Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

By Michael Bennett

One of the things radical teachers do is ask our students and ourselves to think about how issues, texts, “facts,” and artifacts are framed.  When we get fancy, we might ask how socio-political and cultural apparatuses deploy dominant discourses that provide ideological cover for inequitable power relations.  When we are less high falutin, we are asking what gets left out of the picture and why.

In this instance, I want to ask about a literal picture: the Academy Award-winning film The Artist.  After viewing the film, a friend and I had a heated discussion (as we often do; we argue passionately about any and everything).  She focused on the charming content of the film; I couldn’t let go of what seemed rather sinister messages lurking just outside the frame.  I’m curious to know what others think. I suspect the discussion could provide a useful teaching tool for thinking about issues of framing and ideology.



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By Richard Ohmann
“Devote one hour each semester in every course to discussing the status and character of campus labor.  These issues are relevant to every discipline and every subject, no matter what the catalog course description says or what conservative polemicists claim.  The AAUP’s 2007 statement Freedom in the Classroom helps define your rights as a teacher.”
–Cary Nelson, “A Faculty Agenda for Hard Times,” Academe Online
This is #17 of Nelson’s 30 suggestions for improving our weakened profession.  (He is President of the AAUP.)  Good idea.  The condition of campus labor has a legitimate place in class discussion, whether the subject of the course is Intermediate Italian or Intro to Macroeconomics.  If I were still teaching, I’d try to pick up on Nelson’s suggestion.  But how would I use that hour, in my imagined literature class at Wesleyan?  Gwendolyn Bradley asks a similar question in a note on the Academe blog, “Talking to Students About Working Conditions”:  “Readers, do you find that your students are aware of the facts of faculty employment and working conditions–including poverty wages and lack of academic freedom protections for many faculty?”
Many of my students were on their way to professional careers.  Almost all of them thought their intelligence and creativity should be allowed to flourish–and of course be well compensated–in jobs granting them freedom to conceptualize tasks, not just execute orders from bosses.  If I had a group of those students today, and if they did not know that 70% of university teachers are now pieceworkers on “poverty wages,” did not know how the labor of those teachers is being broken up into scientifically managed fragments, did not know that adjuncts have little control over their work, did not know that those teachers could be fired any time for stepping out of line or offending a student–such revelations would be shocking and also personally discouraging.
But if I were adjuncting at a community college or a for-profit, would revelations like these stir a similar reaction among my students? Can we expect students who have suffered “the hidden injuries of class,” but never glimpsed professional futures for themselves (as did the subjects of Richard Sennett’s book by that title), to identify with highly educated teachers suffering the degradation of a profession?  The commercializing of higher education may seem an outrage to people in or entering the professional-managerial class, but plenty of other people see this shift as promoting access to college and efficiency in matching curriculum to future work–not to mention as a suitable rebuke to privileged elites like me and many of you.  How would you set up your hour of talk on campus labor, with those students?  I think I’d ready myself for some serious disagreements about work, education, and class.  I like Cary Nelson’s proposal, but wouldn’t expect instant solidarity–much less rage at capital–to come out of that hour.

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By Jacqueline Brady

Often when we write about our teaching, we discuss what works well in the classroom. Today, however, I want to reveal a consistent problem, a disappointment really, that I have encountered when using documentaries in my basic writing classes at Kingsborough Community College: Too often when I screen documentary films in class, my basic writers fall asleep or otherwise disengage from the viewing experience in some obvious manner.

At first glance, this problem might seem pretty mundane. After all, my students lead tiring lives and probably do need a chance to rest.  But I don’t want to let my students off the hook so easily, particularly when I see that they have endless energy for other challenging aspects of my class. And I find it depressing that so many of my basic writing students seemingly cannot stay focused on a 90-minute documentary that directly connects to their writing assignment.

In particular, I am thinking of students in my English 92 writing course.  Over the past three years, my English 92 has been linked with an early American history course.  I work closely with the instructor of that course and we share one major writing/research assignment in a unit focused on slavery.  For this unit, students are required to write a paper in which they design a museum of U.S. Slavery, explaining what historical content their museum will include and why.  To reinforce the historical themes that my linking partner teaches, and to give examples of how these historical themes might be represented visually in a museum, I show “Traces of Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” Katrina Browne’s documentary about coming to terms with her heritage as a descendent of the largest slave trading family in the U.S.

