Oct 17

Consent-Based Pedagogy and “Low Stakes” Assignments

This piece is cross-posted on the Designing for All (DfA) project page (and the CUNY Humanities Alliance blog): this is a project I’m co-coordinating with the Center for Teaching and Learning at LaGuardia Community College. We are working with students, staff, and faculty from across disciplines to create a more accessible educational experience at LaGuardia, countering unequal power dynamics that often prohibit certain bodyminds from truly learning with creative, student-centered pedagogical strategies that transform the horizons of whose bodyminds we welcome into our classes.

This post particularly is part of the DfA faculty’s task to create a low-stakes activity based in “universal” design for learning principles.

Things that other people generally find low-stakes? I often find my pulse thrumming extra hard and my clothes starting to get soaked with sweat and my brain hitting a loop of “I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna.” I know — because they’ve told me — that many of my students experience this, too.

So often, we think of “low-stakes” activities as things we do in the classroom that aren’t graded; writing we submit that will only be checked off as having been completed or not; etc. But for me, and for many students with anxiety (for example), these activities don’t feel low stakes at all. This is also time-dependent, of course: what’s low-stakes one day can feel extremely high-stakes the next, and vice versa.

Margaret Price writes about “kairotic space” as:

“the less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged. A classroom discussion is a kairotic space, as is an individual conference with one’s advisor. Conferences are rife with kairotic spaces, including the Q&A sessions after panels, impromptu elevator encounters with colleagues, and gatherings at restaurants and bars on the periphery of formal conference events. Other examples from students’ experiences might include peer-response workshops, study groups, or departmental parties or gatherings to which they are invited.”

Drawing on her logic, here — that the definition of low-stakes is directly linked to the production and reproduction of power — I’d like to draw attention to a classroom activity that seems to me to operate very explicitly along that line of low- and high-stakes learning. I do this to complicate what we mean — and whom we’re including and excluding — when we uncritically/neurotypically assume that what’s low-stakes for us is low-stakes for everyone.

This classroom activity is an ongoing invitation into acknowledging the classroom as being, as Price says, “rife with” kairotic spaces. When this truth goes unacknowledged, we continue to privilege those identities and modes of learning which are so dominant as to be deemed invisible (eg. whiteness, able-bodymindedness, etc.) In order to acknowledge this and explicitly negotiate consent in a space inherently full of unequal power dynamics, in my Theatre 101 class, we (myself included) use “Personal Traffic Lights” to try to establish a consent-based system of participation.

The explanation that appears on my syllabus is as follows:

“Each class, you will be expected to bring with you the cards I give you in the beginning of term: these cards will be our Personal Traffic Lights, colored green, yellow, and red. Though we will discuss these extensively in class, I want to explain our Personal Traffic Lights here as well:

Green: When you are feeling up for anything, ready to take intellectual and emotional risks with the rest of the class — or, just when you’re feeling ready to participate generally and speak out in class — please make the green Personal Traffic Light visible to myself and to your classmates.

Yellow: When you are feeling cautiously ready to participate — perhaps you’re nervous (a little or a lot), or having an off-day/you’re tired, but you’re ready to take some risks and dive into theatre class activities — please make the yellow Personal Traffic Light visible to myself and to your classmates.

Red: When you are feeling unable to participate in a traditional way — when you’re having a bad day, when it’s enough of a challenge and risk to be present in class so you would rather learn by observing, listening, and taking notes instead of directly engaging in the day’s activities — please make the red Personal Traffic Light visible to myself and to your classmates.

You can always change your Light in the middle of the class, because of course, our feelings fluctuate all the time.

You will never be penalized for how you’re feeling, of course, but you might find that I’ll check in with you privately if I’m noticing a lot of reds and yellows from you; this is to see if there’s anything I can do to make the class a safer and more comfortable and accessible space for you to learn.”

