Notes on Writing Across the Curriculum at BLSCI

This piece serves as a reflection and elaboration of my current work as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellow at BLSCI. I would say that the WAC principle of scaffolding assignments in the classroom—that is, breaking work into smaller, skills-specific exercises that link together as a meaningful whole—holds true for developing and rethinking curricula. During this academic year, I navigated the various (and exciting) pedagogical initiatives at BLSCI by identifying a small set of questions to think about across different contexts and learning communities (i.e., faculty members as a group, one-on-one development with a professor over a semester, one-on-one sessions with students, in-class workshops). Specifically, my inquiries and energies were directed towards experimenting with ways to get CUNY undergraduates to simultaneously synthesize course content while exercising a skill that develops and sustains their individual, intellectual interests. This is an extension of what I try to do with students who work with me: students simultaneously rehearse the skills of the discipline and (ideally) gain familiarity with practices that would encourage them to continue producing knowledge that’s meaningful to them, beyond the space and time of a class. What follows, I hope, is a contribution to the ongoing conversations that my BLSCI colleagues have maintained—conversations that inspire me to actively integrate into my own work the value of syncing the uniqueness of one’s voice with a personal commitment to a learning community.

 1. FACULTY DEVELOPMENT

I helped facilitate the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable in October 2013. Professor Louise Klusek and Professor Stephen Francoeur led an informative discussion on how to teach undergraduates the structure of and the various approaches to academic research. They illustrated the importance of stressing to undergraduates that academic research is an exercise of multiple skills over a period of time. For example: strategically identifying keywords, locating the proper databases, evaluating the quality of sources, and synthesizing those sources are all constitutive of the research process. The roundtable discussion left me with this question: how do we get students to creatively, critically engage the source materials of their chosen discipline, whether that may be a passage in a novel or a set of numerical data? This inquiry became the motivation behind my pitch for the “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable.

The “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable, which I co-ran with Professor Bill Ferns about a month ago, is informed by my experience as a student and instructor at CUNY. I developed variations of teaching a tripartite structure to critical thinking. The three parts include: a claim, evidence to support the claim, a narration of how the selected evidence relates to the claim (the analysis). This is a version of my own approach to research writing and it is an approach that I learned from reading Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations before I started my doctoral studies.

I developed “Writing About Numbers” from my experience in teaching content-heavy courses while modeling for students techniques of argumentation. During class, I frequently ask students to engage directly with the course content, the evidence if you will, and then we build claims together based on an assessment of the evidence (i.e., its textures, effects, and utilities). The evidence and methodology varies from discipline to discipline, but there is an obvious overlap between the disciplines: a shared value of teaching our chosen discipline’s techniques of synthesis and critical thinking. My sense that writing and mathematical reasoning as mutually reinforcing skills comes out of this notion and Toby Fulwiler’s observation that: “Writing and arithmetic provide general tools for manipulating and expressing ideas and information.” The citation for this source and the outline of my presentation can be found here.

Working and co-presenting with Professor Ferns has been generative, especially in opening up a conversation about how instructors can guide students in clearly narrating and effectively visualizing data through communicative models (i.e., graphs, maps, charts).

 2. FACULTY SUPPORT

I provide support and collaborate with faculty in developing writing assignments for their courses. In the fall, I helped a Great Works instructor in preparing students for their term papers. I gave an in-class workshop on how to draft for papers on literature.

I’m currently working with David Gruber, who is a professor of Biology and Environmental Science, and we’re collaborating on scaffolding a few assignments that relate to symbiosis and microbes for his upper-level course “Microbial Ecology.” Two weeks ago, to prepare students for their final research project, I gave an in-class workshop where students and I discussed the structure of scientific prose. Professor Gruber had assigned a chapter from Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters. Microbe Hunters is a stylishly-written, narrative-driven popular press book and I walked students through a conversation about how de Kruif’s style is reflective of his research content. We talked about writing to different audiences. We also discussed how to strategically position, and reposition, the topic of a research paper in order to develop ideas. George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan’s “The Science of Scientific Writing” was instrumental in my framing of the workshop.

3. STUDENT SUPPORT

Throughout this academic year, I meet with students for one-on-one sessions.  For an hour, I work with a student on an assignment from their Great Works course. These sessions are incredibly instructive in getting me to think about my own pedagogy. Because I frequently work with faculty at Baruch, these sessions serve as a reminder that each student’s learning process is characterized by a different set of particularities and struggles.

These sessions give me a sense of what works (and what doesn’t work) when creating an assignment or essay prompt (specifically in how questions or prompts are framed). Additionally, last semester, when I joined BLSCI Director Suzanne Epstein for a grading session of student writings in aggregate, it was useful to think about my sessions with individual students in connection to Baruch’s English Department’s rubric and standards.

4. BLOG WRITING (AS PROCESS, PEDAGOGY, AND SCHOLARSHIP)

I’ll write more about this in my final post for this semester, but for now I just want to note that participating in the ongoing conversations at BLSCI has pushed me to think more broadly about public humanities, the various genres of scholarly labor, and the technologies that shape those forms of scholarly labor. In particular, I’ve been thinking through Tressie McMillan Cottom’s blog and Brooklyn College’s Professor Corey Robins’ piece on Aljazeera.

