November 8, 2019

Why the master should become the student

This term has been so busy for me – I’ve started a new job, which I love, but which involves a lot of work, in a lot of different directions. All of this work is the kind of challenge I really thrive with, and in many ways, I’m really happy with the progress I’ve made so far. I still feel like there are things to learn, and I have felt, as one of my sister newbies said of her own teaching, that I’m making a lot of the rookie mistakes we tend to make when teaching a new course. I mismanaged my TA hours, so I now find myself at the end of the term, when marking really builds up, with no help. I’m facing that weird paradoxical feeling of there being only a few classes left, so not enough time to cover everything, while still feeling like I haven’t planned those classes in enough detail. I missed an important deadline for a curriculum change that I really want to have in place for next year, so it’s entirely possible that this change just won’t happen when I want.

On the other hand, I feel like I have established a good rapport with most of my colleagues, and that the changes I’m planning are welcome and supported. My students are comfortable with me, and they’re doing well. I have even figured out (mostly) the intricate online advising platform. I feel very much at home, and full of optimism for myself and my program.

Part of the reason things are a little overwhelming is that I agreed to teach an extra course this term, in exchange for (a) having TAs and (b) teaching one fewer next term. I am taking an online program in editing, and I have enrolled in two courses this winter, and another in the spring. My dissertation is currently in the hands of my committee, so the timing looks like it will work out really well – I’ll have less teaching in the winter, so time to work on revisions and my own coursework, as well as, of course, planning for next year’s courses and more program development. This term, I am taking only one course in the editing program, but that one course is getting away from me. Like, to the point that when our prof sent a message early this week to say she would be late getting to our latest assignments because she had an emergency appendectomy, my immediate reaction was “thank god.” Which makes me a terrible person, obviously, but I’m still grateful for a little extra time to get caught up.

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August 7, 2019

Thank you

I’ve been listening to A. J. Jacob’s book, Thanks a Thousand, and he inspired me to engage in a gratitude exercise: from A to Z, this is what I am grateful for as a teacher.

Assessment: Obviously, as a researcher, assessment is a source of fascination for me. Through my research, and my teaching, I’ve come to really appreciate the value of assessment as an essential aspect of learning.

Becoming: The notion that we are always becoming, as opposed to being, teachers, is profoundly important to me. Yes, I am a teacher, but I am not exactly the teacher I was last year, or last decade, nor the teacher I will be next year, or next decade. There is always room, and need, for growth – and for forgiveness, for what we weren’t yet, before.

Cegep: I am very grateful for the Cegep system, both as a teacher and as a student (and even as a parent). No system is flawless, and not all colleges, programs, or teachers are perfect, but the Cegep system is an excellent transition from secondary to university, for some, and – perhaps more importantly – a training ground for those for whom university just isn’t the way.

Development: I am grateful that in my new job, I have a chance to develop an already-good program into what I hope will be a great program.

The English Exit Exam: First, I am grateful that the exam introduced me to so many wonderful people from other colleges and other walks of life. I have always loved the slightly crazed but delightfully intimate atmosphere of the marking sessions. I am also grateful for the leadership skills I’ve had to hone to coordinate the exam and marking sessions, and for the opportunity to better my written French with countless emails to and from the Ministry team.

Friends: Most of my close friends are also teachers, and we are, I believe, a valuable resource for each other. We vent to each other, we bounce ideas off of each other, and we share tools, tips, and material with each other.

General Education: One of the things that the Cegep system gets right is its insistence that regardless of program, regardless of university or career track, all students must take courses in literature, humanities, a second language, and physical education. The General Education program prepares our students as citizens, and I am grateful that our system values that aspect of our students’ lives. Continue reading

April 15, 2019

Remember how much we forget

One of the great things about researching teacher development through community of practice is that I can be in research mode most of the time, and it just looks like having conversations (because that’s what it is). The conversation that’s been happening lately tends to dwell on the idea of trying to put oneself in the learners’ shoes.

When I was a kid, my mother tried to teach me to knit. But she’s a lot like me – I have a ton of patience with my students, but if I try teaching my husband something, I get super frustrated almost immediately. It’s like I know he’s really smart, so why isn’t he immediately getting this thing, that is so easy to do? What does he mean, what does ‘sauté the onions’ mean?

So when my mum taught me to knit, I think it must have been the same – I wasn’t getting it right away, so she got frustrated, which made me flustered and unhappy, which made knitting into something that I didn’t like. Something I wasn’t good at, and there were plenty of other things I was good at, so why would I waste my time on this?