When we start doing projects and activities together, we will make sure we have roles for when you’re feeling yellow and red. We will work as a team to find various ways for everyone to contribute to the class experience; perhaps the greatest thing about theatre is that there is always a role for everyone, from the most outgoing spotlight-seeker to the most introverted behind-the-scenes writer.”

This piece of the syllabus — when my students did group investigations of the syllabus on the first day and first reported this finding to each other — evoked immense emotions in my students (and myself). One student asked, near tears, “why has no one ever done this with us before?” It should be noted that this student, a few weeks later, was showing his “red” card, but he still went up to perform a short piece for the class. The other students congratulated him on his (very high-stakes, but in a “low-stakes” context, since they don’t get graded either on mini-class performances nor on their Personal Traffic Lights) bravery, performing in front of everyone while he was feeling red. Upon hearing this, another student — also feeling red — immediately volunteered to perform for the class.

It was a very moving moment, and one that will continue to shape my pedagogy going forward.

Another note from my syllabus: the following discussion of risk in my classroom seems relevant to their Personal Traffic Lights, and in the way I first proposed this system to the class.

“This is a theatre class, and as such, we will be doing a lot of theatre-oriented activities in the classroom. Sometimes, this might involve moving our bodies in socially unexpected ways or using our voices in unusual ways. Always, we will be taking risks together: it can be a very vulnerable experience to speak or be silly (or be serious!) in front of people, as those of us who are shy and/or experience social anxiety know!

I want to do my best to make sure that the level of risk involved in our class challenges us — myself included — to push ourselves beyond what we’re used to (perhaps that means talking in front of the whole class, or perhaps that means performing an emotionally vulnerable monologue), but at the same time does not overwhelm us. That is the reasoning behind the Personal Traffic Light system described above: please let me know if this system is working for you, and how we can adjust it if it isn’t.”

For my peers: Since we are already engaged in this activity in my class, are there tweaks you can anticipate — either in the instructions or implementation — being needed for next term? What objections to this should I anticipate (I’ve already heard… well, a lot)? What am I not thinking about?

May 17

“We Aren’t Therapists”: Mental Health in Our Classrooms

(Cross-posted from the Teach@Cuny Project’s Visible Pedagogy site, here)

Too often, we encounter the refrain that “professors are not therapists.” This is generally true, and a reminder of the importance of healthy boundaries and self-care. At the same time, this refrain is also too frequently  used as an (unintentionally) ableist excuse for not making our classrooms more welcoming for students with dis/abilities, particularly mental health issues.

Because the implication of phrases like “we’re not therapists” and “I don’t know how to have that conversation” is that students’ emotions—especially the ones that keep them (and us) awake at night, the ones that prevent them from coming to class, or inspire them to cry in class or in our offices—are inappropriate, burdensome, “too much.”

In other words, when instructors say “we’re not therapists,” it implies that both students and professors—especially those of us who are mentally dis/abled—must check our emotions, our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, at the door. That we must suppress our self-harm scars and our sleep-deprived pain and our traumas and our rapidly drowning hearts for the sake of academic intellectualism, civility, collegiality, and dispassionate, disembodied “analysis.”

Of course, no analysis—no intellect—is ever truly disembodied. But it portrays itself as such when the emotions and bodies behind it are socially accepted as “normal”, as “reasonable”, as “rational.”

So where does this leave us in our classrooms? Because, truth: we cannot be what we are not for our students. How, then, do we navigate classroom dynamics and student interactions that get emotionally sticky?

It starts with the understanding—discussed in the first post of this series—that environment shapes what we define as dis/ability, and which emotional and bodily expressions are considered non-normative and therefore “bad.” For instance, the American premium on “productivity” often translates into policies that penalize students who might appear to an outsider to not be “contributing” anything to  class.

If this is the case—if structural constraints shape how dis/ability is defined and therefore, how it feels and is responded to—then our first response to mental health issues in our classroom should not be “we’re not therapists”, but rather “we can design our classrooms to accommodate and affirm a wider variety of student needs, thereby alleviating the uneven pressure on students with mental health issues from day one.”

