Sunday, June 5, 2016

What I've learned about teaching from Jazzercise

Had I not gotten my current postdoctoral position and ended up staying in Baton Rouge another year, I was going to train to be a Jazzercise instructor.* I'm good at picking up choreography, and I'm quite enthusiastic about the music-fueled workouts. Even before I considered teaching Jazzercise, I occasionally thought about teaching while working out.

For one thing, it is a class--a group of participants learning steps and movements from the teacher on stage. The teacher knows more than most of the students--she's gone through specialized training about anatomy and exercise science and CPR, and knows how what we're doing is supposed to work. Her first big challenge is to convey enough information in a short space of time--posture, movement, what we're supposed to be focusing on--without giving out so much information that we're confused, or it gets in the way of actually enjoying the movement. Because Jazzercise is, generally, supposed to be fun. Despite--and perhaps because of--the challenge of it.

This is a big challenge for me, figuring out the balance of how much is enough. It's so tempting when planning syllabi and lessons, to want to cram all of the cool stuff I know into class. I try to approach it like packing for a trip, for which I have a similar mentality. First, I pull out all of the stuff I want to take. Then I think about the actual needs--objectives, OUTCOMES--of the trip/class/day in class, and try to pare down so that I'm focused on those needs. With a few backup items, to be sure, because you never know if it might heatwave/button fall off/AV equipment fail. But there's a balance to be found in planning for what's enough.

In Jazzercise, I also learned just how important the teacher's attitude is. If the teacher seemed insecure, I'd just kind of feel bad. The teachers whose classes I got the most out of were enthusiastic to the point of silliness at times. In Jazzercise, it's easy for students--especially new ones--to be self-conscious about looking dumb in front of the rest of the class. If the teacher's willing to be a bit ridiculous herself, I think it can make the students a bit more comfortable trying stuff out themselves. Creating a space where it's okay to be a bit ridiculous--and play--can make for a more engaged class.

This is certainly my teaching persona. I am under no illusions that I'm cool--and I'm frankly not interested in being my students' friend. I think there's a way to make that a pedagogical strategy, but it's not mine. Rather, I let loose with my enthusiasm, even if I do look a bit ridiculous a times (say, when having students read aloud from As I Lay Dying). They key, though, is that it's genuine enthusiasm--I do genuinely swoon at the line, "How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home." Students see me being dorky, they might feel a little more comfortable expressing their own responses. Further, the more I teach, the more important fostering a sense of play in my classroom is to me. Having taught an FYC class on the Maker Movement several times now, I realize more and more how crucial a sense of play is to learning and innovation, to being open to new ideas.

However, there were days when just making it to Jazzercise was the accomplishment--I had no energy to spare for going "woo" in response to the teacher, or adding any extra flourishes to my dance moves, or going for the heavier weights. The best teachers would be okay with that, okay with different students working at whatever level they were comfortable with. In fact, Jazzercise teachers are supposed to offer modifications for different levels of fitness--showing both high and low impact variations, for example. I think there's already a lot of thought about how to reach students in the classroom who are at different levels of achievement, and I certainly try to be cognizant of this in my own teaching.

Some teachers, though, would seem to take it personally, and single out individuals to try to encourage more engagement. I often felt resentful about this--some days I wasn't wooing because I was getting over a cold, and if I wooed, it would have triggered a coughing fit. Some days I was drowning in grief, and needed the workout to get my out off my head for an hour. Those days, I usually didn't care if I hurt the teacher's feelings--I was only capable of doing what I was capable of doing.

And that, I think, is an underappreciated aspect of teaching--that our students (and ourselves) are human beings with outside lives. While some of my students do confide in me, I realize that I have no idea what they're dealing with--nor do they know of what's going on in mine, generally. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, while I'm not interested in being the "cool" teacher, neither am I interested in being a maternal one, either. That's another persona that works for some, but not for me. 

On the other hand,part of fostering the kind of engaged classroom community that I'm dedicated to involves including the whole person--myself as well as my students. So I am aware of trying to bring my whole self to the classroom--whether that self is excited about the reading, has a headache from the weather, or is sad because David Bowie died. And I'm cool with students occasionally getting off task in class if it means making more of themselves present, rather than less. I'm cool with students sharing that they got a good grade on a hard test, or saw an excellent movie--that brings them more fully into the community. Spending class time working on homework for another class, that takes them away.

And finally, Jazzercise has taught me that movement is necessary. I think it's good to get students up and moving around--perhaps not doing chasse's across the room (although you never know), but working with their hands, interacting with other students, writing on whiteboards, seeing the class from a literally different point of view. One of my goals this summer is to think about the literal space of the classroom--what else can I learn about movement and space in my teaching?

*Yes, Jazzercise still exists--it's evolved since they 80s, no one wears leotards, and it's an amazing workout. Check it out yourself if you doubt me!

