Your Roundtable Presentation and a Real Roundtable

In class today, you gave your plans for a hypothetical roundtable presentation. Here’s an opportunity to present it in full: a short presentation on a concept or passage from the Sherry Lee Linkon that you’d like to introduce to your audience of fellow grad students and faculty from the department, something that really resonated with you. In the course of your presentation, please draw on a learning concept discussed in something else we’ve read this term.

And the idea to do an actual lunch roundtable for the department at the end of class is a fabulous one. Let us know if you have any further ideas about it. We’ll talk about it in class, too. The one thing I hear loud and clear is that it needs to be low-stress–we’ll take that as our foundation.


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Question of the Week: Why the Resistance to Teaching Strategic Knowledge?

Why do you think English departments as well as individual instructors either don’t think about or resist teaching “strategic knowledge”?  What’s behind that resistance, even though the advantages, as spelled out by Sherry Lee Linkon, seem considerable?

Is it connected to concepts like “expert blindspot” or “professorial packing”? I’m very curious to hear what you think.



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Meta Micro Teaching

I have been thinking about the meta question of how we were being taught during our first class, when we presented a micro teaching lesson to our peers.

It reminded me in a sense of a course I took during my Soci degree, a fourth-year course on small group dynamics. Little did we know initially, but we were the small group in question. During the first class period, the professor told us that we’d be videotaped, and our own conversations would provide the class material. We all signed informed consent documents. Then, during the second class period, the professor did…nothing. He sat there. For 75 minutes. We waited. He waited. Eventually–I don’t recall how–we began to “teach ourselves” small group dynamics. It ended up being a very fascinating and memorable course.

In the case of our micro-teaching activity, again, we were presented with something we (or at least I) hadn’t expected on the first day: an actual and immediate opportunity to demonstrate our own pedagogy.

Since then, we’ve talked through some of the reasons we felt our five-minute lesson may not have worked for our potential/fictional students. But what did it mean for teaching us about pedagogy?

  1. Teachers as much as students will choose familiar, comfortable strategies (just as in the Manarin reading).
  2. This is likely to look like lecture rather than meeting students where they are
  3. We struggle to break down “unconscious competence” with only a few minutes’ planning time: what is close reading? What are its component parts? What do we value most in our students’ learning?
  4. Teaching a lesson and seeing it taught in several different ways shows us that there are already several different strategies we hadn’t thought of.

So in terms of teaching the course, we were presented with an activity that would find its echo in several of our upcoming readings. While the activity superficially placed us in the role of teachers, it simultaneously put us in the role of students: we didn’t have control over the activity or how or when it would be presented; we were expected to demonstrate competence without much warning; and we were concerned with how we would be evaluated.

Especially important was the role of the time constraint, as most of us commented in the discussion afterwards. At first I thought twenty minutes would be more than ample for planning a five-minute lesson, but in fact, discovered that a shorter lesson is more difficult to plan than a longer lesson. Another reason to return to strategies that have proven effective before, such as lecturing! There seems so little time available that we get stressed and forget students’ needs in centering our own. (Remind anyone of about week 9 in the semester?)

So why, for the purposes of this course, do we front-load it with the mini-lesson activity? I think it does several things that our readings suggest we do for students:

  1. It acts as a pre-test or concept inventory that shows us our starting point as teachers. We can remember it as we learn new strategies. “What I should have done was…”
  2. In the discussion afterwards, we talked about what concerns or worries we had when presenting the lesson–which we begin to think about more deeply when we talk about what we value, and what we hope students will take away.
  3. We learn what misconceptions we have about teaching, such as “if I lecture well I will reach them! If I lecture longer I will reach them!” (driven by the time constraint.)
  4. When we read case studies, we don’t get too arrogant, because we all know we have this very awkward lesson in our past!

This has been your moment of meta.


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Encouraging students to share their collective prior knowledge

At the end of the last lecture on Jan. 26, our teaching seminar reached another new level of inspiration. Dr. Halpern brought three pottery bowls created and made by a potter, herself, and her daughter, respectively. Initially, however, we were given no clue to these three unique artworks and their mysterious creators. Only three bowls of different shapes and colors were displayed in front of our eyes. Using our acquired prior knowledge about the art of pottery, we started to analyze their features, such as their decorative and functional qualities, production technology, and their use of materials. In turn, we checked three bowls with our hands and eyes, gaining a visual and subjective observation of these unknown objects.

Dr. Halpern asked us to consider together the question of who had made each of the bowls. Based on our collective prior knowledge about pottery, an unexpected idea emerged that the biggest bowl, with its flawless surface, seemed to be produced by a machine instead of human hands. In reality, we embarked on the wrong road to approach the truth. The biggest bowl was actually made by a proficient potter whose skillful craft defied the assumption, or even the supposed authority, of prior knowledge.

