An Assessment of my Fall 2009 Blogs: the Assignments

It is January 6. In 13 days my spring semester begins. Remarkably, my syllabi for Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking and Contemporary Feminist Debates are in pretty good shape. Time to reflect on what worked/didn’t work in my course blogs this past semester. If you recall (if not, see here), one key reason I started writing in this blog was to practice what I preach/teach. I imagined that actually participating in what I assign for my students would help me to create more productive and engaging blog assignments. It would also help me to understand the limits and possibilities of using the blog. And, I hoped, it would help me to understand better how blogging can contribute to my feminist pedagogical goals. It did all three of these things. I strongly believe that my development of and participation in this trouble blog has contributed greatly to the success of the blog assignments in Queering Theory and Feminist Pedagogies. But, before I get to how these assignments were successful (and also where they could be improved, because isn’t there always room for improvement?), let me start by describing the assignments for each class.

QUEERING THEORY: upper-level undergrad seminar, 12 students

Brief summary/background: When I started putting the syllabus together last July, I knew I wanted to make the blog a central part of the course. The last time I taught Queering Theory, in spring of 2008, the assignments were fairly effective and we (both me and the students) enjoyed the semester. We had a blog that we used, but not that much. This time, I was ready to mix it up and really push at the limits of how blogging could (or should?) be used in the classroom. A class about queering seemed perfect for such an experiment. By making the course rely so heavily on the blog, the students and I could work to challenge/unsettle/disrupt/queer the course. We could potentially disrupt where (not just in the seminar room, but wherever our computers were) and when (not just during the officially scheduled class time, but at 2 AM if we wanted) class engagement occurred. We might also be able to unsettle what counted as academic engagement and rigorous writing (blog entries instead of formal papers) and who counted as an expert (not just the professor or the authors of our “scholarly” texts, but the students as blog authors/posters). Here is part of the official assignment that I distributed to them a week or two into the semester:

ENTRIES: 30% or 300 points (15 total @ 20 points each)

7 Direct engagements with the readings
Annotated bibliographies
“Queer This!” posts

ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT: 10% or 100 points (10 total @ 10 points each)

3 Comments posted in response to the query in “Class Summaries and Queries”
Comments posted on direct engagement OR annotated bibliography entries.
Comments posted on any blog entries

* NOTE: While you are encouraged to post as much as you are able, only 2 entries and 1 comment per week will count towards your overall grade.

Included in the official handout was a more detailed explanation of each type of entry/comment. You can download it here.  I recognize that the amount of detail I give for the blog entries might seem overwhelming (which I think it was for some of them), but it also demonstrated that I was taking this whole blog thing seriously–because I had put so much thought into the assignment, they could trust that I knew what I was doing. As one student pointed out in her final blog entry, trust (between me and her, her and the other students) was central to making this blog experiment a success. A week or so after distributing and discussing this handout, I gave them a worksheet and more instructions about how to keep track of their participation. You can download that here. Here is a screen shot of page 1 of the worksheet.

Central to the blog assignment was the tracking of a particular theme related to queering theory. Students were able to pick which theme they wanted to track. Their direct engagements and annotated bibliographies were required to engage with that theme. They also had to read an additional essay related to their theme and present on it. Finally, they were required to post (or submit) and briefly present on a final wrap-up in which they defined their term and reflected on the experience of blogging. In total, the blog assignment was worth 800 points out of 1000 total points (300 points for blog entries, 100 points for comments, 150 points for presentations, 250 points for the final wrap-up). That’s right. 80% of their grade was the development of and participation in our course blog. As I have stated before, I am amazed and impressed with my students’ willingness to engage in this risky experiment, especially since only two of them had taken courses with me before.

