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In this series of posts I am looking at what we can learn from peer feedback practices in other disciplines. Andy Brown and Sharon Hart talked to me about the studio art critique.

 

Critique in the art classroom has a particular history I found quite interesting.  According to Andy, it emerged out of Modernism and the demise of the salon, with its list of rules for art.  As the definition expanded and art became more subjective, critique became both more complicated and more important.  Sharon’s use of “salon style” in our conversation also underscored for me the particular history of this discipline in relation to the salon.  Andy also explained how the current shape of our Foundations curriculum also emerged from the wider world of art through the Bauhaus movement.

 

Both indicated a deep knowledge of the extensive history of their fields and the ways in which that history persists in practices such as critique.  It got me thinking about the history of our own field.  In particular, I am wondering about the history of peer revision in composition.  I did some quick and dirty research and wasn’t able to find anything like a clear genealogy for the practice, though it’s clear that we’ve been doing it for some forty years or more.

 

I’m wondering about how history impacts practice and in particular I am wondering about the history of peer revision within our field.  It’s easy enough to tie it into some larger movements, particularly those that are social-epistemic, but if you should know more about the specific history I hope you will enlighten me in the comments.

 

Of course, not having so weighty a history may be of great benefit to us as writing teachers.  There is perhaps a way in which we are much more mobile in our understanding, practice, and use of peer revision as we are not so clearly restrained.  I’m not sure, so I welcome your thoughts.

In this series of posts I am looking at what we can learn from peer feedback practices in other disciplines. Andy Brown and Sharon Hart talked to me about the studio art critique.

 

Many differences emerged as I discussed critique with Sharon and Andy.  But I was heartened to note one important similarity across our disciplines: critical thinking.  I generally like to think that critical thinking is at the heart of what I do in the writing classroom.  I acknowledge that students are going to leave our FYC class and go on into their majors.  The specifics of the work we do may not carry forward.  But I would hope that the skills of critical thinking we practice in the classroom will go forward, as those are the skills I imagine students most need as they proceed in their academic careers.

 

Andy was quite explicit about the role of critical thinking, particularly in relation to the practices of art in an academic context and the myth of talent in the field generally.  He explained that while it’s useful to have an inner spark, art in an academic setting is more about hard work.  I find this to be a useful notion for my writing classes, as well.  Many students think they just “can’t write,” but the truth is that within the FYC context it’s much more about hard work.

 

Critique assists that work, as does peer revision.  And when it’s good, it’s good.  Both Sharon and Andy had similar descriptions about really good critiques: students are engaged and invested, responding to each other, questioning each other, and carrying the class through their own discussion.  They become thinkers in relation to the work and they also feel empowered to share those thoughts, and perhaps to defend them, with others.  Again, so similar to the processes of writing I hope to encourage.

 

It feels like students often resent peer revision as a kind of “busy work.”  Perhaps it would help if I were to better contextualize it in the larger work of critical thinking for the class.  What do you think?

In this series of posts I am looking at what we can learn from peer feedback practices in other disciplines. Andy Brown and Sharon Hart talked to me about the studio art critique.

 

Fear.

 

I guess walking into these conversations I expect the emption to play a big role in critique, mostly because of the associations I had with the practice through articles like the one in the New York Times. “Crit” made me think of Yale’s “pit” made me think of students breaking down with ragged sobs from the cruel destructive comments of their peers and professors. This impression was not dispelled by looking at the book about critique that Andy loaned me, The Critique Handbook, which offers some sample comments such as, “The story that you present in this scene is interesting, but your figures are badly drawn” and, “It is very well-drawn but it leaves me cold. Do you even know what this is about or why you drew it in the first place?” (6). From my perspective as a teacher of writing, such comments feel themselves a bit cold. Given the mythic status of critique, I wondered what role fear (and the process of dispelling that fear) played in the undergraduate studio critique? I’ll also admit that one of the reasons I was so interested about fear is that I generally have no idea what students in the classes I teach are feeling, if they feel anything at all. While perhaps not the emotion I would want to cultivate, at least it was an emotion. I wondered what it might add to the process of peer revision, as well.

