Teaching Conversation with Kifi

My best teaching has always sprung from a spirit of creativity. And creative teaching means taking risks and wildly experimenting. Sometimes my little experiments succeed and become regular classroom practices, and sometimes they crash and burn. Swings and misses, strikes and gutters. That’s my motto.This past semester, I had a success that both helped my students and drove home an important aspect of teaching and learning for me.

I’ve long used discussion posts on in-house online learning platforms in my classes. I value the act of expanding the classroom space beyond the constraints of our 50 minute hour, and these posts have been one way in which to accomplish that.

I’ve also long been underwhelmed by results. I feel like students benefit from regularly writing, but I also feel as though it becomes a rote activity that sometimes doesn’t encourage the kind of dialectical process I want to see my students engage in.

This past semester, I stumbled across a social bookmarking website that perhaps offers an antidote to these monological failings.

Kifi (www.kifi.com) came to my attention through a Facebook ad and I was initially intrigued by its uses as a bookmarking site to rival my Pocket account. I have the tendency to throw everything that interests me into my bookmarking service and then God sort it out later. Over time, this has become a burden when it comes time for retrieval. Kifi allows users to create discreet, topical libraries for their “keeps” and I welcomed this with great enthusiasm.

As I played around a little, some of the platform’s other features began to strike me as potentially valuable teaching tools, and I soon saw the potential to improve on my traditional discussion board posts. What follows is by no means an exhaustive how-to. Go to Kifi’s own website for that, please (here). I just want to talk about how the service encouraged an ongoing dialogue between readers, writers, and their ideas.

Kifi allows users to share online articles with other people through its browser extensions. In addition to this, the browser extension opens up an on-screen space in which to comment directly on the article in question, and even provides the means to quote specific passages of interest. This all has the feel of a Facebook conversation, but one targeted to users with specific, detailed interest in the article at hand. Trolling and hyperbolic posturing are therefore reduced.

Having asked my students to join the experiment with me, I quickly incorporated Kifi into our research process. Here’s how it worked:

My students’ semester-long research projects were focused on controversies within higher education (of their own choosing). This is, of course, an interest I share, so when I found an article that struck me as useful for a particular student or group of students, I would:

  • send them the article through Kifi.
  • use the “look here,” quotation feature to draw their attention to specific passages of interest
  • explain how I think the article contributed to their projects
Students were then able to respond to my comments and our conversations were recorded in the Kifi interface.

To say I was pleased with the results is an understatement. Students who participated in my experiment maintained an amazing amount of engagement with their projects, and I can only attribute this to the ongoing conversation, the dialogue, that Kifi facilitated. I should also mention that Kifi also has smartphone apps that allow for use in the classroom as well. As I develop this tool for my classes, this versatility is welcome.

I have no financial stake in this company or this product (it is a free service at this point), but I have had the opportunity to speak with some of its developers and it is clear to me that they are interested in Kifi’s potential as a classroom tool, among its other uses.

Kifi has been a great find, but there has been a deeper lesson in this for me as a teacher. I always know that conversation is a vital element of learning, but this experiment has tangibly demonstrated it for me. If we are to be worthy of all our whining about disengaged students, it is our responsibility to find ways to engage them in conversations larger than themselves. Making use of resources like this is how I attempt to do so.

I will heartily continue this experiment in the classroom, and, in addition, I welcome any reader of this blog to connect with me through Kifi and continue our own conversation. My Kifi link is https://www.kifi.com/danny-anderson
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On Being a Marxist Professor

The semester has reached the point at which energy reserves are low and no amount of fracking will replenish them.

Thanksgiving is a full month away, and classrooms are filled with tired people staring at one another. When faced with such a dilemma, a teacher has only two choices. Cancel class or hurl a great ball of chaos at his students. Enter Groucho Marx.

English: Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx...

English: Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx, cropped from group photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes his daemonic, chaotic energy is just the thing I need to push through the prison walls of my ivory tower. Case in point.