Teaching Queer Language/Queer Language Teaching

I have been teaching Italian for nearly ten years now and have never come out to my students. For some reason the words “I’m queer” never seem to come up when we are conjugating verbs or figuring out how to use direct object pronouns with the present perfect of transitive verbs. After class last week a student in my Italian 300 advanced contemporary culture class came up to me and said that he had never been in a class where the students were encouraged to play with the messiness of ideas and language, that especially in his language classes, instructors are quick to fill in the blanks with unknown vocabulary words or spell out “correct” ways of reading and interpreting. I realized that while my sexual and gender identities never necessarily make it to the blackboard, I am attempting to queer the space of the classroom and the approach to self-expression in language learning in a way that acknowledges the power of the form in order to push past it.

On the one hand the “straight” is a strict adherence to semantic and lexical structures and carries, especially among academics, a certain level of moral rectitude.

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The queer, on the other hand, is the messiness of the relationship between the idea and its expression, favors the investigation of possibility within word choice, neologism, structure and gender. Linguistic queerness in thus the spectrum of possible forms of expression that are produced by and through queer as a theoretical concept and not a sexual or gender identity.

While comprehension is always a goal, queer language is most interested in the speaker’s negotiation with the unstable self. From a Lacanian perspective we might say that the child had entered the social linguistic realm of the father (in his primary language) but has pushed passed this realm in search of another secondary language/father. (Does the primary language then become the mother in the triangle of self-formation? Is the symbolic world of the phallus a transsexual woman once the child seeks another phallic signifier? Or is it perhaps that the child has two daddies?) The instability of the self within this new space mirrors the instability of the prelinguistic child. There is no unity of self, there is no participation in the social order; there are ideas, their relationship to structures, and a space for play and experimentation.

This idea of play, of messy self-investigation through uncertain language must of course present itself very differently in an elementary language class where students are just learning the fundamental structures of language. The first step in any good coming out story is recognition, and language queers should be no different. Recognizing how political the gendered nature of the Italian language is (The feminine noun “casalinga” means housewife while the masculine noun “casalingo” means household product and not househusband) creates an awareness of language as a political tool and cultural construct. The errors that students make in elementary classes (“mangio tutti” = I eat everyone ≠ “mangio tutto” = I eat everything) should be discussed and “corrected” in a way that emphasizes the difference between the intention of the speaker and the meaning as perceived by the listener. What I am arguing here is that queer potential exists both in understanding the political constraints of the gendered nature of words and language use, and in refusing to participate in the rigidity of lexical correctness as long as the linguistic work that is done centers around the learner’s use and meaning.

In advanced language and culture classes (conducted entirely in the “target” language) the material is often taken from primary historical sources. At this point the basic and intermediate grammatical structures are taken for granted and most students focus on learning how to communicate their analysis of the texts being discussed. Refusing to be a walking dictionary I often encourage my students to talk through the difficult ideas using the words they have at their disposal. The discomfort is always tangible, but now, halfway through the semester, everyone allows everyone else the time and space to shape ideas and talk through linguistic possibility as they discuss their relationship with the texts.

babI have always been fascinated by the doge meme, reading a post about doge grammar I realized its connection to this queer approach to language. The creator of the doge must have a solid grasp on primary language structures and intentionally mess them up. This “messing up” is actually the creation of a new language, a language based on the relationship between the linguistic and the visual structures within the meme. The social and cultural ideas are expressed through this dynamic relationship that relies primarily on the new language created by the word/image interplay. While I do not encourage my students to match unquantifiable nouns with adjectives of quantity that specify plurality, there is something valuable in the way that the incorrect grammar structures of this meme create new meaning in a new context, something reminiscent of the work being done to understand the self’s relationship to its own self expression when both are constantly and necessarily “works in progress.”

These ideas are very much works in progress. I must confess that I am concerned about the possibility that these ideas support a queer/straight binary that is not my intention in any way. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a conversation (understood as broadly as possible) about language, pedagogy and queerness.
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Seeing Weird Theatre: Analysis of an Assignment

My dissertation is about contemporary experimental performance, what I like to call “weird theatre.” I introduce myself to my students, joking that I write about weird little performances that happen in weird little spaces throughout the city. When I give this introduction, when I write on my blog, www.weirdtheatre.org, when I trudge out to these venues, I reflect upon my commitment to weird theatre. What draws me to these weird performances? How does weird theatre make meaning differently than more traditional theatrical forms?  When I teach weird theatre, I often think about the politics that undergird its weirdness. To whom is this theatre accessible?  Who are its intended audiences—is weird theatre only meaningful to “in the know,” experienced spectators?

Some people find experimental work hard to understand or pretentious, but I love its possibilities. As an actor and a feminist, I always found realistic theatre foreclosing; the possibilities of who I could play and what I could do onstage were limited to the realm of the real, which for me often meant sweet, femme-y ingénue characters, women I was not particularly interested in pretending to be. In college, my professors introduced me to experimental performance and feminist and queer performance art and my understanding of the possibilities of performance was forever altered. I can say with certainty that exposure to this work changed the course of my life.