 

Actually, my chat with Andy brought the topic to the forefront of my thinking, since it seemed a subtext for many of the things he talked about. For example, he mentioned the importance of setting an environment in critique where students feel empowered to speak because many might be afraid of being embarrassed. Students can simply be afraid to talk. Sharon’s critique handout addresses this explicitly: “Do not be afraid to talk.” Both of them also discussed how they address this in their classroom practices by modelling good critique, reframing student comments back through the vocabulary of the class, asking students direct questions, and offering feedback and assessment on students’ critique comments. I’ve done some similar things in my writing classes, reinforcing peer revision by pointing out good comments from students and offering a larger conversation about the process through the elements of the class and its vocabulary.

 

In discussing this kind of fear, both Sharon and Andy reinforced for me that peer feedback practices are learned behaviors, ones that need careful cultivation. I feel like peer revision worksheets do a lot of that work in the writing classroom. Students don’t have to be afraid in answering the sheets because they are well-skilled at answering a teacher’s questions. It’s locating methods to empower them to speak in comments on the papers themselves that remains a bit of a challenge for me, though I can’t say if the (de)motivating emotion in the classes I teach is fear or just indifference.

 

But for art students, there is another side to the fear coin and that is the fear of the artist subject to critique. In this sense, I was reminded of Becka McKay’s comment about creative writing students—that they believe that what they write comes from their souls. Andy explained that at first students are afraid because they don’t quite know what they’re doing yet, or they’re afraid their work isn’t good enough, or they’re afraid of what others might think of them and their work. Sharon emphasized that critique is not about sugar-coating. But it’s not about tearing them down, either. Both emphasized that one of the lessons of critique is that it makes better artists. Sharon went as far as to call critique a luxury: “When else do you have all those eyes looking at your work?” Andy shares his own experiences of harsh critiques and explains how they helped his work, and Sharon told me that when a critique is good (even if tough) it makes you want to work and make and continue.

 

If the remedy to the fear of offering peer feedback is scaffolded instructions and close moderation with a hefty dose of modeling, then the remedy to the fear of receiving peer feedback is to understand that the process is vital to becoming better. I don’t know if my students believe me when I tell them that peer revision makes writing better, and I don’t know that they are afraid (not identifying as compositionists in the way that art students identify as artists or creative writers identify as writers). But I do know that starting from the question of what we feel offers me a new way to open up all of these questions in my classroom. And I think I will give that a try.

 

More next time. Don’t be afraid to comment (wink, wink).

What can we learn by exploring peer feedback practices in other disciplines? That’s the central question driving this series of posts. I started close to home in my last few posts by considering workshop practices in creative writing, but the truth is that this project was inspired by the art critique.

 

Before stepping into the role of Interim Chair for Visual Arts and Art History last year, I sat down with each of the department’s faculty members to get to know them and their work. I learned a lot about art—how it functions as a research practice, the considerable costs involved in producing it, and the serious safety risks involved in teaching it—and I was truly impressed by the work my colleagues were doing. I’m blessed to work with such amazing people. I was also immediately intrigued by critique, since it seemed so much like my own use of peer review in the writing classroom. And so I was only too happy to spend more time learning about critique for this series of posts.

 

My two informants in this case were Andy Brown and Sharon Hart. Andy is the Foundations Instructor for the department. He’s super-duper smart, very easy-going, and just fun to hang around and chat with (we grab coffee on occasion for just that purpose). He’s also an awesome painter. Sharon is an Assistant Professor and the area head for Photography. She’s committed, passionate, and a wonderful photographer and a strong advocate for her area. I sat down with each of them and asked them about critique in the studio art classroom. The conversations were animated and wide-ranging—we just had so much to discuss! But to start I’ll share a little about what I learned from discussing the mechanics and logistics of critique.

 

For starters, as Andy informed me, there are two basic forms of critique: group and individual. Group critique is analogous to peer review. Individual critique is a one-on-one session between instructor and student and reminded me most of a student coming to my office hours to discuss a paper. In a group critique, students place their work up around the studio, a piece is selected, and the class responds to it. As with workshop in creative writing, generally the artist doesn’t speak until after the critique. Discussion proceeds apace with the goal of getting to as many pieces as possible during the class time. Sharon indicated that in the course of a semester, there will be 5-6 group critiques, which is about how often peer revision happens in my writing classes. There are many variations to this basic formula. Sharon shared that she likes to try out new methods so that she doesn’t get bored; she likes to get excited by the process too. For example, one variation she shared with me involved having students put photos on the wall “salon style” (all next to each other with no space between) and then having students vote for the six images they would want to live with for a year, marking their votes by placing a sticky note on the photo. Then the class talked about the ones with the highest votes and why.