Then as an adult, I got into crochet. I really wanted a scarf, a long, wide, warm scarf, and I couldn’t find one that fit the bill, so I said, OK, how hard can this be? I found a few tutorials and blogs online, got some yarn and a crochet hook, and figured it out. Boom, scarf. So I spent a few years crocheting, but then I started to think, OK, if I can do this, I can figure out how to knit, right? So again, I went online, and found tutorials with images. The videos weren’t helpful for me, but there’s so much out there that it’s easy to find the approach that works for you.

Halfway through a pair of legwarmers, which are basically sleeves, right?

I made more scarves. I made blankets. I got pretty good at variations on the quadrilateral – then, earlier this winter, I made myself a pair of legwarmers. Halfway through the first one, I realized that a legwarmer is pretty much just a sleeve. So I found a really simple sweater pattern, and I made a sweater. That first one, I remade twice. But I figured it out, and then realized that I was actually good at this, after all.

One thing that struck me was that when I first started, I had to look up how to do the basic stuff, every time. How do I cast on? I did it for the last project, but I need a reminder. I had a couple of knitting sites bookmarked so I could translate the weird knitting pattern shorthand, then go find a tutorial for how to do the stitch itself. Then I got to the point where I didn’t need the reminders anymore. The basic stitches and common techniques were second nature. I still find that if I encounter a new stitch or technique that I need to try it a few times – I find it hard to visualize what it should look like. But then once I’ve done it, I’ve got it.

I was talking about the importance of sometimes being a beginner with a colleague. We are both experienced teachers, both with advanced degrees in our respective fields, and both committed to a reflective practice. But when I told him how valuable I thought my learning-to-knit process was, he looked skeptical.

“Being a beginner is scary,” he said. “I’d feel too vulnerable. I don’t want to look like I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Of course, that’s true – but it’s also a big part of why we teachers need to be willing to be learners, even if we are so inexperienced as knitters, or skiers, or onion sautéers that we feel stupid or slow or frustrated. How many of our students feel exactly that way the first time they sit in our classrooms? How many of them are still trying to remember how to cast on, but we’ve forgotten that once upon a time, casting on wasn’t second nature to us?

I hear a lot of teachers talk about the evils of rote memorization, and it’s certainly true that learning can’t be just that. But maybe we’re so averse to memorization because we’ve forgotten what we’ve memorized. Those basics are so ingrained in our minds, in our practice, that we don’t see that we needed to remember it. That once upon a time we didn’t know how to cast on. That we didn’t know what sauté the onions meant. That we didn’t just know the alphabet. How many of us still mentally recite the alphabet song when we’re doing our reference list?

So my take away is twofold: try to remember what I’ve forgotten I didn’t always know, and be willing to be vulnerable, to look like I have no idea what I’m doing, and acknowledge that sometimes, some of them feel exactly that.


November 1, 2018

Crisis? What Crisis?

At a recent family event, we (naturally) got into a lively discussion of statistics; we all agreed that the biggest mistake people make with statistics is to not demand context. So, for instance, a political candidate might capitalize on the fact that the poverty rate has risen to 13% – but conveniently leave out the fact that it’s risen from 12.7%, or that other measures might suggest that it’s actually fallen from 15% to 8% in the same period.

British PM Benjamin Disraeli said it first, frequent attributions to Mark Twain notwithstanding

Also recently, a friend on Facebook asked for details about the new Quebec government’s promise regarding pre-K, and whether it would be mandatory (it would not be, according to the CAQ election platform). These two exchanges got me to thinking about the government’s stance on various aspects of education in the province, and in particular, in the cegep system. After all, in 2011, François Legault – now our Premier – told a crowd of supporters in Longueuil that “we should not have Cegeps” because while they were a great place to learn how to smoke dope, there was a significant problem with graduation rates.

