There is a scene in the movie Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould where Gould (played by Colm Feore) sits down at a diner and we begin watching him listen to the conversations around him. As the conversations shift, the camera shifts with them, and we see incremental little movements of Gould’s hands, following and reacting to the conversations.
But it soon becomes clear that Gould is predicting, almost conducting, the sound: it’s not that the interlocutors are reacting to his conducting, but he is predicting the rhythm and flow of the conversations in the diner around him, almost appearing to produce this flow. The sounds and conversations happen too fast for him to just react to conversations. Viewers can see that his hands are moving with, and in some cases, slightly ahead of, the next beat, the next line, the next sentence.
How does he do it? Experience, instinct, deep listening.
What do you do when a student comes in late? How do you react? What is your instinct in that situation? I used to react internally with offense: how dare she come late? Doesn’t he know he’s being rude? Outwardly, I might not not have done more than take an obvious pause while the person got settled, just long enough for all of us in the room to get right up to that edge of uncomfortability.
On Twitter late last semester, there was a conversation about what we do when students arrive late: how do we respond in compassionate and generative ways? Jesse Stommel asked about what he calls the “tiny maneuvers” of teaching — how do we use small and quick maneuvers to keep doing the work of the class and not to shame students? I know now that students arriving late understand damn well that they’re late (and don’t like it any more than I do). I know that they are up against a lot and that they have already sacrificed a great deal to be in the class at all. I’ve come to believe that drawing attention to their entrance isn’t about good teaching, it’s about power. Now, I just try to make eye contact or welcome them in with a quick friendly wave.
I’ve had to change and re-train my experience, instincts, and how I listen. I need to continue changing my tiny (and large) maneuvers: I come from a tradition much like Catherine Denial describes in “A Pedagogy of Kindness”: a grad school training that emphasized not letting students “get away” with things, that assumed students would do classwork only under compulsion, and that unless we surveilled them constantly, they would cheat, lie, “slack off,” and so on.
Denial’s piece eloquently lays out the consequences of these tiny maneuvers of suspicion: “Students didn’t communicate with me easily, since many of them didn’t see the point. They knew (I realize now) that I approached them with suspicion, and so returned that sentiment in kind.” The consequence is absence: absence of relationship, of trust in the work of the class. This becomes dangerously amplified in the kind of school where I now teach, an “access college” where many of our students come from social, cultural, and economic locations that don’t necessarily trust institutions and don’t have the benevolent/beneficial relationships with them that might (at least partially) ameliorate the lack of student-teacher trust. But like many of my grad school and current colleagues, I didn’t attend an access school as an undergrad, and my PhD program actively discouraged us from applying to community colleges. The schools were not seen as “desirable” places to work for a number reasons based on strong, but mistaken, presumptions: the common feeling was that the teaching load was too high, the students were not good enough to mentor, the students lacked familiarity with the “hidden curriculum” of college and were therefore harder to teach, potential colleagues at these schools were professional washouts or failures, and so on. God help those who actively chose to work at one of these schools – the prevailing assumption was that our dissertations must not be that good, we were tired, or maybe we just gave up trying for a “real” academic job, involving mostly research and publishing in the “best” journals. While coordinators of my department’s job placement efforts started to shift approaches in later years, these beliefs are still quite common.
Despite these attitudes, my PhD program had comparatively good training for graduate assistants, through cohorts and seminars where we talked about teaching undergraduates. I was lucky to have a teaching mentor who guided my cohort away from the worst of the possible pre-professor training. The common sentiment was that if students were always trying to get away with something, or would never do the reading, then we could at least build and develop pedagogical skills which disincentivised “bad studenting” and which helped students do well. We had good discussions about active learning, building and scaffolding of writing assignments, and building equity in the classroom.
Yet, in a deeply telling example of pedagogical dissonance within a department, I was learning and applying some good pedagogy in my role as a pre-professor and teaching assistant, while at the same time, I saw that good pedagogy undermined regularly in the classes I was taking myself. The worst teaching I ever saw was in my PhD program, a traditional literature PhD in a dysfunctional and compartmentalized department. I witnessed three different professors insult graduate students, and even one grad student’s mother. I witnessed cruelty, bullying, snobbery, technophobia, and outright incompetence (in even the most basic functions and courtesies of professional, pedagogical, or administrative habitus). Much of the “teaching” I encountered as a grad student was lecturing. Only rarely did I get that experience so valorized about graduate education, and so exalted as the primary model to emulate: the seminar where a small group of students sits with a professor and has a great conversation about a shared reading. Too often, the conversations in class were very emphatically not great: a prof might start with the day’s reading, but then go off on self-centered, boring, useless, or confusing tangents, as though the educational benefit to us would be just sharing a room with them, simply being in their presence, or being one degree of separation from the “great theorist / scholar” they studied under, grew up near, ate dinner with, or yelled at during a conference.