 

Both of them stressed that in all ways critique is a learning process, which is to say that through critique students learn more about their individual works, studio technique, and the practices of art but which is also to say that students need to learn how to critique. As Andy observed, “A lot of critiquing is about figuring out how to look at things.” To that end, both also referenced readings they use or have used that talk about critique and how to do it. That reminded me of the worksheets I create for peer review but it also made me wonder why we don’t have more readings about peer review for our students. Students in my classes often don’t understand why they’re doing peer review, let alone how. Sharon’s approach was particularly resonant for me in this respect. She has a handout that’s collaboratively generated with her students and that goes over the goals of the critique and offered some practical guidelines. The one I’m most likely to steal for the writing classroom is “Remove the word ‘like’ from your vocabulary during critique,” going on to suggest that instead of saying “I like _____” students should instead say “I think this is successful because _____.” I can definitely see myself bringing that into the writing classroom, as well as more generally generating guidelines on peer revision based on conversations in the classroom.

 

As with workshops in creative writing, I walk away from this discussion of the mechanics of the art critique with a desire to do more large-scale, class-level peer reviews of student writing—more than a sample paper. I also want to find some readings about peer revision and use those to generate a discussion and a set of guidelines for the class. And I want students to reframe what they like about writing into what they find successful about writing.

 

In the next post, I’ll talk about the emotive charge of critique and consider its implications for the writing classroom. In the meantime, I welcome your comments.

I imagine that I’ve made things seem pretty sunshine-and-rainbows in these last few posts, as I have shared my discoveries from discussing peer commenting practices in FYC and creative writing with my colleagues.  And while I may have noted some logistical challenges in adapting creative writing workshop practices to the FYC classroom, the truth is that there may be a far more fundamental challenge: student creative writers care about their writing in a way that student FYC writers generally don’t.

 

I discussed this challenge with both Becka and Papatya.  Both suggested that perhaps a piece of personal writing early in the semester might move towards solving the problem in the FYC classroom.  My experience as a teacher of writing makes me dubious, although Papatya did note that’s precisely how FYC was taught at one of her previous institutions.  I suspect, though, that the required nature of FYC would be the fundamental challenge.  I often feel like students walk into my classroom wanting to be anywhere but there, wanting to take a course that they do care about (which generally means something within their majors).  I work hard at making my classroom fun to counter these feelings and, generally, I think I am successful.  But I don’t know that I can resolve that core issue.

 

Becka, I think, put it best: “Creative writing students are more invested in their writing because they think it comes out of their souls.”

 

Of course, I usually want students to produce writing that comes out of their thinking and not out of their souls.  After all, one of the basic things I feel I need to teach in my FYC class is critical thinking.  But surely there is a way to bridge this gap, to help students invest in their critical thinking and the writing that comes from it.

 

Honestly, though, I don't have an answer today.  But it’s a question I will carry forward as I continue these explorations of peer practices in different disciplines, so you can expect we will be discussing it again.  In the meantime, if you have a way of getting students to care about their writing in your FYC class, please share it in the comments here.

In my last post, I talked about the oral workshop in the creative writing classroom, drawing from my conversations with my colleagues in creative writing here at FAU, Papatya Bucak and Becka McKay.  But both of them also use an out-of-class written critique to complement the oral workshop.  In this post, I want to share some insights about that element of peer critique in creative writing.

 

The first thing that strikes me about Becka and Papatya’s instructions on commenting is the level of personal investment, something I struggle to ignite in the FYC classroom (a topic that I will discuss in detail in the next post).  Given that struggle I took special note of the small ways in which both of them encourage students to care about each other’s writing.

 

For example, both Becka and Papatya ask students to sign their written comments, a practice I’ve never tried in the writing classroom and one that I think I will, as it makes the process more personal and conversational between the students.  Asking students to sign feels like a small move, but I am betting it will reap some interesting rewards in the FYC classroom, particularly in terms of investment when it comes to both writing and commenting on writing.

 

Another practice I noticed in the handouts they give students is a direct encouragement to students to not only do their best, but also to be their best.  In referencing commenting on manuscripts, Becka’s handout states: “I am always very disappointed when students do very little commenting on each other’s poems. Be the person who does better.”  Papatya’s handout does something similar: “Don’t be the person who hands the writer an unmarked manuscript.”  Implicit in these evocations to be better is not only an invitation to be the best student / person / commenter but an understanding that students can be the best student / person / commenter.  It’s an affirmation of the students’ potential that I think I might find useful in the FYC classroom.

