“What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”

I believe I have said here or elsewhere something about the importance of the relationship between the humanities and the physical sciences: While the arts need the sciences for the sake of utility in the “real world,” the arts provide for the sciences a conscience. The sciences teach us how to experiment and examine the world as an outside observer; the arts teach us how to examine the world from within ourselves. Scientists work with their heads and their hands; an artist’s work comes from the head and the heart. While these examples are gross over-simplifications of these disciplines, they do illustrate the symbiotic relationship between the hard and the human sciences, a sort of codependency that is demanded of the individual who is studying them. And yet…

There remains a constant need to justify the equality of these fields, particularly from the humanities side. As an English major at a STEM-heavy university, sometimes it feels as though there is a perpetual chip on my shoulder, as if I must always remind everyone else about the relevance of my skills and my discipline. The pressure is not only pervasive in academia. Every family visit results in someone asking “So, what exactly are you going to do with your degree?” as if I am some dewey-eyed hippie, whose only future path is to live on a commune with huts made of tires, spending my days reading and writing poetry, telling stories, and living a frivolous life of frolicking through tulips, smoking a peace pipe, and generally being a disappointment to my ancestors. My response (somewhere in the ballpark of “Um…teach, hopefully…” “Well, if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life” and “Excuse me while I go nail my eyelids to the front deck in order to avoid having this conversation again…”) is never satisfactory. Besides, and perhaps most importantly, what role would I have in the event of a zombie apocalypse? While others with more practical skills would be building shelter, tracking weather patterns for safe travel, building farms, and finding a cure for the accursed zombie virus, what would I be doing? Soothing the undead to sleep with the sultry sounds of my silver-tongued recitations of Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream”? Fighting off a flesh-eating horde with my hardcover copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Unabridged, wiping bone matter and pieces of half-rotten corpse off of the dust jacket every few minutes? I was beginning to feel like the character in that Avenue Q song:


But of course, all of this is ridiculous. Even though the market seems to value certain career paths over others, that’s not to say someone couldn’t live a perfectly satisfying life working in a humanities field. After all, there are some universally practicable skills that aren’t learned in the science classroom, such as reading comprehension, public speaking, clear and effective writing skills, visual literacy, crafting a well-reasoned argument, etc., etc. Part of the reason why I feel so strongly about interdisciplinary practices is due to my liberal arts background, where each field is appreciated for its particular contributions in creating a well-rounded classroom full of jacks-of-all-trades. This ruined me. Now I can’t favor one discipline over another without feeling a twinge of guilt as though I have failed in academia by not being some sort of mutant renaissance man. I do not have strong math skills, and though much of it eludes me like so much effluvium drifting above my head just out of reach, I am still fascinated with mathematics as a field, to the point that I feel compelled every so often to brush up on some of the concepts which I had previously forgotten. I say this not to brag–only to illustrate the state of mind that I’m in regarding academia, and, really, life in general. If we live in a world where we are able to not only appreciate other disciplines, but to utilize their skills for our own work, we will be expanding our potential–exploring and discovering nuances in our own disciplines which had previously remained elusive.

And, should the need arise, we will be much better equipped to kill zombies, which should make us all sleep a little sounder at night.

Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in Today’s Classroom

We’ve learned about the banking concept of learning described by Pablo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed as ” knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” For Freire, this is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the assumption that students “know nothing,” that they are empty vessels who are provided with appropriate knowledge at the behest of their instructors. There is a power dynamic at work here that mirrors much of the structure of colonialism, which is Freire’s point. In a gross simplification of this point, the oppressor comes into the learner’s environment claims it as his/her own and bestows upon the oppressed people knowledge that he/she deems necessary for the oppressed to function as the oppressor sees fit. This makes sense when we consider the fact that the traditional classroom is based around power dynamics: the instructor has all of the power, standing at the front of the class leading a lecture or assigning work and the students all face the instructor as knowledge is passed in a 1-1 ratio–from instructor to students.