It indicates that the prior knowledge affected our thinking pattern, and then drove us to believe in a self-assumed conclusion. A useful lesson I learned is that the earlier gained knowledge can’t be guaranteed to work as the universal foundation for the construction of real learning at a new situation. To some extent, thinking outside of the box may transfer the prior knowledge into true learning. Thus, in confronting the issues of literary appreciation in literature teaching class, a potential instructor may encourage the students to share their collective prior knowledge, and then help them to reconstruct their prior learning to analyze the literary materials from a new point of view.

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Mathlete Shu’s Downward Slope (y=-x)

I think graduate studies tend to attract a fairly specific subset of students, especially those who enter directly from undergrad; namely, graduate studies have an uncanny ability to find the students who enjoy school and are generally good at conforming to certain academic expectations.

Since I have always been a super-nerd, I thought it would be fun to share the experiences of Baby-Shu and high school math. American high schools are infamously obsessed with extracurriculars. There are good reasons why Glee has a certain verisimilitude, and why football stars continue to dominate the popularity (and, more importantly, the Prom King) scales. I was very heavily involved…. in nine different clubs (give or take a few casual meetings in a scattering of others). Including the infamous Mu Alpha Theta (ΜΑΘ), or the United States mathematics honor society for high school–whose members were colloquially known as “Mathletes”, as in “athletes, but in math”. The requirements for the club were a minimum grade average, a number of competitions, and several hours of community services in the form of math tutoring. It was a traumatizing experience for all involved.

Here’s the problem: Brookfield was absolutely correct when he asserted that the best students made for the worst teachers. Perhaps more than any other subject, math is not just about practice but relies upon a foundational, intuitive understanding of theory–about shapes and planes and numbers, changing slopes that change a cross-section from an ellipses to a hyperbola. Mathematical concepts nearly impossible to explain, let alone describe, without a model. Mathematical concepts that we Mathletes understood but could not articulate. I think that was the very first time that I experienced pedagogical failure. I tried to use the same language my teachers used when teaching me the quadratic formula, but even 16 year old me knew there was something futile about repeating instructions until someone breaks. It wouldn’t be until my senior year that I would recognize their frustration toward the mathematical problems. Because while I had remained in Mu Alpha Theta, I was a member in name only. I had given up on AP Calculus in favour of AP Statistics–a course that taught you how to program a graph and download Mario Cart onto a TI-nspire calculator.

I now recognize that I dropped out of calculus because of a lack of motivation; more specifically, a missing piece in terms of efficacy. Perhaps more than even English, math suffers from an efficacy problem. If English’s outcome expectancy suffers because of students say things like, “I can’t do well in an English class because English grammar is too difficult”, math’s problems is “I can’t do well because mathematical equations are too difficult. In English, efficacy expectancies suffer because students argue they can’t construct arguments; in math, students often pigeonhole themselves in the belief they cannot correctly enter an a logarithm. But unlike with English–which will be used as long as the student is forced to engage with Anglo-Euro-western society–a person could severe themselves from math more successfully, deepening the gap between math literacy and math avoidance. Despite once being an advanced math student, I now avoid it as much as possible and rely on my calculator when it nevertheless returns to my life.

If I were to trace my own trajection, I would wonder when I went from motivated to rejecting. And whether fragility or evasion came first. I doubt there are any easy answers, but in our teaching it may be a good idea to focus on that uneven ground, and finding ways to keep students motivated even during moments of doubt.

See you on Friday.


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Blog Question Options From Class on Jan 26


Hi, Everyone,

Here are two issues/topics that arose from our discussion of motivation & mastery, which I invite you to pursue.

  • Brainstorm this in-class activity: Shu mentioned in class that she was motivated to learn how to do literary interpretation because she was able, right at the start, to experience some of the most gratifying aspects of it. What is an activity we could have students new to university English classes do that would allow them to experience the fun of something we do in literary studies? In other words, can you isolate a component of something like close reading or writing a lit essay that is pretty fun or gratifying and then think of an in-class activity that enables our students to reach that affective goal?

  • Describe this kind of personal experience and reflect on it: Think about a time when you tried to do something that didn’t come easily or quickly. Did you stick with it, or did you give it up? After you’ve described the experience, reflect on what about the experience motivated you or sapped your motivation, using the concepts that Ambrose et al. have given us to think about in terms of goals/values/expectancies/environment.

Have a great week,


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Today I’ve been thinking about how sympathy affects my teaching.

