Friday, July 22, 2016

Slow Week 4: Pedagogy and Pleasure

This chapter champions pleasure as important to teaching and learning.

It seems obvious that when one teaches well, one enjoys it, but perhaps the reverse is actually more accurate:  that when one enjoys teaching, one does it well . . . it may be the case that pleasure -- experienced by the instructor and the students -- is the most important predictor of "learning outcomes." (34)

Pleasure here is discussed as a positive and embodied emotion that affects our thinking in important ways, arguing against online coursework on the ground that it is not as effective as face-to-face interaction where emotions are infectiousThe authors here quote Picard et al: 

"a slight positive mood does not just make you feel a little better but also induces a different kind of thinking, characterised by a tendency toward greater creativity and flexibility in problem solving, as well as more efficiency and thoroughness in decision making." (37)

Who doesn't want to gain greater creativity and flexibility in problem solving?  Who doesn't want students engaging in more creative and flexible thinking in the classroom?  The answer is to "work at having positive emotions" in order to counteract the brain's instinctive negativity bias with several suggestions, the most succinct of which is probably we need to "stop abusing ourselves with overwork" (40).  The other suggestions were varied:  remember to make a transition to class; "hold the space" in silence before beginning class; remember to breathe; don't be afraid to laugh and make students laugh; listen and pay attention to students; giving students specific boundaries in the syllabus or course guidelines about social media (one lesson I took from the "intercepting" section); "'reduc[e] one's attention to time may therefore be an important, yet previously overlooked, means of promoting flow'" (as quoted from Conti, 50), (the other lesson I took from the "intercepting" section; prepare classes in brief enjoyable sessions; think about preparing one's class as a story as well as use stories to make the lessons more engaging; prepare assignments that are "useful and enjoyable for the students themselves" (50).

What is the most difficult part of teaching for you?  How could you make teaching, preparing for teaching, and/or grading more pleasurable?  Are there boundaries you could set that would help make teaching more pleasurable?  What concrete steps could we take to "stop abusing ourselves with overwork"?  What gets in the way of really listening and attending to students?  Is there a way to introduce "timeless time" into the classroom without getting hopelessly behind?  What does thinking about your course as a story do for you?


Earnest English said...

So I have to confess that I read this chapter about six weeks ago, when I was still slogging through my spring quarter and feeling like a terrible teacher, rushed and insane, yet telling students that we should take time for reflection and deep thinking. Do as I say, not as I do. So when I read this before, the invitation to focus on pleasure was irresistible. I read tiny pieces of it to my students. Most important to me, after my first reading of this chapter, was that I figure out how to slow down -- that rushing around, which I know very well makes me really agitated and annoyed, was actually making me ineffective and was counter to the values I'm trying to instill! So I went into this week's reading wanting nothing more than to really sink my teeth into this chapter, really suck out of it every bit of juice I could get.

So I was surprised when I read the chapter and had a different reaction to it. I agree with most everything in here, except thinking of one's course as a story which just confuses me. But I agree with all this in context. I do believe that pleasure is important, but I don't think pleasure can be an ethic or a principle in itself. Why? Because there are professors who are beloved but are horrible teachers, to the point that many students barely even realize they haven't learned much about the subject. We've had a couple examples of these at my institution -- professors and students who are having fun in class -- having positive emotions and pleasure -- but they're not really learning what they're supposed to be learning. Focusing only on pleasure -- one's own, one's students -- can lead all sorts of problems -- thinking too much about evals, for example. Contingent faculty are in a situation, often depending on student evals for rehiring, where we can probably well understand why the teachers would want to keep the students happy, but that might mean leaving rigor out as well. Pleasure may lead to better learning outcomes, but not necessarily, so I think focusing solely on pleasure could be dangerous.

Now, are Berg and Seeber really advocating an ethic of pleasure and nothing else? I doubt it. But they don't really talk about these nuances here, unsurprisingly in such a short book.

Earnest English said...

For me, going forward, I do know I need to keep pleasure in mind. I teach in an a general education program so I rarely encounter students who are interested in the same things I am. (There are exceptions.) In a specific pedagogical orientation that I'm interested in, we talk a fair amount about the students and teacher having a shared body of interest that the teacher has expertise in. Yet my students are rarely interested in those things I have expertise in, so while I do regularly include things in my courses because I think they are important and they give me pleasure, I'm not always passing that on to my students because my students and I are so different. I always try to engage in student-centered projects. So much of the suggestions don't really feel like they pertain to me. They are things I already believe in (especially being a bit silly in the classroom, though that comes naturally to me).

