what we don't know

Teaching What You Don't Know by Therese Huston

Among the things I haven't had time to do lately, I haven't had time to go to the annual U of I Faculty Retreat, the big one that brings people across campus together.  But I have been paging through this book by one of the keynote speakers. Huston argues that there are real structural aspects of how teaching is organized that lead to people teaching subjects they "don't know."  But the bar for "know" is ridiculously high for most academics, which is again an artifact of the extreme narrowness of dissertations and Ph.D. specialization in general.  In fact, most people teach things they are qualified to teach about (specialists in genetics can and should teach, for instance, biology), and her examples make this clear though the language around them is sometimes more dire, most likely reflecting the anxieties of her interviewees.

And the world changes.  We can't graduate knowing it all.  When I took storytelling, in 1998, no one had ever heard of "digital storytelling."  Now the term is everywhere, though it's used in very different ways depending on the context.  But a meaning has coalesced around audio-and-image recording technologies like iMovie and their use to record (predominately) personal stories.  I could not have known this when I was in school, and yet what I "don't know" was worth both learning and teaching. 

Huston argues that, based on her interview studies, there are three groups of faculty when it comes to teaching the unfamiliar:  poised and confident, indifferent and undecided, and stressed and anxious.  She gives tips for being more like the poised and confident group, but unlike your average self-help overseller, she cautions that some of this is just personality.  The basics of who we are.  Expectations and assumptions we really can't control.  So I'd recommend this for folks who are struggling with teaching, in general, because most of the tips to be "poised and confident" are just good teaching tips anyhow.  I like the things she suggests about thinking through pros and cons of hiding your learning process as well as being transparent about it.  For my part, I think teaching should be a process of telescoping in to the fine details and also out to the biggest of big pictures.  I like the balancing act this requires, and I think there would be something missing from the world if academic specialists never taught courses that required them to interact with students who have a general interest in a broad topic.

Upcoming this week: Dipesh's Gryphon lecture (check out his styling bow tie!), and catching up with colleagues who teach LEEP this weekend, including some of my fellow 1999-ish GSLIS master's grads. 

On a personal note:  If life were just academic, it would be easier to get reading done and organize files and papers, but it would not be nearly as delicious.  Over fifty people came to our house for the baby shower for my dear friend Danielle's baby boy, Ezra Shine.  It was amazing.  She's an important part of my chosen family.  I am in favor of women having a splendid array of reproductive choices, including this one.  She will truly be a mother by choice, and I can't wait to be part of his world.

funny times

In honor of Terry Pratchett's Blue Ribbons Win for the last of the Tiffany Aching books (which I look forward to reading straight through):

"Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it.  If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying "End-of-the-World Switch.  PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH," the paint wouldn't even have time to dry."
--Terry Pratchett
quoted in the March 2011 Funny Times

storytelling, in both cases

Two storytelling titles for various purposes....

Storytelling for Grantseekers by Cheryl A. Clarke
More than anything, this is an accurate and accessible book-length metaphor for what a grant can be:  a gripping story of a need and a solution with a promise of another chapter to come.  The chapter titles alone give a sense of how this metaphor works.  A few examples are:  "The Proposal Narrative:  Introducing the Characters and the Place," "The Need or Problem:  Building Tension and Conflict into Your Story," and "The Budget:  Translating Your Story from Words to Numbers."  This last chapter, chapter 8, is now in my email in .pdf form (thanks Alaine!) for future use in 506.  The whole book might work, but I notice that the most frequent student mistake is to botch or, in rare cases, leave off the budget for their "facilitating change" projects.  A whole reading on the how-to of the topic can't hurt.

On the Origin of Stories:  Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd
Were there world enough and time, I'd just sit and devour this book for about three days.  Instead, I've had to try it out in chunks, thanks to my colleage Karen Coates who suggested it and is using it as a major text for her storytelling course.  The text is comprised of two sections, and the first explores the idea that narrative has some basis on our makeup at an evolutionary level.  The second delves into particular stories, "from Zeus to Seuss," analyzing both The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who, a juxtaposition that I find charming, engaging, and again with the if-I-had-three-days comment.  Boyd's arguments bring together narrative analysis and selected neuroscience in really interesting ways.  Maybe in summer, maybe after that other book chapter is due in June...


roses, food, and imperfection

 Lots of reading, but very little blogging, so this is a catch-up posting.  I suppose the guest lecture and keynote speech and the two classes I'm teaching and the writing do tend to get in the way.  Today I gave a keynote speech for a little regional conference of teachers interested in history.  It was my first time giving an hour plus talk with questions, and interestingly I found it really is about the amount that fits into any one of my 40-page-double-spaced history papers.  I did talk for about an hour about "Creating a History of Children as Readers," but then left time for 30 min or so of questions, and I think it went well, though the evaluations that they'll send me will be useful.  It was a pleasure to talk to such a great audience of intelligent history teachers with good questions. 