I remembered an incident that happened the first time I was the instructor of record of ENGL 201. Following protocol, on the first day of class, I announced that anyone who anticipated difficulty in completing assignments should come and speak to me–that is, those who needed accommodations or those who might be missing class for legitimate reasons, including players on varsity sports teams. As it turns out, I had about five varsity players in my class: three on the women’s soccer team, and two on the men’s football team. I told each of them that if they were going to be away, they could get in touch, and please come to my office hours if they needed to catch up on the course material.

For the three soccer players, this seemed to work admirably–or maybe it didn’t. I don’t recall that they ever got in touch over missing class or needing extensions, so I assumed they were coping with their course load and my own requirements. Maybe they weren’t; I don’t know, because I believe they did well in the course, whatever challenges it presented.

For the two football players, however, there were difficulties, and these were compounded over the course of the semester by what I saw (at the time) as the students’ lack of communication. These students were more likely to miss class, but rarely came to my office hours to follow up. When they requested extensions, I took their varsity schedule into account and granted them. But at the end of the semester, both students were struggling. Their assignments were poorly written, not necessarily in terms of writing skill, but, it seemed, in terms of understanding what I was asking for. Since I’d spent entire class periods going over the assignment requirements, not to mention one class in three working on grammar and writing conventions with the students, I was ready to throw up my hands.

It was only at the end of the semester that each student came to me, with their C- averages, and told me that they were likely to lose their academic scholarships because of my class. (Not, I note even now, because of their work in my class.) When I explained to one student that I’d noticed his absence during class when we’d focused on how to structure essays–a skill he clearly found challenging–he burst out, “That’s because I was travelling with the team!” As it turned out, for weekend games, he was regularly out of town on Fridays: the day I’d consistently set aside each week for writing instruction.

At the time, I felt there wasn’t much I could do for him. His writing was borderline, at best, and I felt I’d already been generous in not failing him on assignments where what he’d written and what the assignment called for didn’t match in the slightest. I told him about the appeal procedure, but let him know that I wouldn’t be changing his grade myself. I know he was upset, but I felt righteous, justified: hadn’t I explained on the very first day of class that student athletes needed to be responsible for their own catch-up work? Didn’t my week-by-week schedule explain what part of essay writing we were going to cover every Friday of the term? Other varsity players–the soccer team members I’d never heard from–had managed. So surely this first year, non-major, Fall semester student was in the wrong, and I was in the right.

Yet it seems to me now that there was a failure of sympathy on my part. I think it came from several directions. First, I’m sure the narrative of “the jock” resentfully expecting better grades simply due to athletic skill affected me. Second, there were incidents during the semester that coloured my impression of him. He’d come in five minutes late for a reading quiz one morning, scribbled a few incomplete answers, then left class as soon as the quiz was over, missing the discussion entirely. In another moment, a football coach had come to my class to hand in this student’s assignment on his behalf. Both moments certainly made me feel as though my class–as though I–was a nuisance and a bother.

My expectations came from my prior knowledge. As a graduate student, I knew the value of office hours. Undergraduate students as a group aren’t always confident enough, or even aware enough, to know what office hours even are, let alone how to take advantage of them. It was my first time crafting assignments of my own: it’s entirely possible I didn’t meet the students where they were, and that the instructions were unclear. And, of course, I never reached out directly to these students, despite knowing that they were falling behind.

I don’t have a solution for this, except to say that too often, I suppose, teachers presume that students are malingering. The “rash of dead grandmothers” that we expect around mid-term time is proof of this. (My own grandmother died during midterms one year. And yet–) My students were struggling and I didn’t react with sympathy, but with defensiveness over my teaching and my own worth as a teacher. I like to think that the next time I have athletes in my class, I will speak to them more gently and more often, and take the onus on myself to find out what their schedule really means to them. Certainly it may mean more to them than a must-pass first year English course. I should accept that reality for my students.

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Revisiting My Own Transition (into writing slightly less badly)

Alternatively titled: Back to the Future, one of the films I studied in AP Literature and still occasionally haunts my essays.

Despite being enrolled in a M.A. program, I often find myself questioning Mastery, especially when Ambrose and Bridges have made it quite clear that prior knowledge dominates what one might consider fundamental to their knowledge.

I have been a STEM-focused student for much of my life, and while I have left behind the beakers and goggles and calculators, I like to think I retained some of my own fundamental knowledge. What Ambrose and Bridges have caused me to question the persistence of this knowledge and whether I have been forgetting basic principles even though I still use them on a fairly consistent basis. And, if I can forget things with unequivocal facts with strict rules for application, have I also been forgetting the details and nuances of novels or specific theories and techniques used when reading? Or, if I’m not the flaming disaster I still suspect myself to be, where/when did my knowledge change?