I hope, in exposing my own students to experimental work, I will have some small effect on their perception of the possibilities of performance. Two summers ago, teaching an Introduction to Theatre course, I took my students to one of these weird little theatre spaces, the now defunct Collapsable Hole (sic) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see a weird little performance called Space//Space by the critically-acclaimed experimental company Banana Bag & Bodice. It was a bit of a risk; in the intro course, many students have never attended live theatre, let alone experimental performance in an off-off-off-Broadway venue. But we had spent the semester defining theatre beyond conventional playtexts, we had discussed devised work, read Godot, and studied non-Western performance traditions. I felt they were prepared for the performance. Company members Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe generously agreed to stay afterwards to speak about their process and answer any student questions.

SpaceSpace-11-590x375

Image courtesy of http://bananabagandbodice.org/show/spacespace/

Some students hated the performance. Some loved it. But they all met the challenge of its weirdness.  I had them write reviews of the production, and I was so impressed with their writing, I asked their permission to quote their work in the analysis of the assignment I knew I would someday write. The following are some excerpts from their critiques, all of which demonstrate engaged critical thinking.

Even as a student expresses the ways in which the performance falls short, she still engages critically with it and supports her assertions about its weaknesses:

Sitting through the performance I was puzzled as to what was going on and what was the purpose. Simplistic and often single-worded dialogue left me waiting for that point in which things would make sense. I learned that it wasn’t meant to make sense. . . . Portraying the human mind as it deals with isolation, loneliness, and the downward spin to insanity is hard to achieve. The performance by the actors, I felt, lacked genuineness and therefore evoked feelings of confusion rather than acknowledgement and empathy. There was not enough information to bring the performance together as a whole due to the scattered, simplistic dialogue and limited actions of the performers.

One student, a former professional dancer who felt the performance “penetrated her subconscious,” provides a nuanced reading of Lumus’s transformation from male to female during the course of the play:

By the performance’s conclusion, Jelliffe’s transformation was complete: her pale skin, long hair, and naked, pregnant body, created an angelic, Madonna impression. She finally grew into her namesake, Lumus, similar to luminescence. In physics, luminescence is a form of cold body radiation, which contrasts with incandescence, light emitted as a result of heat. Although Lumus was now physically radiant, she had also undergone a cool emotional transformation. From her initial warm relationship with, and naïve dependence on Penryn (Craig), she evolved into her own entity: standing up to him, questioning him, threatening him, berating him, destroying his life’s work, and ultimately, holding his hand to her pregnant stomach, she cradled him as he died. Her final words, “I have no husband, okay,” completed this transition, and yet, spoken with a note of sadness, they conveyed a hint of regret. Neither completely good nor completely evil, Jelliffe succeeded in portraying the complexity of the human condition . . . Space//Space is a tragicomedy; it portrays man’s limitations and failures, with moments of comedy interspersed. In true Beckettian fashion, it puts its audience through the experience of the characters. We live their waiting and sleeping, we feel their desperation, and we observe their inner struggles, finding ourselves amused by repetitious dialogue, and humbled by the futility of life.

Another, a psychology major, who changed her minor to theatre after taking my class, offers a beautiful analysis of a musical moment in the show:

 . . . the performers used melody and rhythm to express their emotion. Jessica’s character sang a song about being a “space girl in space” when s/he finally accepted the change from a man to a woman. Her voice singing this song still remains in my mind as a very strong moment. I associate it with the feeling of embracing who we are for whoever we are and living with what we have.

Another reads the performance in a larger socio/political context:

Visual metaphors brilliantly included in the play emphasize the power of control the government, society, religion has upon humans. Depending on perspective the spectator takes, it can be interpreted as control of the market, power of surveillance, restricted liberty, the power of the law. For instance, “emergency sandwiches” that come from mysterious hatch, and blue liquid supply (must be water) available for the characters in “spaceship” (which looks more like a laboratory hamster cage), signify that humans throughout their lives are nothing but test subjects.  Human life is represented by the roll of tape that records every step we make, and every word we say. And what we have at the end? Just a broken record . . .

The performance led a pre-med student to reflect on existential questions:

Time and time again, Lumus would ask “Where are we?” and “Why are we here?” and Penrym  would respond with some frustration “We are in Space. We are doing our job.” What their job is exactly is left up to interpretation by the spectators themselves: is it to maintain society’s morals and values in space? Is it to test the effect of being in isolation from the rest of humanity? Are they supposed to give in to their natural instincts? Is their job to ponder their existence or simply just to carry out normal every day functions (such as eating and sleeping) without exercising their brain at all? . . . Space//Space brings to our consciousness the idea of how society have and will continue to shape our perspective of our existence. What the characters suffer from while isolated in space is choosing between living deliberately or serving society and it’s never ending expectations of proper conduct by doing their ‘job’ . . . Social norms and roles may appear restrictive but we now depend on them to give our lives superficial meaning by having us go to school, get educated, and create a career. These things keep us busy in the everyday, material world, but once left alone with just our thoughts our human minds seem to be vulnerable to despair and hopelessness. Space//Space showed us how outside of society, Penrym and Lumus were at a lost as to what they should do with themselves, resulting in both of them undergoing great turmoil that we don’t see get resolved by the conclusion of the performance.