 

Both also use what I might consider a “sandwich” type approach; I use something similar when I comment on papers and I often incorporate it into many of my peer revision worksheets.  This much, at least, we share across our disciplines.  The “sandwich” in their handouts consists of praise or neutral comments first then subjective comments second; my “sandwiches” are similar, consisting of praise and then critique and then a final slice of praise. Becka’s handout also makes clear why we use this order: “the neutral comments should come first and the criticism should come last—writers receive information better that way.”  Papatya adds a great insight that I think I will incorporate: “Since we are reading in-progress manuscripts, they should be treated as such—that means delicately and respectfully, but also critically.”

 

It’s wonderful to see these common elements of peer commenting across disciplines and also to see the small moves both of my colleagues make to remind students that they are capable of great commenting, and thus also expected to provide great commenting.  Both of them read student comments to hold them accountable and to offer feedback on commenting, a practice I often do as well.

 

I love one instruction that Becka included, which I will definitely steal: “It’s fun to read other people’s writing.  Don’t forget that.” Indeed.  I am delighted to remind students that even FYC can be fun.  And I shall duly so so.

 

In the next post, I will turn to some of the challenges I discussed with my colleagues but, in the meantime, if you have insights to share on what I’ve posted here, comment away!

In this series of posts I’m thinking about what teachers of writing can learn from the implementation of peer feedback practices in other disciplines and departments.  While my goal is to explore these practices broadly across the university, I’m going to start very close to home in our English department.  English at FAU encompasses literary study, creative writing, and rhetoric/composition. Our department is deeply collegial, with each of the areas respecting and supporting the others (I know, sadly, that cannot be said of all departments).  I was thus delighted to chat with two of our creative writing faculty, Papatya Bucak (who also blogs for Bedford) and Becka McKay, who is currently running our MFA program in creative writing.  Both are super colleagues—accomplished, smart, funny, and generous.  I sat with both of them to talk about how workshopping happens in the creative writing classroom and each also shared with me handouts about workshopping that they use in their own classrooms.  Based on all of that, I’ve made some observations I hope are worth sharing.

 

 “I use it on all levels,” Papatya shared, referencing both undergrad and grad workshops, “because I think it works,” a sentiment that Becka echoed.  Though the shape of workshopping can vary across creative writing classes, one common element that struck me is that it tends to contain two components: a written one and an oral one.  That oral component (and its particular shape) feels somewhat unique to me.  When workshopping happens in class, all of the students comment on one author’s work; the author generally stays silent throughout.  Papatya’s gives her grad students a handout that explains: “the class covers strengths, intentions, and suggestions while you listen.  Writer has the option of asking questions or making comments at the end. Writer can interrupt discussion if they have an urgent question or believe some major misunderstanding is occurring.”

 

I’ve occasionally done something similar in my writing classroom, when working with a sample paper or when placing students into peer revision groups.  But when I use sample work I tend to do so anonymously and when students discuss their work in group, each author is usually getting comments from only the other two people in the group.  I’m starting to think about what it might mean to adopt this structure in the writing classroom.  It would not be without logistical challenges (both of them noted the smaller size of the creative writing workshop and Becka also observed that it’s easier when she is teaching poetry) but nevertheless I think it’s worth exploring a significant and sustained oral component for peer revision.

 

Having an oral workshop isn’t without challenges even for creative writers.  When I asked Becka what would make a workshop disastrous, she noted that “a workshop needs trust and respect so if students do anything to break that or are disrespectful, then it’s a disaster,” going on to say that breaking trust can take a few different forms, from students in the class not doing the work of careful reading and so having nothing to say, to attacking the writer instead of critiquing the writing, to the author displaying defensive body language.  Anything that threatens the “circle of trust,” as Becka named it, would in turn threaten the value of the workshop.

 

But when it works, the students in the class form a community that becomes very nurturing.  More than that.  Papatya noted that the goal of the workshop is to find your reader and that “having someone who’s a good reader of your work is a holy grail.”

