Exploring Uncanny Digital Literacies

Over on my other blog, The Popular Uncanny, I wrote this evening about a neat Prezi presentation on “Uncanny Digital Literacies” by Sian Bayne, from the ESRC seminar series on Literacies in the Digital University (University of Edinburgh, 16 Oct 2009). She mentions a book called A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty by Ronald Barrett that I want to get my hands on.

For now, I’ll just embed Bayne’s presentation here — if you want to read some of my thoughts and light research on it, visit my blog entry entitled “Uncanny Digital Literacies: Defamiliarization in The Classroom” on The Popular Uncanny.

Innovation and Listening

This morning I was pointed to an article on “The Five Mental Habits of Innovative People” that I found interesting, because it identifies the skillsets I would want to foster in my students, especially in a course related to creativity (like writing).

Drawing from research by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen at BYU, called “How Do Innovators Think?” [available at Harvard Business Publishing’s neat “Creativity at Work” page, which is worth a look-see], Jessica Stillman isolates (and explains) these five “mental habits”:

* Associating
* Questioning
* Observing
* Experimenting
* Networking

The researches suggest ‘questioning’ is really the engine that drives all of the above, yet “questioning on its own doesn’t have a direct effect without the others.”

In my classes, I have been a big advocate for question-generation — it is the trigger behind all “inquiry” — creative and scholarly — and it protects the teacher from doing all the thinking for the student (without thinking, no learning!). I run students through an activity I call ‘question-storming’; I often give them prompts for writing that encourage them to raise their own questions-at-issue; I’ll play devil’s advocate to challenge them to question their own assumptions; etc.

When a writer approaches the blank page “questioning” rather than feeling as though they need to be the “authority” they are open to making discoveries through writing…and they never have block.

What would I add to the list? LISTENING.

By which I mean “Active Listening”.
Although ‘listening’ (like ‘reading’) is related to ‘observing’, I don’t think people think of ‘listening’ as a skill that leads to innovation and creativity. They think of it as a passive act, which it is not. Part of this assumption of passivity comes from the education system: we sit in desks our whole lives, listening, listening, listening…more than doing, creating, innovating. The invisible work of learning happens in our heads, if we are self-disciplined enough to pay attention and listen actively. But that skill is rarely cultivated or directly taught.
LISTENING is crucial to mastering the art of concentration, but it also factors into creativity. As a creative writer, I could never write dialogue if I didn’t listen closely to how people actually speak — and not just listening to the words, but also to the musicality of it. If I did not listen intensely I could not know what it means to be a reader, who mentally ‘listens’ to the author’s voice as they read. Listening enables emulation and imitative learning, as well: when we listen, we see how others raise questions and discover the pathways available to us in an attempt to answer them. When we listen to an audience, we can test our own answers to questions by getting responses. So listening is a feedback loop into questioning. Listening fuels creativity. Not all creativity springs out from within us; sometimes it pools and settles in, before feeding into the outward flow.

If your teaching is in a rut, or if you want to try to do something innovative in your classroom to solve problems or enable excitement in the room, try listening to your students. You might learn something.

Released Into Language

My quest for finding good books on creative writing pedagogy continues. A week or two ago, I decided to drop a chunk of my paycheck on titles I found on the cheap at half.com, and I’ve begun reading them with great abandon, as I prepare to teach a new online class on the teaching of writing for graduate students in our MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction.

This weekend I’ve been reading the late Wendy Bishop‘s book, Released Into Language: Options for Teaching Creative Writing (NCTE, 1990) — a book that is, astonishingly, available digitally via ERIC, the wonderful Education Resources Information Center. Though a bit dated by this point in time, Bishop’s text remains a quite solid study of the different ways that creative writing can be taught well in the undergraduate curriculum, arguing for a transactional and reflective approach that addresses where students really are, and how students really think, striking a pitch-perfect balance between praxis and theory.

