April 29, 2016

Reflections with a twist

One of the things that yoga has taught me about the academic classroom is not to take for granted that my instructions are clear. Just because I know what I mean – or even if half the class does – doesn’t mean I’ve reached everyone.

In my yoga classes, I do a variation on sun salutations that includes a twisting low lunge. It always astonishes me how many people instinctively twist away from their front knee, into an awkward and unstable twist. 1 It took me months before I realized that I needed to change my cues to reach those people. About half the class got the ‘let’s raise our arms and twist right,’ but in every class, I’d look up to see more than a few in the shaky went-the-wrong-way version, looking at me with distrust in their eyes. They clearly felt something was wrong, but having misinterpreted my cue, they weren’t at all sure how to correct.

Then I started saying ‘let’s twist toward that front knee,’ and they all got it. My revised cue also works for the few who inevitably lead with the left leg when I cue the right, since my cue is no longer based on direction, but on relative position. I think it also helps that the cue references a specific point on the body, so there is no confusion of right/left, with no fixed point.

So, I realized, I need to be willing to reflect on my cues, and be open to changing them, even I think they’re pretty straightforward. We don’t all visualize our bodies the same way, so while I might be generally comfortable with direction-based cues, 2 I have a responsibility to find other ways to lead people through the poses.

I’ve also realized that I need to be open to variations, and not just when I’m offering them. 3 At the end of every class, our final pose is Savasana (the Final Relaxation, or Corpse Pose – and hence one of the few that I only name in Sanskrit). Getting into Savasana is pretty straightforward, and I give a series of cues for coming out of the relaxation after two or three minutes: I ring a tingsha bell, then I say “to come back, let’s start with small movements of the wrists and ankles, then a nice big stretch, and a moment on our sides, in a fetal position, eyes closed… and when we’re ready, let’s use our arms to push up to seated.” It drove me bananas that so many people shifted and fidgeted during the Savasana, and even more bananas when they completely ignored my sequence to come back to Easy Seated Pose for our Namaste. One of my regulars hugs her knees to her chest and rocks herself manically to come straight upright!

But it struck me that my stressing about Savasana was counterproductive. So, rather than insisting on the sequence, I’ve started saying “find any position, laying on the mat, where you can be comfortable and just relax for a few minutes,” instead of insisting on the ‘real’ Corpse Pose. When I ring the tingsha, now I say “let’s take whatever movements we need to come back” and then offer some of the sequence as options. Some people do the whole sequence, some choose one or two of the steps, and my rocking horse still rocks herself back up. I let go of my rigid definition of Savasana, and now we’re all more relaxed.

If I consider both examples – the low twist and the Savasana – it’s clear to me that for the twist, I needed to find a new way to explain, in order to ensure that the pose is safe and stable. For the Savasana, on the other hand, I needed to let go of my vision, and allow people to find their own best expression.

How does this realization – that it’s not them, it’s me – manifest itself in the academic classroom?

Also a nice metaphor for being open to different paths.

Also a nice metaphor for being open to different paths.

Last week, I had my Master’s students work on an exercise in assessment. I gave each group a different colourful image, and instructed them to determine the learning objective, the appropriate and acceptable evidence that the objective has been met, and, using backward design, to decide on the instructional strategies that would get the student to the objective. I thought my instructions were clear enough, yet broad enough to allow for some creativity. The idea was to take the concepts – learning objectives, evidence, criteria for assessment, and backward design – out of the classroom, to make them clearer.

I was initially dismayed, then, when the first two groups that I checked in with showed me their progress and both were using their image as if they were teaching a primary class with the image, rather than teaching someone toward the image. In other words, the lovely photo of the garden, I thought, would inspire a lesson on how to plan and plant a garden; the group with that photo, however, used it to teach children how to identify colours.

My first reaction was to “correct” the groups, and get them to consider the garden as the objective, rather than the tool. But then I stopped myself, and wondered why I needed them to use the photo the way I thought it should be used. Would they not get the concepts if they changed the function of the photo? Would my exercise somehow not work? Would they be unable to present an objective, an assessment, and a learning plan? The answer to all of these questions was ‘no,’ of course. So rather than correct the groups, I discussed their ideas with them, and let them get on with their work.