Thursday, May 26, 2016


Below are CFPs for two panels at this year's South Atlantic Modern Language Association's conference in Jacksonville, Florida. Please circulate widely, and send me a proposal!

CFP Reminder—Abortion: The Stories We Tell
SAMLA 2016-Women’s Studies A
In the introduction to Katha Pollitt’s 2014 monograph Pro, the author expresses her regret that her own mother never told her about having had an abortion: “Knowing about her abortion might have helped me. It might have given me a truer sense of life as a young, very romantic woman who had no idea what was what.” (1-2). What are the stories we tell about abortion? For this panel, we are seeking proposals that consider the role of narrative in contemporary portrayals of abortion. Analyses of a variety of media are welcome, from literature to film to web sources. 

Please submit a 300-400 word abstract and one-page CV to Monica Miller ( by Friday, June 3, 2016.

CFP--Utopia/Dystopia: Wharton’s Land of Letters
Edith Wharton Society
SAMLA 2016—Jacksonville, Florida
Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia has stimulated a range of genre-crossing, scholarly conversations. In this panel, we wish to consider Wharton’s work within the context of these continuing conversations. Is Wharton’s Land of Letters a type of utopia? How does her work speak to the thread of feminist thinking exemplified by later works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which dystopia dramatizes societal limits on women? How does Wharton’s work speak to late nineteenth-century utopian theorists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman?
We welcome historical, political, ecological, feminist, and other readings of Wharton’s voice in the centuries-long conversation around utopian and dystopian perspectives. Please submit a 300-400 word abstract and one page CV to Monica Miller at by June 3.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

My Teaching Informs My Research...

The Professor Is In now says that this phrase has been overused to death. And while there have been times that teaching has inspired my research--teaching The Secret History and Flannery O'Connor's work together, for example, inspired a conference paper--generally the expectation with literature is that you teach things based on your current work, in order to spend more time with those texts in general.

Nevertheless, as I'm thinking through my new teaching statement, I'm struck by this statement in "Towards Desegregating Syllabuses: Teaching American Literary Realism and Racial Uplift Fiction" by Michele Birnbaum, that her essay assumes that "teaching is not simply the effluvia of research. In fact, we must consider the classroom as the source rather than the aftermath of critical practice."(1)

What does this mean, that teaching is not simply the effluvia of research? What happens if we consider the classroom the source of critical practice? I'm going to ponder this further, but I welcome comments here.

(1) Birnbaum, Michele. "Towards Desegregating Syllabuses: Teaching American Literary Realism and Racial Uplift Fiction." Teaching Literature: A Companion. Ed. Tanya Agathocleous and Ann C. Dean. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Teaching Philosophy

The fatigue I feel at the end of the semester makes me impatient. And while I try to have patience with my impatience--realizing that when something sets me off, that perhaps I might be over-reacting and might need a nap or a hike or to plant something in dirt--I think it's also useful to observe what sets me off, as it might be instructive.

One thing that's irked me for years now is when someone questions my credentials or ability to teach something. As someone who works on southern women writers, I've had my ability to teach America literature questioned. As someone whose PhD is in literary studies (as well as women's & gender studies), I've had my ability to teach composition questioned. And as someone who includes literature in composition classes, I've had my pedagogical strategies, motivations, and intentions questioned.

Part of the problem is that, regardless of your research interests, if you go to graduate school in anything vaguely English-related, you're going to teach composition. And in many places, teaching composition is not the most enjoyable teaching. It's grading-intensive, and as it often is a first year, core curriculum class, it often ends up being as much about how to do college as it is about how to determine rhetorical strategies. So, in graduate school, we get the message loud and clear that teaching comp is low status work that we should try to get out of.

However, that's not the only reason that grad students try to get out of teaching comp. An important reason to try to get other teaching experience is the realities of the job market. If you are an American literature person, and you want an American literature position, you need to have on your CV that you've taught American literature. Which then perpetuates the low status of comp classes, as grad students feel that they must compete in order to earn the privilege of teaching literature classes. Composition is for losers.*

Because grad students--regardless of their research focus--are expected to teach composition, that is what they're trained in. In both of my graduate programs, there was extensive focus on composition pedagogy. When it comes to teaching literature, however, pedagogical training was nearly non-existent.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. First, a lot of pedagogical philosophy is transferable between disciplines. Regardless of what I'm teaching, my pedagogical first principles are analysis and engagement. Classroom management, academic research, scaffolded student collaborations--these are priorities in all of my classes.

More importantly, however, is the scarcity of literature classes available for grad students. If anyone admitted doubt about knowing how to teach a literature class, there are plenty of people who would claim to be able to do so. Having been a student in so many undergraduate and graduate literature classes, surely it's easy to go from being a student to being a teacher?