What we can learn from Freire is to open the classroom up a bit, to not force the oppression of that power dynamic on all learners for all subjects in all contexts. That is not to say that lecture is inherently bad or that instructors must relinquish all power in the classroom. In fact, if we’ve learned anything from this class its that lecture is very appropriate in a specific context. But the point is to be able to find a balance of teaching approaches based on the needs of the learners. Students should have some agency in how they learn, and part of the instructor’s job is to be able to show students how to find that agency. For me, as a composition instructor, I try to make it imperative to get to know my students personally, to build and foster a trusting relationship.  Writing is so tied to personal experience, that it is important to not only get to know my students, but also to provide them with a comfortable space for them to produce there best work. In this, we can see Freire’s influence.

I would be interested in seeing how Freire’s teachings take form in other disciplines. Fee free to tell me in the comments below.

Privilege Pedagogy–Awkward, Yet Necessary

This week’s topic is something that is near and dear to me, something that always get me in trouble at family dinners, something that has forced me to enter into social media rants and arguments shedding years off of my life. Diversity! And the issue implicit within that topic–privilege.

Privilege can be a difficult thing to talk about, whether it is in the company friends and family or strangers. I come from a largely homogeneous area of Appalachia. We are overwhelmingly white and Christian. There were only 10 people of color in my high school and the families of all but 3 of them owned and operated ethnic food restaurants (Because in my neighborhood, the balm of tolerance was dependent on the desire for authentic egg foo young and carnitas fajitas). My hometown and many of the surrounding communities are also overwhelmingly working-class, meaning that poverty and other socioeconomic struggles are not uncommon. How do you have a conversation with a poor white person about how the color of their skin, their very identity, provides them with unearned privileges, when all they know is living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to feed and support their families, and God forbid the car break down or someone need medical care? It’s a difficult conversation to have.

And yet, it is necessary in order for us to move forward as a society, to ensure that people of all walks of life, from every demographic be it race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic and ability status, etc. are treated as equals. We have to recognize our privileges in order to eliminate their existence in our culture, because denying privilege, ultimately perpetuates it.

Last semester I wrote a paper regarding the potential implementation of privilege pedagogy (i.e. the inclusion of instruction about privilege) in the composition classroom. I wanted to explore the idea that privilege pedagogy can be communicated both explicitly and implicitly through composition curriculum, which I chose for a few reasons: First, at most institutions, composition is a general studies requirement, therefore all students must take and pass at least one section of it. This would mean that, if successful, it would reach as many students in the institution as possible. Second, privilege pedagogy tends to lend itself to the humanities, though it should be ubiquitous to all disciplines (considering that privilege is).  Thirdly, composition is a flexible enough discipline so as to allow such diversions with minimal distraction from the overall curriculum (focusing largely on texts and on the individual). And lastly…well quite frankly it’s the only course I’ve ever taught, so I figured it was my best and easiest entry point for me. What I found was that composition seems to be a great choice for implementing privilege pedagogy, because, in many cases, it’s already being implemented albeit implicitly, due to readings from diverse authors, from a variety of backgrounds. Students are often encouraged to talk about their own identities in writing, sometimes comparing their experiences to others’. Focusing on the individual throughout the writing process does more than improve a writer’s confidence; given the proper subject matter, it promotes empathy.

There are a couple of activities that can introduce the concept of privilege in the classroom that I’ve used to positive results. The first, called the paper toss is illustrated in the following video:

The other activity is called Privilege Bingo. You provide each student with a copy of the game board below. Whoever has the most marks (or gets a Bingo) has the most privilege and “wins.”


I’ve found that in both cases, students seem to connect with what privilege is, as well as its effect in our culture, while alleviating the awkwardness of the conversation. This is key to a successful discussion about privilege. We want to be inclusive, not only because we want students to feel as safe and comfortable as possible, but also because the way to tackling privilege is through a collective effort.

Feel free to let me know what you think int the comments below. Do you have any privilege exercises that you’d like to share?

Ninja Learning–How to Learn with the Sneaky Skill of an Assassin

We’ve talked a lot in class about the importance of creating a learning space where students are encouraged to use their imagination to solve problems in class instead of working toward a prescribed solution or answer. This open-ended methodology allows students not only to engage in content based on their strengths, to make a more individualized learning environment.