FEMINIST PEDAGOGIES, graduate seminar, 14 students

Brief summary/background: This past semester was my second time teaching Feminist Pedagogies. When I taught it the first time I had always hoped that the blog could be a productive site for engagement with the ideas. We used it but, just like in my first queering theory blog, we didn’t use it that much. It wasn’t a place for us to engage with ideas, only a place to post notes or additional resources. When I found out that I would have 14 students and that the time for my class had been cut from 2 1/2 hours to 2 hours 10 minutes, I knew that the blog would be essential for allowing us to discuss all of the material. So I decided to emphasize the blog as one of the places where students would raise questions and discuss readings/pedagogical theories/teaching. Just like with the queering theory course, a course on feminist pedagogies seemed to be a fitting place to experiment with blogging. Here is the assignment that I gave them:


You are required to actively participate on our course blog. In addition to posting your pedagogical question on the blog (worth 50 points), you are required to post 10 posts (either as new entries or comments on other class members’ entries) over the course of the semester (worth 15 points each).

Pedagogical Question:
Each session will begin with a wrap-up discussion of pedagogical questions that are first raised by several students on our course blog. The questions can be theoretical and/or practical in nature (e.g.: How do you deal with students who don’t “get it”? How do we create community in big classes? What characteristics should a feminist classroom have?). It could also stem from your own experiences as a teacher or student. We will spend approximately 10-15 minutes on the discussion as we brainstorm responses. Each week, several students will be responsible for posting their questions on our course blog. The questions should be posted by Monday evening.

10 Required Posts:

5 direct responses to pedagogical questions
related to the development of your syllabus/reading list
your choice on feminist pedagogies

Direct responses: These 5 posts can be comments posted directly on the original pedagogical question post, or they can be new entries that directly engage with and respond to the pedagogical question. Your response should be thoughtful and draw upon course readings, discussions and/or your own experiences in the classroom as a student or teacher.

Syllabus-related posts: The purpose of these 2 posts is to enable you to chart your progress as you develop your syllabus. Your posts can be about anything related to that process: questions about possible readings, mini annotated bibliographies on sources that you are planning to use, reflections on figuring out your topic, readings, or assignments. The only requirement is that one of these “syllabus progress reports” must be posted by November 4 and the other one must be posted by December 16.

The remaining 3 posts can be about anything related to the course and feminist pedagogy. You could post questions about the readings (what certain terms mean, etc) or mini annotated bibliographies with sources on feminist pedagogy or teaching. Or, you could share images/ideas/examples with our class that might be useful for teaching. You could even post your critical reflections on why blogging is/isn’t effective in the classroom or offer another direct response to a pedagogical question.

You are required to make 5 posts by November 4.
The remaining 5 posts should be completed by December 16.

There you have it, the blog assignments for each course. In upcoming posts I want to write about how these assignments did/didn’t work. I also want to write about how they reflect my pedagogical vision and values. And I want to offer some advice for anyone else wanting to experiment with blogging.

The Blog Experiment: A Success!

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have been experimenting with blog assignments this past semester. While I made the blog a key part of both classes, I really emphasized it in my Queering Theory course. I made the blog/blog-related assignments worth 80% of their grade. The other 20% would be earned through participation/attendance in class.  I remember when I first thought about doing this in August, I was a little nervous. Would students be willing to do the blog? Contrary to popular belief, not all students are tech savvy nor do they embrace technologies like the blog, so I knew that there might be resistance. Well, having completed the semester, I am pleased to write that the blog assignment was a great success. Some of the students were (understandably) resistant, but they all did it–and they did it well. I am extremely proud of my students’ willingness to stretch themselves and to deeply engage with the readings and the ideas of the class. My goal is to write more about the experience in the upcoming weeks. For now, check out my fall 2009 blogs here and here.

Word count: 194 words

Troublemaking and Feminist and Queer Pedagogies: Some Sources

I am fairly certain that I want to devote at least one week to troublemaking and feminist and queer pedagogies this upcoming semester in my Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking class. But what to include? Here are some sources to consider:

97804159331241. Troubling Education: Queer Activism and Anti-oppressive Pedagogy
by Kevin Kumashiro

I had initially thought about using this in my Feminist Pedagogies course this semester, but ended up going in a different direction. So, why is this book called Troubling Education? The troubling of the title seems to be about more than just education that is in trouble (as in, oppressive, unjust, in need of transformation) or education that makes trouble (as in, challenge, disrupt, transgress). The troubling of the title seems to be about both of these things and, in fitting with this blog, about staying in trouble. Here is what Kumashiro writes in the introduction:

I am curious about what it means to address our resistances to discomforting knowledges, and about what it means to put uncertainties and crises at the center of the learning process (8).

