Blog 16

Beasts of York: A Cautionary Tale

Quntin blog 16

Quintin Peirce, English Department, LA&PS.

Over the course of my post-secondary education, I’ve learned that my motivation is highest when I’m immersed in personally meaningful subject matter — that’s when the work is most pleasant and rewarding, and when my exploratory nature is most engaged. Of course, there are moments when, despite my best intentions, I’ll reach what feels like an insurmountable impasse, and a draining, discouraging feeling will accompany my writing and research. To combat the bewilderment inherent in this state, I’ll establish a regimented schedule. I work hard within that scheduled framework and then climb my way out of my academic stupor.

Arguably, the nature and structure of graduate school are suited to that degree of perseverance on any particular project. Because we’re often expanding our arguments and re-purposing papers (turning course papers into conference papers or sending them off for publication, for instance), there are rarely distinct endpoints to the work we do; thus, we get accustomed to the apparently eternal value of persistent, hard work.

Naturally, I take my graduate student self with me when I step into my role as a Teaching Assistant. As a result, I have often had similar responses when encountering lags in my tutorials. For instance, if one tutorial is rife with deafening silences, I have been wont to leave the tutorial with my knee-jerk response of regimented scheduling and hard work — generally, this means a lesson plan with a clear and definite trajectory. Typically, this response has the effect of making the subsequent week’s tutorial more comfortable and secure. However, I have often felt that I was sacrificing something, that I was employing an imperfect solution. After thinking about it for a while, I stumbled across a reference point that has enabled me to articulate the reason for my trepidation.

That reference point presented itself to me mid-term of my tutorials when we discussed and examined Animal Farm, George Orwell’s famous allegory about the Russian Revolution. One character in particular seemed to speak to an aspect of my situation. That character was a cart-horse named Boxer. Whenever trouble befalls the farm, Boxer is quick to pronounce his favourite maxim: “I will work harder”. While Boxer’s intentions are admirable, we know that he will fail at actualizing positive results. It’s not because his work ethic is insufficient. Rather, he will fail because the yield that his work ethic produces is not in his hands. Instead, a dictatorial boar named Napoleon, along with his posse of power-hungry pigs, have assumed power, and they are feasting on the surplus yield for which Boxer is largely responsible. Meanwhile, the animals in the seat of power inculcate a sense that all the other animals would be lost without them.

While this is, admittedly, a hyperbolically dystopian reference point, I nevertheless propose we temporarily re-purpose Orwell’s allegory to a cautionary tale about TA pedagogy. Specifically, consider it if you feel you belong to the category of the noble TA whose work ethic risks falling into overzealousness. This overzealousness may spawn, as I’ve suggested, from the graduate student self, who happily relies on work ethic to overcome hurdles. When we experience or even anticipate hurdles in tutorials, we may find ourselves channeling that Boxer-like work ethic into the craft of air-tight lesson plans. The potential risk involved in this sequence of events is that, in starting off as Boxer, the rigidity of the plan we hatch may position us like Napoleon in front of a class of Boxer-students. Consider that in Animal Farm, while Boxer initially defers only to the one maxim (“I will work harder”), he eventually pairs it with another — specifically, “Napoleon is always right”. What this says to me is that the mindsets enshrined in each maxim are mutually supportive: “I will work harder” always served as an unwitting reinforcement of Napoleon’s reign, a stock of faith in the pre-set teleology which offered the animals a grand vision and seemed to pre-confirm the practical/moral correctness of the path of hard work.

As TAs, then, we should be attentive so as to avoid creating the conditions whereby there is a confluence of these Orwellian mindsets. I believe it bears mentioning because tendentiousness is one of the easier aspects to creep into our pedagogy: impervious lesson plans are, I think, borne out of a desire that’s generally very appropriate for our graduate work, the desire to be disciplined, to take responsibility, and imbue our work with what is personally meaningful. However, it also imbues the tutorial with the spectre of pre-decision that the Animal Farm analogy helps to call attention to. It’s that Boxer’s maxims, and Napoleon’s rule, function via a deferral to a rigid and already-conceived utopianism.

Conversely, what TAs do when at their best is facilitate multi-directional and processual thinking. To foster processual thinking is to avoid the trap of the ready-made and to choose the present tense. The problem is that this presentness can appear from the outside like passivity. However, the most effective TAs that I most admire from my undergrad possessed this presentness. Now, having turned to pedagogical research myself, I understand that their strategy bolstered intrinsic motivation, the kind of motivation wherein the pinnacle of achievement did not lie merely in appeasing them.

What a beastly thing that would be.

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5 comments on “Blog 16

  1. Genevieve, once again, your post was wonderful in that it very productively offered a moment for me to voice my own positive teaching philosophy. I love that you contributed such great pedagogical vocabulary to the conversation. However, I also think I should speak briefly to my rationale in regard to the Orwellian conceit I use in the post. I decided on Animal Farm in part because it is widely read and thus (hopefully) accessible. Because we were covering it in the Satire course I am TAing, I also thought it would be a neat way to demonstrate to students the versatility of satirical forms. After all, as my students brilliantly suggested in tutorial, while Animal Farm is a historical/political allegory with one specific reference point, it is also an allegory of ideas. In my understanding, this particular kind of allegory allows, even encourages, a kind “polysemy” of interpretations and applications to real life.