 

Scaling this practice up to the writing classroom feels daunting even as I write this—but not impossible.  And that sense of community feels quite seductive.  If you’re thinking about exploring a sustained in-class, oral peer review for your students here are some tips I’ve cribbed from Paptya and Becka that you might want to adapt:

 

  1.          The oral component is accompanied by a written critique.  Since I usually have students do that writing during peer revision in class, incorporating an oral component means a written critique outside of class.  And while both noted that workshopping will work with only one of these components, both also regularly use both together.  (I’ll talk more about what that written component looks like in my next post.)
  2.          Both Paptya and Becka offer detailed guidelines for all components of workshopping, particularly for their undergrad students.  Otherwise, as Becka noted, it’s “the blind reading the blind.”  I imagine most of us scaffold written peer revision with some sort of handout or worksheet but you may want to do the same if you attempt an oral critique as well.
  3.            Even when everything works, students need a good model for what good writing should do.  Both Paptya and Becka noted that students are inclined to say “this is nice” because they genuinely believe the writing is.  Papatya commented that what students think good writing should do sometimes isn’t what Papatya thinks good writing should do.  Becka also commented that often students new to workshopping are too eager to praise and that she ends up having to walk them back from that.  Offering models of what good writing does is one way to counter this inclination.  I love the way Becka put it: “You would think they just want to be stroked and told what great writers they are, but once they read the stuff we give them and they see what great writing is and they know we can show them a path that gets them there, they want to learn how to do that.”

 

Maybe the oral workshop model is one way to get them there.

 

Next week, I’ll look at some of the unique elements of written workshop comments.  In the meantime, if you’ve ever used an oral workshop mode of peer review in your FYC classroom, please share your experiences with us.  How did it work logistically?  How did it work for students?  What might you change?

 

I am endlessly fascinated by the diversity of our discipline.  Biology is, mostly, biology.  I imagine that while introductory biology courses at different schools might use different textbooks and perhaps slightly different approaches to teaching, the “stuff” of biology pretty much remains the same, and so I would also imagine it to be for most content based courses.

 

In contrast, FYC courses are diversely shaped by a broad spectrum of composition theories and pedagogical approaches, as well as very local contingencies and bureaucracies. For example, FYC at my school, Florida Atlantic University, is shaped not only by my history within the field, but also by various Florida state laws governing the core curriculum within the state university system; by the mandates of our university’s accrediting body, SACSCOC; and by the very local policies of our college and school.  Our field feels almost Vulcan to me, sometimes.

 

But what’s equally fascinating to me are the near-universal practices of our field that are endorsed again and again, despite our various pedagogical allegiances.  And peer revision strikes me as one of the most universal of these.  Certainly there is a large body of critical literature touching on peer practices (of various names, including peer review, peer critique, peer response, peer evaluation, peer feedback, and more).

 

Peer review, as we call it here at FAU, has been on my mind lately and for a rather unique reason.  I’ve just spent a year chairing the department of Visual Arts and Art History (through a curious series of events that has much to say about the relationship between writing program administration and academic administration), where I was duly exposed to the practice of critique.  Learning about critique reminded me of the on-again, off-again conversations I’ve had with creative writers in my department about practices of workshopping.  Lately, I’ve been wondering what these related peer practices might have to offer to teachers of writing.

 

Our diversity is a strength, of that I am sure.  Our broad affirmation of peer feedback is similarly a strength, for I have seen certainly the difference it can make in student writing.  But what if we were to push the boundaries of our diversity?  What if we were to look at our common practices from a standpoint completely outside the FYC classroom?

 

In this series of posts, I’ll be talking to colleagues across the university to learn about how peer practices take place in their disciplines and to consider what we might learn from those practices and bring back to the writing classroom.

 

Next week, we’ll start close to home by thinking about how workshopping takes place in the creative writing classroom.  In the meantime, I invite you to initiate your own conversation with colleagues in other departments at your school.  If you should discover a new perspective on peer feedback, I hope you will share it with all of us here.

Yana Mazurkevich, a student from Ithaca College in New York, has created a powerful photo series about sexual assault in the wake of Brock Turner’s release.  It’s Mazurkevich’s second project in relation to Turner; her first was called Dear Brock Turner.  Both are visually powerful, if not in fact disturbing.

 

I’ve been thinking about how to bring these images into the classroom, and I think the first place that I would start is Torie Rose DeGhett’s “The War Photo No One Would Publish,” which is centered on a similarly powerful and disturbing image and its censored circulation.  I want students to be acutely aware of the power of images, their circulation, and the ways in which they are carefully controlled.  I would pair DeGhett with one of the essays that touch on feminism and sexual assault, probably Julia Serano’s “Why Nice Guys Finish Last,” which most directly addresses rape culture.