While the classroom activities and approaches in the book are not necessarily new to me, what I’m enjoying most about reading this book is the way it articulates how the assumptions of graduate programs in creative writing don’t always translate well into the teaching of undergraduate programs in the same field. This is helping me rethink my own assumptions, as someone who often teaches similar material in both venues…and as I read it, I’m recalling just how often I have drawn upon my teaching of composition in the creative writing classroom, and vice-versa. I recommend all writing teachers take a look, if only for inspiration.

The title comes from a passage by Adrienne Rich (from her classic, On Lies, Secrets and Silence), which I like so much I wanted to post it here so I can return to it again later:

At the bedrock level of my thinking about this is the sense that language is power, and that, as Simone Weil says, those who suffer from injustice most are the least able to articulate their suffering; and that the silent majority, if released into language, would not be content with a perpetuation of the conditions which have betrayed them. But this notion hangs on a special conception of what it means to be released into language: not simply learning the jargon of an elite, fitting unexceptionably into the status quo, but learning that language can be used as a means of changing reality. What interests me in teaching is less the emergence of the occasional genius than the overall finding of language by those who did not have it…. — Adrienne Rich (emphasis added)

Empowerment. Social justice. Transformation. Discovery. It’s all encapsulated here, in this brief passage about teaching and writing.

On the topic of the cross-overs between composition and creative writing pedagogy, I’m eager to study another book that I’ve ordered: (Re)Writing Craft by Timothy Mayers. I think it will prove quite useful to us at SHU, since we are presently considering “(re)writing” our undergraduate curriculum a little bit in the year ahead.

Your Most Important Teaching Tool

“The classroom is like my garden. There is nothing that is ever ugly in it. If it is capable of blooming, it stays.” — Louis Schmier, “My Most Important Teaching Tool”, Peer Review

The quote above comes from Schmier’s reflective essay in the Spring 2009 issue of the AACU’s journal, Peer Review. (I blush to brag that I just learned my analysis of Rate My Professor from this blog was also cited by the editor elsewhere in this issue). In his opening anecdote, Schmier describes how he was once asked the question by her mentor, “What is your most important pedagogical tool?” and it later struck him that it was ultimately herself and “the power of [his] intentions.”

This may seem quite obvious. But the key word here is “intention.” It takes reflexive practice to really know what your own intentions are as a teacher. Our job title is a verb that sometimes becomes a tautology (“As a teacher I intend to teach”) that focuses on the content of the teaching, rather than the actual process of how we teach and what it means to teach.

This is why, perhaps, crafting and annually revising a “philosophy of teaching” statement could be a valuable “tool” for your teaching toolbox.
Schmier’s essay essentially concludes with such a philosophy. I really liked his iteration of seven elements that compose his “vision statement.” These are overtly optimistic and necessarily general, leading with the metaphor above: that “the classroom is like my garden.” It’s a good metaphor, though it ostensibly includes nurturing rather than weeding. The teacher feeds and cultivates, but lets learning take its own natural course.

In doing so, there must be room for aberrant growth and unpredictable weather. In another element of his vision statement, he writes: “The classroom is a shop of ‘serious novelties’…we must never get into a predictable, old-hat, stagnating, repetitive, and mind-numbing routine. New ways of looking at, thinking about, and using both the material and ourselves must be the rule of each day.” I share this vision. Constructing moments of ‘serious novelty’ is the only way to prime the pump of intellectual curiosity — which is a pro forma requirement for autonomous learning.

— postscript: thanks for the corrections Charles B.!

The Educational Value of Genre Fiction

Cover to Writers Workshop of Horror

This week I’ll be teaching in our weeklong, intensive graduate creative writing workshops for the MA in Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill U. It’s always a great experience, and I particularly enjoy getting to teach and work with students and colleagues in my favorite literary genre: horror. Indeed, I’m rather fortunate to be able to do this, since the majority of creative writing programs in this country not only eschew genre labels, but also would likely eschew horror even if they didn’t. Genre, most assume, is too formulaic, too emotional, too popular (and therefore too oriented to the lowest common denominator).