    Andrea, I really appreciated your thoughtful navigation through some education-specific terms as well. I also enjoyed your attention to the Orwellian conceit (though I’m wondering if you could tell me what you mean by my Orwellian “style”; I would love to be as pithy as Orwell!). That being said, I want to take issue with your phrasing when you comment on Orwellian “fantasies”. For me, this phrasing implies an insuperable gulf between allegory and reality. While Orwell’s fiction is of course fantastical (and I acknowledge that in the piece), I worked hard in the blog to respect the way that the novel in a sense wants to be applied to diverse situations. One of the points we covered in the course is that allegory by definition has two levels of signification. On one level of signification, AF tells a somewhat simple story about a farm populated by anthropomorphized animals. But it is the second, more “mobile” level of signification that I wanted to capitalize on as an explanatory tool. This is the level that warns against incipient authority that is difficult to detect.

    In my view, the text does not only apply in scenarios of equivalent severity; it’s also useful to analyze subtler power inequalities that may exist. It is due to the fact that tendentious lesson planning is subtle and often satisfying that makes it hard to detect. That’s precisely why, as I say, a TA can represent traces of both Napoleon and Boxer. I should specify as well that I am primarily thinking about TAs, both now and in my actual piece. I understand that on the whole, lecturers aim to download a certain amount of information to students. I’m by no means challenging that! At the same time, though, I see the tutorials as a chance for students to upload ideas and insights. Tony, I think this is where the disciplinary divide you mention can factor in. Even on weeks we are not discussing allegories, I am always encouraging my students to offer their own unique readings of fiction and their accompanying critical texts. This is in part to prepare them for graduate school themselves, where they will need that strong individual voice to add to the critical conversation on Lit. texts.

    Again, thank you all for your feedback as it’s helping me revisit the aims of my piece!

  2. While my own teaching style leans towards the JTT approach that Quintin practices, I’ve seen some excellent teachers dazzle despite rigid lesson plans and detailed outlines. Some students like it when everything is plotted beforehand, so they can follow the lesson better, while others like to be surprised. Beyond taste, however, I think that the two approaches—heavily outlined vs. structured improvisation—might exist within a disciplinary divide. I find that the teaching of history, for instance, demands more structure than something like theory. Certain narratives simply require linearity. Furthermore, while all teaching demands a certain amount forethought and preparation, I do find hermeneutics and interpretative subjects to benefit from a more participatory pedagogy.

  3. Andrea and Genevieve,

    Thank you both for your thoughtful responses. I absolutely agree that lesson planning is crucial to teaching assistants of all stripes. Certainly, my aim in writing this piece was not to dissuade anyone from preparing for tutorials. I would never hope to peddle the simplistic position that lesson plans are necessarily antithetical to in-the-moment ‘reflection and action’. I would be the first to consider such a position to be laziness masquerading as spontaneity.

    I was, however, warning against a kind of rigid preparedness that might create a stifling learning environment. As I suggest in the piece, this is an extreme scenario. Of course, like any pedagogical pitfall, this kind of tendentious framework can creep in gradually and inadvertently.

    Since I was writing a “cautionary tale,” I confess that my piece did not expand on helpful alternatives as much as it might have (I may have gotten swept away in the fun of dystopian whimsy). Thanks, Genevieve, for the reference to JTT. I do think that the kind of assessment-centred techniques advocated in JTT offer a great way of refocusing the emphasis on students. I find it very persuasive that new knowledge is always in conversation with pre-existing knowledge sets. In my opinion, then, TAs and instructors should attempt to gauge pre-existing knowledge before going full-steam ahead. And while I don’t recommend the mindset that TAs and instructors are ultimate authorities, I do think they should trust their abilities to detect and challenge misconceptions amongst their students.

    Thanks again to you both for your wonderful feedback.

  4. Quintin,
    Thank you for sharing your reflections on your teaching experience as a TA. I enjoyed the provocative tone and challenging ideas; however your orwellian writing style may obscure some of the sentences, and like Genevieve, I might have missed something.
    You are absolutely right to acknowledge that TAs are at their best when they are ‘present’,i.e. when they combine ‘reflection + action’ while teaching/learning are in process. However, this ‘presentness’ is not directly correlated to the need of a lesson plan as your text seems to imply.
    It seems to me that your understanding of lesson plan is misrepresented and it gets tangled when you tie it to orwellian fantasies. Lesson plan does not imply ‘bureaucratic’ descriptions or reports that limit one’s action in classroom. On the contrary,a lesson plan is to help an instructor to set goals and organize resources in order to maximize students’ learning experience.

    I hope TAs nowadays have overcome the ‘Big Brother fear’ and do not feel pushed to cement ‘another brick in the wall’. But if anyone still does, please drop-in by the Teaching Commons for a friendly chat and coffee with us.

  5. Quintin,

    I quite enjoyed reading your piece even though I will admit I did not understand every word. I’ll blame my ESL self for that, so please forgive me if I missed the point.

    I was left wondering what is your alternative to lesson planning. What you advocate for, I think, is loosely speaking a version of Just in Time Teaching (it even has an acronym in some circles!), i.e., the ability to respond to learner needs based on a feedback loop the teacher is constantly engaged in with her students. With JTT, several parts of the pre-planned lesson may not be used at all, depending on where students stand in their understanding. A skillful teacher will be able to detect the muddiest points, challenging ideas, etc., and focus on those during the tutorial / lecture. I would argue that this kind of teaching, if indeed this is what you are talking about, still requires a lesson plan, including learning outcomes and possible learning activities, means to get feedback from students as you go, talking points, strategies to engage ALL students, etc.

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