My students’ inspired analyses and astute critiques confirm that spectatorship of experimental work encourages deep critical thinking and creative analysis. Their writing shows that weird theatre is not necessarily esoteric, that spectators of all sorts can find meaning in it.  In fact, the variety of students’ interpretations of the piece leads me to wonder if—because of the openness of the texts—weird theatre is actually more accessible, in some ways, than realistic work.  Regardless, their responses—positive and negative—reaffirm my commitment to weird theatre, and especially to making it available to all audiences of all experience levels.

On the matter of numbers

Mindful of other deadlines, I finally applied pressure to my felt-tipped pen while in transit, on a quiet Sunday morning subway-car. I felt unsuited, ill-prepared, to start writing. No notes to work from. Just a folder full of documents unrelated to this blog post. I did have, for better or for worse, an inky pen with a soft point (ballpoints are better for business) and the blank surface of a manila folder. I began drafting this contextual blog post for the “Writing About Numbers” faculty roundtable that Bill Ferns and I will co-run next week. I ended up with this: drawing out, crossing out, sketching again, a recurring discomfort I’ve had since grade school. The story of this recurring feeling is not particularly remarkable, one that is not so dissimilar from my impulse to avoid the freshly opened new word-processor document on my laptop screen (blankness). The story:  I am immediately stunned by numbers and, in defense, my mind triggers a blank.

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This anecdote is a roundabout way of saying that the initial discomfort I sense when writing in a familiar language is, in some ways, akin to the perceived challenges I feel when encountering figures and languages that I am less literate in (i.e., numbers, data, French). It is, quite frankly, the discomfort–some blending of vulnerability and responsibility–that arises when one communicates while learning, thinking, processing. There is always recourse, though, to leave things blank or to remain silent.

* * *

slaveship

But what does writing, discomfort, and silence (blankness) have to do with numbers and data? I’ll try to explain by turning to a context, by relating my academic work in literary study to the subject of numbers. I study Atlantic slavery and its relationship to literary production. The archival materials and texts affiliated with the Atlantic slave trade have been read as documents that reveal the ways in which lives of the enslaved were reduced and dehumanized by violent abstraction. That is, ledgers, balance books, nautical journals and other accounts of the transatlantic slave trade converted captives into commodities, lives indexed by numbers and figures. Take for instance Stephanie Smallwood’s description, in Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (2007), of how ledgers rationalized the violent logic of the slave trade:

 “The ledger’s double-entry pages and the neat grid of the invoice gave purposeful shape to the story they told. Through their graphic simplicity and economy, invoices and ledgers effaced the personal histories that fueled the slaving economy. Containing only what could fit within the clean lines of their columns and rows, they reduced an enormous system of traffic in human commodities to a concise chronicle of quantitative ‘facts.’… Instruments such as these did their work, then, while concealing the messiness of history, erasing from view the politics that underlay the neat account keeping” (98).

In spite of the violent accountings of the slave trade, practitioners of the humanities–historians and literary scholars in particular–have been able to supply nuance, variation, and interpretation to realities that are gestured at but not revealed by the neatness of numbers, charts, and graphs. In the area of slavery studies, robust and incisive work has emerged from scholars who engage with and rethink the politics, ethics, and historical contexts that adjoin the quantitative facts and the administrative records of the slave trade. This is evidenced by recent scholarly gatherings, like “‘Against Recovery?’: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive,” and digital projects, like Vincent Brown’s cartographic narrative of an eighteenth-century slave revolt.

To return to the question: what does writing, discomfort, and silence have to do with numbers and data?  Writing is a practice in working through the discomfort of learning whatever our subject of study might be. If there’s discomfort, I’ve told students who are silent or on the brink of giving up, it’s because learning is challenging and that thorny realities are involved in subjects we choose to study. Whether working on a formula, or analyzing a set of statistics, or deciphering the mind of Milton’s poetry, writing sets into motion a cycle of processing, self-assessing, and renewing material.

Because writing is a striving for the precise combination of words and signs that correspond to a thought and, simultaneously, an exercise that invites feelings of vulnerability and responsibility, it seems to me that writing is a practice of ethics and politics. In other words, through the process of writing, we reflect on the matter that characterizes whatever our study might be and, as a result, learn a bit more about the limits and the possibilities in what matters to us.

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 Works Cited

Smallwood, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,  2007.

Source of image #2 and #3: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record (Click on images for exact url address).

Speak to Learn: faculty speak their mind in video on oral communication

The classroom is abuzz with students jotting down notes and eagerly inserting themselves into a fast-paced full-class discussion.  Observant comments from every member of the class forward the conversation towards a collective higher understanding of the topic at hand.