 

I think this would be a productive and potent pairing.  You might want to consider exploring it for your class.

Barclay Barrios

Emerging and Genre

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Sep 21, 2016

I was just talking with a colleague about possible new directions for the writing program at our school and one of the things we started thinking about was genre.  As the content and apparatus for Emerging might suggest we’ve traditionally focused on academic expository writing in our classes—the class argument-driven academic paper.  But it occurs to me that Emerging does offer entry points for those interested in exploring some different genres.

 

Roxane Gay’s “Good Feminist?” is a good starting point and an interesting model for students.  One might call Gay’s work an autobiographical essay, but it’s one that engages the writing of others and makes a strong argument, as well.  But I think it also models for students one way to engage in autobiography that moves from simple narration to a kind of positioning.  After all, Gay is interested in her relationship with feminism (or with what is considered being a “good” feminist) and her essay offers an interesting model for students to positions themselves within and against other markers of identity or political positioning.  Dan Savage’s and Urvashi Vaid’s “It Gets Better” and “Action Makes It Better” are also useful for thinking about genres that bridge the personal and the political.

 

For something that moves towards the multimodal, Tomas van Houtryve’s “From the Eyes of a Drone” is a good bridge for thinking about the visual essay.  Throughout his essay, the images and the text work together to form an argument.  That use of text in conjunction with image might be particularly useful in getting students to think about the visual essay or in working in the visual essay to a more traditional writing classroom.

 

Finally, there are some essays that are, classically, essays.  David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” is probably the stand out example, but you might also consider Michael Pollan’s contribution.  I think Yo Yo Ma’s essay is a particularly good example of the genre, especially as it is written from someone not only outside academics but within the music profession, as well.

 

Ultimately, of course, if your class is all about genre-based writing, then this probably isn’t the text for you.  But it’s interesting to think about the small moments of flexibility allowed by this reader and interesting as well to imagine where one might go with it.

The presidential election offers any number of opportunities for writing students to practice critical thinking while examining the ways in which rhetoric, argument, and evidence circulate (sometimes loosely) in the world.  One opportunity I’d like to think about this week is the “Taco Trucks on Every Corner” meme.  In case you missed it, the meme comes from an interview on MSNBC’s All in with Chris Hayes in which Marco Gutierrez of Latinos for Trump made the comment while talking about the problems his culture can bring to the country.  Twitter, in turn, had a field day and “taco trucks on every corner” quickly become an Internet meme.

 

As a meme, it represents a complex intersection of teachable moments, with elements of politics, race ethnicity, social media, viral media, and more.  In this post I wanted to discuss some of the essays in Emerging that you can use to help student unpack that intersection.  Given the nature of memes, “Taco Trucks on Every Corner” may be dead and gone by the time we’re able to post this, but these same readings can be used for similar memes which will no doubt still spring from what promises to be a contentious election year.

 

For starters, any discussion of memes is most usefully framed by Daniel Gilbert’s “Reporting Live from Tomorrow.” Gilbert discusses memes in the context of super-replicating beliefs; his discussion of surrogates is also useful given the increasing use of campaign surrogates in this election (Gutierrez, for example, is considered a surrogate).  Students might find it useful to apply Gilbert’s definition of the term to the rather different deployment of it within the political arena.

 

But of course this meme from this surrogate is centrally concerned with stereotypes around race ethnicity.  Jennifer Pozner’s “Ghetto Bitches, China Dolls, and Cha Cha Divas” is a great essay for getting students to examine the ways in which media use stereotypes; Maureen O’Connor’s “Race, Ethnicity, Surgery” and Steve Olson’s “The End of Race: Hawaii and the Mixing of Peoples” can both be used to deepen discussions around race and ethnicity.

 

Barclay Barrios

Sick

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Sep 7, 2016

I’m just barely getting over a cold as I write this post on this the day that my next batch of posts are due.  It’s my third (fourth?) cold of the year and it has me thinking a lot about the complex nexus (what I am sillily calling the “complexus”) between health and the classroom.