I naively and repeatedly show this documentary to my 92’s with the assumption that my students will eagerly engage it, not only because it offers such a unique perspective, but also because it so clearly reinforces aspects of the high stakes writing assignment described above, which counts towards grades in both my writing class and their history course. I also assume that my students will appreciate the opportunity to watch a documentary as a break from the other kinds of demanding reading and writing work that we do everyday in class. For these reasons, it is always surprising to me how many students do not (cannot?) stay focused during the film. In most cases, they simply fall asleep. And if they don’t snooze with their heads on their desks, they show other signs of acute distraction–texting, leaving the room, studying for other classes, etc.

It is easy to discern the most obvious reason why my students may find this specific film boring: Traces of the Trade is largely about the history and guilt of rich white people.  But I have seen my students react in a similarly sleepy fashion to several documentaries that connect more closely to their own lives. This includes RIZE, David LaChapelle’s exciting documentary about Krump and Clown dancers, two youth subcultures in South Central L.A.
The repeated experience of seeing basic writers fall asleep during screenings of documentary films leads me to believe that it is not so much the topic of the documentaries that alienates my students, but rather the form itself that puts them off.  I really don’t want to give up on documentaries as an effective teaching tool, but I have yet to find a solution to this problem beyond 1) explaining beforehand that documentaries offer a different viewing experience from movies with clear story lines and 2) requiring that students take notes because they will have a quiz on the film after watching it.

And so, gentle radical readers, I’d like to turn these questions over to you: What experiences have you had when screening documentaries in your classes? And what ideas do you have about how to teach documentaries effectively?

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By Louis Kampf

“Do you miss teaching?” That’s what people ask, almost invariably, when they hear that I’m retired. This has been going on since I quit 15 years ago at age 67.

Usually I hesitate before responding. Why the hesitation?

I enjoyed teaching, and was very good at it. That sounds immodest, but I assure the reader that it’s true. Former students still write that the courses I taught strongly influenced, in a positive way, the direction of their lives. Of course, this makes me feel good. Yet I retired voluntarily at an age when I was still learning, still getting excellent evaluations, looking forward to meeting my classes.

Why? For one thing I discovered that my pension would be larger than the salary I was collecting at the time. Less crass, I considered that old age was creeping up on me. I did not want to spend another minute, hour, day of my life sitting through a boring and inane department or committee meeting. That’s too mildly put. The crap being parsed with exquisite logic and illogic numbed my senses. “What am I doing here?” I kept asking myself. Is this the life-affirming vocation I have chosen? Others must know the feeling. Yet the teaching was not ruined by these sour feelings.

So I hesitate before responding to the question at the top. “NO,” firmly put, is my answer. “Not at all?” most people ask. “No, not at all.”

I wonder whether anyone believes me. Surely, I must be masking my real feelings. Perhaps. I haven’t seen a shrink about it. But I’m pretty sure that I’m not kidding myself.

If anyone reads this, especially  retired teachers, what are your thoughts? There are probably studies in the works about these matters. Meanwhile, let’s start our own study (support group?) on this blog page.

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By Leonard Vogt

Yesterday I returned to teaching after four years of retirement.  I am teaching two sections of Writing Through Literature and using the excellent anthology Literature and Society (editors Pamela Annas and Robert C. Rosen, both of the Radical Teacher collective) which groups the literary genres of poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction under such themes as Money and Work, War and Peace, and Varieties of Protest, making it considerably easier to teach literature from a progressive left prospective.

Not having taught this course in well over fifteen years, I am curious if or how the political understanding of my students may or may not have changed over the past decade and a half.  I have one particular memory of my earlier experience teaching this course and using the first edition of this anthology (it is now in the fourth edition).