Legault has backpedalled on this position; in fact, he and his team now claim to be big supporters of the Cegep model, which, they say, prepares students for university and professional development, and contributes to regional development. Legault still seems to think, however, that there is a dropout crisis in Cegep, no doubt fuelled by the fact that only 41% of pre-university Cegep students graduate in the two-year period allotted to such programs. That number, though, goes up to 68%, when we allow students more time. As a teacher in this system, I’m frankly amazed that as many as 41% are able to do it in two years – the course load is almost twice what they will encounter in university, yet we expect 16- and 17-year-olds to leap from the high school model to a self-directed model with nary a stumble. And if you’re thinking that 68% doesn’t seem like much, consider that despite the dire outlook of the CAQ, Quebec has more people with higher education than any other province: 50% of Quebecers between 18 and 34 have a post-secondary diploma, compared to 30% in Ontario. And according to the Conference Board of Canada, the Quebec Cegep system has had a significant positive effect on national post-secondary education rates:

One reason for Canada’s high ranking on college completion is the unique role of colleges known as CEGEPs (collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel) in Canada’s second-largest province, Quebec. CEGEP is a pre-university program offered after Grade 11 that replaces the extra year of high school provided in other Canadian provinces. As a two-year program, however, it also covers one year of community college. It is a prerequisite for university acceptance. CEGEP enrolment is around 150,000 per year. Between 1990 and 2006, college participation rates for those aged 17 to 19 were consistently above 35 per cent in Quebec, compared with only 10 per cent in the rest of Canada.

The fact is, as a province, we are increasingly educated: in 2009, 16.6% of the population between 25 and 64 years old (i.e., the working-age population) had no diploma; 20.9% had a high-school diploma; and the remaining 63.4% had at least a Cegep-level diploma or certificate. In 2015, the undiplomaed population had dropped to 12.8%; 68.5% had Cegep or better. Yet Quebec is still seen as the worst province for education, and it is certainly true that we don’t invest nearly as much as other provinces in education (and, in passing, the CAQ has promised to increase investment in education by $400 million annually, without raising taxes. I remain skeptical.).

There seems to be a gap between sets of stats. So here’s some context to help, I hope, bridge that gap. Yes, our graduation rate is lower than Ontario’s, but our pass rate is higher – that is, fewer students graduate, but that’s partly because they need a 60% in core subjects to pass, rather than 50% in Ontario. Furthermore, the studies that are typically cited tend to look only at pass/fail or complete/stall, without taking into account cultural factors. Quebec is the only province that requires some non-francophone students to attend school in French and restricts access to English schools. This restriction mean that students that come to Quebec from outside of Canada must attend school in a language with which they are not familiar, no doubt making it much harder for them to graduate ‘on time.’ The impact on Cegep studies is indirect – students can study at this level in either language, regardless of their eligibilities at primary and secondary – but it amounts to the same thing: about half of our students, depending on the college, are entering an English college from a French high school. Of course it will take these students an extra semester or four to successfully complete their program.

There is a generational and regional facet to these statistics, as well. In 2006, an astonishing 54% Quebecers over 75 had no diploma at all, while only 11% of Quebecers between 25 and 34 could say the same. Women are generally more likely to have post-secondary education in Quebec, if they’re under 55 – the gender divide reverses at that point. Regionally, Montreal skews the provincial average – in 2015, less than 9% of the Montreal adult population didn’t have at least a high school diploma (12.8% provincially), and 16% of adult Montrealers had post-graduate degrees, compared to only 8.7% across the province.

So, as with all statistics, context is key. None of this is to say that we shouldn’t invest more in Quebec education or that we should turn a blind eye to the problems that do exist. But we need to contextualize observations so we can invest wisely and provide support when and where it is needed.

UPDATE: yet more validation, in this article from the BBC, outlining how Canadian education at all levels compares favourably on a global scale. Our teenagers are among the best educated in the world, and

If Canadian provinces entered Pisa tests as separate countries, three of them, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, would be in the top five places for science in the world, alongside Singapore and Japan and above the likes of Finland and Hong Kong.


October 20, 2018


Since it’s October, it seems fitting to write about my ghost student.
Last autumn, Jennet was one of only nine students registered in my third-semester English for Liberal Arts course. For the first few classes, only eight students attended; Jennet was nowhere to be seen. I assumed she would eventually drop the course – it’s not uncommon in this program for students to transfer to another program or college after their second semester.

But then she appeared.

About three weeks into the semester, we were getting into our feminist readings of Frankenstein, and settling into a nice, intimate group dynamic.

I was really enjoying the course – with only eight students (or so I thought), and a teaching intern, I could experiment with pedagogical activities. We had a great time doing debates, four against four, for instance. The tiny class size did mean other activities, such as the group presentations, required some finessing, but generally, this was a fun class to teach. We had a great group vibe, too, not least because the eight students had already been through two semesters together, so I didn’t have to do any community building.