We are beginning to see these trends become more and more prevalent throughout the country, the resurgence of hands-on learning, combining both theory and practice in activities that help make learning relevant and fun for students. At first glace, perhaps it appears to be a rather obvious notion. When asked his opinion on the nature of education, and the “teaching to the test” mentality that seems inherent in America’s school systems today, television personality, special effects extraordinaire, veritable geek Adam Savage of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, had this to say: “If you want the kids’ test scores up, bring back band and bring back shop and get kids actually learning stuff instead of teaching them how to take a test.” Savage also added that STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) should be changed to STEAM “because you need art in there to complete an education.”

But we have this stigma around learning, that it has to be content-heavy, focusing on measurable results, that lead to productivity and ultimately that will produce students who can help boost the economy. And we forget that, when it comes to education, we are dealing with kids, and kids want to play. One of the best experiences that I had in school occurred in 8th Grade. We were in West Virginia History, in the last quarter of the year. We had already taken the Golden Horseshoe (an examination given to all 8th Graders in the state, which tests their aptitude about West Virginia history–those who perform well-enough earn the titular horseshoe as a consolation of their hard work and dedication), and state-sanctioned standardized tests were over. To cap off the year we, as a class, performed a mock trial, based on events that occurred during and immediately following the Civil War. Each member of the class had to take on a role, either as a witness, legal counsel, or even the accused and for the remaining four weeks of class, we had to carry on a trial. (The role of the jury was played by a class of 6th graders–who were a notoriously tough crowd). I was part of the defense counsel and I was in charge of a group of witnesses, one of whom, according to the script, died while giving testimony. I had to coach them on the appropriate answers to help ensure that our defendant avoided conviction. Navigating through special interests, hidden loyalties, even avoiding perjury, it showed how tedious and thrilling (not to mention, sketchy) the job of a lawyer can be. It was one of the best learning exercises that I’ve had in my life. Instead of merely learning or watching a video about the trial (which actually occurred, and centered around the alleged misdeeds surrounding a prisoner-of-war camp), we were able to recreate the actual trial itself, and in the case of our class, change history (the jury found our client not guilty).

This is the sort of thing Savage, and so many of the readings in this course, are talking about. Hands-on, active learning, providing an open-ended problem with limited constraints and then allowing a classroom to utilize their collective knowledge and individual abilities to collaborate toward a solution. In other words: to make students learn, without them knowing they are learning. I call this concept ninja learning.

The Important Stuff Isn’t on the Test

Students of my generation, that is, the generation who grew up as participants in No child Left Behind, the height of the standardized testing boom, are sick and tired of it. Ever since I was in 2nd Grade, I had to take a test for about 6 hours per day for a week; I had to take a Writing Assessment in 4th, 7th, and 10th Grades; I had 3 AP exams, in addition to the SATs and ACTs (twice), I even took a driving examination (again, twice, because, as I learned that day, it IS important to come to a complete stop at a STOP sign). I got into college as an undergrad, and had some reprieve…until I applied to graduate school and had to take the GRE. I’m just about done with tests, with people constantly feeling as though I have to measure up to a pre-conceived standard, that, as a result I am pitted in competition with all of my peers to see where we each measure up.

Sometimes we are so focused on the test, the final product, that we forget to learn anything. Teachers, whether due to incentives, regulations, or poor instruction, are sometimes stuck teaching linearly, sort of one-way teaching (teacher to student). Sometimes they open it up and it becomes two-way teaching (teacher to student and back–discussion). Why can’t we find more ways to teach that are harnessing more than memorization and study skills, such as what Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon talk about in their text Imagination First, going so far as to say that imagination “is…what makes education relevant–to everyone.” Allowing students the freedom to explore as well as the discipline to work toward a goal is an effective means of learning.