This is my go-to vision of ideal classroom discussion.  But as I have immersed myself in conversations about communication across the curriculum here at the Schwartz Communication Institute, I have come to realize that A) this vision is sometimes hard to achieve, and B) it is only one of many models for meaningful oral communication in the classroom.

Why do we urge students to speak in class?  What does success look like when they do so?  What unique roles does oral communication play in the many diverse disciplines that Baruch students study?  These questions are at the center of two projects I’ve been working on this year at BLSCI.

The first is a short video that speaks to the role of spoken communication across the disciplines.  I interviewed three professors here at Baruch: Mathematics professor Peter Gregory, Business Management professor Ed Kurpis, and English professor Cheryl Smith.  I asked them about the role of spoken communication in their disciplines and in their classrooms.  While their responses reflect the particular demands of their disciplines, they all highlight the centrality of speaking to developing ideas and mastering knowledge in the classroom, and to communicating authentically and effectively in the outside world.  See what they have to say here:

The second project is a faculty development workshop that I am leading later this week (Thursday, February 27, 12:45-2:15pm) with Law professor Valerie Watnick.  We’ll be covering a wide variety of strategies for facilitating meaningful, focused and lively discussion in the classroom.  You can find details about this workshop, and all BLSCI workshops and roundtables, here.

The Complexities of Creative Projects

Honing my teaching philosophy statement last year, I measured the lofty ideals I express there against my actual teaching practice.  I assert that “theatre classes provide an opportunity for an insistent merging of theory and practice, and for a blending of the creative and the critical,” and I write that “I always ask students to engage artistically as well as intellectually with the course material.”  It is true that, over the past few years, I developed a scaffolded writing assignment with my theatre history students called the “dramaturgical notebook,” a semester-long, multi-part project that asks students to imagine a contemporary production of a play, and requires a number of different modes of analysis, types of research, and styles of writing.  But the assignment is, in essence, a series of papers.  If I really believe that “embodiment is epistemology,” that “creativity is a form of knowledge,” then why do I hesitate to ask students in my advanced theatre courses to do creative projects (but feel fine about it in my intro classes)?  When I do assign creative projects, why do I fail to give them the same weight as critical analyses?

My ambivalence stems in part from the long-standing divide that exists in many college theatre departments between the “practical” and the “academic” classes.[1]  Creative projects are often reserved for acting and directing classes, while the “real” critical work is done in the theatre history or the dramatic literature courses.  My first semester teaching at CUNY, I was advised against assigning a creative group project in a theatre history course.  I was told that the students in the course should focus on writing rather than performance, and that creative projects of that sort were for the intro classes. Afraid of making waves, I abandoned the idea and hewed to the syllabi used in previous years, teaching the same plays, using the same textbooks, and giving similar assignments.

I am now in my fourth year there, and, armed with experience and a record of good observations and student evaluations, I felt comfortable taking some calculated pedagogical risks. Assigned to teach an upper-level writing intensive required course for theatre majors, I set up a number challenges for myself this semester: to put the Writing in the Disciplines (WID) strategies I studied last year into practice, to use technology to improve student writing, and to merge theatre theory and performance practice in a real way in the classroom.  I was fortunate enough to have a remarkable group of students—smart, engaged, and hardworking—who were up for helping me to accomplish this.

Meeting the first of my two challenges, I had students set up and maintain their own WordPress blogs, posting responses to prompts that I provided for each of the plays we studied during the semester. The blog posts were practice for the semester’s major writing assignment: a 2,000 – 2,500 word critical analysis of a play, chosen from a list of five. I used the blog prompts to encourage both critical and creative thought.  For example, to prime students for the creative project, I asked them to describe and justify a set design for Chekhov’s The Seagull, to write about how they would direct the bear scene in The Winter’s Tale, and to analyze a character from The Glass Menagerie as if they were cast in a production of the play.  For the creative project then, I asked students to respond creatively to the play they were analyzing in their critical essays and to present this response to the class.  I suggested that they might, for instance, create and present a set, lighting, projection, or costume design, perform a monologue or scene, describe a directorial vision, or compose and perform music for their play.  An “A” project, I told them, will demonstrate a clear connection between the critical analysis and the creative project, provide a compelling creative interpretation of the play, and be well-planned and rehearsed.  The critical analysis and the creative project would count as the same percentage of their final grade.

During the three days of presentations, there were some truly stand out projects, but watching my students read monologues, show drawings, and present video clips and audio tracks, I had moments of doubt: Were these projects really worth the same weight as the paper?  Would my colleagues deem them silly, the results of an inappropriate assignment for an upper-level class?  Did the students learn anything from them or were they a waste of valuable class time?