Then she appeared.

Jennet showed up one day, loud and energetic, chatting with her classmates. She did not bother to introduce herself (perhaps she assumed, justifiably, that I would know the one person in a group of nine who hadn’t been there yet) or explain her absences. She contributed to class discussion, albeit not always from a place of understanding, since she had not been there for previous discussions, nor was she up to date with reading. But I felt odd about her presence—like she was more disruptive than she actually was, just by being there.

Then she disappeared.

Jennet did not return to class the next day. In fact, the next time I saw her was in my office, for the mandatory essay conference. These conferences are based on in-class writing: stage one is the thesis planning, with feedback, then the outline, with feedback, then the in-class draft, with feedback. Before writing the final version of their paper, students must meet with me to discuss the three stages and the feedback I’ve provided, and talk about what they plan to do with the final version.

She appeared.

She had not been in class for her thesis planning, nor for the outline, nor for the draft. I was, frankly, taken aback when she appeared in my door (at least in part because I genuinely wasn’t sure who she was, having only met her once before). She sat down and handed me a typed draft of an essay that did not address the topic assigned. I told her this, and said that if she handed this essay in, she would fail. I offered her a deal: take an extra week, but send me an outline within two days, with a plan for an essay that answers the questions asked in the assignment. She agreed.

Then she disappeared.

She did not hand in an outline, nor did she hand in an essay. We were already past the deadline to drop courses, but what more could I do? I did not follow up with her – although I did ask one of her classmates about her chronic absences. He assured me that the problem wasn’t me (I didn’t really think it was, given how little we’d actually interacted), but rather some kind of self-defeating habit of not showing up. So I left it alone, and the semester continued, back to our now-established good groove.

Then she appeared.

She showed up once more that semester—her second ever classroom appearance—during oneof our debate classes, which was unsettling, given that we had been working with two teams of four. One of the teams invited her to join them, and she seemed to work well with the group. Again, though, I felt perturbed by her reappearance, not to mention puzzled: she had already missed two of the three essays, several reading quizzes, the group presentation, and there was, mathematically, no way she could pass the course. I expected her to come to my office or send me an email, asking how she might “make up” all the missed work. I rehearsed my response—but no such request came.

She disappeared.

Jennet never dropped my class, but she never submitted any work, either. Thanks to one reading quiz and her participation in one debate, her final grade for the course was 1.2% (note the decimal. One POINT two percent).

Then she reappeared.

Imagine my surprise when Jennet appeared on my class list for this semester, for the same course. This is a program course, required for Liberal Arts students—and apparently, Jennet is still among them. Three weeks into the semester, however, Jennet still had not attended a class. I contacted the program chair, who agreed that she was likely to fail and added that she is currently on academic probation, meaning that failing my class (or any other) would result in her expulsion from the program.

Then she reappeared.

The following week, Jennet was in class. This time, she was subdued, presumably because this year, she doesn’t know her classmates, since their cohort (a group of 23) started the year after hers did. She made a few contributions to the discussion—good ones, even—and approached me at the end of the class to ask if she could meet with me to discuss what she had missed. I agreed. I introduced her to a group who are scheduled to present later in the term, and asked if they would consider including her in their group. They agreed.

Then she disappeared.

Jennet did not attend the next class, or the next week. The drop deadline was approaching, so I sent her a message and reminded her that failing my class would affect her standing in the program, so she should consider dropping my class and discussing her options with the program chair.

She did not drop my course. The drop deadline came and went, but her name remained on my list, even though her body never came back to class. I advised her presentation group to assume that she would not be working with them after all. In the meantime, we had done the thesis planning, the essay outline, and the in-class draft. I set up an online appointment calendar for the essay conference—and she made an appointment.


She did not appear.


And then she did appear.

The week after the essay conferences, she came to class. Once again, she approached me, and asked if we could meet. We met on Tuesday this week; she did not have any work to show me, but she wanted to explain the many, many reasons she is almost always unable to attend class. I pointed out that so far, she has been to two classes. She told me that’s more than she’s attended any of her other courses. I’m flattered, obviously, but concerned. I asked why she’s in Liberal Arts? What does she want to do?

Corporate Law.