Here are some things I learned outside of the tradition classroom and standardized testing:

How to hold a baby.
How to tie a necktie (bowties still elude me)
How to read and write (technically this is cheating because I would have been taught in school, but already knew how when school started).
How to change the oil in my car.
How to change a tire on my car.
How to tell a joke.
How to throw a fastball.
How to bake cookies.
How to kiss.
How to talk to girls. (Not necessarily in this order…)

Most of these things are skills that I will use at various times in my life, and I would argue that they are just as important as what we learn in class. The difference is that I learned them by doing, by putting myself out there, into the world and experiencing them not only with my mind, but with my hands and my heart. We learn and use what we learn in a variety of ways; why shouldn’t we be assessed in a variety of ways as well? Perhaps, instead of asking “Will this be on the test?” we should be asking “What’s the best way to learn this?”

The Flynn Effect, and Other Reasons Why “Kids these Days” Are Smarter than Ever

Immediately following last Wednesday’s class I heard something that changed the way that I look at not only this course, but also the way that I perceive learning. To start, I got into the habit of listening to podcasts because I had a job a couple of years ago that required me to travel over an hour for work. To kill the time–and prevent myself from dying in a fiery, though peacefully somnolent, accident–I figured that podcasts would be a good way to keep me focused and entertained on my way to and from work. I’ve since kept up this habit, and am now a shameless addict. I can hardly spend time alone, or do chores, or run errands without my earbuds in. Wednesday evening, on my way home, I listened to a podcast produced by Cracked.com, a comedy website that I find entertaining occasionally.

In it the podcasters were talking about the generation gap is a myth, how we have this perception that each successive generation is essentially getting dumber, and things will never be as good as they were in the “good ‘ol days.” One of the most intriguing explanations for debunking this myth was the Flynn Effect, which according to every lazy researcher’s friend, Wikipedia, is “the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day.” Essentially, James Flynn, a political scientist, studied the scores for IQ tests across generations, dating back to the 1930s. What he found was that not only are we progressively getting smarter with each generation–students 10 years younger than the previous generation are on average 3-5 IQ points smarter. If tested to today’s standards, students in the 1930s would be classified as mentally retarded. But before all you Beliebers start handing out dunce caps to your grandparents for not understanding your music or Youtube or who think that a “tweet” is just the sound a bird makes, know that it’s a little more complicated than that.

Flynn figured out that each generation’s intelligence grows, so does the environment around those individuals. Intelligence and environment are relative to each other, and as the environment of an individual grows more and more complex, that individual must learn how to adapt to his or her environment in order to thrive. Think about it: since 1930, not only has literacy risen exponentially, but thanks to the web, we have a seemingly infinite amount of information at our fingertips. We multi-task, and speak in jargon. Our outreach grows more and more expansive everyday. We’ve had to grow more intelligent because our environment is consistently growing more and more complex, and vice versa. We are all bricoleurs, as Claude Levi-Strauss says, craftsmen using the tools available to us to thrive in an ever more complex world. Flynn calls this “equipment.” To throw someone from the 1930s into today’s world would, aside from making a trite movie premise, be like asking a blind man to describe color. By conventional standards, he would be ill-equipped to accomplish such a task.

Speaking of color… To better illustrate the complexity of our world compared to that of the past, let’s look at the work of Homer. In 1858, scholar and future Prime Minister of Great Britain William Gladstone, noticed that Homer had a few turns of phrase which seemed a bit peculiar to modern audiences. One famous example is when describing the ocean, Homer calls it “wine-dark sea.” I’ve only been to the beach a handful of times, and not once did the water look like red wine–and you can rest assured that if it did, I would have stayed comfy and cozy in my air-conditioned hotel, thank you very much. This isn’t the only instance of this kind of strange color description “Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to color are strange. Iron and sheep are violet; honey is green.” Gladstone’s explanation was that colors, as we know them, didn’t exist back in the time of ancient Greece. Blue, as we conceptualize it, didn’t exist. In fact, further academics found that the same is true for all cultures. Of all the colors to be studied, blue is consistently last on the list. The reason for this is that blue, aside from the sky and the sea, maybe a bird here and there (and blue eyes), doesn’t naturally occur often in nature. There was no reason to differentiate blue things from other non-blue things because there were so few of them. If you wanted to something was blue, you could compare it to the sky in spring or the sea on a clear day. The world was not complex enough to need differentiation between blue and non-blue.

