Fun and Fear in Experimental Teaching

I’d like to write about a moment from “A Vision of Students Today,” the video that outlines the mismatch between the education students receive and the world they live in. (To summarize the video, our education system relies on greatly outdated forms of learning to prepare students to live in a largely digitalized world. Specifically, college education relies on large lecture classes—average size of 115—which assign mostly irreverent and unread reading to students. While the video doesn’t mention it, I’d guess that this is more common at large public institutions, which cater more to people of color and other underrepresented groups than at elite liberal arts schools, which cater more to affluent white people.) I’m interested in the 3:20 minute mark when students held up signs to argue that filling out scantron test sheets doesn’t help prepare learners to deal with war, ethnic conflicts, and many other issues. I couldn’t read all the signs students held, but I’d guess that some of them said things like sexism, systematic racism, unequal distribution of wealth, police brutality, and other structural inequities. I’m interested in this moment because I found it both thrilling and terrifying.

I found it thrilling because it is exciting to think that education can tackle these issues. There’s a sense of possibility, hope, and even fun when people align themselves to combat overarching, structural problems. Some might argue it is frivolous or glib to suggest combating serious and fatal issues like racism or police brutality could be fun. But I think fun can be a powerful motivator. It can unite people and bolster participants when work is hard. Fun is a source of change in Unflattening. As Sousanis observes, it is hard, and ultimately impossible, to identify totally with a person from another race, gender, and background. As he writes, there are “boundless perspectives” different from our own (89). Yet, his art has a playful spirit that shows it can be fun, exhilarating, and joyous to try to imagine what those other perspectives are. The imagination and fun can help people see new ideas and new possibilities. The comic form is perfect for Sousanis to express his sense of wonder and possibility that comes from thinking differently about each other and our institutions.

The students in the “A Vision of Students Today” capture that sense of fun. Many of them try to appear dour, mimicking the boredom common to the lecture class. But as the camera moves around showing the students’ signs, there are occasional smiles—students breaking character to acknowledge that the cooperative work of building a structure to combat inequality (in this case that structure is the google doc + the youtube video to inform people of the issues in college) is fun and exciting. I am also thrilled to think our collaboration in this class could provide a structure for us to improve our own teaching or institutions.

Yet, I am also nervous. As Cathy pointed out, intro level teachers are often the youngest and most inexperienced. At least in English, the intro level writing classes are often staffed by adjuncts—disproportionately women and people of color. While it is truly fun and exciting to see the possibility of change, I worry intro teachers will be charged with correcting centuries of racism and systematic abuse. After all, intro teachers are the first institutional face students meet. They have an added duty to present a progressive, student-centered face to the incoming first-years. Yet this seems unfair, and it makes me nervous. It is a labor issue: it is unfair to give already overworked adjuncts the responsibility of reforming intro classes to make college better. Again, many of these intro teachers are minorities, which suggests an unfair, racially driven division of labor. It is also unfair to pile on work. This brings me back to my beginning point. The idea that classrooms and teachers can work to overcome such entrenched inequality is both thrilling and scary: thrilling because of the hope of progress; scary because—my goodness!—what a mandate to have my intro writing class substantially engage with war, ethnic violence, genocide, and the history of slavery.

It is a very tough place to be. And it emphasizes the need for small, manageable acts we can perform in our classes. No class could possibly answer the history of slavery, but a class could incorporate small techniques to realize the needs of students in all their diversity. At the risk of sounding like an apple polisher, this is why the four pieces of advice in Cathy’s Hastac blog are so important. They are fun ways to collaboratively build a more equitable class, and they are not so large or labor intensive to overwhelm the teacher. Along those lines, I wish that Guinier had dug a little deeper in her opening AP physics anecdote. I thought that could have been an excellent place for the teacher to engage the students in a profitable discussion. Why are you so proud of your SAT score, the teacher could ask. Why is the SAT so important? What causes the different range of scores? What qualities does the SAT really test? To deal with these structural problems we need to find tiny openings to engage with students, but not be overwhelmed.