Kumashiro’s goal is to put trouble (in the form of uncertainty and crises) at the center of his own antioppressive pedagogy. Cool. I must read this book soon. I am particularly interested in the final chapter: “Addressing Resistance through Queer Activism.”

97807914732832.  Grappling with Diversity: Readings on Civil Rights Pedagogy and Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Susan Schramm-Pate and Rhonda B. Jeffries

In this book, the authors are primarily concerned with exploring civil rights pedagogy, tracing how binaries (North/South, black/white, rich/poor) are produced and reinforced, and critically interrogating the concept of privilege. Here are some chapters that sound particularly interesting for the class (and for my own research interests): “Introduction: Imagine No Fences, No Borders, No Boundaries,” “Chapter 3: Horton Hears a Who: Lessons from the Highlander Folk School in the Era of Globalization,” and “Chapter 7: The Impact of Trickster Performances on the Curriculum: Explorations of a White Female Civil Rights Activist.”

97804159898173. Critical Perspectives on bell hooks
Edited by Maria del Guadalupe Davidson and George Yancy

Divided into three key sections, Critical Pedagogy and Practice, The Dynamics of Race and Gender, and Spirituality and Love, this edited collection critically reflects on hooks’ work. In my feminist pedagogies course, we read hooks’ Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community. I think adding an essay or two from this collection would fit very well with troublemaking. After all, hooks’ notions of talking back and transgressing are forms of making trouble. I have only briefly skimmed the introduction to this collection. What I like so far is their emphasis on critically engaging with hooks’ work instead of merely celebrating it. I also like Michael W. Apple’s articulation of the seven tasks of critical analysis, outlined in the series editor’s introduction:

  1. Bearing witness to negativity: illuminating how policies/practices are connected to exploitation
  2. Pointing to contradictions and spaces of possible action
  3. Redefining research: who does it, how it is done
  4. Not throwing out elite knowledge but reconstructing it to for progressive/transformative aims
  5. Keeping traditions of radical work alive in relation to recognition and redistribution
  6. Relearning and developing of a variety of new skills for working with a wide range of groups and in many different registers
  7. Acting in concert with progressive/social movements

Nice. I have been thinking more about what it means to be a critical thinker: what skills do we need to be critical thinkers? What are the links between troublemaking and critical thinking? What do feminist and queer methodologies offer to critical thinking theories and practices? How can we use feminist and queer pedagogies to teach and practice critical thinking?

Being in trouble vs. Beings in trouble: Is there a difference?

What is the difference between being in trouble (the verb: to be) and a being in trouble (the noun: a being)? In Judith Butler’s arguments for pushing at the limits of our most sure ways of knowing, she often focuses on characters (like Antigone or David Reimer or Venus Xtravaganza) who embody those limits and who serve as allegories (figures/symbols) for those limits in crisis. For Butler, critically exploring these limit cases can disrupt any easy reading of them and can generate important conversations about how norms are constructed in ways that “produce, reproduce, deproduce” what counts as “human” and/or a livable life.

But, what is at stake for those folks who live at the limits when they are held up as productive examples for being in (and making) trouble? Should they function as the main characters for our narrative/s about how to make and be in trouble? If so, how might our understanding of their lives be reduced to how they allegorize/symbolize/demonstrate the limits of discourse?

prosserIn my Queering Theory class, we read Jay Prosser’s critique of Judith Butler (in Second Skins) last week. Prosser writes about Butler’s discussion of Venus Xtravaganza, a Latina transsexual (Prosser’s description) in the documentary Paris is Burning. He argues that Butler envisions Venus’ tragic death (presumably killed because of her failure to fully pass as a real woman) as central to her argument for drag as ambivalent (and potentially, but not definitively, subversive and transgressive). I was particularly struck by Prosser’s statement on page 275:

Butler’s essay locates transgressive value in that which makes the subject’s real life most unsafe.