Obviously, such hierarchical distinctions are usually an expression of “highbrow” class politics, or a culture which reifies the individual over the collective in the creative arts — but I won’t repeat the lessons of cultural studies here right now. Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how genre fiction — and particularly horror fiction, as I recently argued in a pedagogical essay on “Horror and Responsibilities of the Liberal Educator” — may actually be more “educational” than many literary academics realize.

Often “literary” fiction and canonical literature is considered of higher educational value because it has historical lessons to teach us about culture, or because it addresses universal issues pertinent to mankind. But this is no less true of genre fiction (and many genre stories are in the canon, actually). Genre fiction is castigated because it focuses more often on emotional payoffs than intellectual ones, but this is not all that genre fiction seeks. Horror stories, for instance, are often “cautionary” in nature, and therefore teach lessons. Readers of romances and children’s fiction often turn to these books for models of behavior in human relationships. Science fiction rewards knowledge of the sciences and often teaches readers about emergent research; mystery, likewise, teaches readers about criminalistics and is predicated on the notion that reader and detective alike will be engage fully in critical thinking as crimes are solved.

Thus, I’m mulling over the notion that the writers who create these stories have to be “teacherly” in their approach to the reader, to some degree. I’ve often heard the notion that the bestsellers of any given period not only catch the interest of the masses, but often teach readers something new — this draw to discover and learn is a large part of popular genre fiction. It assuages curiosity about “what everyone is talking about.” Yet at the same time, writers who seek to educate (usually) cannot be didactic or preachy or dogmatic about some ideological belief. As with “literary” fiction, good authors of popular fiction should raise issues of import (and often they pull these issues from the headlines, which ties them to time at the cost of being ‘timeless’) while keeping their own biases out of the story and lead readers to think critically about these issues on their own. The characters in a story often are models for such ways of thinking.

For the writers, however, their models are often each other. They read each others’ books, or find each other at conventions, or — for the dedicated — encounter each other in workshops like the program we host at SHU, or the less-academic-but-more-deeply-focused-on-genre groups like Odyssey, Clarion, Borderlands Boot Camp, Alpha, and the various workshops held in meeting rooms at genre conventions. I’ve taught at these, and they are not nearly as “amateur” or “commercial” as one might assume. Fan and genre communities are perhaps more critical and knowledgeable about their own genre than anyone else, as the work of Henry Jenkins and others have taught us.

I have the good fortune to appear in a new instructional book for writers in the horror genre, The Writer’s Workshop of Horror (ed. Michael Knost, Woodland Press, Aug 2009). Like the Horror Writer’s Association guidebook, On Writing Horror, this is an example of how the creative community of genre authors “teaches” within that community. What I like about these books is that they are not just written by a single author, but a gathering together of multiple views and voices in anthology form.

For those reading this who might have the opportunity to teach horror writing, and are looking for resources, you can order The Writer’s Workshop of Horror early from Woodland Press; it will be out in August, just in time for school.

I’ll end with a small excerpt from my contribution, called “Stripping Away the Mask: Scene and Structure in Horror Fiction,” which deals with issues regarding the pleasures of the taboo in horror, and how these are embedded into the structure (not necessarily the content) of horror narratives:

…horror is a striptease of suspense. It is an inherently exhibitionist genre, as much as it is the genre of fear. And this may very well be why horror gets a bum rap from the literati: horror can make a reader feel dirty, because it refuses to obey the inner censor that tells us that such-and-such is morally wrong, that such-and-such is ugly or grotesque, that such-and-such is perverse or unhealthy, that such-and-such is unreasonable or irrational, that such-and-such is dangerous or inhumane. Horror writers seek truth in the darkness. They remove the mask, to peer unabashedly at what it hides, horrendous warts and all….

If you wish to write horror stories, it is imperative that you understand this aesthetic. There are no “rules,” really, because readers only expect the unexpected when they pick up a work of horror. In place of rules, we just have a worldview that says: “Readers peek between their fingers. I refuse to look away.” We remove the mask.

