills, the ones that teach you about not being afraid to think hard, and to confront things that do not make sense, and to talk to other human beings about those things, and to work toward some kind of provisional answers, and then to toss them out and try again, just as hard and without losing heart…

… these skills are the only skills that matter right now.

Murphey quotes from Lee Shulman’s book Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education (2004, pp 36-7) in his epigraph, and I’ll rehearse the quotation here because it’s remarkable in its clarity and insight on the public and ethical and democratic value of shared teaching:

Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved before we internalize it.

Shulman’s framing of learning as property is exceptionally timely, as the endgame of neoliberal consumption practices loom, warlike, into view. Knowledge can’t be owned; it must be shared. When we try to own insight we produce tyranny, and tyranny is the enemy of further learning, of the freedom to debate, discuss, and disagree.

The only way we can help our students understand this is to share the process of making knowledge with them, again and again, messy though that process might be. We need to model knowledge-sharing practices in our classrooms, urgently, precisely because they seem so very far away these days, when we open Twitter, or click the news links in our Facebook feeds.

And then, once we’ve fumbled through the peer teach, and hit all the roadblocks, and struggled to find the answers, we need to talk with our students about why the messiness of sharing knowledge is a social good, and not a thing to be loathed and feared.

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My sincere thanks to Tim Murphey for inspiring this post with a very compelling article. Please follow the links embedded above to purchase the two books referenced here, either for yourself or for your school’s library.

Meanwhile, if you use peer teaching practices in your classrooms I’d love to hear about them! Please share in the comments – models are always very welcome.

Kim