Oh dear. Time for some straight talk. Corporate Law is a very, very long shot for someone with her transcript. I don’t even bother pointing out how unlikely it is that she’ll get academic referees. I ask her if there’s a Plan B, and she tells me that she’s wanted to be a lawyer since she was four. I tell her she needs to start entertaining other options. I tell her she needs to get her sh*t together (and I’m not paraphrasing). Honestly, I expected her to nod and look abashed and swear to do better and then disappear.

But she came back.

She’s in class on Thursday, with her thesis and outline. The essay is due this coming Tuesday, so I tell her that I will accept her outline, and give her feedback, but she needs to come to my office Friday afternoon and collect it.

She appears.

Yesterday afternoon, she collected her outline, discussed her feedback, and promised to submit an essay.

I wonder if she has any idea how much thought I have put into her case. Does she think that I think about her at all? Or does she assume that in higher ed, we profs just don’t care about our students the way our K12 counterparts do? There are no calls or notes going home to parents, so perhaps the impression is that it’s sink-or-swim, and we’re not lifeguards. Certainly, there is only so much I can do—last year, I didn’t do much at all, frankly, but then, neither did she. This year, she is reaching out, however sporadically, and I’m trying to keep the life buoy within reach.

When I saw her name on my class list in August, and when I wrote to the program chair, I had firm resolve that if and when she appeared, I would exorcise her. No second chances. I don’t have time or space in my class to indulge this inexplicable behavior. I have a new group, with their own dynamic, and I don’t want to disrupt them for the sake of one prodigal classmate.

But I caved. She appeared, and I invited her in. She disappeared, and I rolled my eyes. She reappeared, and I met her halfway. She vanished, and then came back.

I think I need a proton pack.



March 29, 2018

Tending the Community of Practice garden

Copyright: <a href=''>lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo</a>One of the most rewarding aspects of the research I’m doing for my doctorate is the opportunity to just sit down and talk with colleagues. I’m using interactive interviewing,* which means that I get to hang out with other teachers, talking (venting, ranting, musing, crying, laughing) about teaching. We’ve talked to each other about how we got started, what we think teaching is, how we deal with assessment, and even what our theme songs are (right now, I think this is mine. No Rick Roll, I promise).

I have just finished the final round of four interviews, with my nine participants (yay!! finished!!). I’ve met with each person one-on-one four times since last May; each time, we’ve talked for more than an hour, allowing ourselves to explore the tangents and spirals that naturally arise in our dialogue. The first time we talked, our theme was simple: how did we find ourselves in the classroom? In the second round, we talked about mentorship and metaphors for teaching and learning. In the fall, we met for a third time, to talk about assessment, evaluation, grading, and feedback.

In our final conversation, I asked my participants** to reflect on our process: did anything in particular resonate? Were there any 3-a.m.-wake-up epiphanies? Any moments in the classroom where our discussions echoed in your mind? What was the most valuable part of this process? Each person had different things to reflect on, or to elaborate upon, but what struck me was that every single one said that they just really loved talking about these things with me. One or two said that they’d spoken about teaching and learning with me more often in this past year than with anyone in their department. Most said that they’d really like to keep talking about teaching and learning, even if my research cycle is complete.

Earlier this month, I presented an overview of my research to my college department, and suggested that one of the take-aways from my research so far is that while we may not have Yoda-esque mentors as teachers, most of us experience what I’ve taken to calling mentoring moments. These moments share a few characteristics: they are typically peer-to-peer dialogues (although not exclusively); they are mutually beneficial (both parties get something from the dialogue); they may arise from a crisis but are not really designed to solve a problem – rather, they allow both people to explore ideas, share experiences, and brainstorm strategies, without trying to find the one-and-only way to deal with the crisis.

So, for example, I might engage in a discussion with my colleague Jane about our deadline policies, perhaps because one of us is dealing with a situation that has made us question our current policy. So, I’ll talk about what my policy is, and Jane will tell me about hers. We’ll naturally talk about how our policies differ – maybe Jane refuses to accept any submissions more than three days after the deadline, whereas I accept them but provide no feedback, or deduct 5% for each day late. Perhaps I’ll realize that my policy now is pretty different from what it was five years ago, and we’ll talk about what changed and why – maybe I’ve stopped deducting marks for late submissions because I reflected on that practice and came to the conclusion that I wanted the grade to reflect the work done, not the time management. Maybe it’s the other way around, and I’ve realized that I want students to learn how to manage time and workload, so my deadline policy now reflects that desire. Jane and I might talk for an hour or so, sipping tea, sharing stories of students who’ve tested our policy patience. In the end, maybe one or the other of us will adjust her policy; maybe neither of us will make any changes. No matter what, we both will feel more confident in our policy; in discussing, exploring, challenging, reflecting, we’ve come to understand better why our policy is what it is. We can better articulate the how and why of our policy.