But when I asked my students how they felt about the experience of doing the projects, they unanimously expressed that they were valuable.  One student pointed out that she has difficulty with the linear thought and argumentation required in papers; she found it liberating to be able to express her ideas creatively instead. I realized that my feelings of doubt were rooted in a lingering bias about what constitutes academic rigor.  I thought about one of my mentors and a model of exemplary teaching, Omi Osun Olomo, whom I had the pleasure and privilege of assisting during my Master’s program at the University of Texas.  She writes in a piece about her performance “Sista Docta,”

“Performance is a form of embodied knowledge and theorizing that challenges the academy’s print bias. While intellectual rigor has long been measured in terms of linguistic acuity and print productivity that reinforces the dominant culture’s deep meanings, performance is suspect because of its ephemeral, emotional, and physical nature.”[2]

And later, “Performance is theory.  It need not be written about in order for its theory to be present.”[3]  Her words remind me that creative engagement is deceptively demanding, inherently theoretical, and always instructive.

Of course, there were some very thoughtful projects and some less thoughtful—just as there would be with any assignment, creative or critical.  But the fact is that each and every creative project demonstrated a level of engagement with the play text that rivals that presented in the papers. A student, whose paper compared Sam Shepard’s Buried Child to classical Greek tragedy, wrote an eloquent and illuminating monologue for one of the play’s main characters in the style of Sophocles and presented it to the class.  One student did a projection design of an imagined production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, creating a series of abstract paintings that express the title character’s confinement in her class and gender roles.  An aspiring makeup artist presented detailed face charts for all the characters in Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud.  She presented three different designs that moved from realistic to very distorted and expressionist. (Her paper discusses the expressionist techniques used in the play.) An actor/director filmed a trailer for Buried Child, carefully selecting the moments from the play that best show his paper’s argument that the characters are haunted by their past. The students who performed monologues in essence performed close readings of passages from their plays, embodying for the class the evidence that supports their theses, rather than writing about it.  Those who designed costumes engaged deeply with the play’s characters—analyzing them in terms of both their literal and symbolic functions within the play—but the work manifested itself in images rather than text.

I remain committed to giving creative projects and critical analyses equal weight in my theatre classes, but I see now that still have a way to go to overcome my own prejudices, before I can assert that  “embodiment is epistemology,” that “creativity is a form of knowledge,” and really mean it.  I realize in retrospect that, despite my best efforts, I still privileged the critical analysis over the creative project.  I conceived of the creative projects as coming out of the students’ papers when, in fact, it might be useful to imagine it the other way around; perhaps a creative response to a particular play could lead to a strong thesis about its content or form.  In the future I will adjust the assignment, asking students to start generating ideas for the project earlier in the semester, to work on them alongside their papers, rather than as an afterthought.  As I grade my students’ final papers this week, I will be thinking about what the experience of assessing the creative projects might have to teach me about assessing critical writing.  Through the process of developing and implementing the creative project, I learned that, while students have an easy time moving between critical and creative analysis, bridging the gap between my pedagogical theories and practice is not always so easy.


[1] See Shannon Jackson’s book Professing Performance for a history of Theatre Studies in the academy.

[2] Joni L. Jones. “’Sista Docta’: Performance as Critique of the Academy.” TDR, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 51-67. 53.

[3] Ibid., 55.


A resolution and a note on rubrics

I always wish I had a habit of writing down teaching realizations immediately after every class. I do it sometimes but not systematically, and I’ve lost some good ideas and observations as a result. Starting this semester, I resolve to annotate my syllabus after every class and keep a running document that includes notes ranging from things I noticed about my assignments to things that happened in class that confused students or stimulated a good conversation.

Even though I kept forgetting to write it down, I miraculously remembered one realization I had last semester about my final paper rubric, and so I’m making a note of it now as I plan for next semester. The categories for that rubric (for a compare/contrast paper) were: Thesis; Evidence and Quotation; Progress of Ideas and Paragraphs; Grammar and Spelling; and Clarity. I realized while grading the papers that I wished I had a category that assesses to what degree the students understood the texts. I had assumed that all the categories together would address that question, but I discovered that I wanted a category dedicated entirely to that question.

The rubric in question.

The rubric in question.

One of my students, for example, wrote a thesis that made some kind of coherent sense but depended on many misreadings of the texts. According to the way he was reading the texts, his thesis worked. But, his thesis was nonsense because he misunderstood the texts. I wanted to be able to applaud his understanding of what a thesis does (he had made a controversial, interesting argument that was text-specific and somewhat complex) but I didn’t feel I had enough room on my rubric to show him that his misreading of the text was a significant problem even though he had understood what I wanted from a thesis. I think I circled the “B” column for “Thesis” and the “C” or “D” column for “Evidence and Quotation” (even though he had used many quotes as evidence, quotes he misunderstood and therefore mishandled) but that didn’t seem to sufficiently describe the problem I found in his paper. I explained it in depth in my comments to him, but the circled assessment categories didn’t really match the comments closely enough.

So, next semester, in addition to the categories I already have on the rubric, I will add a category that assesses the degree to which a student has shown mastery of the text. A simple adjustment, and one of many I could make if I systematically noted my observations.

While I’m on the topic of rubrics, I would like to ask any readers for their feedback on a question I ask myself every time I make a new rubric. The categories on my rubrics aren’t weighted. No category officially counts for more or less of the total grade. I tell the students that if I had to choose, the “Thesis” and “Evidence and Quotation” categories count the most (without them, there’s no hope of getting a good grade) but do people assign actual numerical values to their categories (i.e. “Thesis” counts for 30% of the paper grade)? And if you do that, do you find it useful or too constraining? I kind of like the wiggle room that not assigning weights to each category gives me, and that’s why I continue to keep it unweighted, but sometimes I feel like I’m not being clear enough with my expectations. Any thoughts or experiences would be really appreciated!