Now all of this brings us back to our discussion for class. Taking what Ken Robinson said about learning, about fostering a love of learning, “a curiosity,” we should keep in mind that using the tactics that worked to teach students for past generations, are not always the appropriate tools to teach students today. We have evolved beyond the “traditional” modes of teaching, beyond chalkboards and handwriting. We now live in a multi-modal, ever-changing, ever-consuming, complex society, that is constantly evolving and expanding. Students today use the tools available to them to learn, and those tools are very different than they were 10, 20, 50 years ago and have more untapped potential than ever before. If we are to usher education and pedagogy in the 21 Century and beyond, we need to do so by staying ahead of the game, by learning new trends, new technology, to constantly continue to grow, change, and evolve, alongside our students. Progress only moves in one direction and we have to keep the engine running, otherwise we are all lost in our own “wine-dark sea.”

To check out more on the Flynn Effect here is James Flynn presenting a TED Talk.

To read a rather fascinating article about the color blue in culture, check this out.

And to check out the podcast that sparked this whole post, click on this link. Disclaimer: there is some adult language, as it is a comedy podcast. However, if it is your thing, I recommend checking out more of their episodes.

Connected Learning–From the POV of a skeptic

I come from a small town with limited technological resources, particularly regarding education. Every course, every lecture, was done on PowerPoint or paper handouts which the instructor elaborated on throughout the class period. PowerPoint is a good tool for a lecture–it serves as a way for the lecturer to emphasize certain points throughout the lecture and serves to improve and cater to the audience’s visual literacy, in addition to traditional one-way communication methods (e.g. teacher to classroom of 20+ students). One of the biggest takeaways from this kind of lecture, however, was that, if unfettered or left in the hands of an unenthusiastic professor, these methods fall flat, leaving students frustrated.

In this course, keeping a consistent blog is the primary assignment for each student. And at first I was a skeptic. What do I have to say that is more important than an academic–a so-called-expert in the field of contemporary pedagogy? How are we going to learn if we aren’t given the information we need? Aren’t we all just going to be lost in the wilderness for the next four months? I have no credibility. But here’s the thing: This type of thinking is a byproduct of old-school pedagogy and traditional academic models. People have been learning from the instructor to body of students dynamic for generations. But this is the 21st Century, perhaps it is time to open up our classrooms a little bit, to explore what we each have to contribute to a body of knowledge that is constantly changing, evolving, and expanding.

So, my goal at the end of these 15 weeks is to broaden my horizons, to overcome my biases and move past the following misconceptions:

1.  Technology is scary. I’m not what one would term a techno-wiz. I’m not the person you call to fix your computer (my advice is limited to “Did you turn it off and on again?” “Is it plugged in?” “Um…Control/Alt/Delete, maybe?” and “Throw it out the window and buy another”). This may stem from an overall lack of exposure to technology, and also a discomfort at the association of the technology field’s relationship to mathematics, which has consistently given me nightmares: “OH NO!! Not differential equations!! GAHHHH!!!!” (clutches heart, dies dramatically). But the fact of the matter is that technology, namely the Internet, is a powerful tool that allows for greater inter-connectivity for individuals that is unprecedented.

Scott Rosenberg explains in his Salon article “How Blogs Changed Everything” that the Internet has changed our lives in a fundamental way, more like the telephone than the television. For Rosenberg, the agency of a technology and its ability to permeate our lives in a fundamental way, are the result of how we use it. “Like the telephone before it,” Rosenberg writes, “the Web will be defined by the choices people make as they use it, constrained by — but not determined by — the nature of the technology.” The Internet has integrity when we use it that way and not just as a dispensary for cat photos, pornography, and obnoxious commenters.