Today, I decided to drive my students just a bit crazy. In the midst of yet another revision of their visual analysis papers, they showed up to a classroom in which the theme song to Mission: Impossible was blaring. As soon as class started I ran around the room, frantically passing this assignment sheet out:

2014-10-22 10.07.23

Now panicky themselves, my students leaped from their seats, and shouted to each other as if my classroom was the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

They ran out of my room and returned 15 minutes later. Out of breath? Sure. But re-engaged with their own educations.

Chaos is beautiful.

Literature and the Christian Imagination

During the last few years of my life, I’ve felt as if I had a foot in two worlds. One foot (left or right – I’m not sure) stood on faith, and the other in academia. All in all, I kept my balance pretty well (yay me). As a student of literature and a person of faith, I instinctively felt that there was a compatibility between the two, invisible perhaps on the outside, but inseparable for me. It made perfect narrative sense, then, that I would end up teaching English at a small, Christian liberal arts college.

This confluence of events and interests has led me to inquire more deeply into the role the imagination and Culture (big C) in the lives of Christians. My thinking is that this will benefit both my students and my sanity, though the latter notion may turn out to be delusional. (I’ve been called worse, both by myself and others).

At any rate, this inquiry has implications not just for how Christians engage with or avoid literary cultural productions, but also how they engage with their faith. For example in The Gospel Coalition today, Greg Forster takes exception with a recent article in The American Conservative in which Rod Dreher claims that Evangelicals are hostile to religious expressions of wonder and awe (sacraments and such). This may seem to have little to do with Christian consumption of literature, but it does address the issue of Evangelical engagement with physical, cultural expressions of metaphysical ideas. In this way the conversation explores the depths and limitations of the Christian imagination – a subject of great interest to me as I attempt to challenge my students and myself going forward. Disruption as engaged learning.

As happy coincidence would have it, my department has decided to read the 1989 book, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, by Susan Gallagher and Roger Lundin. I thought this to be a good occasion to dip my toe in the subject matter, bloggy-style.

Being written during the height of the Culture Wars, the book seems dated and reading it now is frequently to nod impatiently and say to oneself, “yes, I remember that. People used to talk about this back then.” However, the book does a fair job of establishing the history and logics of long standing debates about the role of literature in the age of High Theory (though not with the panache or precision of Robert Alter’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age). To its credit though, the book is a sincere attempt to inquire into the relationship between faith and literature. It is a serious-minded study of the joys and dangers of Christian consumption of literary art.

This virtue is, however, also its vice. The book is far too serious about this subject and makes the idea of danger too large an ectoplasmic boogeyman for the Christian reader. An example of this is found in a meditation about overt Christian themes in literature. The authors write, “Although we may be pleased to find works based on Christian narratives, characters, or practices, we must not hastily conclude that they endorse or advocate Christian ideas” (123). Implicit here is the idea that “good” literature must ultimately only validate Christian orthodoxy. I challenge this notion and feel that a Christian faith slavishly seeking opportunities to affirm cherished orthodoxies becomes intellectually dead. The Imagination uniquely offers a means to challenge assumptions, keeping their holders keen-witted and productively engaged with the world. Added to this limited engagement with literature’s richness is a repeated insistence that it not dare tread too close to the divine and ostentatious practice of doing anything. It must only reflect, not create realties or challenge existing ones. These themes run throughout the book, buttressed by a cautious rhetoric meant to keep literature safely in its place.

I wonder, in the end, how much the book really believes what it is saying. The section about metafiction, toward the conclusion, seems to suggest that philosophies that challenge Christian ontological claims have value both in their requirement that the reader question their conception of reality and in their engagement of the reader in the process of fiction-making. As much as the book claims a role for sanctified reading practices, it can’t seem to shake a respect for the sheer excitement of world-creation and energizing effect that literature, as an agent of chaos, can have if given the opportunity.

This contradiction is, to me, ultimately good as it complicates an otherwise overly-simple argument (though the book suffers as a pedagogical resource because of it). Let me just focus briefly then on what the book says rather than what it actually does, as the former contains the larger implications for Christian education and engagement with Culture.