Spring Break

In New York, April is the cruelest month because it arrives before Spring Break. Well, at least is does for CUNY students. While most colleges will be out in mid-March, CUNY students have to wait for Passover (April 14–22) and Easter (April 20) to cross. As an undergraduate, my Spring Break was during March, and I never realized just how well-timed it was. I recall being able to set classes aside for a quick halfway-breather; but, here, I can see that my students are exhausted well before Passover, and, what’s worse, is that there isn’t enough time to get them back before the semester is over. So, if I want to get anything done this semester, it needs to be done before April.

I’m thinking about these dates right now because I’m fiddling with syllabi for Spring 2014. Classes start not too far off, and I’m teaching two courses that I’ve taught many times before. So, I’m in that tedious process of revising the course, swapping one reading out for another, changing the assignments, and all of that. When I lay out the schedule, I see a nice progression of class dates, but I always forget just how my students and I feel around those dates. It makes sense that I should time the really important stuff for when they’re going to be more, well, there, right?

So, I took out some old gradebooks and compiled them. The records aren’t perfect, but, do forgive that. I had 20 of them easily accessible. So, I averaged out each class’ attendance per week, which was necessary in order to look at courses that met three days a week as opposed to once, and I didn’t differentiate between school (Lehman, Hunter, or Queens) or by semester or type of course. The data just tells me, on average, how much of my class will show up any given week.

And I spotted a trend. It’s probably one that we all know by now, but it’s nice to see it there. Basically, the bad starts at week seven and ends at twelve.

Look at how attendance drops.

Now, according to our this semester’s academic calendar, everyone else’s Spring Break starts at week seven while ours starts at week eleven. It’s just about always like that too, and so that extra dip at week eleven on the graphs is students taking off early, and then there is a slight tick up after twelve.

Here’s another graph that just shows the difference between attendance at week one and week X.

percent changes in attendance over the semester

The trend is a bit easier to spot. It looks like a hole that we all slip into and never quite get out.

While I wish we could move Spring Break earlier in the semester, I know I don’t have that power as an instructor. And I’m also not sure if it would help because I don’t have any data from schools on that calendar. But, at least I can just use this data to forecast when I should time the more important stuff.

What I learned in my international archival research

This break, I spent time in Moscow, conducting dissertation research. This archival trip has been useful, not only for my dissertation research, but in a way I never expected: helping my pedagogy seemingly unrelated to my research topic.

(requisite image of St. Basil's for any post about Moscow)

(requisite image of St. Basil’s for any post about Moscow)

As a foreigner in Russian archives and libraries, I expected some bureaucratic red tape, therefore I planned ahead. However, no matter how much you try, bureaucracy will always find a way. Even with very helpful librarians and archival specialists, I faced multiple forms, access requests, and unexpected hurdles. This post is an attempt to record my experience.

I won’t go into the forms needed just to enter Russia, as there are many websites dedicated to helping with that. But I will just say that you must begin preparations months—six months would be ideal—in advance. Once you arrive, make sure that you have all of your documentation: Passport, Visa, Migration card, Visa registration, Letter of introduction from your home institution, Russian phone number, Russian address where you are staying. Got all of those? Good, you are ready to head out to your research site.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

In a nice bit of Gogolesquery, in order to enter most libraries and archives you will need your propusk [pass]. In order to get this propusk, you have to register with the library past the guard’s station where you need to show this propusk. For some libraries, the process is simple as telling them that you are a new reader and going to register. Other places require calling the librarian on duty to come and escort you to the office where you apply for the propusk. The good news is that the librarians in charge of issuing these propuski are generally very helpful and quick. So it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to get your privledges.

Despite a national set of “Rules for the Reader,” (a multipaged set of bureaucratic rights and privledges that you either are asked to read or given a copy of at each location), every library or archive has its own system for carrying out those rights, registering its readers, requesting materials, and requesting copies. Since you will be asked to read over these rules so quickly, best to familiarize yourself with them well ahead of time.

Hand over your letter of introduction, printed on official letterhead and specifically stating the subject and dates of your research topic. Turn in your passport, visa, migration card, and visa registration. Fill in the registration form, which could be as simple as a notecard or as long as a couple pages and require an attached photo. And hope you filled everything in correctly. You will then, if all goes well, receive your official propusk with a blue official stamp.