I had been fairly fortunate to have discovered what I hope to do fairly early in my academic career, and over the last two years really focused my attention on areas that interest me (Asian-Canadian literature, young adult literature, comic books).  But I wanted to see what I could remember from when I was first establishing close-reading and analysis skills, and how those things have changed.

More specifically: I thought it would be interesting to pull out my old copy of How to Read like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster and see how the text (which I consider foundational to my career as a literature student) played into my own prior knowledge to studying literature. While I don’t think I would write with the same kind of heavy-handed metaphoric argumentation in my essays today, I do think it was interesting to see how themes like communion, Christ figures, geography all still factor into my literary analysis. In fact, the biggest shift in my writing was the addition of nuance into the analysis, and recognizing when it was necessary to move away from the blunt metaphor that Foster has presented as a foundation procedural knowledge. The positive of Foster’s book was its ability to activate prior knowledge and act as a frame in which students could structure their future analysis (and, sometimes, whole essays) upon.

Perhaps the bigger problem is looking at how this really useful tool, once utilized as positive reinforcement, started failing and became negative reinforcement. After all, as Ambrose and Bridges themselves pointed out, “For the most part, analogies serve an important pedagogical function, allowing instructors to build on what students already know to help them understand complex, abstract, or unfamiliar concepts. However, problems can arise when students do not recognize where the analogy breaks down or fail to see the limitations of a simple analogy for describing a complex phenomenon” (20). Which brings me back to my original question: when/where had I started moving away from Foster? I think the answer is the recognition of nuance in both my own writing, as well as in literary analysis. While inactive knowledge could be activated and insufficient/inaccurate knowledge could be supplemented with additional declarative and/or procedural knowledge, inappropriate knowledge is a problem that requires both unlearning and relearning, which is often difficult to do when what had once been positive reinforcement (good grades for the level-appropriate work) becomes negative reinforcement (past good grades for work that is no longer level-appropriate). And I think part of that transition process could be smoothed out by introducing nuance in both the understanding of the students’ knowledge as well as the presentation of our own.

Thank you for reading. See you on Friday.


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Blog Question Options From Class on Jan 19

For this week, we invite you to apply the concept of “prior learning.”

Using what you know of this concept, describe how would you would teach students the following (choose one):

  1. how to spell the word “inoculate” [keep in mind almost everyone thinks it’s “innoculate”]
  2. What is “negative reinforcement”?
  3.  The following grammar rule: that “she went skiing and then to the orthopedist” does not have a comma before “and” but “she went skiing, and then she went to the orthopedist” does. [Lots of people would incorrectly put it in the first example]


How would what you’ve learned about ‘prior learning” change how you would do the microteaching you did on the first day of class?

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Blog Post Direx

Aims of the course blog: The course blog is meant to be a space of reflection (on the readings, on other blog posts) and self-reflection (as a teacher, as a learner). It provides a platform to think about what we’ve read and talked about away from what can be the fast pace of class—and of course as English people a lot of our thinking takes place as we write. Just as important as writing your own posts will be reading the posts of your classmates.

Three options for what you can do in a blog post [we’ll see if want to add to the options as the course goes on]

Each week there will be a question or two that grows out of class. These will be posted on the blog by Saturday morning for you to respond to (timeframe: you will have up until nine days after it’s posted to respond to it).

  • Use a blog post to reflect on a reading or set of readings (time frame: do so any time before we discuss the reading or up to nine days after the day it was assigned). Some questions to spur reflection:
  • What was the most interesting or surprising aspect of this reading and why? How does this affect how you think about teaching and learning? Does it change your ideas about what makes a successful teacher or learner or shed light on past experiences you’ve had teaching or learning? If you’re writing about a reading we discussed in class, make sure you don’t repeat what’s already been said. 
  • Or devote a blog post to describing an assignment, in-class activity, or classroom strategy that was inspired by your reading. Feel free to modify something you’ve done in the past, but make it clear what about it changed because of the reading.



+Please post five times over the course of the term.

+Length of a blog post: 350-700 words (1-2 pp, double-spaced, in a Word document)

+In an effort to encourage you to spread your posts out over the term, we ask you to have posted at least twice by March 1, and you can post only one (for credit) the last week of class.

+Individual blog posts will not be individually graded, but Nancy and Faye will read them with great interest, and we’ll try to integrate them into class discussion. If you post five good posts, you’ll receive an “A” for this part of the grade; four posts will garner a “B,” etc.

+Please keep up with the blog, setting aside time before each class to read over your classmates’ posts.

+Please type your name at the bottom of your blog posts, so we know who wrote it.


Request:  Please comment on your colleagues’ posts even if it’s just to offer a word of encouragement. Or ask a question or register (civilly) a disagreement or otherwise share what the post made you think about.


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