How do we go about this? The rest of this series will be dedicated to sharing practical strategies for improving the accessibility of your classroom, with posts on topics like constructing anti-ableist assignments  and practicing anti-ableist assessment. But for now, let’s think about day one—and especially, the syllabus. If the word “Accessibility” is even on our syllabi, it’s usually stuck somewhere deep in the back: a one-line entry, perhaps, that includes the room number and email address of the Office of Students with Dis/abilities at our campus, or some boilerplate provided by our department.

What would happen if we structured our syllabus to foreground accessibility, rather than tuck it away? If discussions about accessibility, broadly defined, occurred on day one, and therefore framed the way that students experienced our classrooms? Instead of proclaiming that “we are not therapists,” and therefore that we can’t touch dis/ability with a ten-foot pole, what would happen if instructors normalized dis/ability, because—whether we know it or not—dis/abilities are everywhere in our classrooms, anyway?

I would never claim to have a perfect model — there is no such thing!— but by means of take-away, I offer the current Accessibility section of my English 102 course at LaGuardia Community College. It’s the second section in my syllabus, and it has its own page on our course website.

This language will change, guaranteed. In fact, it’s designed to;  language highlighting accessibility as a fundamental structural component of our work space is integrated throughout the syllabus, on which students are encouraged to comment, ask questions, and offer suggestions. Because we don’t need to be therapists to welcome all of our students, mental dis/abilities and all, into our course design and classroom space.

Jennifer Polish is a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a Humanities Alliance Teaching Fellow. This is the second in a series of posts they are contributing to Visible Pedagogy on “Anti-Ableist Pedagogies.”

Sep 16

Compulsory Affective Labor in Comp Classrooms

I often chortle way too hard, and way too long, at my own jokes. Especially at my own puns. So when in the title, I write of Compulsory Affective Labor in Comp Classrooms, I do intend the pun: comp meaning composition, but comp also meaning compulsory.

Because our comp/osition comp/ulsory classes are usually gatekeeping classes: and these gates, as Carmen Kynard writes brilliantly in her Vernacular Insurrections, are designed specifically to keep students of color out.

It is through this mechanism, among too many others, that white institutions like higher education conflate dis/abled bodies with bodies racialized as non-white. If composition (composing oneself in a particular way) is “basic” and necessary to go on to take other courses (compulsory), then those for whom comp poses a barrier are written off as less than capable.

I have written about this a lot, and I think about it each time a colleague or friend shows me a syllabus. I have come to flinch at the tiny yet insurmountable fences within the larger gates: fences like “participation” defined in only one way, like “presence” defined as only one mode of attendance, one mode of interaction.

Margaret Price has written extensively — and powerfully — in Mad at School about the tremendous hostility of the very nature of the (current) academy toward mental dis/abilities (actual or perceived). Because hers is such a powerful text for me, I will trust it to pop up in many other places, and will not dwell on it primarily here.

I want to, now, focus on the affective aspects of all of this: the compulsion to compose oneself in a particular kind of way. In a white, able-bodied kind of way.

Price discusses the immense and often insurmountable amounts of affective labor involved in navigating the academy’s many hypervalued kairotic spaces; here, I want to pull back from the implications of that affective labor to pull out what, even, affect is.

According to Gregg and Seigworth,

“Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of force or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves” (1).

Affect, here, reminds me of quantumstuff that is neither waves nor particles: affect cannot be pinned down, cannot be defined. It is always present, but only when acknowledged does it seem to take on a tangible form, a definition of sorts. Indeed, as they go on to state, “the real powers of affect, affect as potential: a body’s capacity to affect and be affected” (2).

