Monthly Archives: February 2009

adela on the new forms of socializing

Apropos of our latest Facebook discussion, Adela at twofold talks about the new technologies of socializing that are out there nowadays, and why Facebook still bothers her.

Some of this sounds interesting to me, but still, my reaction is ehhh.  I spend so much time in real meetings that virtual encounters of any sort lose their appeal.  I don’t really need any more interactions.  But I think that these technologies become more appealing once people you know from other contexts are available online.



students and the resistance to teaching

–I should say that I first became interested in AWB’s post because I’ve always been interested in the resistance students offer to teaching, often to very good teaching, because I myself never was a particularly good student.   I know that I never learned anything until I was ready to learn, whatever the quality of the teaching I received.  And yet I find myself nowadays on the other side of the teacher/student divide, trying to outwit someone falling asleep in the front row or giving me stinkface or handing in papers three weeks late.  So why try to understand what could be so easily explained as stupidity, laziness, cluelessness, etc.?

Well, if the “pedagogical dramas” of reality television are to be believed, these shows are selling us on the excitement of a standoff between an authority-figure  (with whose judgment the viewer is aligned) and the deluded subject (whose views need to converge with the judge’s  before the end of the program).  This is where we find the suspense in the formula, in our desire for the deluded person onscreen to close the gap and begin to understand what’s really going on around her.

I suppose that most reality television shows follow this developmental pattern, which seems as true of Intervention as it is for What Not to Wear or the Dog Whisperer.  Nonetheless, the intermittent progress of the would-be learners on reality shows appears in a far more jagged and surprising fashion than we ever find  in the usual depictions of teaching or teachers in movies or television.  (Stand and Deliver, anyone?)  And the fact that such shows frequently return to their subjects, months or years after the initial show, to see whether these people have sustained the improvements, is evidence that these shows always intended to demonstrate their subjects’ “development,” no matter how illusory.

Perhaps the most useful lesson we can take from these shows is the notion that “metacognition”–the ability to think about how one thinks–does not represent a fixed capacity, but remains something that occurs within certain narratives, both short- and long-term.  I get confronted with my own failure, or my sense of embarassment over earlier failures, or my history of self-created difficulties, and I wonder why.  Contradictions and dissonances build up over time, and at some point I must change my views, or at least I recognize that I should change my views, if I wish this story to get a new ending.

So at what point does the Bed and Breakfast owner admit that he makes a lousy breakfast, and that he needs to add more salt to his fried potatoes?  Or that he needs to worry about the dust and dirt all over his pillows and bedspreads before he decorates his tables with miniature flags?  Or that the point of a B&B is not just his private amusement, but the comfort of the people who pay to sleep in his beds and eat his food?  At what point does he realize that his performance, his priorities, his knowledge or skills, are not what they should be, if he wishes to accomplish something?  And even if someone tells him, is he willing or ready to hear such a message?

Bad teachers tend to assume that students’ capacities for change really are as fixed as students think they are, and inexperienced teachers may have no idea how much change they can expect from the students they would like to help.  More experienced teachers know better, especially when operating in the context of a long-running class with a successful sequence of assignments, which provides them with the invaluable information of the range of potential responses that students will give to a particular task.  That’s when the experienced teacher realizes that it really isn’t personal at all–students are getting out of the task whatever they put in, without making any kind of implicit  judgment on the abilities of the teacher.  (It is this teacherly fear, that the shittiness of a student’s performance genuinely reflects one’s capacities as a teacher and as a human being, that plays head games with us all).  This is one of the reasons why sharing information about teaching is so crucial to the activity: it helps everyone self-correct.

One of my favorite passages in Richard Haswell’s Gaining Ground is his observation that formative theories of human behavior can perversely reinforce our belief in  “fixation, the human tendency to stick at an immature point in development, because it is safe and easy” (109).  This “immature point in development” is precisely the student’s moment of hesitation, hovering around the pre-tipping point while poised at the threshold of unforeseen worlds.  This is the point in the student’s developmental process that every teacher worries over, wondering just how to push a student, ever so gently, off the edge of the table.  Haswell reminds us:

It seems Piaget’s mechanism of change–equilibriation–can operate as a mechanism of fixation.  Similarly, in information-processing theory, skills are acquired as humans wrestle with new problems.  But the very drive toward solutions may encourage the learner toward the most efficient one, which is to interpret the situation as not being problematic . . . . Fixation is a defense mechanism arising from anxieties associated with the fear of change itself (109).

It is this fear of “fixation,” the fear that students will settle for something less than genuine learning, or that they will always choose the false equilibriation, that allows teachers to rationalize their own (prematurely fixed) views of students and their capacities for change.  And there is nothing like the capable but resisting student, teetering on the brink of something (whether genuine discoveries or utter failure), to pique one’s interests as a teacher, and to make us  feel once again the dramatic arc of a student’s learning.


passing through . . .

Well, whatever I discussed in the G*rd*n R*ms*y/p**n post was intriguing enough to attract a few hundred lurkers, who passed through here  like a school of fish in a coral reef.  Apparently this blog was in stumbleupon, and then somehow got shared on someone’s facebook page.  What can I say?  Thanks for passing through . . .