I don't think so. I've spent a lot of time reading what I have found on teaching literature (which hasn't seemed nearly as prolific a field as that about teaching composition) and consulting with colleagues about their own best practices. For me, I've articulated for myself the differences between teaching literature in a FYC class versus in a literature class (which will be the topic of a future blog (spoiler alert: the key is "outcomes")).

I'm writing this and posting this in part to jump-start my blog-writing again, as well as to start thinking through and reflecting in writing what I have learned about teaching, especially the last two years as a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow. One primary goal this summer is to re-write my teaching philosophy, and I plan to use this blog as a place to work that out. I hope some people will follow along and even chime in with ideas and feedback along the way.

*This isn't my actual opinion--particularly in the postdoctoral program I'm currently in, which is  focused on multimodal composition, digital pedagogy, and encourages experimentation and collaboration both in and out of the classroom, I have found that teaching composition can be a challenging, rewarding, and enjoyable (more on that coming soon, too).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Job season! Wabbit season!

I'm trying to frontload as much of the job market work now, so when the applications start coming due in earnest, most of the heavy lifting is already done. To be honest, I've already sent off two applications (!), and there's a decent batch with a 10/15 deadline--so all of this isn't actually all that in advance.

I did revise my job documents pretty substantially this year, to reflect the changes in my teaching that a result of my Brittain Postdoctoral Fellowship, as well as my new position this year as the Assistant Director of the Writing and Communication Program. While I was making this big push for new materials, I bit the bullet and made myself a website to collect all of my job materials. Rather than relying on, which I've been using for several years now, I decided that I wanted my own dedicated web space that I could fully populate the way that I wanted it. has made changes to their website so that it looks more like Facebook. I wanted the content on my primary web presence to be more clearly organized.

Making the website has been quite a learning experience. Not the actual really is user friendly--but in writing introductory text, revising my teaching philosophy, and considering what to include, I had to do some thinking about how I wanted to frame all of the content. Just coming up with a couple of sentences to put on the landing page for my teaching section--it's quite a writing challenge to come up with two sentences with which to introduce my teaching!

I continue to tweak design, alignment, and other small things, and I need more visual elements on the pages, but in general, I'm pretty pleased with the website. I'm very curious to see how much traffic I get, and how useful it ends up being during this job season.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Argument Fallacy Day!

At this point in my teaching career, I have a number of dedicated days I really enjoy. Minor Threat Day, in my maker culture class--especially if I've got an 8am class at which to blast "Straight Edge." Or Play Day, another first year composition fun day.

Both of these days are rather recent additions to my teaching arsenal, added during this past year as a Brittain Fellow, as I've incorporated more multi-modality to my classes. However, there are some activities which I've pretty much consistently relied upon since I began teaching--and among these, Argument Fallacy Day is one of my favorites.

As I explained in the blog post about Play Day, I use Argument Fallacy Day at the beginning of the group project unit in my first year composition class. The major project in this unit is a group manifesto, in which students compose manifestos arguing for the application of maker culture principles to the classroom.* I use Argument Fallacy Day to introduce the students to working in their groups, with the low stakes of a classwork grade to give them practice in working with each other.

For one class period, students are assigned a reading about argument fallacies. In the past, I've relied upon textbook readings for this; this semester, I assigned this reading from the Purdue OWL site. We go over a basic set of fallacies, and then each group is assigned a fallacy. (I start by asking for volunteers--there are usually a couple of people or groups who have a strong preference, and then the others take what's left.) They spend the rest of the class period coming up with a 3-5 minute skit that demonstrates the fallacy.

The next class period they perform the skits. They're so much fun! Even the reluctant performers usually get into the spirit of the day--and the relaxed class period is a nice change of pace. Other than the time parameters, I don't give any other restrictions, other than the work should be appropriate for the classroom. I've had some wonderfully memorable skits--from a Charlie Sheen Twitter feed announcing his run for President, Miley Cyrus lecturing on the environment, and a slippery slope argument that legalized marijuana will lead to both the Zombie Apocalypse as well as Donald Trump winning the Presidency (both presented as equally terrifying).

My current teaching interest is on the role of play in the college classroom. Incorporating these fun, low-stakes assignments as part of larger projects encourages students to be more open to creative solutions in their work. By beginning a major group project with a fun assignment, my intention is to make group projects--loathed by many students and instructors alike--a less onerous prospect. Group projects and committee work is nearly unavoidable in almost any line of work, and it's important to me that students have positive group experiences. With Argument Fallacy Day, I try to not only teach about argument and logic, but also how to work well with others.

*I'll say more about this assignment in a future blog post.

Monday, September 14, 2015

In Defense of the Irritated Young Woman

Check out my new post on the Flannery O'Connor Society's webpage--what teaching Flannery O'Connor's works at a tech school has taught me about her characters as role models.