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

March 29, 2018

Tending the Community of Practice garden

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_lightwise'>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.

<3

March 27, 2017

When is it OK to tell students not to bother?

Copyright https://www.123rf.com/profile_stockbroker'>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.

July 13, 2016

Failure to post

So my plan today was to write a post about thoughts and conversations I’ve had recently on the subject of failure. The more I wrote and thought and wrote, however, the more I realized that this was bigger than the planned post. So, rather than abandon the post altogether, I’m posting my preliminary plan, with an appeal for your input.

It’s a little overwhelming just how many people have said something about failure. Arianna Huffington said that the “failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of the process.” Michael Jordan said “I’ve failed over and over again… that’s why I succeed.” A simple Google search reveals countless famous failures, from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs to Oprah Winfrey. And of course, when all else fails, we fall back on the old saw, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” We seem to understand that failure is an inevitable part of life. In fact, we collectively resent anyone who appears to be an “overnight success,” feeling like anyone who hasn’t paid their dues hasn’t really earned their fame and fortune.

epic-failYet, when it comes to failure in the academic context, we have a different understanding, a different regard for the student who fails a test, a course, or a grade. There seems to be a lot written about how students fail, and about how failure affects students, but I wondered how much has been written about failure from the perspective of the teacher. Are we affected when our students fail? Does student failure effect change in our teaching, in our assessment, and in our professional identity? And, from another angle, what are our assumptions about failure, based on our own experiences? Perhaps most importantly, how can we talk to our students, and to our colleagues, about failure? Can we collectively start to reimagine what failure is, what it represents, and how it (should) influence(s) teaching and learning?

In this paper, I want to explore some of those questions, and look at how we rationalize failure in other aspects of life – in video games and driving schools, for instance – yet equate failure with catastrophe and psychological damage in the academic context. I’ll reflect on my own experiences, as a teacher, a student, and a parent, with failure, and (I hope) get some input from other teachers and students on failure in the STEM fields, in high-stakes standardized testing, and at various levels of education. Finally, in a wild attempt to connect this tangent to my dissertation research, I’ll reflect on failure and identity, from both student and teacher – and perhaps, institutional – perspectives.

Suggestions for resources and, in particular, personal input would be very much appreciated. If you think you’d like to share, but aren’t sure where to start, consider these questions for inspiration:

  • Did you encounter failure in school? How did it feel at the time? Were you expecting it? How does it feel now, in retrospect?
  • If you are a teacher, or educational administrator, what do you think the role of failure is in learning? How do you feel if a student fails? How do you react if a large number of students fail a course or test?
  • If you’re a parent, how have you dealt with academic failure with your children?
  • If you are neither a teacher nor a parent, what are your thoughts on failure in the academic (or any other) context? Are there fields or levels in which failure should be more or less present?

And, of course, if you have other ideas, please share!

 

 

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.