The problem here, according to Prosser, is that using beings who are in trouble as the location where new queer theories can be produced often fails to take into consideration how the actual bodies of those beings in trouble experience and precariously inhabit those troubled positions. While I don’t agree with Prosser’s assessment of Butler, I do think that focusing on beings in trouble (as a location for critique, source for new knowledge, an object of and raw material for new theories) can be problematic. Maybe we should distinguish between being in trouble which focuses on actions of making trouble and beings in trouble which focuses on persons who embody troubled/troubling positions. How could queering theory be understand and produced differently if we emphasized the former instead of the latter?

Making Trouble as Reaching Too Far

Yesterday in my Queering Theory course, we discussed making trouble. Making trouble comes in a lot of forms. In fact, there are so many different ways to think about making trouble that you could teach a whole class (and more than once) on the topic and barely scratch the surface (oh wait–that’s what I’m doing!). But seriously, the abundance of themes/topics/readings that fit in this category is making it difficult (troubling?) for me to narrow down my reading list for my troublemaking class next semester. But I am not complaining; trying to choose between too many ideas and really interesting books is a nice problem to have.

Nobody PassesAnyway, back to the point of this entry. For our discussion in Queering Theory yesterday, I chose Mattilda’s Nobody Passes. While this book offers one notion of troublemaking in terms of anti-assimilation and rejection, it does so in a wide range of ways by broadly interrogating the idea of passing and not passing in terms of “the ‘right’ gender, race, class, sexuality, age, ability, body type, health status, ethnicity–or as a member of the coolest religion, political party, social/educational institution, exercise trend, fashion cult, or sexual practice” (9). Some may argue that this broad approach is too broad, as Mattilda’s editor Brooke does when she tells Mattilda that “she’s worried that I’m [Mattilda] compromising the integrity of the book by ‘reaching too far beyond the parameters we’ve tried to establish'” (13). But Mattilda sees her broad reach as central to the book’s purpose. She writes:

the point of this book is to make people reach too far, to roll into critical, complicated, dissonant essays that grumble with uncomfortable revelation (13).

I like this idea of reaching too far. I especially like the inclusion of “too.” Reaching too far isn’t just a matter of stretching ourselves to think beyond what we know (to reach far). Reaching too far is about going past our limits in ways that may make trouble for us, but can also create connections and new possibilities for understanding and living in the world.

imagesAs I reflect on it more, the idea of reaching too far seems different than merely rejecting oppressive institutions or norms or ideologies. Instead of rejection, Mattilda seems to be engaged in transgression (as in crossing over and beyond). The idea of reaching too far as transgression reminds me of Foucault’s discussion of the limit-attitude in “What is Enlightenment?” Here is what he writes about it:

This philosophical ethos may be characterized as a limit-attitude. We are not talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism indeed consists of analyzing and reflecting upon limits….The point, in brief, is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible crossing-over (315).

[the limit-attitude must be understood as one in which the] critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits imposed on us and and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them (319).

I need to think through how to read Mattilda’s project in relation to Foucault’s limit attitude. How might thinking about nobody passes as a transgression instead of rejection shape our reading of Mattilda’s introduction (and the collection as a whole) differently? What are the differences between transgression and rejection?

36112119Note: As I was thinking about transgression and rejection, I came across a book by Ashley Tauchert, Against Transgression. I plan to check it out from the library today. In reading through the description, I was particularly intrigued by these three purposes of the book: 1. studies the origins of the contemporary proliferation of ‘Transgression’ in the compelling thought experiments of Georges Bataille, and follows its inauguration as a mode of legitimate critical practice via Michel Foucault; 2. tracks the author’s rejection of Transgression as a legitimate critical methodology following her mother’s death and her own maternal transfiguration; and 3. considers the place of grief in the transformation of thought.