In the end, about half the groups worked with their photos as tools, rather than as objectives. Each group presented to the class, and gave feedback to each other, and there were no problems at all – most groups began with “we chose to think of the photo as…” and we all accepted each group’s approach.

In future iterations of the course, I plan to use this exercise again, but I’ll model my idea of how to use the photo. I still think it’s valuable to think about assessment outside of the classroom context (as my yoga crossovers demonstrate!), so I’ll adjust my instructions to guide students in that direction – but I won’t get bogged down in “why don’t they get it?” frustration. I need to learn to recognize the “why don’t they get it?” reaction as a cue for me, to reflect on what I’m saying, and how, and whether, ultimately, different interpretations are problematic.

Is this a twist, or a Savasana?

  1. yes, it’s certainly doable, but for the level I teach, it’s not a comfortable pose
  2. and honestly, I’m just as likely to go left when someone says right, especially if I’m teaching and being the mirror. I have to cue Eagle very, very slowly.
  3. Because I teach “all-level” classes, I tend to offer several options for poses as we go along. So, for instance, I might cue Downward Dog, but give the option of Child’s Pose as an alternative.
April 16, 2016

Decisions, decisions

So I have finished the first year of course work in my doctoral pursuit. 1  I have four more weeks of teaching my Montreal Writers lit course, which thus overlaps with the course on assessment that I begin teaching this coming week.

I know that what I’ve taken on is huge, and, I’ll admit, intimidating and impressive. Full-time course work as a student, full-time workload as a teacher (including work on implementation of our new policy on assessing student proficiency in the language of instruction, and work on the English Exit Exam committee), teaching at the university, part-time yoga instruction, my own fitness training (working to improve my 10K time, and maybe get to a half-marathon this year), and all the domestic stuff, as a wife, mother, and dog/cat lover. It’s a big list. Yet, day-to-day, I’ve managed to stay on top of everything…

…or so I thought.

Mid-March, my husband and I managed to get away, just the two of us, for a week of scuba and sunbathing in Cozumel2  I figured that week would be the reboot I needed to face the end of term in my doctoral courses, and power through the end of semester at the college. But a week after we got home, I was exhausted. So I took a long, hard look at what I was actually doing 3  and realized that while I might feel in control of my workload on a day-to-day basis, the bigger picture was that I was really, really, really busy, and maybe I don’t need to be. After all, as I keep telling my yoga classes, we need to listen to our bodies – and mine was tired. I had no energy for running. I wasn’t doing yoga on my own. I wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t waking up well.

So, I sat down with a lovely person in our human resources department, and found myself just babbling at her about everything I was doing, everything I was about to take one, everything I was being asked to do. And I realized that I really needed to take back some control, and take back some time. I’ve dropped one of my yoga classes, so I’ll only be teaching three times a week, at least for the summer. More importantly, I’ve applied for a voluntary workload reduction, so I’ll only be teaching one course each semester. I’ll still be working on the Exit Exam committee, but the language policy team has been disbanded, so that’s off my list.

I’ve also reflected on what I want to accomplish over the next few months, and created a timeline for myself. I have actually added a few things (such as more regular blogging!), but it’s loose enough that I feel it’s a good balance between having set goals and having space to breathe.

At the beginning of the last month of the semester, I do an exercise with my students and get them to note every assignment, every test, every reading, every soccer game, every family gathering, every work shift, etc., on a one-page calendar that covers the end of the semester. Seeing all those commitments on one page first feels terrifying, but then feels empowering. As I remind the students, we’ve all survived an end of semester before, with just as much stuff to do, but the calendar gives us a plan. It gives us control.

So, that’s what I did for myself. I made my decision for the workload reduction, and I set up my timeline, and took back the control I almost didn’t realize I’d lost.
Maybe I’ll even have time for a nap.

