A Finished Notebook!

I rarely finish an entire notebook. At best, I leave a dozen or so pages blank at the end. But usually, my writing notebooks are only half-filled with messy notes that even I can’t read. Yesterday, I wrote on every page (minus 1 or 2 pages that had been ripped out) of my green notebook. To mark the occasion of this momentous event, I posted a picture on Instagram:

Now it’s on to a blue notebook. I’m hoping I can finish my book project before filling all 168 pages of this notebook, which I’ve titled “The Book Book, Volume Two.”

Running away from the Academy

a draft

As part of the second phase of my Undisciplined book project, I’m writing about the haunting question, Am I a Teacher? Reviewing my draft so far, I’m struck by these lines:

…teaching became unbearable as I realized that it was bad for me. It was negatively affecting my health, putting too much strain on my relationships, and crushing my creative spirit.

Sara Puotinen

Towards the end of teaching, around the spring of 2011, I was struggling physically and emotionally. Almost six years of living in an unhealthy environment where I was made to feel less worthy and encouraged to think too much and too critically, and to prioritize, above everything else, my academic work, had weakened me physically and emotionally. I managed to teach for one more semester, but even though I really enjoyed my last two classes, I was so drained by being at the University of Minnesota, that when I finished that December, I never returned. I had arranged to be a visiting scholar in the department, but I could not force myself to go back on campus. It was too painful. The first time I recall actually returning was several years later with my family. After riding on the new green line train that went straight to the U of Minnesota, we decided to walk around the campus. It was very hard for me to do. I was surprised by how much it felt similar to the waves of grief for my dead mother that would overwhelm me on her birthday, mother’s day, or the day that she died. 

I ran away from the academy. Sometimes I wonder if that was the most responsible or smartest thing to do. I’m not sure. What I do know is that it felt necessary. I could not make myself return. I had to run away.

In the years since leaving the academy, the act of running has taken on a different meaning. I started running in June of 2011, the summer before my final semester of teaching. Slowly I trained enough to run in a 5k race. Then I kept training. I’ve been running for almost six years now.

I was reminded of this second meaning of running last night when my husband found an old Instagram photo of me, hamming it up right before a 5k race (my second 5k ever) in July of 2012. I look happy and goofy and strong. Would this picture have been possible if I hadn’t ran away from the academy in 2011?

Hamming it up… @undisciplined at #torchlight5k.

A photo posted by Scott Anderson (@room34) on

Evidence of Teaching Excellence

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that another name for a teaching portfolio is “Evidence of Teaching Excellence.” This morning I had an idea for how to “play” with this title.

Not Evidence of Teaching Excellence but…

Evidence of Teaching…
  • Resistance
  • Trouble
  • Uncertainty
  • Burn-out
  • Discomfort/Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Worth/Merit/Respect
  • Generosity
  • Creativity
  • Care
  • Persistence
  • Vulnerability

I might work to streamline this list a bit. These are things that I taught to students, but also that I experienced (in good, bad, and dangerous ways) while teaching. For example, evidence of teaching resistance involves how I taught resistance to unjust/problematic theories, ideologies, practices in the classroom, but also how I was resistant to ways of teaching (I disliked writing on the board, giving lectures, or doing a lot of physical activities) and to claiming the role of all-knowing (or even lots-of-knowing) Expert. And it involves how I experienced resistance from students to what and how I was teaching. I imagine my “evidence of teaching resistance” to be a reflection of some of my strengths as a teacher, but also of my weaknesses.

Processing, 10 February 2016

I’m still working on archiving and analyzing my past teaching documents. Right now, I just finished finding and uploading all of my assignments to unDisciplined.  Eventually some of these assignments and my reflections about them will be included in the first part of my current book project. I’m tentatively calling this first part, Teaching Portfolio, Part 1: Theories, Manifestos, Assessments.

Here’s the tentative title of the entire project:

Making and Staying in Trouble: The Teaching Portfolio of an Undisciplined Educator

Will this title stick around? I’m not sure, but I like the idea of emphasizing making and staying in trouble in my teaching. It is central to how, why and what I teach and my investment in it has led me to a space beside/s the academy.

I also like the idea of making this book a teaching portfolio. Here’s what I wrote about this format a few months ago:

Similar to my first project in which I didn’t “properly” mimic the format of a transcript, I’m not interested in strictly following the format of a standard teaching portfolio. Instead, I want to critically and creatively (and playfully) experiment with it.

Processing Notes

What is a teaching portfolio? 

According to A Guide for the Electronic Teaching Portfolio, “a teaching portfolio is a relatively short collection of materials and artifacts selected to document, summarize, and highlight one’s growth, experiences, and strengths as a teacher.” Teaching portfolios often include a statement of teaching philosophy, courses taught, teaching goals, and teaching materials.