 

For starters, consider the problem of presenteeism in the classroom.  Presenteeism, or working while sick, only spreads sickness and keeps you sicker longer.  I speak from experience.  I am pretty sure I got this cold from my boss, the Dean, (who came to work while sick) and the last time I had a cold I am also pretty sure it lasted over two weeks because I insisted on continuing to come into the office.  This time I decided to just be home and be sick, except when it came to teaching my class.  Certainly we have a local culture that believes you should never ever ever cancel class and getting sick at the end of the week with a class on Monday gave me little time to work out a substitute teacher and lesson plan.  But I am also wondering to what extent teachers of writing, particularly perhaps more vulnerable populations like contingent faculty, are pressured to continue teaching when sick with something like a head cold.  I’m institutionally positioned in such a way that I could have missed my class (maybe should have missed it) but I’m curious about the climate in your local writing programs or your own experience as a teacher.  What are the implicit or explicit expectations for teaching when you have something like a head cold?

 

I guess it just struck me that while I felt it not just OK to cancel all my work meetings, but, in fact, good for my health and the health of others in my workplace. Something about the classroom setting felt too pressing.  The lack of time in a semester?  The fragile bond with students so early in the semester?  The uniqueness of my curriculum?  I’m not sure, but it got me thinking.

 

I’m also thinking about my own reactions when students are sick.  Our program has a strict attendance policy that we call predictive rather than prescriptive.  Based on our experience, students who miss a lot of class don’t pass.  All of my personal experience in the writing classroom affirms this as a general truth: what students learn they often learn in the classroom, through discussion and group work and writing practice—none of which is work easy to replace.  To what extent, then, am I fostering a culture of presenteeism?  To what extent do I have to, given the necessity of attendance to progress?

 

I’ve never really questioned my attendance policy before, but being completely sick of getting sick from sick people who are sick at work, I am ready to rethink it.  I imagine there must be a compromise that allows students to be absent when they’re down with a head cold (saving the health of everyone else), that allows that to be verified (and wow, a whole other issue that I wouldn’t believe a student, right?), and that then allows some way to make up the work that was missed.  Supplemental instruction, maybe?  Office hours? Writing Center?

 

It’s probably the cold meds, but I feel like I am being dense, like there’s an obvious solution that I just can’t see.  If you have it, please share it.  I’m really curious how people deal with presenteeism both as a worker and with their students.

 

It was a rough summer here in South Florida, particularly for those of us who are queer.  The shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando hit very close to home.  As more than one friend pointed out, Omar Mateen, the shooter, lived equidistant from Orlando and my home city of Wilton Manors, the second gayest city in the United States.  He could have just as easily headed here.  And with a best friend who works security at one of the most popular gay bars in town, the whole incident was beyond unsettling.

 

One of the many administrative hats I wear at school is Director of Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  I was thus quite grateful to be able to coordinate and participate in our school’s response to the shooting.  We had a memorial, an open discussion for students (many of whom are Hispanic and many of whom are from the Orlando area), and a panel discussion.  The turnout for all of these was impressive, particularly during a summer session, and included not only our students but also many faculty, staff, and administrators.  In the wake of these events, our college has reached out to work more closely with the university’s Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.  It feels very good to be making a difference.

 

But I’ve also been thinking about how to make a difference in my classroom, not just for queer and Latino students but perhaps more particularly for transgender students.  If you follow the news closely, you may have noted an alarming rise in violence against transgendered people, particularly those of color.  Our school already has a list of gender neutral bathrooms, the result of a grassroots petition by a transgender student in our college, but I wanted to make sure I made my classroom a safe space for transgender students.

 

Here are some of the practices I’ve adopted:

 