I got the idea for this essay from the late author Robert Bloch, who defined horror in passing during an interview once as “the removal of masks.”
Is this not also the mission of liberal education?

Horror and the Responsibilities of the Liberal Educator

The latest issue of DISSECTIONS: The Journal of Contemporary Horror just went live online. The theme this time around is “Teaching Horror” which emerged as part of a series of panels at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in March 2008. It includes a few spectacular articles from a panel I was on with Doug Ford and Frances Auld. My article from that panel (“The Unlearning: Horror and Transformative Theory”) went on to be published at a journal called Transformative Works & Cultures), but I wrote a new essay for Dissections in its place: “Horror and the Responsibilities of the Liberal Educator” . Here’s a sample:

….Luckily, the teacher fully knows what the students want to ignore: that horror is inherently an educational genre. The very notion of a ‘cautionary’ tale is predicated on the notion of teaching someone a lesson. And while not all horror stories and films are cautionary in nature, they are always stimuli that aim at generating a dark emotional reaction which – when all the screaming stops – one inevitably attempts to manage with enlightened intellectual reasoning: whether it’s in the mode of investigation (‘what’s really lurking in the shadows?’) or metaphysical inquiry (‘do alternatives to God exist?’) or logic judgement (‘why did her baby have to die?’). Our rational minds are still at work when we contend with the most irrational of fictions. Indeed, even when a horror narrative – such as the work of Lovecraft – attempts to obliterate logical reasoning and symbolic systems altogether, it needs to construct them first.

What all this means is that, despite the naysayers, horror provides an excellent context for learning. It raises the serious questions that allow critical inquiry to transpire.

Go visit Dissections to read on, or to see other essays on issues related to integrating the horror genre into the classroom by Ford, Auld, Brock-Servais, Schnopp-Wyatt, Wisker, and more!

Putting Student Distraction In Context

For a few years now, I’ve had this nagging worry that students are coming to college more and more distracted, less and less prepared to concentrate long enough to read — and my intuition, like that of most, is to correlate this with the proliferation of cell phone texting, twittering, IMing, gaming, etc., etc.

Then I myself learn more about this trend via Twitter itself (thanks Matt Cardin). There’s a good article in the May 17 2008 issue of New York magazine by Sam Anderson, called “In Defense of Distraction: The Benefits of Distraction and Overstimulation” which I think teachers who share my growing concern about student multitasking, ADD, and lack of focus ought to read.

Are we experiencing a “cognitive plague” — or are we simply wasting our cognitive surplus? Is “multi-tasking” a myth? Is paying attention “a kind of sexy, visceral activity”? (Sure it is!) Is meditation the solution? These are the kinds of questions raised by the article.
My question is: how can we teach focus and concentration…or at least, teach it better than our curriculum already presumes we do. I think the answer lies somewhere in how well we teach reading — whether book-length prose or complex arguments or even, perhaps, well-crafted poetry — and listening. There’s a degree to which we already expect students to be able to concentrate well; perhaps this is not an assumption we can rely on any longer in the same old ways.

It is paradoxically difficult to teach concentration and focus because it may take concentration and focus to learn it.
But there may be ways of fomenting the sort of positive distractions that Anderson writes about, which lead to greater awareness. This is why, I think Improv activities and Drama Games in the classroom work so well.

Teaching is a Confluence of Opposites

“More than any other profession…teaching is a confluence of opposites. Teaching draws on instinct, and it draws on acquired skills. Teaching involves routine, and it involves improvisation. Teaching is prose surprised by moments of poetry. Teaching is applied pedagogy, tested by trial and error. There is no better way to learn something than to teach it, and teaching itself is a continual learning process — a methodology that changes every time new students walk in the door and sit down at their desks.” — Tim Lemire, I’m an English Major — Now What?