Going forward, what I really need to figure out is how to create courses with reading and grading schedules that aren't going to kill me. I need to create courses in which *I* am not rushed. A bit of context: my place has a rush, rush, rush mentality. The faculty have it; the students have it. This means that while students will complain a bit, they probably don't complain when they ought to. Because everything is rush, rush, rush, I try to cram in as much as I can too. I try not to do this, but we have limited time (quarters) and ambitious objectives, and it's often a forced march for all of us. I don't want to be that way. I don't want to be remade by this place. I want to create classes that teach a lot, but also teaches the power of just being present and able to breathe and not crazed. And I want to be present and not be crazed or rushed or feel run over as I usually do about halfway through the quarter. Now, how to do that?

heu mihi said...

I felt strangely unsatisfied by this chapter, but maybe that was because I read it too quickly and at a time when I was tired? In retrospect, I agree with and appreciate most of their arguments. But like you, EE, I believe that an excessive focus on pleasure can be detrimental to the learning project (and really annoy colleagues--I'm thinking of a beloved prof in my program at my former institutions, who was very sweet but reeeaaaalllly easy, and all the students thought he was BRILLIANT and AMAZING and I have no idea what they were all smoking. He was a very nice man, but...anyway).

However, on the whole I am on board with thinking about teaching as improved and enhanced by pleasure, and naturally I want to love all parts of my job! So I am not resistant to the overall thrust of the chapter. One of my problems as a teacher is that I always try to do too much, every semester--I still, 9 years in (I'll be starting my 10th year as a professor in six weeks!), have this mortal dread of Running Out Of Things To Discuss. Has that *ever* happened? In 9 years and at least 60 courses, maybe twice. So I need to let that fear GO.

I've been interested lately in contemplative pedagogies, and this chapter resonates a lot with those methods. Combining CP and the Slow Professor chapter, I'm thinking about doing the following this semester: Starting classes with a moment of presence/mindfulness; designing a few more assignments that allow students to connect personally to the course material (part of me really rebels against this as unrigorous, but, in truth, what drew me to literature was connecting personally to it, so it's not such a bad thing if my students feel encouraged to do that!), and adding days of "Pause/Synthesis" to the syllabus, where we have no readings due but take a day to process and deepen our understanding of what we've done so far.

As for where I have the most trouble with teaching, it's definitely prep. I *hate* prepping. So I'm trying to do some of it (for my new fall course) this summer, when I don't feel rushed and resentful. I haven't gotten very far yet, and I have little confidence that I'll do as much as I hope, but any little bit that's accomplished pre-September will make me love myself this fall, right?

What Now? said...

I hadn't joined your reading group, on the grounds that I'm not a professor anymore, but, EE, your description of this chapter interested me such that I just requested the book from the library. So the point I'm about to make is without the benefit of having done the reading (do I sound like a student yet?!): I think that pleasure is often experienced in retrospect, or cumulatively, so that a particular assignment or day in class may not feel pleasurable in the moment, but later on it brings a sense of satisfaction that is deeply pleasurable. I'm not sure if Berg and Seeber make that point.

And Heu, I love the idea of including "Pause/Synthesis" to the syllabus!

When I have moments of feeling overwhelmed and stressed out by the work of a course, I sometimes check in with the students and usually discover that they're feeling overwhelmed and stressed out too. And in those moments, I often drop something from the course (something that seemed essential to me at one point but I now realize isn't), and we all breathe easier. But that's easier to do at the HS level than the college level.

KJHaxton said...

I struggled with this chapter and found myself substituting 'satisfaction' for pleasure in a number of instances. Yes there are bits of my work that are really enjoyable (when done under appropriate speeds so as not to be stressful) but there are other bits when it is satisfaction not pleasure that most feels right. So What Now's sentiments resonate very strongly with me.
I need to read this chapter again and think a bit more on it but like the last chapter it's got me thinking of the example we set our students by being very stressed and fast and overly hard working, and perhaps if we took permission to cut stuff and be more relaxed (and effective) in our own activities, our students might become so in theres.

JaneB said...

