2014-15 Self-Eval (part 2) – Reading with Alison Bechdel

At Evergreen, reflecting on learning is a foundation of our pedagogy. Students and faculty alike submit a complete portfolio of our work at the end of each year/program, including a self-evaluation. I post excerpts from mine here as a way of sharing my thoughts about teaching more broadly.

Reading with Alison Bechdel: Queer and Feminist Frames was the brainchild of my office neighbor, social psychologist Laura Citrin, who approached me with the idea for a program structured around the works of cult lesbian cartoonist cum acclaimed memoirist Alison Bechdel. Laura’s vision was to literally read along with Bechdel, who scaffolds her two graphic narratives about her parents with a webwork of literary, theoretical, and historical references. Although this construction gave us clear contours for an outline, reviewing the plentiful and disparate material and shaping it into a 10-week progression was far from simple. Because we decided to assemble a photocopied coursepack in order to consolidate and make concrete the many documents students would need to navigate, we had to make firm decisions ahead of time about over 60 accompanying texts. This involved not only selecting excerpts from Bechdel’s intertextual archive but also supplementing them with foundational readings that could offer a through line of feminist, queer, and media studies critique. Even after careful consideration, the syllabus was to some degree an act of faith: with such extensive and wide-ranging constituents we couldn’t guarantee in advance that the experience would cohere. And trusting Bechdel’s own intellectual logic put us in the student-like position of diving into material at the outer limits of our academic expertise. This was, in part, what made the program ultimately so enchanting – our learning was a genuine surprise. When we handed out the three volume, nearly 1000 page reader to students in the first week, its formidable materiality became an emblem for the work ahead, and I believe they understood that we were embarking on it collaboratively.

Our students were the most rewarding and the most difficult aspect of Reading with Alison Bechdel. The program title put a palpable stamp on enrollment, and it was glorious to start the quarter with a classroom full of queers and feminists. The cohesion of our learning really had to be emergent, and the group rose to the challenge, embracing the premise and the task of synthesizing very diverse texts (despite being largely unfamiliar with Bechdel at the outset). This involved exploring the resonances between genres (comics, films, literature, theory) and the continuities of history – from Bechdel’s coming-of-age reference points in 1970s lesbian feminism to our own third wave cultural moment. I believe that our program design facilitated this inquiry by emphasizing close and serious reading through twice weekly seminars and short-answer seminar quizzes. The students were hardly fans of the quizzes, and we could have made them more varied and interactive, but they were successful in creating a sense of accountability around the assigned texts and in seeding the critical conversation. We sought feedback midway through the quarter, and in response changed the way we conducted seminar to diverge from our quiz questions and accommodate more student-driven questions, but I believe that working with the quizzes helped the class to build substantive discussion skills.

In the course of the program, we also exposed students to our own expertise and perspectives, to a number of wonderful guest speakers on relevant themes (including a Skype date with Alison Bechdel herself!), and to activities like a library scavenger hunt. To workshop writing, we followed several shorter essays with an assignment they developed over several weeks, providing feedback on their initial paper topic and rough draft. One of the most interesting episodes of the quarter was when the group mutinied against our expectation that they would read their essays for their classmates at a concluding “conference” – an exercise that raises the stakes of their writing without requiring much additional preparation. A concerned faction organized behind the scenes to raise objections about this format in seminar, and we were able to reach a compromise (yes, everyone would speak in front of the whole class, but they could choose how they wanted to present their work). Some awkwardness in the moment notwithstanding, I was so proud of the students for advocating for themselves (this confrontation was a risk for them), for considering their learning styles and effective ways to communicate their ideas, and for engaging in an honest and mature negotiation. As in this case, I believe that my greatest strength as a teacher in Reading with Alison Bechdel was an aptitude for listening to and affirming, respecting and connecting with our students. Within this space, I could exemplify and share intellectual vitality and critical pleasure.