2.  Blogs are just online diaries. When blogs first burst on the scene, they had a certain stigma attached to them. It seemed that some people viewed them as personal forums where they could post all of the frivolous details of their lives, like snail photography, or internet stamp collecting. And while these are perfectly fine uses of cyberspace, they may not be the most credible or ambitious. The impetus of the blogosphere is to share a piece of your world with others who have similar interests. The thing is, the same goes for much of academia; it’s all about finding your niche.

Tim Hitchcock talks about this in a post from his academic blog, The Impact Blog at The London School of Economics and Political Science: “The best (and most successful) academics  are the ones who are so caught up in the importance of their work, so caught up with their simple passion for a subject, that they publicize it with every breadth. Twitter and blogs, and embarrassingly enthusiastic drunken conversations at parties, are not add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion that underpins it.” Who is a better expert on your research than you? And it seems against the ethics and principles of the academic community to monopolize your ideas and work for your own personal gain. Why not promote, share, and add to your existing research with the community who can benefit the most from it? This academic sharing contributes to what Rosenberg calls “a new kind of public sphere, at once ephemeral and timeless, sharing the characteristics of conversation and deliberation.”

3.  Technology is killing discourse. Actually, if anything, it is making it grow. When in human history was it as easy to communicate with people, down the street, in the next town over, out of the state, across the country, around the globe? Technology is just the incubator that fosters our fecund impulse to share and consume new information faster and more efficiently than ever before. To dive into the “global academic community” discussion, what is a classroom, but the most basic academic community? It is literally a place designated to make learning happen. We live in a world where the classroom doesn’t have to exist in the traditional brick-and-mortar sense, but through a forum where students and instructors are connected 24/7. Using blogs in an academic setting is a good way to encourage discourse and improve interactive learning.

W. Gardner Campbell contextualizes the use of blogging in the classroom through the framework, “Narrate, Curate, Share.” “Blogs are stories,” Campbell writes, and when put into that context it makes sense that creating a running narrative to not only the content learned in the classroom, but also as a gateway into the learning process in general, suddenly we begin to see the benefits of blogging as an academic tool. Students would then have to “curate” their blogs, meaning they would have to arrange them in a way that is accessible to an audience (much like a museum curator arranges displays for public consumption). This is particularly important because a blog is a public forum. Anyone can see it. If students are told from the beginning that whatever they post will be seen by a public audience, including academics and specialists in the field, suddenly they have to rethink the way they write. They have to take into consideration their audience, how what they write will look like in the eyes of experts and amateurs alike. In the words of Seth Godin “Blogging is free. It doesn’t matter who reads it. What matters is the humility that comes from writing it. What matters is the meta-cognition of thinking about what you are going to say. How do you explain yourself to the few employees or your cat or whoever is going to look at it?” Taken in this context blogging is more than an exercise in frivolity; it becomes a legitimate voice in a field or discourse. Campbell also emphasizes sharing as a crucial part of the process: “Sharing means finding and creating connections. It means creating a ‘serendipity field’ that brings new opportunities for learning and creativity. Don’t just wait for the world to come to you. Look for creative ways to get the word out about your blog, about the blogs in your Colloquium, or your other courses, or your residence hall. Network thyself!” If we look at blogs as a unique personalized space on the web designated for the purpose of learning as a community, then it opens up a new means of conveying and consuming information created exclusively for the Internet Age.

Ok, so I won’t say that I’m a complete convert just yet, but I am keeping an opening mind and being more and more convinced as my exposure to the idea of incorporating a blog into the classroom is increased. Let’s all take this opportunity and dive in. Who knows what we can do together?

Works Cited

Campbell, W. Gardner. “Narrate, Curate, Share: How Blogging Can Catalyze Learning” CampusTechnology.com. Public Sector Media Group, 10 August 2011. Web.  25 January 2016.

Hitchcock, Tim. “Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research…” TheImpactBlog.com. LSE Impact of Social Sciences, 2015. Web. 25 January 2016.

Innerpreneur. “Seth Godin and Tom Peters on blogging.” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, 18 April 2009. Web. 25 January 2016.

Rosenberg, Scott. “How Blogs Changed Everything.” Salon.com. Salon Media Group Inc., 6 July 2009. Web. 25 January 2016.