December 2013 Archives

Why I plan to bring poetry into my classroom

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This winter semester, for the fourth time in two and a half years, I'm going to be a teaching assistant on a first year writing course. Basically, I help teach new university students how to write properly. Most of them think they already know how. They mostly don't. Even though most of them have spent their entire lives operating in English, going to school in English, and reading and writing to what's defined by government curricula as an appropriate level of English proficiency, they just don't yet know how to operate at a university level. That's totally fine. One of the things you learn in university is how to read and write at a higher level than what's considered adequate for a high school graduate.

For reference, to get into a university in Ontario, an Ontario resident (which is what most of my students are) needs to have completed a course called ENG4U. That's grade 12 University Preparation English. That course follows three other academic-level English courses. Like any course, it comes with a set of expectations and learning outcomes. These are classed in four general categories: Oral Communication; Reading and Literature Studies; Writing; and Media Studies. By all accounts, the curriculum for ENG4U is pretty solid. The expectations for the four areas map closely to things that really are relevant in a university context. There's some great stuff on the importance of flexibility and skill building. The curriculum emphasizes the importance of seeing limitations in understanding, identifying areas for improvement and recognizing how skills from different areas can be applied to reading and writing. It's not the curriculum that's the problem.

The problem, to my mind at least, is the way current expectations about a university education colour the attitude students have towards learning. The increasing focus on employability as an outcome of a university education is a well documented and hotly debated problem. Some people think it's great that universities should focus on skills relevant to the current job market and useful to the economy. Some people think it's a shame that universities are becoming a source of vocational training, with specific, job-related skills being prioritized over more general critical thinking and research skills. Whichever side you come down on, there's one thing I think is less contestable: some skills are really difficult to teach in a routinized and measurable way.

Writing is a tough skill to teach and learn. Yes, English grammar has a huge collection of rules. But the rules aren't actually exhaustive. There is no one definitive book a student can read in order to become a competent writer. Writing is delicate and contextual. Writing is based on both an understanding of rules and a sensitivity for the situation in which it's being employed. Though I hate the word "intuitive," because it normally stands in for a whole collection of other desirable traits, becoming a good writer is a process that has a lot to do with intuition. We develop that intuition and contextual sensitivity by exposing ourselves to other competent writers. In other words, we become good readers and writers by practicing. We learn to discriminate between different kinds of writing by reading widely. That's how we learn what's appropriate in different contexts and, crucially, how we learn what we like.

One of the biggest influences on my writing when I was in high school was Douglas Adams. He's clever, spare and sarcastic. He's brilliant at incorporating a diverse set of influences into books that, even a couple decades on, still feel current. And he introduced me to the Romantic poets.

What's more, reading has always given me ammunition. When I was told in grade school never to start a sentence with "And" or "But," I ran to an example I found in an L.M. Montgomery book. What authority could my teacher possibly have when she was directly counter-indicated by the author of Anne of Green Gables? Reading helped me question rules and received wisdom. Reading allowed me to compare facts and form independent opinions.

Now, neither Douglas Adams nor L.M. Montgomery appear to directly explain why I think my students should be encountering poetry more often, especially since the two are known for their contribution to prose. What those two figures are, in my life, are examples of reading without a clear learning outcome. I read them both for fun. From their fiction, I not only got entertainment, but a lot of indirect learning. From both, I got an understanding of vocabulary and diction that I would not have encountered in my normal life. From Montgomery, I got a kind of English that hasn't been spoken in Canada in a hundred years. From Adams, I got words like "lucite" and "estate agent," terms that refer to concepts I know, but which were utterly foreign to me when I first read them. In short, the books and authors who have been most seminal in my life have been the ones who have broadened my horizons. I learned about different ways to approach and see the world, and it was fun.

I recognize that seeing reading as fun is not a universal. The increasingly practical nature of a university education makes it even more difficult to explain to students that having apparently aimless encounters with the written word can be useful. Getting them to do assigned readings, which have a clear relationship to the course content, is tough enough. They're overburdened and haven't yet developed the time management skills they need to accomplish what we ask of them. Generally, unless they can see an outcome or happen to have a passion for a particular subject, getting them to do more work than necessary is a tough sell.

