Thursday, October 27, 2016

New post on my OU Blog

All Associate Lecturers (and indeed students) at the Open University are provided with a blog for their use. Most don't use it, so do a lot. I occasionally use it for something particularly pedagogical, and so I just have, looking at what postgrads might think about when they approach theories and methods for their work.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Women's Classical Committee: Classics and Feminist Pedagogy - Practical Tips for Teaching

At the end of July I was privileged to go to the Women's Classical Committee's event 'Classics and Feminist Pedagogy - Practical Tips for Teaching'. This was aimed primarily at postgrads and early career researchers, but fortunately there was a space for me. Why did I go? Lots of reasons. For a start, I've long believed that one is never too old to learn new stuff, and how to do things better. If anything, as I've got older I've become more receptive to learning about pedagogy - the arrogant twenty-something me, deeply suspicious about anything that looked like theory, was far more resistant. (Though I have still had bad experiences with pedagogical texts and events that I have felt ended up teaching me nothing about how to be a good teacher.) And I have always supported feminist causes (like so many things in my life, I blame Doctor Who).* So when Liz Gloyn first mentioned the idea of the UK Women's Classical Committee to me, I was enthusiastic, and I am delighted that it has become an actual thing that does things (as Liz would say). All of this means that feminist pedagogy ticks many of my academic boxes. Feminist pedagogy must inherently be inclusive pedagogy, which means it can't just be for women (and a number of the issues that face young female scholars, such as insecurity of position, are also issues that I've faced throughout my career). Moreover, I have, through my association with Nine Worlds, become much more concerned of late about inclusivity.

What follows is not a coherent report on the event. Other people will no doubt write those soon, and in the meantime there are a couple of Storifys. What I want to do here is explore a few issues that particularly connected with me.

Liz opened proceedings with a session on 'What is Feminist Pedagogy and What does it mean for Classics and Ancient History?', drawing upon a lot of work that's previously been done in the US in the area of feminist pedagogy and its use in Classical Studies. I took a lot away from this, most of all the clear advantages of the 'Solidarity Model' of syllabus design, which fully engages with a number of different perspectives, rather than the 'Tourist Model' or the 'Explorer Model', both of which other in various ways the marginalized and powerless.

Like a lot of what I read or here about best practice, Liz's talk made me consider my own practice and consider the many ways in which my teaching falls down, including spending too much time delivering lectures, rather than trying to involve the students in a more collaborative approach. Partly this is due to my unwillingness to venture outside my own comfort zone, but partly it is due to lack of time. Rethinking how one does a module requires a bit of space to sit back and mull on how to go about doing this. Moreover, the demands of my current work patterns, where I have three separate employers, for all of whom I teach in quite different modes, mean that time for sitting back and thinking about approaches is a luxury I often don't have. But that, Liz argues, is alright - she suggests that doing things little bits at a time is fine. Nevertheless, I must do better.

Along the way, Liz talked about the difference between teacher-centred learning and student-centred learning, and her preference for subject-centred learning, a strategy that makes the learning experience a collaborative effort between students and teacher. It's a model I've been exposed to before through stuff that Liz has written, and one that very much appeals to me. But in one of the discussion conversations afterwards, Liz said to me, 'Oh, you don't tell the students that you're taking a subject-centred approach." The thing is, I have told students this, explicitly. Admittedly, I've only done it with Open University Students, but nevertheless, I'm not sure why it's a bad thing to do so - shouldn't one be upfront about taking such an approach if the aim is to empower students? I'm sure Liz will respond on this point, and I look forward to seeing that response.

The second paper I want to talk about was my Roehampton colleague Fiona McHardy talking about teaching sensitive subjects, on the back of some research she and another Roehampton colleague, Susan Deacy (present in the audience), have been conducting (perhaps best read about in this article from Cloelia). There was a lot of useful information in her presentation - fortunately Ellie Mackin took photographs of the most bibliographic slides and put them on Twitter (e.g. this one and this one).

The most interesting part of this was the discussion of trigger warnings. My own view on trigger warnings is that while they are often presented as censorious attempts to shut down debate, I've never seen them as barring study of anything, merely ensuring that students are properly prepared for material that is problematic and potentially upsetting. If anything, this helps them engage with the material more effectively. I've read too much commentary on trigger warnings that starts from a position that students who are concerned about these issues don't really have a valid viewpoint, and they should, essentially, 'man up' and get over anything potentially traumatic. To me, that lacks respects for students, dismissing those who are actually prepared to talk about the texts, only outside the parameters that the academic has set. There's no attempt here to empathise with students whose experiences and backgrounds may differ greatly from that of the teacher. In their worst manifestations, such attacks on warnings adopt the rhetoric of the bully - life is harsh, so you have to put up with my being harsh. Sorry, but that isn't an excuse. Nor does 'never mind the creepiness of Ovid, feel the beauty of the poetry' pass muster. That doesn't mean you can't feel the beauty of the poetry; but you have to acknowledge the other stuff.

However, what I have now been persuaded of is that the rhetoric around trigger warnings has become so overheated that using the term is counter-productive. To turn to Liz Gloyn again, she has argued for the use of 'content notes' (in the blog post she talks about 'content warnings' but I think she would now prefer 'content notes'). Essentially, this seems to have exactly the same effect as I would want a trigger warning to have, without the other stuff. I shall be trying to adopt that strategy.

The final thing that particularly made me think about my practice was my Open University colleague Helen King's talk. But the issues that raised with me are of such a kind that whilst I felt comfortable discussing them in the event, and afterwards with individuals, I don't feel comfortable discussing them in a public forum such as this. Ask me in a conference bar some time... I will say that I was sufficiently stimulated, and there were so many thoughts rushing around my head, that I found it harder to concentrate on the rest of the day, for which I apologise to the speakers concerned.

Overall though, this was a great and productive event, and I hope for more such.

* I once wrote a fanzine article about the influence of Doctor Who in forming my feminism. I'll not bore you with it now, but I might dig it out at some point in the future.