This semester, my “Introduction to Literary Studies” course read Lemire’s book as a way for students to start thinking realistically about their future careers. There was a great interest in teaching as a potential profession, which is common among English majors. In fact, it’s sort of a “default” for many of them. Even if they don’t know what they’re getting into, it is still our job to provide them with models they might draw on in the future, when they scramble to understand what it really means to be responsible to both the field and their students’ future.

I do always try to model good teaching practice, even when I’m only playing the goofball in the front of the room. But now that the term is almost over, I’m wondering: do I employ my own teaching in a way that not only models what it is that teachers actually do in a classroom, but also how they navigate this “confluence of opposites” that Lemire describes? Do they learn to intellectually and performatively cope with and manage the oppositions? Do they know how to synthesize the oppositions or how to separate them when required? Are they learning instincts as much as acquired skills. Improv as well routine? Poetry as much prose? Application and experiment? Flexibility to learn continually?

This quote above really spoke to me as a poetic truism about the impulses of the profession — which often moves in opposite directions simultaneously. Even here in this blog, the two primary categories — theory and praxis — are at once separate in their purpose and yet brought together in any act of writing. But is such a “bringing together” going on in my classroom when I host a discussion or mark up a paper? How ‘dialectical’ is my teaching, really? I’ll keep musing over it, but for now, I just liked that quotation so much that I wanted to share it… and encourage other English professionals to consider using Lemire’s book in their classroom or in their advising. It is quite a practical and thoughtful guide to the various options our major affords.

High School is to Breadth What College is to Depth

Education Week is reporting on a study that the makers of the ACT have recently put out that points to the gap between what high schools and college teachers want their students to be ready for when they come to college.

The new survey found that college professors generally want incoming students to have a deeper understanding of a selected number of topics and skills, while high school teachers in all content areas tend to rate a far broader array of content and skills as “important” or “very important.”

In other words, the “array” of content coverage is a sign that HS emphasizes breadth, while college tends to emphasize depth of work in a single content area. I’m not sure if this happens because of the assumptions of high school teachers about what college actually expects, or if it is merely a symptom of a larger neurosis regarding testing (prompted, perhaps, by NCLBA). “Breadth” is easy to test and grade, and errs toward assessing memorized knowledge over analytical and critical thinking, which usually takes essay reading and concentrated analysis in itself to generate a response.

Thus, the report itself shows the outcome:

the survey found a general lack of reading courses in high school and a decline in the teaching of targeted reading strategies after the 9th grade. In contrast, college instructors of remedial courses rated such strategies as very important and reported devoting a large percentage of time to teaching them.

I am not damning all High School in some generic, demonizing way. One of the things colleges have to offer is a shift in this paradigm of thinking. I think breadth is perhaps JUST AS important as depth for that level of learner, and I would simply suggest that some sort of balance should be sought. Whether or not an institution can support that kind of balance, in a frenzy to establish assessable outcomes, is debatable. But until teachers begin supporting reading in every way they can — which means being active readers of their own student’s writing, in addition to simply assigning texts — the culture will not change.

How the Economic Downturn Hits Universities

Today’s edition of The Irascible Professor provides a sobering overview of how the economic downturn impacts colleges and universities — and especially the students who want to attend them. It recommends overhauling the financial aid system, which is probably a very good idea.

There’s a degree to which the “downturn” will be more of a “shake-out” — or simply a “shake-up” — and I suspect we shall see some radical changes in how college education is conceived. I’m still processing these issues and the issues are legion. My thoughts keep turning back to questions I’ve always had, like: Will the liberal arts suffer if even more emphasis is put on the relationship between college studies and the outcome of work? Or will the inverse occur, where having a solid foundation in general education benefit workers across the board? How will this massive change in student’s relation to the workforce transform the paradigm of higher ed? I suppose everyone has these sorts of questions, but the classroom is where we will see it play out in a very concrete way over the next few years — so long as students continue to fill seats.

The Writing Teacher’s Taxonomy

Just file this one under “thought of the day.”