Two statements epitomize my complaint with the book. The first has to do with literature’s ability to transcend circumstance. The authors write, “Though literature can provide us with relaxation and with images of the world as it might ideally be, it is neither an escape from reality nor a saving transformation of it” (xxiv). In other words, literature can do little to escape the forces of history. The book argues that its value instead lies solely in its reflection of God’s truth. For those of you in academia, think Foucault meets John Calvin. This is a kind of theological New Historicism, with the text unable to escape the material (and spiritual) conditions of its production.

In the context of a liberal arts education, this is a disastrous perspective. If the humanities cannot both provide perspective on the world and an intervention of imagination then what good is it? This absence leaves the world solely under the sway of material forces. Economics and politics are left as the only means by which God’s creation functions. Furthermore, this calls into question the authority of the Bible. Is it merely a record of events that reflect a world that God made and continually redeems while Human Beings continually ruin? Or is it an intervention in the world that shapes its reader and creates a new and richer reality?

Matthew Arnold

This is, of course, the same war Matthew Arnold, awesome side-burns and all, waged with those that marginalized Culture in favor of mechanical forces like economics and politics. Gallagher and Lundin reduce Arnold to his wish that Culture replace a diminished Religion in society (60), but they neglect to account for his definition of Culture in the early pages of Culture and Anarchy. Defending it against claims that it seeks and values mere curiosity, Arnold offers an alternative definition:

But there is of culture another view, in which not solely the scientific passion, the sheer desire to see things as they are, natural and proper in an intelligent being, appears as the ground of it. There is a view in which all the love of our neighbour, the impulses towards action, help, and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it, – motives eminently such as are called social, – come in as part of the grounds of culture, and the main and pre-eminent part. Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.

By denying curiosity as the defining feature of Culture, Arnold simultaneously denies that its primary service is that of reflective mirror. Literature and art do not simply wish to explore a pre-fabricated world, crafted through the forces of sin, salvation, and free-will enterprise, it also seeks to create a world that is better than the one formed through strictly material forces. Christians, and particularly those in the liberal arts and humanities, should then identify a comrade in Culture, not an adversary to be only leery of.

The historicist-influenced line of thought in Literature Through the Eyes of Faith also motivates the next statement I take issue with. In a chapter depressingly called “Keeping Literature in Perspective,” the authors write, “A Christian perspective on reading lies between the extremes of hedonism and redemption. Books are neither objects of pure pleasure or instruments of unlimited power. Instead, they are one way in which humans have developed the potentials of God’s world” (59). I, of course, would not claim “unlimited power” for books, but to demote them to just “one way” of reflecting divine influence is to make sociology out of literature and to deny a special-ness that narrative has in our lives as created beings that have creative potential. Metafiction, which the authors apparently like, in spite of their own argument, foregrounds the vitality of narrative-creation in our lives. It is not mere sociology, only reflecting images of truth back at ourselves. Nor is it distinct from “the real world.” Fiction is part – perhaps the most important part – of how we create the world.

Imagination is indistinguishable from reality. Christians too often neglect it at their peril.

Revision

eraser

As a teacher, I feel a gnawing obligation to push my students to revise their work. I try to convey to them the notion that writing is inseparable from thinking. We don’t ask them to write research papers because we think they already know so much about bio-ethics or what have you. We ask them to write so that they learn and grow. What they know now is not all they will know later. The papers that we grade are simply documents of each student’s engagement with the process of learning at the time the assignment is due. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the student stops thinking about what they’ve learned. It simply means that their “final” paper is a kind of photograph. It is a frozen image of their intellectual development at a given moment in their lives. Sometimes, unfortunately, that image resembles a Neanderthal preserved in an ancient glacier. This can be distressing, but often the captured moment instead suggests Monet – beautiful, impressionistic, still un-crystalized visions of intelligence inherent and always coming into focus, yet to be fully realized. Aesthetic beauty in progress.