  • really great points, Mike. This semester I am really feeling the double-edged nature of the responsibilities we share as teachers of college Freshmen. I too find it thrilling to think that what goes on in my classroom could ripple out into a meaningful contribution to the social conflicts we discuss. But, man, what a difficult project. I believe confrontation with these issues can be embedded in the presentation of the institutionally mandated material. For example, I make a point of using the required Shakespeare text to teach ideological critique (how patriarchal cultural conventions are concealed beneath the seemingly neutral rhetoric of ‘nature’) and the deconstruction of colonialism/racism (we’re looking at the character’s in The Tempest’s desire to display Caliban for profit against the backdrop of the human zoos that existed for four centuries after the play was written. Many students are not aware of how recent these issues are). There are entry points everywhere!

    • I am not a freshmen college professor, but I did teach freshmen in high school and now middle school, and we use strategies similar to what Cathy outlined everyday and many more in my classroom. We use them because they work. Reality is, standardized tests are still the marker for higher education, but they should be thought of as the way to achieve the highest learning. My students have top their scores and are excelling in a university setting because of the prepperation and hands on learning my network provides. I see it as a thrilling experience to be a pioneer in this new way of teaching and learning as I think new professors such as yourself should see it. Someone has to shake the system up, and if not you than who? Many Professors who have been tenured or use their teaching as more of a side job to their research are likely not going throw away years of method they have become comfortable with. New teachers are just beginning and just forming their style in the classroom so it seems to me the perfect person to try something new.

      • Thanks for this, Kelly. My last book was more about K-12 but, as I went around the country interviewing teachers and students, it became clear that K-12 cannot change until higher education changes. So in this one, I’m profiling the brave universities that are working on new ways of evaluating students, moving away from the awful standardized testing that is as terrible for dedicated, engaged teachers like you as it is for your students. Lani Guinier talks about the “sieve” through which a very tiny standard of value sorts a very few students. We need to change that. Thanks for being part of the movement to make change. I know the odds you are up against.

  • Some thoughts on the fundamental purpose of education in America:
    -For white men: to avoid Satan.
    -For white women: to better serve the interest of white men (their husbands, sons)
    -For Native Americans: to assimilate into “civilized” white culture.
    -For contemporary Americans: to be tracked into measurable paths reflective of their parents class/educational background.

    This all leaves me thinking about teaching at CUNY, or within any school that serves students from working-class, non-white, first-generation, or non-traditional backgrounds. No wonder we (in our class) have so many questions about how to best serve our students Of these backgrounds, especially in public educational institutions…it seems there’s been no productive historical foundation from which to understand how to do this. Especially how to do this in a way that grants respect to our students from those populations and relieves our quiet concerns about doing harm or unknowingly perpetuating damaging dynamics through the “microaggressions” Hsu refers to in his article. We are all smart, sensitive people and we all know enough about history to be grossed out by much of it. This makes SO much sense now. The reasons why we are struggling to feel like we are able to be the kind of educators we would like to be is rooted in the fact that history has no effective composite for those of us that teach in public (especially urban public) institutions today. I feel like these readings just helped me solve a math problem.

    • Yes, exactly. This is the legacy structure we all are working against and our students are too. I would add that, from the 19th century forward, with compulsory public education, training humans to the rhythms, regulations, and outputs of machines has been the systemic and unifying force of education for everyone. Even though the research university for elites (however defined) moved one “free” of manual/automated labor, the methods of Fordism and Taylorism pervade every structure of the modern university.

      However, there is another tradition of education that we haven’t read yet that is the progressive, student-centered tradition. We’ll start getting to that. And all the techniques we are learning are based on creating new structures. Montessori and Douglas and DuBois and Dewey (who had some racist as well as progressive ideas) all had ideas for progressive education and how to give agency against structures. We’ll be reading more of that as we go along. It’s important first to make the structures visible, then deconstruct them, then design new structures within what we have, aware of what we’ve inherited.