So here’s what I’m thinking about now: these mentoring moments are so fruitful, yet, as I’m sure many of us have experienced, when our institution sets up a community of practice or a mentoring program – even if everyone’s really keen and excited – eventually it fizzles. The online forum for our department includes a space for dialogue – the most recent post in that section is from 2016. We talk about mentorship and community of practice, but it seems like things never really get off the ground.

I was discussing this fizzle phenomenon with a colleague today, and she said “and that’s when people just give up.” People stop attending the brown bag lunches, stop posting to the online forum, stop trying to track down their appointed mentor… but maybe, like a neglected plant, we need to do some pruning, some repotting, careful watering, and see if we can’t bring that plant back to life.

So, then, of course, the question is how. How do we revive a wilting community of practice? How do we keep conversations going? And how do we do all of this organically, so we don’t feel like we’re under some kind of administration-mandated obligation to pretend we’re talking to each other.

*Note: Interactive interviews go beyond the conventional researcher-participant construct to establish a collaborative relationship between the researcher and her participant (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011). Unlike more traditional, ‘objective,’ interview techniques that ignore the emotional facet of the interview relationship itself (Ezzy, 2010), interactive interviewing uses autoethnography to recognize and reconstruct or redefine the relationship between researcher and participant. Ellis (1999) described her own experiences with interactive interviewing as an opportunity to engage in immediate responses to a participant’s story with her own lived experience. As the stories, experiences, and attitudes of the interviewer and interviewee flow into and through each other, the traditional boundaries and distances between the two participants are blurred or even erased (Fontana, 2002). [This section appears in the draft of my dissertation as well as in Finding Myself in Methodology (2017).

** OH MY GOD if someone can propose a few synonyms so I can stop writing “participant” over and over… the word has lost all meaning. Or rather, its connotation/denotation is starting to rankle – it feels very data-oriented to discuss “participants.” But I digress…

March 24, 2018

Talking to myself

An experiment: As part of my critical self-reflection, I’ve been rereading some journal entries from more than a decade ago, when I started my M.Ed. I thought it might be fruitful to respond to my thoughts, to explore how my thinking has evolved, shifted, or even changed. In regular text, my musing from 2005. In green italics, today’s Maggie responds.

January 2005

[NB: this is journal #1 from the College Teaching: Issues and Challenges course, which was the first in the Université de Sherbrooke’s Master Teacher M.Ed. program]

After only four classes, my ideas about knowledge are already changing – not that I am ‘changing my mind’ about knowledge, but I am expanding my definitions. I have always thought that there is a reason we talk about knowledge and wisdom, and that the two are not synonymous. In the context of this course, one way to think of these concepts is that knowledge is knowing certain information, and wisdom is knowing what to do with that information.

In class, we’ve looked at different kinds of knowledge, and discussed knowledge as a basic foundation upon which to build the learning experience. As an English teacher, and generally, as a student of the language, I find it fascinating to consider the various nuances of a single word – knowledge. What do we mean when we say that we “know” another person? Context is key here – we can “know” someone in the sense that we are aware of that person’s existence and can pick them out of a police line-up. Alternatively, we can “know” someone in the sense that we can predict that person’s behaviour, and be surprised when that person does something “out of character.” Do the same degrees of knowledge apply to information, such as literature? It seems to me that when we talk about the levels of learning or thinking, when we discuss knowing vs. understanding, we are simply drawing distinctions between knowing a subject superficially and knowing the same subject in-depth.

A couple of thoughts here… First, I like how I grappled with the degree of knowing here – I think it still resonates and makes sense to me. But I think I’m better able to articulate the why and how of “getting to know” someone or something, and I think I’m more interested in how we create knowledge and meaning through interactions. Each time I interact with another person, we “know” each other a little more. When this interaction happens near the beginning of our relationship, these incremental deepenings of our mutual knowledge may seem much greater than they do when we have already come to know each other well over years. Presumably we can say the same about how we come to know a subject or discipline – consider the threshold concepts idea: once we’ve crossed those first few transformative thresholds, our further progress within the discipline may not be as remarkable, in the literal sense.

