Blog Post

Hey, Prof: Feeling Torn and Divided? How We Can Put Teaching and Scholarship Together Again

This morning, I have been texting back and forth with Professor of Film and African American Studies, Michael Gillespie (CCNY), about one of the deepest, most vexing questions any academic faces in a career:  how do you balance the fact that most of your teaching (which studies show uses 60% of your time if configured by a 40-hour work week) has very little to do with most of your research (which studies show uses about 60% of your time if configured by a 40-hour work week). 

That's the calculus that doesn't add up:  even without the third factor of institutional leadership (my revision of the patronizing term "institutional service"), two of the key components of being a professor in a modern university add up to way more than 100% of one's time.  How do you manage?  How do you not rob one to support the other?  When your article or book is due, how do you not resent the time preparing for class and grading papers?  When your grades are due, how do you not resent receiving page proofs for an article that must be returned that week?  It's a constant balancing act of seemingly opposite skills, responsibilities, and mental efforts.  How do you in fact make the research you are doing "count" in your classrooms, even if those classrooms are not on the topic of your research?   And, ideally, how can your undergraduate classroom contribute to your most sophisticated scholarly ideas?


This blog won't magically give you back hours you don't have, but it migth help you find ways to make your research and teaching mesh in a way that is less labor intensive for you and more productive for your students, make your scholarship deeper and more connected beyond a few interlocutors in your specialized area, and help with a happier mix (even if still a too-busy one). 

How to do all that is the explicit focus of the course Prof Gillespie and I are teaching next semester, "Teaching Race and Gender Theory in the Undergraduate Classroom."  We are asking students to fill out a permission survey to take this class because we are trying to admit  first those  graduate students who literally will be teaching at a CUNY campus while they are taking our course.  We will be developing a connected website on the CUNY Academic Commons/C-Box site that will allow all the graduate students taking the course to link their students who are taking the course they are teaching.  And we will be doing all this in public so the feedback loop circles ever-outward to a larger public.

The Set-Up for our Course

We'll probably have 15 or so graduate students, all teaching 20-50 undergrads in introductory classes.  We may well be reaching 300 or 400 or 600 undergraduates.     We are assuming almost none of the undergraduate courses will be about "race and gender theory."  In fact, we know they will range widely over Composition, Critical Thinking, American history, and many other basic, introductory courses.  We hope to include those undergraduates as participants (virtual) in the course too, so we are all thinking and learning together about why race and gender theory is useful in the classroom.   We'll also be using a variety of engaged, active, student-centered teaching and learning methods that shift some responsibility from the prof (one-way transmission model) to the students (teacher-as-student and student-as-teacher in Freire's terms).  By including undergraduate and graduate students in this pedagogical exercise, we hope we will be teaching all how to learn--a lesson that we all must relearn over and over throughout our lives.  And I guarantee Michael Gillespie and I will be learning as much as anyone.

Our topic will be "race and gender theory" and our deepest, theoretical subject is "why and how do you make and teach and understand race and gender theory--and why is it important?  what does it add to your life, in school and beyond?"  If the current political situation hasn't made us ask this question, then we are not #woke.   This class is designed to respond to that urgent question of why?


What is our syllabus?   No idea.  (Ok, some ideas, but not finalized ones . . . It's a process!)

We will also be using student-centered learning methods such that the graduate students will, collectively, build the graduate course and one subject we will be discussing is exactly that process:  what goes into building an exciting pathway through a subject matter--that legalistic and often deadly document of rules and "terms of service" known as a "syllabus"?  (Check out the wikipedia or OED on "syllabus":    It turns out it was a mistranslation that can mean anything from the literal "label" to the cozier "bring together").  

By having students construct their own syllabus (within parameters Michael and I will work out), design their individual and collective research projects, and find some way that they can make the work they are doing this semester (S 2017) contribute to the public good.  How?  We don't know.  That will be up to the students to propose, design, implement:  it sure beats a boring (and cynical?) term paper assigned by and read only by a prof.  

This is Lesson #1: if you have the luxury of a relatively small face-to-face class or a connectivist online class, it both saves over-preparation (rarely useful for anyone, esp for the students) and instead has students shape assignments (often better and more ambitious ones).  If you are really ambitious and careful, you can even have students help design assessment and feedback methods for evaluating one another's contribution and collaboration  in a non-exploitative way that also contributes to skills they need in other classes and, indeed, in the rest of their lives (NB: this takes care: even middle-aged workers or departmental citizens, ahem, aren't great at working well together).

By having students come up with ideas for a syllabus and putting all the ones that don't make it onto our own syllabus in some kind of shared communal document, we hope already to contribute to some public good, to better teaching and ideas, a collaborative bibliography, and so forth.

We want to deconstruct the idea that there is one set way to tackle a course.   We'll create the syllabus by way of a collaborative document in which all the proposed assignments, ideas, topics, and texts are "dumped" for future use--our first drafts are often bulkier but also often more energetic than the polished versions. 