      The mantra: you cannot counter structures of inequality with good will; you must create structures of equality.

    • Thank you for this comment, Erica. You have given me a sense that there may actually be an audience for my dissertation project (imagine that!) which looks at a group of feminist and antiracist activist artists and educators–Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich–all of whom taught in the SEEK program at CUNY during Open Admissions. They were, to an extent, using student-centered pedagogies (some more so than others, and each in really interesting ways) while trying to address structural and institutional inequalities, all in an underfunded public university with students whose entire K-12 experience had been an effort to track them out of education. In doing this research, I’ve found that there is also a rich tradition of student-centered pedagogy that emerges from the Black Panther Party, and that educators like Ericka Huggins and Elaine Brown may have as much to offer as the figures we usually go to, like Dewey and Freire. If you’re interested, I highly recommend Donna Murch’s Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California.

  • Hi Mike and Zeb, I think we need to separate out issues here and it will be great to hear what the rest of the class things too. (1) Student-centered, engaged teaching is about helping all students to have a sense of agency, especially in the wake of twelve years of schooling that is all about depriving them of agency (except at the most elite schools, typically) and is about underscoring their standardization and meeting up to standards. How you go from that to meaningful, independent adulthood is mysterious to many–and, the research shows, harder all the time given the “no tolerance” and other infantalizing and penalizing required in K-12 now. Student-centered learning is helping students to each have a voice, to learn how to actively write their own thoughts and actively and deeply listen to and engage with others. It works for everyone–including those Math 1A students at Berkeley. All fields too. Student-centered (as opposed to test-based, standards-based, credential-centered) learning does not have to have a social agenda or a social justice imperative except an implicit one: we know that marginalized students (including those simply marginalized by their own introversion) do best when taught and encouraged and mentored towards their own agency. Our profession will never change demographically unless we use these practices since apprenticeship methods (again much research here) reward similarity rather than difference. But the main point of student-centered, engaged pedagogy is student success. Period. All learning improves with student-centered methods so it’s a pedagogy worth practicing (especially as it involves no more work and even helps break the cycle of over-preparation and over-assigning homework to students). The (2) second element is social engagement, social change, and social justice. You cannot enact a better society unless you feel yourself to be an active participant in democratic practice. Without a voice, you cannot speak–or speak out. But that is a second step and not everyone knows how to lead that step. For (2) there are so many points of entry but not every professor wants to make those. What I love so much about your blog, Mike, and your response, Zeb, is that it shows how many ways there are to engage the student as student and also to support a more equitable society. Even asking “what does the SAT test?” is a step towards a better society as “what we measure” leads to the question of “what we value” (i.e. the subject of our next The University Worth Fighting For workshop). And, Zeb, I love your discussion of Caliban and zoos. Great. Thank you both for these thoughtful comments. I look forward to hearing what the other students will say. Personally, I’m in favor of both 1 and 2, together, but realize that, in some situations, both are hard. And then, sometimes, they are so easy (like having everyone write one important thing from the reading on card and taking turns reading the cards: you hear what otherwise is silent and silenced by something so simple, respectful, and sensible.)

  • I also find it thrilling to think that education has the potential to do a better job of preparing students for real world issues. But, as much as we can try to make changes in our classrooms, the problem is much larger. The disparity between private and public institutions perpetuates the idea that education is for the privileged. Lani Guinier states that it starts with the misguided value attached to test scores. “Testocratic merit makes the assumption that test scores are the best evidence of applicant’s worth, without paying much attention to the environments in which one finds those individuals.” Guinier’s suggestion of redefining merit to have a more democratic meaning is a compelling one. The professor from Virginia Tech who helped uncover the water crisis in Flint Michigan has set a tremendous example. We noted how it would be preferable if this model of service were valued over publishing esoteric scholarship in order to achieve tenure. Likewise, college students should be encouraged to take on real world challenges outside the classroom with that contribution assessed.