  1. I feel I should specify “course work,” because, as I’m sure anyone else who is going or has gone through the process can attest, the non-course work – reading, writing, more reading, more writing, thinking, talking, reading some more, planning, more writing – somehow takes on a life and momentum of its own, so that even when you want to take a break, your brain won’t shut off and just let you focus on that trashy novel or mindless TV show.
  2. Hands down my favourite place to just relax and breathe, underwater or otherwise.
  3. In the midst of this reflection period, by the way, three different colleagues approached me to suggest I step forward as coordinator of the Liberal Arts program.
April 9, 2016

Autoethnography and Me

As my final paper for a course on textual approaches to research, I wrote an autoethnographic* analysis of my own tattoos. The paper is my first real foray into this genre of research; arguably, the Fitness & the Academy poster involves some autoethnography, but given that (disappointingly) the topic was rejected as a paper for the conference, I feel I didn’t spend a lot of time on it, and that while it represents my thoughts on the topic, it doesn’t really delve into the topic as much as it would have as a paper.13204669_s

I am, generally, very happy with the tattoo paper, but I have to admit there is a small voice inside asking if it “counts.” Of course, it does, and in fact I’m hoping that my prof encourages me to submit the paper for publication** (gotta publish!!). I read a lot for this paper, and I’ve sprinkled ideas from those articles throughout, as springboards for my own reflections on my tattoo choices. I consulted other working women with tattoos. I interviewed my favourite tattooist – and underwent three hours of delicious agony getting a new tattoo in the process.

So, objectively, this paper “counts.” I guess it’s the word “objectively” that fuels that small voice, which, I think, sounds a little like my dad. A few weeks ago, my dad triumphantly thrust a copy of The Globe and Mail under my nose, and proclaimed that everything I thought was true wasn’t. He was referring to a column by Margaret Wente, in which she crows about the “doubts and scandals that have plagued the field” of psychology, because recent research calls into question the reliability of research from previous decades. Wente’s column is, unsurprisingly, flawed on several counts; in regard to my dad’s remark, though, the most relevant failing is the author’s lack of understanding of how research – not just knowledge in the disciplines – has changed in the interim; it is not that the research is now unreliable, it is that times and methods and even subjects have changed such that the results cannot be reliably reproduced. My dad is a retired metallurgical engineer whose 1966 BSc thesis was on non-destructive testing methods. My mum is a physicist who spent her career in research and development for Pratt & Whitney. I grew up in a home, and an era, that cherished the Scientific Method, and it’s clear that Wente feels at home there, too.

So again, objectively, I know that times and methods have changed, and I am convinced that the Scientific Method is often completely inappropriate as an approach to a given topic. If one were to write a paper on tattoos, using the Scientific Method, what results would be produced? Statistical data about how many of a given population has how many tattoos? Can we draw anything meaningful from this approach? I say ‘no.’ At the same time, writing about tattoos from a more holistic and humanistic perspective can be fraught with tension, if one were to write about why other people make decisions about tattoos. The safest, and arguably, most honest approach may well be autoethnography – as my own research subject, I can rely on my interpretation of the data and avoid any risk of appropriation of voice or culture.

But – and here we come to the crux of the problem, moving forward – of what value is my paper to anyone else? Although part of me is excited about the idea of publishing the paper, that small voice is asking why any journal would want to publish one person’s account of her own tattoos. And if I can’t quell that voice, it’s only going to get more insistent as I work on my dissertation papers – how can one person’s discussion of her teacher identity and how it affects her approach to assessment be of value to anyone else?

I know that there is value in the method, and I remain convinced that it’s a valid approach for my research. The voice will be still, eventually.

* Further reading: Butz & Besio state that “at its most basic, autoethnography may be understood as the practice of doing this identity work self-consciously, or deliberately, in order to understand or represent some worldly phenomenon that exceeds the self; it is ‘a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context’ (Reed-Danahay 1997b, 9). It is becoming an increasingly common research and representational orientation in the social sciences and humanities” (1660).

Butz, David, and Kathryn Besio. “Autoethnography.” Geography Compass 3, no. 5 (2009): 1660-674.

Similarly, and perhaps even more pertinent in my research context, Hoppes writes that “by placing the writer in dual roles of researcher and research participant, autoethnography is a meaning-making tool that facilitates the exploration of identity” (64).

Hoppes, Steve. “Autoethnography: Inquiry Into Identity.” New Directions for Higher Education 2014, no. 166 (2014): 63-71.

**which is why I haven’t uploaded the paper here.

April 7, 2016

Progress

So this evening, my fellow first-year doctoral students and I will meet for the last time as members of the doctoral seminar, and we will share with each other, and with our friends, family, and faculty, our progress thus far. This is the poster I plan to present.final presentation