“Writing is less a profession than a professing — a way of stimulating, organizing and affirming thoughts to give meaning to some slice of life.” — William Safire

I culled this quote from the introduction to a book of quotations called Good Advice on Writing, edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir, (Simon and Schuster, 1992). At first I just liked the way Safire framed the act of writing as something akin to teaching, construing writers as professors, of a sort. But looking over it again, I think those functions he lists are precisely what defines the professorial role:

  • stimulating
  • organizing
  • affirming
  • interpreting [“giving meaning to”]

This list (perhaps incomplete) still functions as something of a “writing teacher’s taxonomy.” We stimulate students to think and act in the world — a stimulus that produces a written response. We organize our curriculum and our syllabi content and our daily class periods, and we arm students with organizational strategies for their own ideas. We affirm what students do right in our comments and we reaffirm the wisdom of the textbooks and literature in our discussions and reinforcement of them. We interpret the world and its culture — and by employing and modeling the methods of our discipline, or by having students interpret one another’s work in peer groups, we help students develop these skills on their own.

The better writer you are, perhaps, the better teacher you can be. I see this all the time in our Writing Popular Fiction program, which on top of having a rock solid full time faculty base of PhDs who write fiction, also brings in professional writers as adjuncts to mentor novelists and teach courses in the craft. I see the transference of good writing to good teaching in the Freshman Comp courses taught by people who enjoy the craft and employ it as part of their career both in the English major and throughout the disciplines; and it is self-evident in the student tutors who work in our writing center, hired because of their strong writing skills. I see it in the writers who have taught me much in their non-fiction instructional books about the art and craft and methods of teaching, learning, writing, reading.

Strengthening Syllabi for the New Year

I have to thank Marc Sheffner for turning me on to Ed Nuhfer’s excellent Nutshell Notes — a collection of tips for teachers hosted at Idaho State U (earlier copies are also gathered in a big .pdf file by CU Denver, where it used to be published). It’s a wonderful resource!

Since we’re fast approaching the New Year, I thought I’d celebrate by pointing readers to Nuhfer’s article “Toward a New Year: Strengthening Syllabi”. It was written in 2003, but that doesn’t mean it’s out of date: the essay spoke to me because I, too, am revising my syllabi over the Winter Break as I prepare for the new term. The article is brief, but I liked the section where the teacher is encouraged to “Tell something about yourself [on the syllabus] because you will be the most important person in this course to each student.” Simple truth, followed by good advice and what personal things to divulge.

As I browsed through the various issues of Nutshell Notes, I bookmarked another one that really made me sit up and rethink a few things. It was Nuhfer’s “Levels of Thinking and Educational Outcomes” piece, which features a great table of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Domains in relation to the taxonomy of others (even DeBono’s six thinking “hats”). Bloom becomes very dogmatic in educational circles, so it was nice to see this consideration of alternative frameworks for student development. Nuhfer organizes the various tables on his chart by four areas of a learner’s emphasis: content-intensive emphases, process-intensive emphasis, self-reflection, and judgment from experience. The latter is the one least addressed by Bloom’s Taxonomy, which gave me pause. Nuhfer negotiates these differences in terms of William Perry’s treatment of the stages of intellectual growth with an emphasis on Lee Knefelkamp’s discussion on “personalism” — all this is a part of a series of essays spurred by a teacher’s workshop related to Nutshell Notes that focused on Perry’s book, Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years. I’d like to read that book. I plan to think about my syllabi in relation to these issues, too, as I revise them. [I’m also updating Pedablogue’s design a bit, particularly by adding tags to entries to ease navigation… if you have a recommended tag you’d like me to add, let me know in a comment.]
Happy New Year!