    High school students are often encouraged and even required to take on community service, but this is not valued and fostered in any meaningful way. It ends up being another check on the list of items to mark off for admission to the college a student aspires to attend. I witness the hollowness of this at home. My daughters have a “creativity activity service” requirement in their high school and I see how they and and their friends scramble to find something, anything to fulfill this requirement. I have to hope, as I imagine the school administrators do, that students will find meaning in their choice on their own so that they can internalize the experience for future reference.

  • I had a similar reaction to that particular moment in the video, wondering, if it is truly representative of students at that, or any, institution, then what has changed student attitudes (or have they always been this way)? Is it that a more diverse studenty body (even has forced the issue of incorporating new perspectives and interests? Is it that students today really do have a different attitude about what is “valuable” and expect their education to reflect only these values? Are students more self-absorbed as critics claim, and unwilling or unable to consider future possibilities for themselves? — That in their own lives they may develop other perspectives unrelated to current interests or career goals, for which exposure to such “irrelevant” ideas could one day be useful? And what about older students? In my experience they are more open to what may not be immediately “relevant” because life has already taught them that they grow and change and develop new attitudes toward what they don’t yet know. Just being in college is proof of that. (I have also had the privilege of seeing younger students grow during the course of a semester, from general disinterest in reading anything to reading for fun outside of class.)

    Or, is this reflective of a shift in attitude toward the process of learning itself? Ideally, students would at least make an attempt to find their own way into some aspect of the material that may not seem immediately important to them. This personal effort is fundamental to student-centered learning, and an instructor can only facilitate it. Active learning entails reflection and recognition of one’s own role in the process, and the effort to latch onto something –anything– in the material, whether it’s a specific idea, a general concept, a literary character, resonance with other coursework, a sense of accomplishment in finishing an assignment, the experience of writing as a thinking process, etc.–in the material at hand, even if it otherwise would not attract interest. In the end, that’s what all learning requires, no? Getting back to Mike’s point about fun, those experiences are what in a general way (even if only in retrospect) make learning pleasurable. Perhaps finding that pleasure is necessary for any meaningful learning to take place, but that is ultimately a personal and private process.

  • I also wanted to offer what to some people may seem like a surprising perspective on test scores. I totally agree with the way they have been (increasingly) overvalued to the point that kids are prepping for the SATs in junior high (if not earlier), much to the benefit of Kaplan, the Princeton Review, and the College Board, but for me they were really important.

    But these issues were not talked about when I took those tests, and my personal experience with them had a really positive impact on my life. I dropped out of high school in my senior year – I was one of those “good” students in a decent-but-nothing-special public high school in a one-high school town- and I did not get a GED. I wanted to go to college, but hated high school, and didn’t push myself beyond what was necessary for As and Bs in basic “college prep” courses (no AP classes, just those that satisfied what were then listed on applications as “A through F requirements”) — even though I appreciated what I was learning. I never made it past intermediate algebra and chemistry, so no college-level math. Basically, I was an underachieving perfectionist, which is a trait I still fight against.

    I took the SATs and the ACTs late in the fall I dropped out, with no remediation for the subjects I missed, and no formal prep courses — just someone to help me with the math and give me pointers for the essay. (This was in 1986, when it was a 2-part test, with a 1600 max. score.) My mother was not very involved in my education, and prep courses were not “de riguer” at that time, so I was basically on my own. Without any serious preparation, my test scores were pretty good. Certainly not great, and by today’s standards they wouldn’t have helped me much. But I was accepted, based on my test scores, to three of the four schools I appled to: two UC campuses, and Hampshire College, which did not take scores seriously anyway.