In the meantime, I have been reading:

Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley

This retelling of Beauty and the Beast came to my attention years ago, when Betsy talked about it, and I vaguely remembering skimming through it.  But this is not a book you can skim.  To absorb it, you have to dive into its fantasy world and let it take over.  The pacing is slow like dreams are slow, as Beauty discovers the castle, learns the Beast, and begins to decipher the magical complexities of history and identity that bring her to a crossroads and, ultimately, to a decision.  In this version, the Beast stays a Beast, he does not transform back into the man he once was.  I'm reading this in part because of B. who is doing an independent study with me, updating her thesis to be a publishable paper, and she tells me she absolutely hated this ending as a child.  I can see why, and it reaffirms the sense that this is really an adult retelling.  It's a satisfying tale on so many levels, interweaving reality and dreams in ways that feel more emotionally real than most realistic fiction.  If I had a complaint, it would be that she still knows the Beast so little when they are married.  But, really, knowing a person is so complicated, and both are characters of very few words.   Beauty certainly chooses her own fate, and that is satisfying in and of itself.

About love:
"Roses are for love.  Not forget-me-not , honeysuckle, silly sweethearts' love but the love that makes you and keeps you whole, love that gets you through the worst your life'll give you and that pours out of you when you're given the best instead."  (p. 56)

About being unmade:
"But the worst borne is not necessarily past and over with thereby.  The worst of fighting a dragon is being caught in its fire, but you do not survive dragon encounters by commanding your muscles to withstand dragon fire, because you and they cannot.  You survive by avoiding being burnt. [...]  Whatever--whoever--she was, it was beign transformed implacably into something else; she was being undone, unmade, annihilated...." (p. 92)

About one's old life dissolving:
"When we had to leave the city, I thought I'd die.  Not for grief, or even anger, but more from a kind of... amazement that the world could be so unlike what I had thought.  And then... fear.  Fear for all those things I didn't know.  I would get up in the morning and look at my petticoats, and my stockings, and my shoes, and my dress, and I didn't know which one to put on first, or whether my shoes went on my feet or my head.  I would decide they went on my feet from the shape.  How could I live when I know nothing?" (p. 265)

The Gastronomy of Marriage by Michelle Maisto

On the upside, this book is full of wonderful food descriptions, one of which inspired me to make a fig and olive tapenade that was excellent on crackers for a party appetizer and better still on pasta later.  Maisto touches on so many simple but real truths about melding one's life with another, but "marriage" is overstating it, as this is really about food, eating, identity, and the process of being engaged and working toward a wedding.  I think the landscape before that point is more similar than the landscape after, because every marriage, every partnership, has its own mysterious borders.  I'd love to see a book like this from someone married for 15, 30, or 45 years, when the gastronomy is more than melding, but is also phases of separating, rejoining, agreeing, disagreeing, finding the foods that mean celebration or comfort at so many different parts of life.  Still.  The dinner party descriptions and the wonderful Manhattan food and tiny kitchen are evocative and well described.  Maybe Maisto will follow up when her experience of marriage is, well, a little more extensive.  I'd read that.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

I thought I'd sworn off self-help books (except Sark), but this one is by a researcher who does extensive qualitative research on topics like "shame resilience" and what she calls "Wholehearted Living."  It's not a research book, and my only complaint is that it's really too lightweight for me.  I'm less interested in solutions and more interested in process and evidence at this point in my life.  So I'll be reading more of the evidence from her research studies.  It's probably silly to complain about an explicitly self-help book being overly prescriptive, so I won't bother.  But the bullet-point-style writing gives me enough to understand that I'd like to know more about this social work perspective on, for instance, surviving shame, differentiating guilt from shame, and living in ways that are authentic.