Gordon Ramsay and “teaching p*rn”

Note: I asterisked the title of this to make sure it didn’t come up in the wrong kind of keyword searches, if you know what I mean. 

Also, I wanted to steal AWB‘s useful term, “teaching p*rn,” which is not about teaching the kiddies about the classics of the genre, but about commercialized  simulations of teaching activities, which bear the same relation to teaching realities that, say, p*rn-flick pizza-boy scenarios have to the job of delivering pizzas for Domino’s.  And frankly, most of us, most of the time, are delivering pizzas for Domino’s, only not in a good way.

In any case, there are some blogging posts that are so good that you wish that you’d written them yourself, and A White Bear’s recent post about Gordon Ramsay’s pedagogical drama made me feel that way [h/t: the Salt Box Teaching Carnival].  Here’s a sample:

It’s difficult when confronting a student who admits he doesn’t like the feedback he gets from papers but refuses to admit there might be anything wrong with his writing not to scream, as Ramsay does, “You ungrateful piece of dogshit! I’m trying to help you!” Anyone who is friends with a teacher will know that we bitterly complain about student arrogance in exact proportion with how much we care about helping them. If you’re putting in countless office hours and even more writing emails and comments on papers, and a student keeps coming back to say, “How can I get an A?” without even trying to take any of the advice you give, you know how Ramsay feels. Sometimes, baffled, Ramsay will shout, “You bloody asked me to fucking come here!” If my feedback and advice is worthless to you, why ask for it? You clearly enjoy getting C’s.

I won’t embroider this too much, because I think AWB has nailed the frustration of the teacher with the stubborness of her student, while showing why this kind of drama is riveting to people who would never want to enter a comp classroom ever again.  So go read it, and then go read the long comment section, which shows just how well AWB has captured this kind of problem of the gap between student perception and performance, which an education professor would call the problem of “metacognition.”

AWB’s formulations especially interested me, because I’d long shared similar thoughts about the English obsession with reality shows (an obsession now shared by American television audiences, I suppose).   These shows seem to thrive on the self-delusions and stubborness of their subjects.  The visiting expert comes in, gives an accurate appraisal of the broken-down bed and breakfast, and then we watch the show’s subject spend the next 50 minutes denying the obvious and resisting the expert’s advice about improving the B&B.

The one point I would like to add to AWB’s post is that what makes shows like Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares or Top Chef so entertaining is their fantasy of the authority-figures who assess the contestants.  Unlike ourselves, a Tom Colicchio or Gordon Ramsay as portrayed on these shows never evidences any self-doubt, never faces a contestant unprepared, is never at a loss as to what to do, and  never experiences a plausible challenge to his authority or his judgments.  The framework, the editing and the framing of the show’s challenges  all bestow an illusory authority on them that no actual chef, no actual boss, no actual teacher could ever project.  And that, my friends, is the difference between p*rn and real life.  As if we needed to be told.


james boswell would like to wish you a very, very special valentine’s day . . . .


London Journal, MONDAY 14 February.  Erskine drank tea with me.  We were in a luscious flow of spirits and vastly merry.  “How we do chase a thought,” said Erskine,”when once it is started.  Let it run as it pleases over hill and dale and take take numberless windings, still we are at it.  It has a greyhound at its heels every turn.”  The distemper was now almost over.  I was free from pain, and had pleasurable ease.  This night my new tent-bed was put up.  I liked it much.  It gave a snug yet genteel look to my room, and had a military air which amused my fancy and made me happy.”

Through some accident I was teaching Boswell’s London Journal this week at the same time I was leading my students through E.P. Thompson’s “Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture.” That’s when I realized that Thompson’s take on the theatrical nature of hegemony could not be better represented than Boswell’s images of himself, huffing and puffing his way through the streets of London.  And no, it is not a very romantic picture of either Boswell or the women he met.

But of all the 18c people I can imagine who might enjoy giving and receiving valentines, I think Boswell would enjoy them the most.  The exchange of gifts, the sweets, the letter-writing, the private visions of love someday happily requited–all these are perfectly suited for Boswell’s dreamy temperament.

[Louisa and I] agreed that the time should be a week, and that if I remained of the same opinion, she would make me blessed.  There is no telling how easy it made my mind to be convinced that she did not despise me, but on the contrary had a tender heart and wished to make me easy and happy.

[image of Kitty Fisher from Christa Davies’ review of the 2005 Reynolds exhibition]

annotated conversations, pt 1

–outside a hotel, in Corpus Christi, approximately two in the morning: “The only thing that makes a writer’s life interesting is the prospect of failure.  Why do you think Johnson hated Pope so much, he put in the story of Pope’s cooking lampreys in a little silver dish?”


the return of the teaching carnival

After some time off, the teaching carnival that George Williams and others have organized for the past few years is back, and the latest is from Jason B. Jones at The Salt-Box.  The 18th century blogging community is represented by yours truly, along with Chris Vilmar, but there’s lots of good stuff about course design, irritating college advice, and the university in a digitally networked age.  Go take a look, then start your own blog.