    This was my main goal for taking the tests – scoring above the minimum UC admissions requirement for a high school-dropout without a GED. But a really important and unexpected side effect was a huge boost in self-esteem. I scored higher than some of my friends – people I knew were really smart – and for the first time in my life I felt that I had bona fide, institutionally-verified proof that I was a truly “smart” person.

    So, for all the controversy over test scores and what they don’t measure, and whom they exclude, I imagine there are still students who succeed and feel a similar sense of pride and accomplishment that extends beyond college admission. Ideally, there would be other mechanisms in high school and earlier that would enable underachieving students to develop confidence in their abilities. And ideally, those students would have the encouragement and even a little pressure to work hard and achieve some sense of accomplishment at home. (Which brings us back to last week’s readings, and the contentious boundary of what is properly under the purview of the school and what is the responsibility of parents.)

    In short, I think that any time we’re talking about college education, the learning that does (or doesn’t) take place during high school is the elephant in the room, and it needs to be addressed as well.

  • Mike—great points! I totally agree that we need to find “tiny openings” in which to broaden discussion in the classroom. The best pedagogical advice I received was from my grad. committee chair David Hanlon who attested “all we can do is make space.” I think Cathy is having us do that too in our readings, reflections and in-class meetings. And what do we make space from? Hua Hsu writes “[we] desire to see onself along a continuum of experience.” So do we make space for the odd duck lurking within us? Sousanis writes as does Guinier that we need to make space for imagination, to that Guinier adds collaboration so to benefit democratic vs. testocratic merit that stops at the door Sousanis is inviting us to walk into, the door of otherness. But instead of a door built to welcome women and natives into civility, we are asked, by Sousanis, to open a door inside ourselves that makes “the familiar strange” and so to tap into a “critical dimension of potentialities to transcend [our] existing state.” That to me is a big “wow” moment, but it takes a lot of work to get there, nothing fun about it, although we can have a good time as we make our way:).
    In my field of study, history, we have long made space into the people, lands and cultures of difference so to demonstrate a multitude of American social purposes: manifest destiny, trade, progress, individualism, democracy, tradition…. Erica, you think history grosses you out now, we haven’t even yet begun to discuss the Pacific’s forced incorporation into the American post-WWII empire. In this instance, undergraduate students are more informed about Pacific Islander roles in American foreign policy than our own 21stC text books relay. Yet they are also the first to write, which they did for two of four years when I was an advisor for the CUNY honors college at Brooklyn College, how mandatory service trips to foreign lands are because they “want to save the lives of natives” (as participants in the Global Medical Brigades—sooo many students wanted to be doctors a circumstance of immigrant parents and the conflation of the American Dream?). When a door becomes a bridge (versus a barrier, see Sousanis) it is still articulated as built on the bodies and lands of who/what we deem in need. Another good piece of pedagogical advice I received was from Gayatri Spivak who came to the U of HI when I was there as a student. She said to remember anytime we put ourselves in a position of help we put ourselves in a position of power. Okay to do that to ourselves, but to others? Is equality even a possible thought within our developed colonial state-of-mind with a highly funded military to boot? Are we yet again out to save the world from “war, ethnic conflict, hunger, poverty,” etc.? Can we not think and talk about how we do a pretty good job of causing those same conditions, inside the classroom and out?

    • This is brilliant: “She said to remember anytime we put ourselves in a position of help we put ourselves in a position of power.”—Gayatri Spivak

      It corresponds to the important work by Carol Dweck on “growth mindset” from research she has done where marginalized communities believe they are not “gifted” . . . whereas those from more affluent backgrounds often believe that, if they ask questions, they will be able to “take risks” and get better at what they do. She has done remarkable work with Native Americans on reservations and in urban poverty surrounding Seattle, including helping one of the lowest ranked schools in the state and turning it into the highest simply/not simply by showing kids that, together, they could make themselves powerful and learn and “grow their brains” and become strong together, by asking questions and getting feedback as a source of power, not shame.

