Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Confessions of a Teenage Libertarian

College is a time of experimentation. Some people try drugs. Some experiment with identities: sexual, political, spiritual. Some find atheism; others, Buddhism, or Wicca, or the Gnostic Gospels. Like any time of maturation, there’s a lot of awkward experimentation with success and failure. Like a toddler learning to walk, it often begins with a lot of mimicking what’s been seen, without regard for how walking actually works for a toddler body. Then some actual experimentation happens, with some delight in absolute failure, like a cat knocking trinkets off a table for the joy in watching gravity do its thing. Along with actual growth, as standing, then cruising, the walking eventually happens.
I now cringe when I think of my 18-year-old self in a college classroom, under the spell of Objectivism, arguing for the merits of selfishness as a basis for morality. Or being rudely evangelical about atheism. But I also see these obnoxious phases as important points in the development of my critical thinking skills, in my individuation process, in my learning first to identify the values I’d been taught or picked up via osmosis, and then learning how to question these assumptions. Twenty-five years later, the assumptions I make about the world around me are certainly more carefully considered than they were then, and I hope I’m more open to questioning and change than I was at 18. I think I have better questions now, and better answers. But my goal is to keep trying to improve, both my answers and my questions.

I try to remember this learning process as a teacher when I encounter students who confidently announce that sexism no longer exists, or attempt to make jokes about the homeless in their essays. I’m not privy to where they are on their learning curve—they may be repeating what they heard their parents say (as I did on a fourth-grade test asking what MARTA was an acronym for. At least I knew enough to replace “Africans” with “Americans” in my answer.). Or they may be continuing thoughts begun in late-night dorm conversations. Or they may be completely making it up as they go along.

I’m thinking now about a student I had once who—during a class discussion about Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—offered that, in Charleston, slavery was a good job opportunity for the enslaved, according to a docent at the Daughters of the Confederacy museum. Or the student who wrote an essay arguing that we should feel sympathy for the husband in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Or the student who got mad that he was expected to know that “retard” was an inappropriate word to use in an essay. As a human being, I wanted to ask, “Are you crazy?” As a teacher, however, that wouldn’t have been the most useful response.

It’s my job to provide access to historical accounts of events, and to correct errors in knowledge. It’s my job to explain argument fallacies and discursive conventions, and give strategies for identifying them in readings and avoiding them in writing. It’s my job to teach verification of source credibility, and to provide practice in analyzing the validity of sources as well as the rhetorical situation of various sources. It’s my job to provide models of compelling and eloquent argument and analysis, and to coach my students through achieving success in articulating their own arguments and analysis.

It’s not my job to tell them what that argument should be. I can ask that they address opposing viewpoints they may not know about. I can point out gaps in reasoning, argument fallacies, and non-credible evidence. I can also ask them to articulate their purpose, their message, their intended audience, and the strategies they used to convey this. I can also articulate my own understanding of our shared rhetorical situation pointing out aspects of, say, the audience that they might not be aware of (the likelihood of students who are not straight, not cis-gendered, not Christian, not affluent, to give a few examples), and how it’s important to keep such things in mind when one is trying to communicate to a heterogenous audience.

Still. I share the frustration and fear of many of my academic colleagues, as we find ourselves faced with the challenge of teaching in the ways I’ve described in an era which many now characterized as “post-truth.” Can we fault our students for lacking evidence in their classwork when such standards in public seem to have been eviscerated? 

Of course we can. But I feel that onus is on us even more so now—not to convince students to share our own political leanings, but to be more aware of our own audience of students. Teaching is communication, and it has a rhetorical situation of which we should be cognizant. And it’s even more important now for us to be aware of our purpose in the classroom and the most persuasive means with which to accompany these purposes. If the purpose of a liberal arts education is to develop the intellectual capacities of the whole human being, then we must figure out the most effective methods to achieve this.

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.