We have labels for how this happens in personal interactions – we are friends of a mutual friend; we are acquaintances; we are friends; we are good friends; we are close friends; we are “besties.” We don’t signpost these stages – there’s no ritual or ceremony to mark our graduation from acquaintance to friend. Yet there are signs: friends get invited to dinner parties; close friends get invited to intimate dinners; “besties” get invited to family gatherings. Academically, we do indeed signpost certain stages in our knowledge creation, or at least in our demonstrations of having created knowledge – we move from grade to grade, from secondary to post-secondary; we are “admitted” to degrees; we move on to post-graduate work. Yet the true threshold crossings are typically not recognized or celebrated by our collective – we have an “aha” moment in class, or while working on our own, or in the shower, or while walking the dog. It must also be said that those moments that are recognized are identified by others – someone else decides that we’ve passed a test, passed a grade, passed into the next stage. We may have felt the actual transformation – from high schooler to college student, from learner to practitioner – well before we’re “official;” we may feel like we’re not ready yet, even if we’ve successfully passed the tests and received our certification. And of course, the certificate is a fixed point in time, and does not represent who we are at any other point. Am I a better driver on the day I get my license than I was the day before, when all I had was my learners’ permit? Am I as proficient a driver on the day I get my license as I am after a decade of driving?

Finally, in light of my current explorations, I want to think about this concept in terms of self-knowledge. How much better do I know myself if I purposefully and consciously reflect on my self than I would if I did not engage in that reflection? Is it possible to surprise oneself? I think it must be – consider the well-worn “if you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be…” phrase. If you’d told me ten years ago that now I’d be doing a Ph.D. in Education, I probably wouldn’t have been surprised. But if you’d told me that I’d also be a certified yoga and fitness instructor, I’d probably have been a little bemused. If you’d told me that I’d be living where I am, with two dogs, I’d probably have been at least somewhat surprised. And while I might have been nonplussed about the doctorate, I probably wouldn’t have predicted an autoethnographic narrative inquiry into teacher identity and assessment…

In the courses I teach, knowledge of the subject depends on the level of the course – the knowledge a second-year student is expected to bring into the course is obviously different from the knowledge a first-year student has. By the time a student gets to the second-year English courses, his or her knowledge of basics – from grammatical structure to key analytical elements such as plot and symbolism – should be well-enough established to allow an analytical discussion of specific genres and themes. So when I’m designing an introductory English course, I try to keep in mind the knowledge I will expect from these students next year, and work backwards from there.

Interesting that I was thinking in terms of “what do I expect them to know next year,” and not in terms of “what are the ministerial objectives.” I was writing this while part of an English department that (a) had a common final exam for the first-semester English course and (b) insisted that students take the Block B course in their second semester, unlike the college I’m at now (since the fall of 2005, in fact). So I could have talked about what I expected my students to face on their common final exam, or about what they needed to know for their Block B course… 

The course I have chosen to design is a second-year course called Introduction to Playreading. This course covers drama from the Ancient Greeks to Aphra Behn (18th century England). I have chosen this course because I find designing second-year courses more challenging – first-year courses demand a lot of juggling, but are so chock full of material that course design is really a moot point. Second-year courses, on the other hand, are much looser – the ministerial objectives, for instance, simply state that the student should be able to write a 1,000-word essay and “to apply a critical approach to literary genres.” While this ambiguity allows our department to create and offer myriad variations on the theme of genre courses and thematic courses, as individual teachers, we are very much left to our own devices in terms of course content and assessment.

This leaves me with the question “what do I want my students to know at the end of my course?” Well, to quote myself (from the Successful Student assignment), ‘I consider students successful if they have not only learned the material, but learned to appreciate it, and have understood the relevance of the material. For instance, in a course on literature, students can pass simply by reading the material and writing a competent essay or two; but successful students will see connections between authors in the course and other authors, between themes in the course texts and their own lives, and between analytical skills honed in this course and those required for other courses. Ideally, students will seek out new authors, and expand on what they have learned. Ultimately, maybe the measure of a ‘successful’ student is not the grade but the grasp – and maybe the student can only be as successful as the teacher!’