This is where poetry comes in. Though I won't categorize all poetry as aimless, at the very least, it comes with fewer overt learning outcomes than most of the things my students read. By its nature, it is well crafted, walking a careful line between formal rules and creative interpretation. It requires careful diction. And it is determinedly foreign. For the population at large, poetry is not part of life. It is distinct from the kind of reading that most people do. This foreignness is the most compelling reason I see for bringing it into my classroom. Every decision in a poem is clearer. The deliberate nature of the language in a poem is highlighted by its deviation from the prose of assigned readings. It's distinct from the journalistic writing in the papers they read on the subway, from informational writing and from prose-y status updates.

This semester, I plan to bring more poetry into my classroom. Short, sweet poems that highlight careful choice and decision making in writing, while being so utterly foreign as to jog my students out of their normal way of reading and understanding. 
Once, when I was about 20, a close friend referred to me as "always right." She didn't mean it as a derogation. She simply meant that more often than not, when I came out with a fact, it would be one in which I had confidence. If I were to characterize that trait, I'd say that I like being able to believe in the things I say. That characterization as "always right" came, if memory serves, before I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in academia. The four and a half years I've now spent in grad school, first doing my master's degree and now in my doctorate, have changed the nature of my desire for rightness. On one hand, I've come to recognize that "right" is not necessarily possible. Facts are contextually dependent and often easily contested. On the other hand, that recognition of the difficulty of rightness has made me a pretty insufferable conversationalist when I talk to people about the things I study.

There are things I feel self-conscious about. Because one of the ways academics in my area achieve legitimacy is by reading, I often feel like a walking literature review. I worry about the amount of education that slips into my conversation. What's more, because expertise and depth of knowledge are necessary traits for scholars, I find myself obsessively passionate about things that are almost unknown to others. And I collect facts. That much hasn't changed, even if my conception of facts and truths has changed. All of this results in extreme caution on my part. I often avoid talking about the things I study and work on because I want to prevent myself from slipping into a lecture.

I can have a normal conversation. There are lots of things I care about and can talk about without having it become an accidental lecture. I can even talk pretty coherently to non-academics about some aspects of my work without feeling the need to substantiate my every statement. But there are areas that get me into trouble. There have been times, when a conversation starts turning towards my areas of study, that I've said something along the lines of "Watch out. We're getting into what I work on." That warning comes from a desire to not bulldoze the person I'm talking to or kill the conversation. It also comes from memories of previous frustrations. Walking the careful border between actually letting my expertise out and having the patience to not assert myself too forcefully is tough. It's my job to become expert in the areas I study. By necessity, there are subjects about which I have a different and deeper body of knowledge than most others do.

The worst case scenario in a casual conversation that moves too close to my work is frustration on both sides. We're having a totally normal conversation. It's nice. We're talking about subjects of mutual interest, on which the two of us have a pretty uniform level of knowledge. Chances are good that our knowledge comes from what we've read or watched in popular media, stuff meant for a generalist audience. Maybe we both read a feature article about it in a magazine or newspaper. Maybe we've dipped into some Wikipedia articles, or seen a documentary. We talk about the subject and, if things are going really well, maybe we discuss our different interpretations of what's going on in the situation. We supplement each other's knowledge with information we've collected from other sources. Your documentary, my Wikipedia article. "Gosh! I never knew that, but it makes a lot of sense." It's great.

And then the conversation veers. Somehow, we stumble into the thing that's currently consuming my life. Your knowledge is still on that general-but-interested level. You're into the subject, you've read around a bit. You have some opinions on the subject. It's leisure for you, something you look into a little in your off time. Somewhere below the level of a hobby. For me, it's not even just my work. It's not just the thing I read and think about at my desk every day. It's what I'm thinking about in the shower, on my walk to work, what I'm talking about with my colleagues when we have lunch or take a coffee break. It's something I spend months constructing careful arguments around. And those arguments are based on the work of all the academics who came before me in the area. My job is to synthesize a huge amount of other arguments, and my fieldwork, and turn it into something new, but grounded in the existing knowledge on the subject. It's not just the scholarly stuff, either. Because people know what I study, and because I'm connected into a network of people studying similar things, I'm constantly sent articles about the subject. I know academics who keep Google Alerts set up for keywords relating to their subjects of study. In short, one of the symptoms of doing the kind of work I do is being obsessively knowledgeable about one very small area.