I gave sustained thought this year to the experience of queer and transgender students at Evergreen (a demographic that seems to be prone to a suite of intersecting difficulties that include health issues, mental health issues, disabilities, abuse, and economic challenges). I am committed to supporting these students’ success in ways that span their academic work but may also involve championing student groups, extracurricular projects, and campus causes. However, I realize that I need to be mindful of the boundaries of what I’m prepared to contribute in terms of time, energy, and interpersonal skills and to learn more about other available resources. I believe that the most important contribution I made to Evergreen’s queer community in the past year was pushing for an adjunct hire in Queer Studies and participating in the search process. Another campus issue that has occupied my attention is the campaign to address working conditions and equity for our adjunct and part-time faculty. I was part of organizing efforts to raise awareness and solidarity around the adjunct experience, such as sign-making and photographing for a modest gathering on National Adjunct Walkout Day.

Overall, I believe that I have been open and energized to both teach and learn at Evergreen, contributing to important conversations on campus and absorbing and manifesting a growing grasp of radical pedagogy. One crucial comment that I heard a campus diversity workshop is that, as faculty, we are in a position of power even in Evergreen’s non-traditional classrooms – whether or not we are comfortable acknowledging it. I have developed in my understanding of how to occupy that position productively, cultivating and modeling meaningfully supportive and collaborative relationships with students while balancing that horizontality with my responsibility to make ultimate decisions about curriculum and evaluation. I would like to thank my teaching partners, my students, and my faculty and staff colleagues for being the most profound and generous teachers I could hope for.

2014-15 Self-Eval (part 1) – Teaching Science Fiction

At Evergreen, reflecting on learning is a foundation of our pedagogy. Students and faculty alike submit a complete portfolio of our work at the end of each year/program, including a self-evaluation. I post excerpts from mine here as a way of sharing my thoughts about teaching more broadly.

My second year as a member of the faculty at Evergreen was characterized by intellectual exploration. I delved deeply into unfamiliar material, and I believe I modeled curiosity and risk for my students in powerful ways. In addition to my own reinvigorated synthesis, I continued to learn and reflect on strategies for managing program architecture and classroom dynamics.

Mona Lisa Overdrive: Science in Art and Culture (with biologist Amy Cook, Fall/Winter) was, once again, a program I picked from the catalog as a dream class for me as a simulated student. I have always been a fan of science fiction television and included it as a focus of my research, but I’ve had little opportunity to learn about the broader field of sf studies or center the genre in my teaching. Mobilizing sci-fi as the pivot between science and creative production was a thrilling prospect and seemed to exemplify the most exciting and effective aspects of Evergreen’s curricular model. Most of our students were eager to jump into this captivating material and realized our hopes for their learning: those who came for the biology reported that seeing it reflected in the films made them more engaging, and those who were primarily interested in the humanities reported that the sci-fi lens made studying science more fun and accessible.

The cross-divisional nature of this program necessitated a different approach from my previous collaboration. Amy and I conceived it as an intro to biology curriculum and an intro to media studies curriculum linked through thematic topics. Since the biology sequence was relatively fixed, my challenge was to pair it with media texts and concepts to craft an intelligible flow. Greater emphasis on teaching core competencies in my field was one of my goals after last year, so this was a welcome opportunity to think through what a more comprehensive introduction within a team-taught program would look like. The fall quarter syllabus proceeded somewhat historically, beginning with proto- and early film along with an orientation to science fiction and to the relationship between science and media technologies. After spanning much of the 20th century in fall, winter quarter opened with cyberpunk/cybernetics and incorporated more topics around digital media, while moving less chronologically overall to encompass a range of additional material. Between the wide scope of this curriculum and the focus on “soft” biology-related sci-fi, I dealt with a greater preponderance of film in this program than I ever have in the past. Television and the internet are my intellectual passions, but films (because they are self-contained and narratively/audiovisually rich) make fantastic teaching texts, and I very much enjoyed working with this array of science fiction movies – I have a few new favorites plus a newfound appreciation for the genre. So this experience was productive in expanding my pedagogical capacities in my discipline. I was also able to workshop media analysis methods more extensively with students in this context.