I focus on capacity here because this is often understood as a trigger word to mean dis/ability. How does bodily capacity impact one’s ability to affect and be affected in a classroom? If a student — or professor, for that matter — simply does not have the energy to engage in traditional ways, but rather must keep their head down and avoid more than the barest of smiles when the rest of the class laughs, how does the affective capacity of the body that is the course content and the classroom atmosphere change around this student? Likewise, how does an unpermissive classroom atmosphere which looks down upon students who are not currently able to look up, to “seem like” they’re paying attention, impact the rest of the class? How might a classroom that encourages students to engage their own bodies in ways that make them comfortable and best able to learn during class differently form an affective mold around said student or professor?

All of this, of course, has centralized on presentation, on performance, on bodies navigating what kinds of bodily composure are considered acceptable, and which kinds of bodily composure compulsory.

When pressed, I’ve found that largely, the affective impact of a student slumping down, for example, rather than putting their eyes front and sitting up straight — especially if the reason for this is unreported and unexplained — will be reported as an aesthetic issue. ‘It just feels like they’re not paying attention. It’s distracting because… because it brings the mood down.’

This burden of affective impact being placed on a person navigating the constraints of hegemonic expectations links very deeply to Sara Ahmed’s thoughts on ‘melancholic migrants’, ‘feminist killjoys,’ and ‘unhappy queers’: the feminist who calls attention to casual sexism, for example, is deemed responsible for bringing the mood down, rather than the responsibility being placed with the sexist act/patriarchal structure itself.

Seigworth discusses this non-tangible nature of these affective stances — of how bodies impact each other in classroom spaces — when he writes about affect in a narrative way, as a concept; his form mirroring and reinforcing his content. He describes reading a piece by Lawrence Grossberg, recalling that it

“was written in a vibrant but rather unwiedly theoretical language that detailed this passionate thing called “affect” in ways that I could not always quite follow, although fortunately the musical references were immediately recognizable and that helped me to roughly intuit the theory” (19)

This is a powerful statement about “vernacular” theories and knowledges existing outside of dominant academic discourse: here, Seigworth validates the knowledge involved in felt senses of things based on felt and familiar cultural references.

Gregg, for her part, finds these kinds of felt senses and cultural references in the constraining nature of “scholarly affect.” She writes that “the corporate university culture consecrates a kind of compulsory convivality in the workplace… from the smiley faces of office email to the team-building exercises of after work drinks — which defines the landscape of affective labor in the information economy” (24).

I’m particularly interested in this notion of compulsory affective labor — what Price writes about in terms of compulsory collegiality — because I am curious about how the burdens of this affective labor is differentially distributed across the academy. When a new professor has a 5-4 course load, for example, how does the incredibly large amount of affective labor involved in this teaching get discounted? How do our syllabi, our course designs, our classroom setups and activities, place differential amounts of affective labor on certain students?

Gregg proceeds to highlight the ways that workplaces limit affective range by dictating what forms of affect are acceptable and which are not:

“For if it is clear that this networked world without enemies cannot really ease the loneliness of the office cubicle or writer’s garret, affect theory may help us fight the limited range of subjective states available in the contemporary workplace, and in doing so, help us identify and denounce the distribution of winners and losers in contemporary society” (24)

In our classrooms, how does the fine line between ‘proper behavior’/’acceptable participation’ and ‘apathetic’ operate differently for different groups of students or, indeed, for different professors? If affective expression is limited to the realm of affective whiteness — which, in short, is a dearth of affective expression, unintentionally alluded to above, that José Esteban Muñoz wrote about — yet mandates that students appear to be active, but not too active, with participating in lessons, what affective labor do different students endure to walk the tight rope between these requirements?

What happens, in other words, when students cannot or will not compose their bodies in the ways they need to in order to perform this tight rope act?

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press, 2010.

Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth. The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University Press, 2010.

Kynard, Carmen. Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacies Studies. SUNY Press, 2013.

Muñoz, José Esteban. “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position.” Signs 40.1 (2014).

Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. University of Michigan Press, 2011.

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