We'll also talk about how, to use Michael Gillespie's shrewd terminology, one "reverse engineers" one's most sophisticated, field-based, specialize theory in order to teach the foundational concepts of those ideas to one's undergraduates in introductory courses.  This means going back and thinking through what one has concluded to understand the process by which one reached that conclusion and to be able to help students along that route to their own conclusions.   NB:  this is never "dumbing down."  In fact, it's both difficult and incredibly rewarding--for teacher and for student. 

If you have ever taught outside your own country, in a place where the assumptions and traditions are different, you know that explaining the foundational tests you and your ideas in ways that are more rigorous, confounding, and baffling than when explaining those same concepts to those who share your ideas, your beliefs, your assumptions, your training, and your objectives.*  

I am convinced that learning to think about how we teach is really learning to think about how we learn--and unlearn and relearn.   Deconstructing the components of teaching, in other words, is deconstructing the components of being a scholar.   Making pedagogy the basis for teaching--as it rarely is in graduate education--is also helpful in thinking about how we communicate our own ideas to others.  

My partner happens to be Editorial Director at one of the nation's most distinguished university presses.  He is always telling authors and the various public audiences he addresses to make an argument, not cite other arguments, to present ideas not refer to ideas others have made.    There is a pedagogy in our scholarly practices and we can learn about them by teaching scholarly ideas to those in introductory or even antagonistic relationships to our subjects.   These things are continuous, on the profound level of ideas we rarely bring to bear on our scholarship, let alone on our teaching.

What we hope to achieve next semester in our classes we also hope our graduate students will attempt in their undergraduate classes--including this idea that really all learning is less about "subject matter" than about all the matters that contribute to learning and being a "subject."  

If we can accomplish even some of this next semester, we will have accomplished a lot, and perhaps even made the over-work of a full-time teaching job and a full-time job as a scholar, with seemingly no connection between them.  The connection is there, but it is so deep that one rarely ever sees it.


Active, Student-Centered Learning

In active, student-centered learning, where students themselves research topics and even design topics, the connection is not only visible but a lifeline that they can use throughout their lives.   99% of our students go on to other professions than that which we, as professors, engage in.  By "reverse engineering" what we have learned, we can not only help ourselves to think deeply about the foundational theoretical issues of our own work but we can help our students to think about foundational theoretical issues that inform their time in college, their desire to take our class, their ambitions in life, and their own preparation for being fully responsible and productive adults and members of a community and a society. 

They are facing an exceptionally challenging time ahead.  We all are.  "Reverse engineering" our theories--race, gender, and maybe democracy itself--helps all of us to have a better handle on what we need to know and how we can thrive in a challenging world.   

For our graduate students in the class, we also help it will lead to illuminations about why they are pursuing their graduate work, to what end, for what purpose, and how they can write to make arguments not just cite them, to have ideas not simply refer to those of others.

If you are interested, stay tuned to this site as we'll be posting many public discussions of these topics next semester.  We'd love you and your students to be part of this experiment in learning. 


Footnote on Teaching Those Who Do Not Share Your Assumptions or Training

*(When I first taught "Introduction to English Composition for Non-English Majors" in Japan, I became profoundly aware of how rife with unexplicated conventions are our Western ideas of "plagiarism," "originality," and "rationalism."   Many scholars in Japan do work we in the West would consider plagiarized.  Many scholars in Japan think what we consider to be "critical thinking" to be naive, arrogant, and rude--as if disputing some narrow part of someone else's presentation of an idea represents a deep grappling with the underpinning evolution that led to the articulation of that idea.   "Do I need to footnote the subject/predicate formation in an English sentence?" one of my Japanese students asked one day--this was in my Advanced Rhetoric for Graduate Students in English course.  I was baffled.  "Well, we don't have subject/predicate structures in kanji and that changes meaning and context so shouldn't I footnote that, when I write in English, I'm borrowing an intellectual and linguistic form."   Those few sentences boil down a question I was asked over the course of a semester by brilliant graduate students trying to understand "plagiarism.")




Hey Cathy,

Re: I am convinced that learning to think about how we teach is really learning to think about how we learn

For me, I think part of the problem is that we have forgotten what it was like not to know. There is a wee paper that tries to make this argument that may join some dots. 

Broadly, much of what is taught is tidied, smoothed knowledge. Probably in the well-intentioned spirit of giving students an efficient path to the key ideas, they are deprived of the very steps most folk who came to learn the key ideas (aka experts). 

Reverse engineering might be a useful framing but I wonder about what might be called the dark matter of learning anything, all the stuff we discard as we stumble and fumble our way to some sort of settlement.

Among too many other connections, there may be a connection to Stuart Firestein's work on ignorance in science.

Really liked the post. Thank you.



Great comment--and thanks for giving us the link to your essay!  Fabulous.