Reflective Practice in Action: A Reflective Book Review

I stopped at a Half-Priced Books store in Monroeville this past October and found myself burrowing around in their really great section in the back of the store, for “Teaching.” In it, I picked up some really great titles cheap, including a book I want to call attention to in this review, called Reflective Practice in Action: 80 Reflection Breaks for Busy Teachers by Thomas S.C. Farrell. But before I get to it, I wanted to first say that spontaneously browsing around in the “Teaching” or “Education” section of a bookstore is a really good idea once in awhile — especially if you’re not a pedagogy specialist or teacher trainer by profession — and I encourage you to take a moment to do this if you’re shopping in a bookstore for the holidays. You might be surprised by what gifts you might find for yourself.

It’s also the case that those bookstore sections for Teaching and Education are rarely well-organized and become a catch-all for any title that smacks of school. Thus, you often find exercises for kindergarteners and home-schooler workbooks placed side by side with philosophical books and guitar instructional manuals. It’s a mess. That’s both good and bad (and perhaps says something about the coherency of our industry): you’ll have to dig to find what you need, but you might find a hidden treasure.

Of course, that’s true of all bookstore shelves to some degree. And the ENTIRE bookstore is really about learning, is it not?
In any case, one of those hidden treasures I recently found was Reflective Practice in Action by Thomas S.C. Farrell (Corwin Press, 2004). It seems like just the sort of book any teacher who blogs or keeps a journal would find of interest, because it is filled with questions, worksheets and discussions intended to prompt thinking and writing about one’s mission and career as an instructor. Through reflective teaching, Farrell claims, “teachers can begin to locate themselves within their profession and start to take more responsibility for shaping their practice” (6).


I know a lot of teachers who struggle over writing their annual self-reports, development plans, and teaching portfolios. Sometimes this struggle is located in one’s relationship to writing itself. At other times, these documents that we have to write in the name of development sometimes are seen as empty exercises in paper shuffling, bureaucratic nonsense, and just one more thing to do on top of a million others. One sometimes wonders what the point of it all is, when only one person or committee often reads it closely before it’s filed away in some infinitely-receding drawer of bureaucratic paperwork, never to be seen again.

But I have always refused to see any project that involves writing as a waste of time. It makes me a better writer and often my writing leads me to new ways of seeing a topic, inspiring me to change my relationship to it. So rather than treating those “official” forms of reflection as dehumanizing forms of busy work, I have tried to use those documents as moments to write reflectively about my career (sometimes to the consternation of those who have to read them, because I write a lot). This book reminds me that reflection — taking stock about where one has gone and where one is going — is entirely the point of those documents to begin with.

Moreover, this slim, 100 page book makes reflecting on one’s work easier, more pleasurable and, ultimately, more significant. Grounded in the principles of reflective practice, it aims at helping teachers see their work in a less technical and more organic fashion. While not every “guided reflection break” offered in the book is equally of value, the book does an excellent job identifying the diverse areas where one might direct their attention in thinking reflectively, and it utilizes research in a refreshingly clear and practical manner, by emphasizing activity and application of the principles it outlines in a systematic (but not overly formal) way.

The book opens by exploring the theories behind “reflective practice” by immediately engaging the reader in thinking that reexamines one’s assumptions about teaching and how they have played out in our practical work. It is a transformative process founded on heightened self-awareness. “…Reflective practice is a systematic and structured process in which we look at concrete aspects of teaching and learning with the overall goal of personal change and more effective practice…we change as a result of the awareness brought about by engaging in reflection.” (27).

Farrell seems to draw the bulk of his research from the work of Kenneth Zeichner and Daniel Liston, authors of Reflective Teaching: An Introduction, which delves into the pedagogical theory behind reflective practice in depth. The book brings more critics into the picture — like Daniel Schon and Max Van Manen — and the bibliography covers all the primary sources in this field of pedagogy. I think Farrell’s book can be seen as a sort of practical workbook to go along with Zeichner and Liston’s title, so the two could work hand in hand if assigned in a teacher development course. Some of Farrell’s “prompts” would occur naturally to a reader of Reflective Teaching: An Introduction, but what makes Farrell’s book useful is the systematic and proactive way in which he guides the application of its concepts.