Good to go!
(image by Damian Yerrick cc-by-sa)

Next comes the request for materials. While collections are starting to be indexed on computers, the main way to find documents is still an extensive collection of handwritten and typed (but not digital) indexes (putivoditeli). These are similar to finding aids you will find in US archives, but the yellowing pages and corrections entered in pencil cultivate a sense of history I have rarely felt when working with the more familiar MS Word docs and slick websites or even the physical card catalogues. Each collection (fond) has its own putivoditel or shelf of putivoditeli that indexes the sub-collections (opisi), files (dela), date of deposit (data), and number of pages (listi) in the delo. Some archives vary slightly in what these elements are called, but these are the elements you will need to request a file. Depending on the archive, you may also need the (very lengthy) description of the delo. (In my research, many of the descriptions would not fit in the space provided on the requisition form. We will see if my attempts to abbreviate worked.) Be prepared to fill out the forms multiple times. The smallest mistake can cause you to have to fill out the whole form again. But the archivists are very helpful in checking for you and will let you know if anything is out of order on your request. Turn in your requisition form, and then wait. Anywhere from one to three days. According to law, they aren’t supposed to make you wait longer than three days, but I have heard stories of requests that took longer because the files had been sent into storage outside of the city.

Remember how I mentioned the date of deposit? This seemingly unimportant piece of archival trivia is indispensable for researchers hoping to access “personal files” (lichniye dela). Personal files and files containing potential state secrets have been sealed for a period of 75 years from the date of deposit. This is something that is not well publicized on the websites of the collections, but which the archivist at RGALI was very helpful in pointing out. Supposedly, you can request access earlier than this date with the permission of the subject or the subject’s family.

When you finally receive the files, personal photography (a real time- and money-saver in my previous archival research) is usually prohibited. So be prepared to take your copious and extremely detailed notes or cough up for the $1-$3 per page copying service.

No cameras

After this experience, I definitely have a greater understanding of what my students must feel going through a completely new bureaucratic system like our libraries here in the US. I knew that I needed to provide support to my students when requiring research for class projects, otherwise I would just get a lot of Google-search-based papers. But I thought providing links to the helpful guides already provided by our libraries would be sufficient. However, my experience attempting to navigate an unfamiliar library system showed me how beguiling (and contradictory) mere documentation can be when encountering a new library for the first time. My contextual knowledge of how to navigate US libraries and archives was of limited use. My ability to “speak library” stopped at the border, and I had to learn a new way of maneuvering through these collections.

[Navigating library catalogues doesn't have to be scary]

Rather than merely pointing my students to online resources that outline what services our libraries provide, scheduling a class period to meet with the subject area librarian no longer seemed like pedantic overkill. For students who are not used to navigating the idiosyncrasies of multiple databases, physical and digital collections, as well as the technology resources available in our libraries, just learning where to start can be confusing. And this is without the hurdles due to class, linguistic, and past educational background biases faced by many of our students.

Power Pointers

Power Point slides are omnipresent in today’s college classroom. Most textbooks in my field – I have been teaching introductory economics and finance – come with a set of PowerPoint slides prepared by the textbook publisher that feature content, examples and graphs from the textbook. These ready-made slides save a ton of time. Many instructors use them as they are, others personalize them to a varying degree. Instead of having to plan the class one can conveniently follow the slides along. However, although slides make teaching easier, they do not necessarily make it better.

We have all sat through countless lectures where the instructor merely displayed dense slides and even read their content out loud word for word. This is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to teach the students in presentation rehearsals at the Schwartz Institute. We encourage students to keep their slides brief and deliver the bulk of the information verbally.
I feel that slides tend to bore the students, and merely encourage them to copy and memorize as opposed to understand and analyze. Some students actually love the detailed, overloaded slides because they feel like they do not have to take any (or many) notes. However, as research suggests, this does not help their learning process. At the Schwartz Institute, we also encourage presenters to try to limit the number of slides in their presentations.

Excessive use of slides turns the attention away from the speaker and makes it harder to create an active interaction with students. Therefore, in my own teaching, I tend to use PowerPoint sparingly. Teaching microeconomics which is very graph-intensive, I have found that graphs are much better understood by students if I draw them on the board myself, as opposed to using the publisher’s animated slides that show the graphing procedure step by step. Slides also make it harder to pace yourself, and you are more likely to present faster than you probably should be when you are using slides.

However, the problem is not the tool itself, it is how you use it. Power Point can be an immensely useful tool in teaching, if used properly and limited to situations where the visual representation of an idea or concept increases comprehension. Here are a few ideas of how to avoid boring students to death with the slides.

  1.  Use the slide as a prompt, to bring focus to a discussion of the information. Go light on text, use images, statistics or charts.
  2.  Use the slide as the vehicle to deliver a question, problem, or example, not as a tool to deliver information.
  3. Consider not handing out print-outs of your slides. By summarizing the slides in their notes the students’ comprehension and retention may be enhanced. Writing things down facilitates learning.
  4. Turn off the projector to focus attention back on you, when necessary. Alternatively, if you press the letter B on your keyboard, it makes the screen go black. Pressing it again brings the screen back. Similarly, pressing W will make the screen white.
  5. Finally, when using a screen, if possible, try to position yourself near the screen, so you keep the focus on people’s attention and eyes in the same place. This also allows you to quickly place yourself in front of the screen during discussion when the screen may be black or white. Positioning yourself too far from the screen is distracting and force you to compete with the screen for the audience’s attention. In other words, do not make your listeners feeling like they are watching a tennis match.