  •       Preferred Name. Before calling the roster on the first day of class, I ask students to let me know if they use a name other than the one the registrar uses.  I’ve always done this because sometimes Katherine goes by Katy or Jerome by Jer.  It’s more important than ever since at our school the registrar can only change a student’s name in the system after a legal name change, a byzantine process in Florida.  Transgender students who haven’t transitioned or who don’t have the resources for a legal name change may be stuck with an official name that doesn’t match their gender identity.
  •       Preferred Pronouns. I always do a quick ice breaker activity on the first day so I can learn my student’s names.  I usually ask about their major, their experience with writing, and something really interesting about them (this last one is always a lot of fun and helps me learn names quickly).  I now also ask students for their preferred pronouns, allowing transgender students another way to claim their identity within my classroom.  I also normalize this by providing the class all the same information about myself.
  •       Modeling Behavior. I try be particularly conscious about my behavior in front of the class and particularly aware of my use of language.  Students look to me to set the standard for the classroom and I can do a lot to make sure that our class is safe and inclusive.
  •       Class Discussions. Some of the readings in Emerging are also useful for fostering conversation, thinking, and writing about issues around gender in general and transgender specifically.  Ruth Padawer’s “Sisterhood is Complicated” explores the complications that arise when transgender students transition from female to male at all-female schools.  Julia Serano, author of “Why Nice Guys Finish Last,” is herself transgender and uses her unique perspective to discuss the challenges of being a man in relation to dating and rape culture. Kenji Yoshino’s “Preface” and “The New Civil Rights” looks at the pressures to “cover” or downplay a disfavored aspect of identity.  You might also use Kwame Anthony Appiah to talk about our need to coexist with those different from us or Francis Fukuyama on the importance of human dignity or Dan Savage and Urvashi Vaid on the violence faced by queer youth.  As Yoshino points out, changes in civil rights are more likely to come through conversations than laws and as Appiah notes practices can change before values do.  Discussing queer and transgender issues in the classroom, then, offers us a way to make change even if there are no transgender students in the class.

 

Life has pretty much returned to normal here in South Florida, though there is a much more visible police presence outside the bars in Wilton Manors even now.  Classes started for us August 22 and a new wave of students are filtering through our classes. As we continue to heal from what happened in Orlando and as transgendered people continue to face horrific violence around the world, it’s good to know that in some small way I can make a difference.  You can, too.  Please share other tips you have for making your classroom a safe and inclusive space.

In this series of posts (see also Teaching the Election: Intro and Teaching the Election: Appiah and Teaching the Election: Gilbert) I’m talking about how to teach the election without promoting a single political point of view or allowing students to get stubbornly stuck in us vs. them political positions. The last reading I want to offer is Arora. If you’re using the third edition of Emerging, you might want to select Duhigg instead.

 

Namit Arora’s “What Do We Deserve?” takes a close look at several models of economic justice in order to answer his titular question. Given that so much of any election revolves around questions of economics (both in terms of the national economy but also government spending and budgets), Arora’s essay can help students to figure out which model of economic justice resonates best with them and then use that to think about the various presidential candidates. One of the great things about Arora is that the models are clearly spelled out and defined, making them easy to acquire concepts that students can use with some facility.

 

If you’ve moved to the third edition, I would recommend instead Charles Duhigg’s “From Civil Rights to Mega-Churches.” Duhigg is looking at the effects of strong and weak ties on social change but, more fundamentally, he is looking at the ramifications of peer pressure. Using Duhigg in the context of the elections does double-duty: it helps students to think about mechanisms of social change and it also invites them to consider the various peer pressures exerted upon them in relation to voting and the election.

 

Ultimately, I feel compelled to teach if not the election itself then at least the issues that surround it. And I feel compelled to do so in a way that will equip students to make their own reasoned choices, to vote, and to become fully participating members in the political process.

 

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In this series of posts (see also Teaching the Election: Intro and Teaching the Election: Appiah) I’m talking about how to teach the election without promoting a single political point of view or allowing students to get stubbornly stuck in us vs. them political positions. Another great reading to help with that is Gilbert.

 

Daniel Gilbert, in “Reporting Live from Tomorrow,” looks at how truly awful our imaginations are at predicting our future happiness. And really that’s what any election is all about: which candidate will lead in a way that offers me the most happiness for the next four years? Answering that kind of question, Gilbert shows, is anything but easy.

 

Unless you use surrogates. For Gilbert, surrogates are people who are living an experience you hope to have. For example, if you want to find out if you’re really going to be happy as a doctor, then you should talk to someone who is a doctor. I think you could have students explore this concept, and its limitations, in relation to the election. What kind of surrogates might we locate to help make our voting decision?

 

Of course, Gilbert also points out that people are loathe to use surrogates, believing that they are so special that in no way could someone else’s experience predict their own future happiness. That’s something for students to explore as well, considering the challenges to using surrogates in election decisions and life more generally.

 

Critical thinking often lies, I believe, in complication. Thinking about future happiness in the context of the presidential election is a wonderful way for students to work on complicating Gilbert’s ideas. In the process, not only will they become more adept at working with ideas in general but perhaps they will, if nothing else, examine their own thinking processes in relation to their political choices.

 

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