The first four chapters of the book provide an array of models for reflective practice and explore methods for any teacher or group to put theory into action. It’s a great concise overview, while being inspirational (covering the first 24 prompts of the 80 in the book). In the book’s fifth chapter, the author outlines the “Farrell Model of Reflective Practice,” which identifies a wide range of different ways in which the prompts in the book can be utilized, whether in isolation or in groups, while covering the principle modalities of reflection (37). This section opens up the numerous arenas in which reflection can occur — from journals to teacher development workshops — and readers might be surprised by the number of reflective practices happening all around us on campus all the time, and the myriad ways one can approach reflective thinking.

The latter chapters of Farrell’s book are focused on specific means toward enhancing one’s reflective practice. These processes are: group discussions, classroom observations, journal writing, and the teaching portfolio. The book ends by encouraging one to be a “reflective practitioner” and is the most involved and personal chapter for helping teachers come up with their own prompts for reflection. Here he draws upon and expands Zeichner and Liston’s five principle elements of the reflective practitioner in a way worthy of citing fully:

A reflective teacher:

  • Examines, frames, and attempts to solve dilemmas in classroom practice.
  • Is aware of and questions the assumptions and values he or she brings to teaching
  • Is attentive to the institutional and cultural contexts in which he or she teaches
  • Takes part in curriculum development and is involved in school change efforts
  • Takes responsibility for his or her own professional development

Farrell’s book is a great assistant in making one a more reflective teacher, in general. But there are other things he brings to the table that got my interest. For example, he talks about using a method called the SCORE (Seating Chart Observation Record) to analyze how teachers interact with groups that seems very useful for, say, analyzing a videotape of one’s class or observing a colleague’s class. This would involve drawing a seating chart,and drawing lines between teacher and students when questions are asked or addressed, which I imagine could be revelatory of unconscious habits like favoring one side of the room or calling on the same set of students over and over again.

Overall, I’m glad I stumbled upon this book and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for something to prompt their writing about teaching (like bloggers) or help in writing their own self-assessments. I think administrators and faculty development coordinators who are looking for practical ways to help faculty energize their growth in an autonomous-yet-connected fashion would benefit greatly from this title.
See ItsLife’s coverage of more issues in reflective practice.

Just Published: “THE UNLEARNING: Horror and Transformative Theory”

My essay on the teaching of horror fiction — “The Unlearning: Horror and Transformative Theory” — just went live in the debut issue of the journal, Transformative Works and Cultures. Here’s the abstract:

“The Unlearning: Horror and Transformative Theory” by Michael A. Arnzen

Building on the foundational concepts of transformative learning theory, I argue that horror fiction strongly encourages perspective transformation by challenging student assumptions about both genre writing and educational experience. I informally describe a specific creative writing class period focusing on the motif of the scream in diverse horror texts, and I illustrate how students learn to transform what they already bring to the classroom by employing a variety of particular in-class writing exercises and literary discussions. Among these, transformative writing exercises—such as the revision of an existing text by Stephen King—are highlighted as instructional techniques. As cautionary literature, horror especially dramatizes strategies of fight versus flight. I reveal how students can learn by transforming their knowledge through disorientation that is particular to reading and writing in the horror genre.

I started thinking about the ideas in this article after writing a blog entry back in 2005 called “Shifting the Paradigm: Transformative Learning Theory” — a response to an essay I read by Kelly McGonigal called “Teaching for Transformation.”

McGonigal’s article got me to rethink the role of the reflective essay assignments in my classes, and I soon found myself in the library, catching up on transformative learning theory by reading the works of Jack Mezirow and others who seek to change the worldviews of adult learners. The key role of the “activating event” in transformation got me thinking about how “cautionary” tales and other works in the horror genre often trigger anticipatory thinking that requires a revision of what one initially assumed to be true. After applying these lessons to a course I taught in horror fiction writing last year, I captured some of these ideas in a conference paper in March 2008 at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts…an early draft of this now-published version. I invite comments here or at the journal, which includes a number of good articles on fan studies and popular culture.