I felt like this chapter was missing something, but I'm not sure what. I took the word 'pleasure' with a pinch of salt and read it more as 'contentment' and 'flow' (it's probably a bad habit, but in reading anything written for a US audience first I mentally turn down the volume of the emotive meaning of words, being in the UK and despite my non-English non-mustn't-grump rantiness still have a more subdued word-use than most US writing), and so that wasn't a huge tripping point.

I feel like we could easily (and perhaps usefully) take a week to discuss each of the points identified in the chapter for action and to share practice (in fact, if anyone's up for that, I'd LOVE to take part...).

Hi, What Now?! Reading your post about attending a Bard course several summers ago set me off reading Peter Elbow's books, and experimenting with using silent, private free-writing in some of my classes, even though I teach STEM. It was really interesting, and I'd love to use more of it, but next year's teaching is very instrumentalist (200 students must know how to do Methods X Y and Z by the end of week 7 kind of thing). There's a lot of overlap it seemed to me between the ideas of wrestling with knowing, with articulating what one knows and understands and using words on paper as a way of doing that, and the sorts of things being discussed in this chapter, but it sort of shot past in a very throw-away manner. And I didn't READ it fast.

The problems I always have with the advice about taking time to prepare for teaching and doing it in pieces is that the only time I have to do that is the summer, and most of THAT is taken up with trying to meet research obligations and deal with the detritus of the previous year. I mean, I think it's a great IDEA. But the only way I can actually effectively do it is to have teaching coming up day after day after day in non-teaching time, which for ME gets in the way of making the right space for the sort of 'flow' and timelessness that the last chapter spoke about.

I'm interested by this chapter, it's full of all manner of neat stuff, but it ironically feels rather rushed, perhaps because it IS full of all manner of neat stuff, like a new course in one's pet area which has to contain ALL THE FUN BITS EVER! As people said above, having the autonomy to rethink and adapt to the room you're in feels really important in achieving a responsive, Slow class, with room to listen as well as speak - but in my system we have to set the exam questions and major assessment titles NOW for modules that won't start until next February (to get through three layers of approvals...), so one has to be very, very careful about dropping stuff!

JaneB said...

And now a new comment about the idea of my course as story.

I actually like that bit, partly because it confirms my preferences! My very basic feeling about teaching is that there are three kinds of learning that are biologically rooted in us, that probably go back before we even were our species - those are "messing around to see what happens if...", "spending time with and imitating someone who's better at something", and "listening to and telling stories". And the third one is central to this thing we call higher education, to developing the ability to get beyond the particular to the general, to get beyond your own physical and social and cultural bounds, to stretch your thinking muscles - because stories are where we put together patterns, seek meaning, and seek to communicate and transmit that meaning. Stories come out of communication, and so you have to have something to communicate. Good stories speak to more than just a specific incident - even gossip, that meanest of story forms ("did you hear what they did now?"), is about looking for patterns, affirming or challenging identities and received wisdomes, identifying and framing problems, solution-seeking... Good stories, like good speeches, invite the listener along on a journey - and like any journey, they don't come back quite the same. So lectures and classes, for me, always have some of the properties of a story, because that's the pattern of communication that works when we want to help others think for themselves, rather than just do what we say.

The other analogy I use a lot is that of a map - the module roughs out a map of territory, of a whole continent in a survey course, in higher courses of a country or a feature (rivers, towns, hills, coasts, marshes). The good module allows, empowers, facilitates, whatever words make most sense to you and to the level, students to work within that map to make it their own, by taking little journeys, filling in the details of things that interest them, making their own copy that suits their needs. I love paper maps (and the UK is especially blessed in its mapping - look at a 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map, and be dazzled by the stories it offers), and they are full of stories, just like books are.

Whether the story helps with setting Learning Objectives... well, that's different. I don't know that it does, but that may be on ME because I've never had a problem stating what I hope students will get out of the class, will be able to do - because that's essential to devise a good assessment, and module planning begins pretty much with assessment, since we know that will be the focus of most of the work most students put into the class, and that's just how it should be in our system, it's how it works. So classes are framed around a narrative of how a student will go from week 1 - finding out the goal (Frodo, destroy the ring!) to finals week (plop into Mount Doom), how the pieces fit into a journey.

tl;dr - I like analogies and narrative works for me, especially coupled with map and journey