Teachers too must think, I think, and therefore should constantly revise as well. A class, like a term paper, is a document of the teacher’s abilities and experience at the time it is scheduled. Ready or not, here Gen Ed comes. This post then is an occasion for me to reflect on how I would approach teaching a certain class again, armed with the experience of this semester. This past semester, I taught Freshman Composition using a new syllabus and a textbook that was new to me as well. This course was designed in light of the experience I’ve had teaching Freshman Comp in the past and those grand failures and modest successes dictated much of what I did this time.

I strongly believe in the value of liberal arts traditions (see the title of this blog after all). This disposition comes not only in theoretical form, through my dissertation, but also practically, from my teaching experience in composition classrooms. The following statements are bound to offend someone, but . . . Pedagogical approaches that prize the mechanical, objective “skills” of writing too often miss the point of struggling, failing, growing, and thus thinking. On the opposite end of the spectrum, sexy-time topical composition courses often push aside the formal writing practices that encourage thinking to support immediate political and social agendas. Both approaches are mechanical in the end, and both inhibit the educational potential that a seat at the window above Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain” provides.

With my insufferable idealism stated and out of the way then, how this applies to my composition class is as follows:

From day one, I instill the connection between writing and reading. Academic writing is a conversation much larger than any single individual and the person who merely wants to state their opinions is a bad conversationalist. Therefore, I sequenced my assignments in the following manner – Summary Paper, Response Paper, Formal Analytic Paper, and Academic Book Review. This sequence of assignments was meant to mimic the process of academic conversation while taking time to dwell on each element of the process. Denying students their “opinions” at the beginning was a painful, but necessary step in this process. Some of them never got it, of course, but most did, and this struggle paid dividends at the end of the semester, when I received much better book reviews than I might have otherwise.

For me, the best decision I made was with the final book review assignment. I was asked by my department to use They Say/I Say by Graff and Birkenstein and I’ve always struggled teaching from that book in the past. My solution to the problem this time was to use the book not exclusively as a teaching tool, but also as an object of analysis. We studied rhetoric all semester from our main textbook, From Inquiry to Academic Writing, by Greene and Lidinsky, which gave us the foundations for the sequence of assignments leading up to They Say/I Say. Our final unit, then, became both a review of the concepts we’d already studied (with Graff and Birkenstein providing a lighter, fresher approach to essentially the same material) as well as an opportunity to apply the lessons of that sequence to a real object, thus allowing students to take part in a real academic conversation.

By and large, though I have yet to look at the course evaluations, I felt the course was extremely successful. I did, however, learn a great deal along the way. First, this generation is particularly good at communicating in certain rhetorical situations, namely texting/tweeting/facebooking-speak. It is, I think, a mistake to simply write that fact off as a generational character flaw. Instead, I hope to build on that strength by making that kind of communication an object of rhetorical analysis from the beginning of the course. My hope is that I can help them identify rhetorical structures and practices in this familiar form of communication and use that to strengthen their ability to see and replicate similar practices in more conventional forms of writing. For example, the hashtag in a tweet is a kind of recognition of audience and rhetorical situation is it not? By employing that textual device, the writer (tweeter?) directs his communication to a specific conversation. What ways do we do that in academic conversations? These questions might lead to pedagogical breakthroughs for some students.

Similarly, I think that I will replace my standard Reading Response assignment with a possibly more familiar blog requirement. In other words, instead of having students come to class with response forms and discussion questions, I will ask them to keep a weekly reading/reflection blog on our in-house online system. This will (in theory anyway) open up the “comment” feature of this interface as a means to further emphasize the conversational nature of academic thought.

Finally, in future semesters with this course, I hope to develop a program in which students will sign up for a certain class meeting and present a very short (5 minute) summary of some grammatical or textual concept in the English language of their choosing. This will be meant to encourage engagement and individual initiative in the course. Most of my students come to class engaged and eager to participate, however, there are a significant number who do not and I hope to stand against that in my teaching. Without engagement, writing and, by definition, thinking are in peril.

If anyone happens to read this, I would love to hear from you in the comment section below (or email I suppose). A conversation about this would be most helpful for me.

Best wishes

Danny