I envision this book project as serving this purpose (to document, summarize, and highlight my teaching), but to also play with (trouble, question, twist, disrupt, resist) what it means to be a teacher inside, outside, or beside the academy.

On Students

As I think through what I want to include in my portfolio, I keep coming back to the idea students. I want to craft some statements, manifestos, or lists on 1. students and their relationship/s to the teacher and 2. the teacher and her responsibilities to students. I also want to play around with how to present data on student evaluations and how to provide stories and moments of my life with students in my classrooms. What could that look like?

Evidence of Teaching Excellence

The other name that is often used instead of teaching portfolio is “evidence of teaching excellence.” Excellence is also used within virtue ethics. It means virtue or arete. Since virtues and virtue ethics are a big part of my pedagogy and my teaching portfolio I think it would be fun to play around (trouble, twist, distort, misuse) excellence in this book. How? Again, not sure yet.

On Directions

some preliminary thoughts…I must admit that I’ve been working on this post for a few days and I’ve struggled to express myself. Too much resistance, but to what? Ugh! Although this is not quite finished, I needed to post it here. I’m hoping to build on it and eventually use (at least) some of it in my book project.

I’m in the midst of archiving all my past assignments for my book project. After feeling stuck for several days on my teaching philosophy statement, I decided to change how I was working. Instead of continuing to write page after page of notes in my green notebook, why not find all of my old assignments and review them to see how I actually taught and not how I thought I taught? This was a smart move. It’s illuminating to look back on the assignments that I chose and how I organized them.

My first reaction: Wow. I have a lot of details in these assignments! It’s a bit out of control. For example, I created a pdf of all of the course assignments for my Feminist Debates (fall 2011) course that is 9 pages long. 9 pages of detailed directions.

the first of nine pages

Why did I do this to my students?

Pondering that question for a moment, I remembered one of the earliest feminist pedagogical principles that I adopted as a women’s studies grad student, teaching one of my first courses. In a feminist classroom, students encounter new ideas that challenge their ways of knowing. And they are encouraged to not passively receive the answer from the Teacher, but actively explore how and why knowledge is produced. This is unsettling and troubling, even as it is often exciting and transformative. Students can benefit from structure to direct these new ways of learning, thinking and teaching.

Without structure, students can become overwhelmed and lose their way. So can teachers. Left unchecked, without some sort of structure to guide me or rein me in, my thinking and teaching becomes too much…for students, friends, family members and, at a certain point, me.

In reviewing old teaching materials, from syllabi to class summaries to in-class assignments to big class projects, I see structure everywhere. A highly ordered syllabus. Class summaries that are broken up into very specific parts, to be completed within exact amounts of class time…10 minutes for announcements, 20 minutes for an introduction to the topic, 20 minutes for small group, etc. And detailed assignments that encourage students to find their own ways to challenge and connect with class concepts, but that ground those challenges and connections in focused (and directed) methods.

Ah yes, the assignments. A primary way in which I imposed structure within the classroom was through highly choreographed assignments. And the primary way in which I communicated and managed that structure was through my detailed directions for those assignments.

Lots of Directions.

While I was always reluctant to introduce a lot of specific classroom rules (I despise disciplining students or fostering spaces marked by what you can’t/shouldn’t do), I never shied away from detailed directions on assignments. Why?

  • To anticipate and preemptively answer basic questions about the assignment (when it’s due, does it need to be typed, etc).
  • To manage/direct flow of engagement, especially online.
  • To break up intimidating/difficult/overwhelming assignments into manageable parts for students and the Teacher.
  • Because it feeds my love for elaborate planning–the more thinking through that it requires, the better! Is that bad? 

As my teaching became more experimental and involved efforts to challenge/resist/transgress academics-as-usual through the blending of online and offline spaces, my directions became more detailed. I made them more detailed partly because using blogs and twitter effectively requires a lot of thought and deliberate action–without guidance, students often won’t post much or will post a lot but all at once or will frequently post uncritical, superficial junk. And I made them detailed because I needed some ways to manage and mitigate (?) the resistance that some (not all) students (consciously and unconsciously) were expressing to these experiments. Resistance to new ways of engaging. Resistance to the extra work and learning that these new ways demanded. What does that mean? I need to think through it some more. 

I have much more to say about directions, but I’m tired of writing this post now. So, I’ll end with a few questions to ponder:

  1. How much detail in directions is too much?
  2. What are some other strategies for helping students as they engage with difficult and uncomfortable ideas and practices?
  3. As I became more invested in a feminist/queer pedagogy and critical of the academic industrial complex, my teaching practices become more experimental. How much experimenting is too much? When is it irresponsible to the students and their well-being?