That obsessive knowledge and constant learning is great for getting things done. It's a survival trait. It's less good in casual conversation. That's why I get a little flustered when our nice chat suddenly gets close to my area of study. Suddenly, I'm worried that one of us will come out unhappy, either because I've held back or because I haven't. It often feels like a no-win. I'll either end up accidentally lecturing, making you feel condescended to, or I'll come away from the conversation frustrated, feeling that there was so much I could have said but didn't, because I didn't want to come off as a pompous jerk. In these circumstances, the one thing I want to avoid doing at all costs is pull rank. I don't want to say that I probably know more about the subject than you do. I don't want to make you feel smaller. Sometimes, when trying to avoid that, I accidentally slip into it. It's tough to explain why I'd want to disengage just when the conversation is getting to something I know a lot about and am deeply interested in. The attempt to disengage may sound like I don't believe you can hold up to the conversation, like I don't think you're capable. But that's not it. I shy away from the subject because I've experienced the consequences before. It's tough to find a balance between the expertise that serves as credibility and currency in my vocation and the desire to be a polite, social human being having a nice conversation. For some subjects, I've learned coping mechanisms. I've gotten really good at handling discussions around the social impacts of 3D printing. For other subjects, especially the ones that are a little more obscure, it's more difficult. Sometimes, it's easier to attempt a polite disengagement, to avoid tension and stress. What may seem an interesting little conversational avenue to anyone else is, for me, a consuming passion and, for a time at least, the thing receiving the vast majority of my mental and emotional effort.

Why I opt out of full body scans at airports

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On average, I travel outside of Canada every other month. About half of those trips are to the United States. Many of my trips, both to the US and to the EU have involved the assumption on the part of security agents that I should subject myself to a full body scan in addition to the standard x-raying of baggage and walk through a metal detector. In the three years that I have been flying frequently, I have not yet chosen to accept the full body scan. I opt either for a pat-down in public or, if I happen to have extra time on my hands, a private pat-down. Time is key. My trip through security would certainly be faster if I acceded to the scan. In addition to a quicker, more hassle-free screening, I would be able to avoid having security agents do things like touching the area immediately below my bra band, or feeling inside the waistband of my pants, occasionally in public, in front of other travellers.

Given the inconvenience entailed, one might wonder why I opt out of the full body scan every time. Indeed, security agents often ask me why I am opting out. There are two frequently-cited reasons for opting out: fear of radiation, and concern over privacy. Neither of these are strictly my reason. Though debates about safety surround both backscatter scanners and millimetre wave scanners, I don't worry unduly about their impact on my body. Neither am I worried about a security agent seeing me "naked." If anything, the pat-down is more immediately and viscerally intrusive than any image a full body scanner might produce of my body. I am not worried by full body scanners. I object to them.

In particular, I object to the idea that anyone but me should have the power to create, control and potentially keep a highly-detailed image of my body. One of the features that makes full body scanning valuable, not just in security but also in consumer applications, is the precision of its imaging ability. Outside of their applications in airports, full body scanners are used in the apparel industry to take highly detailed measurements. Consider the sheer precision of measurement required to produce an accurate 3D model of a human body. Human bodies are detailed. All it takes for a woman to move from a size small to a size medium in a dress is an extra half inch on her waist measurement. We are creatures of small measurements. A meaningful 3D scan conforms to our scale, producing images which detail all of our external curves. Thus, part one of my objection: in submitting to full body scanners in airports, we allow ourselves to be minutely measured, but have no access to those measurements.

My objection is not to the idea that an unscrupulous agent might download an image of my body or in some other way use my image to prurient ends. Instead, the concern is what can ultimately be done with highly granular data about my body. In the course of daily life, no one normally has access to such data. The closest anyone comes to knowing my body is me, thanks to my embodied experience. Taking that privilege out of my hands, making it something I trade in order to fly, seems excessive. It goes beyond the questions asked at borders, which at least are germane to my trip. I object to using detailed information about my body as currency to speed my travel.

Detail is the determining factor for me in choosing to opt out and be patted down. Though the pat-down may be a temporary indignity, it is imprecise. The agent who pats me down has a momentary experience, focusing her attention on finding contraband or irregularities on my person. She is not taking thousands of measurements and writing them down. She does not have the capability to collect and remember highly detailed information about my body. She pats me down, finds no irregularities, and then forgets shortly after. Though governments using full body scanners make claims that their machines do not store or transmit images, display necessitates storage. It may not be long term storage, but it is a longer, more detailed memory of my body than that of the agent. It encompasses everything, not just the particular areas the agent covers. It is a far more perfect representation of my body than the agent can hope to achieve. This is why I opt out. I object to the production of highly detailed replicas of my body over which I have no control. I object to the assumption that others have the right to know more about me than I do.