No wonder students in traditional grad programs learn bad lessons about teaching and replicate those when they become professors.
This is especially true with syllabi. In reading Jakob Gowell’s piece on the syllabus as metaphor, I’m struck by the fact that my own metaphors for this odd document are both unstable and confused. For years, I tried to navigate some middle way, some compromise between the conflicting messages I got from grad school about teaching, and the lessons from experiences teaching in a range of institutions (access schools, art schools, SLACs, and state universities). This ambivalence, the grand and tiny maneuvers, got baked into my syllabi.
How many of us closely read our own syllabi, not for typos but for pedagogy? How many of us think about the subtle and overt messages they send to our students? (For a necessary student voice here, read this take on what students hear in their class syllabi). What are the tiny and large maneuvers embedded there? What curriculum is hidden there? New grad students are given syllabi to emulate, policies to copy and paste into our own. As new professors, we see these templates as part of the new job, and we continue to dutifully copy and paste. If we’re adjuncts, we don’t often have a choice but to fully adopt departmental syllabi. As I’ve moved from school to school, these patches of language got pasted in, overlapping with other patches, a palimpsest of intergenerational finger-wagging.
In the “Social Justice and the Curriculum” class at Digital Pedagogy Lab 2019, taught by Jesse Stommel and Sara Goldrick-Rab, my cohort did an exercise where we read our own syllabi critically, and people volunteered to put theirs up on the screen. We commented on our colleagues’ syllabi and then turned to our own. We practiced reading a statement out loud and recited “because I said so” after each policy directive. The experience of reading my syllabus, which is (like many) an exquisite corpse of lines from official departmental or school policies and statements, as well as administrivia / legalese designed not for readability but for covering-your-ass, was sobering, as I tweeted: “Redoing my syllabus to align more with my open & critical pedagogy: every few minutes, I whisper softly to myself ‘God, I'm an ASShole.’”
The pedagogy reflected in my syllabus was not open, not critical, and not kind. It was heartbreakingly reminiscent of my grad school experiences. It was reflective of what I’ve come to see as a sad truth about graduate education: in its traditional forms and modes, as so many including Lee Skallerup-Bessette have shown, it's not a sustainable model for good pedagogy. I’ll say it plainer: traditional graduate degrees encourage their graduates to see surveilling students, complaining about them and their writing, shaming them, and lecturing to them as good “teaching.”
It is hard and labor-intensive to overcome those instincts, experiences, and listening habits. To do so in ways that give up my own power as an expert or as a judge of excellence goes against much of my early training – training that I now reject, yet which is still ingrained in me. An important part of my teaching now is making the hidden curriculum of college explicit for my students, even though that unearthing of buried assumptions about mine and my students’ academic selves is very difficult. But what I risk by not retraining, by not checking my beliefs, is so much more: I risk the absence of relationships with my students, I risk the absence of trust in our work together, and I risk undermining all of my other compassionate, student-focused pedagogies with a few unconsidered habits (or cut and pasted patches) so many of us have picked up from our own educations. Given how much I know now about what college students have to deal with to be students (more of them are first-generation, are caretakers, are working, are dealing with reduced access to services, and are dealing with the new economics of college) my tolerance for that risk is getting lower and lower.
So how have my tiny maneuvers changed? (I drafted this piece in Winter 2019 before the “pivot” to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020 and am finishing edits on it during the “pandemic pivot,” so this question is even more urgent. I now try to reply to each student who emails/chats/vids with me: “How are you doing? How is your family? What do you need?”) Like there is no writing in general (see Elizabeth Wardle’s great essay on this), there is no classroom in general, and part of rehoning my instinct is to get to know – to experience – each class in particular. We have to listen to our actual students: what’s going on with students, their children, or their families? With students who are consistently late? What’s going on in terms of traffic or weather? When is it good to extend one’s patience? What is the lived experience of getting to class each day, especially for my students at my school? What do they need to be good students? What do they hear in our syllabi? Finally, how can we train our own experiences, instincts, and listening so that we can work with and enjoy the particular musics of conversations with our students?
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