I observed that one of the most positive aspects of our interdivisional team for students was that they witnessed both Amy and I actively encountering unfamiliar material and methodologies. This can create a stronger sense of community and demonstrate learning as a dynamic process. For me, more of a science “fan” who has taken few STEM classes since high school, studying basic biology was incredibly fun. I was keen to master the concepts purely as a cognitive challenge, but beyond that, Amy’s inventive approach to lectures and activities was totally captivating. I opted to do the homework and tests along with the students (more diligently in fall than in winter), and I think they were tickled and heartened by my participation (I’m proud to say that I did very well on the midterm and final). On a more advanced level, I personally developed a much deeper conception of the cultural interdependence of science and media – the ways each relies on the other’s technological innovations and life narratives. This is one reason why so much science fiction comments directly or indirectly on the media apparatus (my top example from the class is the opening of the zombie film 28 Days Later, which depicts a primate lab subject being forced to watch violent news footage). Sci-fi has also been one of the most vital tools for thinking through the social implications of scientific research. By offering a curriculum that paired biological topics with stories that parallel or explore them, our program enabled these connections to emerge in our collective work. We saw students transform in their understanding of science in its cultural context and of popular media’s aesthetics and social commentary. For a lot of them, this culminated in winter’s “fantastical organism” project, a multi-part assignment that asked them to imagine and realize a creature based on concepts from biology but set within a speculative world. This task yielded some wonderful results and was a favorite learning experience for many of the students.

Overview of Mona Lisa Overdrive
from WisCon 39 Teaching Science Fiction workshop

Thus, although the binary constitution of our program (biology + media as distinct components) was perhaps less richly interdisciplinary than some, I believe it still fostered important synthetic learning. The clear division of labor also made for a more manageable workload, and this awareness will contribute to my future strategizing about program structure. Amy encouraged a consistent weekly schedule where each of us was responsible for different sessions, simplifying class planning and prep. And scaling back meant that we were judicious in our pedagogical decisions: for example, instead of repeating a stock seminar paper assignment each week, we designed a series of short writing or thinking tasks that could build on each other and prepare students for the more complex work involved in longer essays. Overall, I tried to create conditions for students to actively synthesize disparate texts and topics, which was an important transition toward college-level thinking for the lower division groups.

In broader terms, I believe that through self-reflection, learning, and practice I have grown in my capacity to make the classroom more hospitable to racial, gender, and sexual minorities (and I continue to build consciousness around disabled and economically disadvantaged students). I prioritized professional development opportunities in this realm both on and off campus. In my teaching, one example of my progress in handling issues of power and privilege was our discussion of “Gamer Gate” in Mona Lisa Overdrive. This ongoing cyberculture-war was sparked by feminist critiques of sexism in video games and tech industries that generated a massive backlash against vocal women in the form of online harassment, rape and death threats, and doxing (disseminating personal information). Even though most of my students weren’t closely familiar with this phenomenon before I brought it to the class, my overview quickly snowballed into a heated debate. I was able to react fluidly to the situation, pausing my lecture and organizing students into a “fishbowl” dialogue. Overall, this was a successful activity: the group’s ability to listen and speak to each other respectfully impressed me, and I was especially proud of several female students who were willing to sit in front of the class and argue with their peers. This response illustrates my typical strategy of facilitating productive encounters between the students so they can learn from each others’ perspectives (learn across significant differences, as we say). In retrospect, though, I have heard and understood that those with experiences of sexism, racism, and discrimination can be put in the unfair position of continually educating their classmates, and may feel unsafe or unsupported in expressing their views. Although I already try to subtly manage controversial discussions, I have set the intention of making more proactive and explicit interventions in the future – in this case, I could have backed up my feminist students by explaining why online harassment is a significant problem. I noticed that one influence on my “neutral” stance is concern over alienating straight white cis male students who are venturing into unfamiliar or uncomfortable conversations. Even though I am mindful of my status as an authority figure for the group as a whole, I have resolved to worry more about the comfort of students who may be habitually alienated in the classroom and less about the comfort of those who are more privileged.