I was teaching B. Traven’s short story “Assembly Line” which is about a New York businessman who is visiting Mexico and finds a peasant craftsman who can make baskets which have the exact same design both inside and outside the basket.  The New Yorker immediately recognizes the beauty of and the possibilities for making a tremendous profit from such a craft and asks the peasant if he would be willing to make large numbers of the basket which he eventually decides to do for a small profit, although nothing compared to the vastly larger profit the businessman will make reselling the baskets at some crafts fair in New York.  One of the study questions accompanying the story asked what the students felt about the “exploitation” of the Mexican peasant by the New York businessmen.  To my surprise, about half the class did not feel that the arrangement struck between the craftsman and the salesman was “exploitation” because the peasant agrees to the terms.  I was shocked and kept going over the percentage of profit (something like 100 percent) and the difference in business sophistication between the two parties.  Nonetheless, half of my class continued to argue that no “exploitation” can occur if there is agreement.  In exasperation, I asked the class what their majors were. To a person, the students who felt no exploitation occurred in the story were Business majors.  All the other students who agreed that exploitation occurred were Liberal Arts majors.  Draw your own conclusions and share them with me.

When I get to “Assembly Line” this semester and use the same study question again, I wonder if there will be any change in the students’ understanding of “exploitation,” given that these last fifteen years of economic struggles have given the word an even more relevant and pervasive meaning.  I’ll let you know on my next blog.

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By Linda Dittmar

The current protest movement in Israel—similar to but also different than from the much more urgent, anguished, and even bloody revolutions now sweeping the Arab world—brings into focus for me a dilemma that affects my teaching. For the protesters the question is whether to “depoliticize” the mass movement in order to draw in as many people as possible by focusing on broadly shared civic demands: housing, healthcare, and education. This strategy assumes that once you get people active in one cause they may expand their activism to causes that previously seemed out of bounds, notably Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its abuse of Palestinians’ human and citizen rights. The alternative option would be to further “politicize” the current protest by exposing ways the struggle for internal welfare is inextricable from the politics and economics of occupation, war, and racism. The first option speaks to the frustration and needs of a broad spectrum of Israelis, fudging unresolved issues concerning Jewish ethnicities, Israeli Palestinians, “guest” workers, sex and gender minorities, religious identities, and social class. The second option is more challenging and uncomfortable to many protesters. By confronting Israel’s long-term politics regarding the Palestinian people it stands to lose popular support.

Radicals of all stripes have been facing variants of this problem repeatedly. It’s the strategic tension between an elite vanguard and inclusive compromises. We, educators, have our own little niche within this debate: should we soften the political edge of what we teach in order to reach as many students as possible, or should we be explicitly committed to the logic of our convictions and risk losing students (and sometimes even jobs) along the way? Of course it’s not as crudely either/or as I suggest here. It’s a matter of gradations, flexibility, and improvisation.

My new course on Israeli and Palestinian fiction is now on my mind in this connection as students’ stakes and perspectives on such a course vary. My initial challenge was to design a syllabus based on materials that are a priori not neutral. What to select and how to sequence the readings over the semester is already a charged question. The second challenge is how to work with this contentious material in class. Here, too, my choice is between politically diffuse teaching that creates a foothold for as many students as possible versus taking a more incisive political position that risks pushing some students away. This is the counterpart to Matt Brown’s discussion (in Radical Teacher #82.on postcolonialism) of teaching “the difficult text,” except his challenge is teaching “high” theory while mine is the emotional impact of teaching politically charged material.

My palliative is a teaching style that is attentive, empathetic, and flexible. I do not ram ideas down people’s throats and I try to give as much space for objecting and debating as anybody will use. It seemed to have worked well in my forty years of teaching. My comfort zone was rarely disturbed by dramatic challenges, and those that did occur—only two students come to mind, among thousands—were too off-the-wall to matter. But in one such class, as congenial as ever, two students nodded in wincing recognition when I happened to note in passing that students on the Right—the moderate right, hardly extreme—don’t feel comfortable voicing their views in our urban, commuting, liberal, East Coast classrooms.

This response, together with my embarking now on a contentious course, has me head in the direction of worried anticipation of what may surface in my current class and the unalleviated effort it will take to navigate our material. I am thinking yet again about ways over-determined texts can affect classroom dynamics and create conflictual situations. Some of you may in fact face more challenging pressures that I do. Because Radical Teacher does not seem to get many submissions that address this question squarely, and because I myself don’t have an answer beyond improvising case by case, can we hear from you, readers?

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