“not the grade but the grasp” – I do sometimes have a way with words. This is essentially what I’ve been talking about with my research participants when it comes to our struggles with evaluation. We want to assess our students’ grasp, but we’re obligated to determine their grade. Ultimately, beyond the walls of academe, those grades are more or less meaningless. Yet within these walls, actors on all sides of the transaction are conditioned to emphasize grades over grasp. Students “need” to pass the course, not to learn. Teachers are sent spreadsheets with their pass rates compared to departmental averages. Institutions use grades (almost exclusively) to determine who gets to study and who gets left out – without, as one preservice teacher I recently talked with points out, considering the why and how of the grades. My A- or 84% is perceived as equal to my classmate’s same grade, even if I live with my parents, close to a metro, with no financial obligations, while my classmate is a single parent with a full-time job and rent to pay. When we both apply for entry to another program, those grades are the first determiner of our success – so if my cushy circumstances mean I’m more likely to have higher grades overall, then I get in, while my classmate, whose average suffers because of external factors, can’t get past the gate.

August 25, 2017

Blogging – one more thing I’m neglecting

When I started this blog, I was very excited about the idea of recording and reflecting on my doctoral journey. Well, as it turns out, that journey is well underway, but the recording, not so much. Ironically, the journey has been going so well, and so quickly, that I haven’t had time to step out of the vehicle to write here.

My research is going so well, I’m starting to get paranoid about the proverbial other shoe. Patterns are emerging in the interviews – so many of us have parallel experiences, and a definite narrative structure is taking shape. I’m excited, and eager to get to the next round of interviews, and into the real heart of the writing itself.

I am not going to promise more blog posts, more regularly – aside from the dissertation (I am now ABD, so the text itself, and the interviews feeding it, are my focus), I am now back at work full-time, and time is harder and harder to find – I’ve dropped a few other commitments in order to make life manageable, or at least more so. However, I am trying to post to the companion Facebook feed more often, so feel free to follow my thoughts and reflections over there.


March 27, 2017

When is it OK to tell students not to bother?

Copyright'>stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

Many of the ideas expressed in Bergeron’s piece are valid – but I can’t help but feel that the author glosses over the fact that school, while absolutely necessary for some people’s goals, isn’t necessarily easy for everyone.

Pourquoi sommes NOUS, les enseignants, ici ?

Because school probably came pretty naturally for us. Because the things that fascinated us – philosophy, history, literature – naturally led us into teaching. Because we’re comfortable (perhaps only comfortable in) an academic environment.

Yes, encourage students to reflect on their purpose, both short and long term. Yes, encourage those who wish to pursue non-academic paths. But don’t assume that those who struggle – whether to get the reading done, hand work in, get to class, or stay awake – do so out of disinterest or misdirection.

February 16, 2017

Distillations, Part 1

For my Candidacy exam, I wrote two papers. The first of these explored some of the fundamental questions behind my research, namely

  • what does it mean to teach?
  • how do we develop a sense of ourselves as teachers, particularly in the higher education context? and
  • how does our sense of identity influence our assessment practices?

This post is composed of excerpts and distillations of that paper.


For teachers, Cégep can be an excellent opportunity. Most programs, pre-university or technical, require a Master’s degree or equivalent, rather than a doctorate[1]; furthermore, Cégep teachers are not required to conduct research, publish, or present, although many institutions support individual teachers who wish to pursue such endeavours. Teaching in Cégep is a largely autonomous affair; teachers are not accountable to parents, nor are they accountable to funding agencies.

At the same time, teaching at the Cégep level can present its challenges, not least of which is navigating the question of what level are we really teaching. Since there is no equivalent, the Cégep system has had to address this question – or ignore it – internally. Our students are 17-20, especially in the preuniversity programs, and they are not yet in university, so we might think of them as high school students, and ourselves as high school teachers. On the other hand, they have graduated from high school, and are now enrolled in specific programs akin to undergraduate programs in universities, so we might think of them as freshmen, and ourselves as university professors. Although Cégep programs are mandated as competency-based, that is, curriculum is developed around a concept of knowledge that includes social and academic skills, Barbeau argued that paradigmatic shift toward the competency-based approach has not been properly explained, integrated, or implemented by government, institutions, or faculty (in Doucet, 2016).

Teachers in primary and secondary classrooms also face challenges to their sense of professional identity, of course. In postsecondary education, however, new teachers must negotiate their identity as teachers as opposed to practitioners in their discipline – or, as Garnett (2013) argued, they must embrace their discipline-based identity within the institution and in relation to their students. In postsecondary education, teachers are likely to self-identify first as a member of their discipline, and must, consciously or not, develop a sense of themselves as teachers, both within the discipline and in the larger context of the institution.

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