2013-14 Self-Evaluation

At Evergreen, reflecting on learning is a foundation of our pedagogy. Students and faculty alike submit a complete portfolio of our work at the end of each year/program, including a self-evaluation. I wanted to share an excerpt from mine here.

In my first year at Evergreen, I taught a three-quarter lower division program called Consuming Cultures with Karen Gaul (Rita Pougiales joined us for the fall). Its topics – 20th Century consumer capitalism, anthropology, and sustainability studies – felt within my comfort zone and complimentary to the expertise I could bring from media studies, while unfamiliar enough to provide an exciting learning opportunity. I approached this experience with some ideas but few preconceived expectations; one of the immediately gratifying aspects of the planning process was that anything seemed possible. I believe that I rose to the challenge of this adventure with vigor and worked resolutely to craft a stimulating and innovative curriculum.

Evergreen rewards the generalist, and I appreciated stretching my pedagogical abilities across a wide swath of the humanities. I found that my training was surprisingly limber, readily adapting to new areas – cultural and material history, political economy and globalization, literature and documentary – from a critical perspective. I embraced the notion of developing teaching capacities and modules that foster critical thinking, reading, and writing skills and an understanding of power, privilege and difference (regardless of the specific content).

As someone new to the 16-credit model, it presented a bit of an enigma in its strategies and rhythms. Much of my learning this year concerned the nuts and bolts of a full-time program: how to configure a functional weekly schedule, how to assign a reasonable amount of content and homework, how to find a balance between experimentation and workload (since every novel activity requires significant development). I haven’t mastered these skills by any means, but I have progressed in my thinking and techniques. Spending so many hours and working so intensively with a group of students was both the greatest challenge and the greatest reward of this experience. I often discussed the problem of setting appropriate boundaries around my time and emotional labor with Karen; I wanted to be involved with students’ lives but maintain some healthy degree of distance. But I also felt inspired by the permeable borders of our learning community, by the invitation to break down some the hierarchies of education and include all of us as whole people – minds and bodies, pasts and futures.

I reflected continually on seminar practices, and I worked to create space for different learning styles without stifling students’ voices. I have more to absorb about the subtleties of facilitating discussion and the repertoire of breakout activities, but overall my evaluations speak to my success as a seminar leader. When we were reading a transnational ethnography about textile production (Threads), one later life student volunteered stories about working in one of the last mills in the southeast US decades ago; this is only one example of how a dynamic that is receptive to personal as well as critical insights enhanced our studies. Participating in yoga labs with the group was also a transformative experience for me, and I witnessed how this element enabled us to metabolize program materials and concepts in embodied ways. My students taught me the most this year, and I have tremendous respect for their perspectives, commitment, and spirit. I mused throughout on the importance of learning across significant differences, and I am proudest of the capacity I found to cultivate that in myself and others. I would like to improve in my ability to directly address conflict around charged topics, but in most cases I believe my students felt heard, known, and honored in our work. It was a joy to observe the richness of their learning, especially for many who were new to Evergreen.

Beyond my teaching in Consuming Cultures, I believe I was a lively and committed member of the Evergreen community this year. I contributed to faculty and planning unit meetings and other collegial activities, including two guest presentations in programs and a talk for the Critical and Cultural Theory lecture series. In my broader field, I am serving as the Caucus Coordinating Committee Chair for my professional organization, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and I presented at their annual conference in March. Although scholarly production was necessarily a low priority, I prepared one article for publication in the forthcoming second edition of New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, and I had two other book chapters appear in print this winter. As I approach my 2014-15 programs, I know I have much to draw on from my experiences, challenges, and growth at Evergreen so far. I’m looking forward to continued learning, collaboration, and evolution!