      • Gayatri did good work too in the summer and semester she was at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2001–a long time ago. She taught a class in Comp. Lit (her field at Columbia) where she focused on the works of J.M. Coetzee–South Africa is light years ahead of Hawaii in terms of questioning a power structure based on race. She also held a public talk with then director of Hawaiian Studies Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa where she told personal stories about the jewelry she wore. That really resonated with a culture of the personal. Names too resonate. Lilikala who is from what islanders call the “mainland,” i.e. the continental U.S., changed her name from something like Sue Smith after completing a doctorate at U of HI in, I think, Pac. Island history (my field). HI occupies a strange place in the American imagination, and utmost among mainland Hawaiians who make the pilgrimage “home.” The pedagogical mindset in HI, among the Center for Hawaiian Studies and at different charter schools where I volunteered when I was there as a university student and, later, a teacher was not one of shame, but rather that the individual should not rise above the group. If we rise, we rise together–which places a huge psychological toll on an individual who disagrees or even, for that matter, thinks differently. And if there is pride, it is not because of individual effort; it’s because “I’m a Hawaiian [Kanaka Maoli or more commonly keiki o ka aina–child of the land].” Did I say light years?

    • Hi there. I’m doing some work for my dissertation and I just came across this amazing quote from Toni Cade Bambara, a brilliant black feminist and fiction writer. For me, Bambara’s notion of the coloniality of student-teacher relationships resonates so much with Spivak’s notion that helping is a position of power (so brilliant, and related, I think, to the pedagogical models in Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation): “I’m a very seductive teacher, persuasive, infectious, overwhelming, irresistible. I work hard in the classroom to teach students to critique me constantly, to protect themselves from my nonsense; but let’s face it, the teacher-student relationship we’ve been trained in is very colonial in nature. It’s fraught with dangers. The power given teachers over students’ minds, students’ spirits, students’ development–my God! To rise above that, to insist of myself and of them that we refashion that relationship along progressive lines demanded a great deal of courage, imagination, energy and will. Writing was a way to ‘hear’ myself, check myself. Writing was/is an act of discovery…” The quote is from Claudia Tate’s Black Women Writers at Work.

  • Hi Lisa, Thanks so much for supplying this very useful anecdote. It is very important to remember. I am not against testing at all–and I’m not against standardized tests. My first husband (now deceased) went from a remote town in Alberta, Canada, where he was 16 before he had running water–200 people in 200 square miles, Mormons, ex-Mormons, and Blackfeet (including some Mormon Blackfeet) First Peoples–to full scholarship at the University of Chicago due to standardized tests. I have various relatives who went to college much as you did, through brilliant test taking despite terrible high school scores. Since 1986, though, the standardized testing regime consumes everything else, including how teachers are evaluated, which means teaching to the test. THAT is awful. Also, combined with the “three strikes” and “no tolerance” behavior policies, the school-to-prison pipeline is enforced via testing in all kinds of ways. I would never rule out good tests–they challenge, consolidate, and measure. I am against the structural inequalities unspoken but built into what is called “standards-based education” or “outcomes-based education.” It’s a mis-use of bad tests for the profit of those who have nothing to do with education that is appalling in its educational and social impacts.

  • K12 and higher education must be considered together. One can’t serve as the “destination” of the other– strategies have to include multidirectional compromise & conversation. Also, so-called “microaggressions” are difficult to combat with ‘macro’ solutions. Viral, eminently-adaptable microsolultions offer a greater potential for legitimate change, as long as the ‘anti-incrementalist’ (marxist) lobby can put their eschatological ideology on hold.

    The job difficulty of intro professors is partially predicated upon the radical break between K12 & “college,” and on a secondary break between “college” and “real-world.”

    Modulation– constant, so as to vibrate & hum rather than swing wildly– between “fun” & “fear,” macro & micro, oppression and liberation, and among the various planes of reality manifested by education is the

  • I spelled de rigeur wrong and it’s driving me nuts!

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