Talking teaching on Twitter (and talking nicely to students)

Yeah, there was this one student and she was just insufferable.

She once got confused between the words ‘malicious’ and ‘magnanimous’ and described Lady Macbeth’s decision to persuade her husband to kill Duncan as magnanimous. In an exam essay. One time she fell asleep at 2 in the afternoon and turned up half an hour late to class. Another time she finished a tutorial essay with the words ‘But that’s a whole different issue, and it’s 3am, and I’m going to bed’. She had some sort of panic when writing her third year undergraduate coursework and had to have meeting after meeting about her damn feelings. In her MA year she went to hear a visiting academic speak about Adorno, and until the paper started blithely believed that Adorno was probably a Gothic novel. She finds it very, very hard to write effective conclusions. She’s always whining about technology issues.

Yes, dear reader, that student is me.

So the Times Higher Education twitter account asked people to tweet them stories about Bad Students and to be honest I missed all that palaver. I read about it in a fantastic post by Dr Caroline Magennis which you should go and read, because it is wise. Said post made me think about how I discuss teaching online, and what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I love teaching, y’see, and I want to do it responsibly. I’ve had the luck to teach excellent, charming, enthusiastic people. I’ve become used to pouring out my woes on social media (sorry. Y’all must be well fed up of that), but it’s so important to remember that teaching doesn’t fall under the category of ‘things it’s OK to moan about on Twitter or Facebook or whatever’.  I can moan about the weather or my own idiocy or my fraught relationship with my thesis, but students are people towards whom I have a responsibility, even when I’m frustrated with them (and I’ve probably done more frustrating things myself. See above). Dr Magennis’s piece is an excellent, timely reminder of this.

I think there is some space to tweet/blog/whatever about teaching – if you have a particularly great seminar and just want to shout from the rooftops ‘Oh my students are BRILLIANT, they made so many good points today!’ or if one of them makes a rather excellent joke, or if the entire seminar group decides to beatbox the ‘Willow’ song from Othello at you (yup, that happened in one of my classes. It’s a cherished memory). I don’t think there’s too much wrong with sharing such things. And I think that generalised moaning about one’s marking load is pretty excusable (also it’s, like, 90% of academic twitter), although references to specific things people have written is definitely not cricket. Essentially, what the THE requested is really pretty unpleasant: it ain’t OK to take out teaching frustrations on social media. Go for a walk, eat a cake, moan in a non-public fashion to your flatmate over a cup of tea, plan the next lesson.

Dr Magennis particularly calls out those who mine their students’ mistakes for cheap lols:

… for me, jokes should never ever be directed at our students. Ever. They should never have their exam or essay errors made fun of in public and, particularly, nothing said in a classroom should ever be tweeted for smug amusement.

This is really flipping important. Don’t mock your students for getting things wrong. If you want to mock someone for getting things wrong, mock me for the Adorno thing. I keep thinking I should probably not tell people about that, but I keep telling people because I think it’s quite funny. The Mysteries of Adorno is one of my favourite speculative mashups. Along with the TV series my friends and I invented the other day, Inherent Miami Vice.

To state the blindingly obvious – as a teacher, quite often you will know things your students don’t. Meanwhile, quite often they will know things you don’t, and you will learn from them, for education is not a one-way process. I often find students know things you don’t expect them to (like lots of Smiths lyrics, off by heart) and not things I think they will (like all the Spaced references I make to the accompaniment of tumbleweed). So when they need and/or want to know things, just tell them, and correct mistakes if necessary, and don’t make a big thing about it. There is nothing wrong with not knowing a thing.

The NUS responded to the THE thing rather beautifully, with the hashtag #mybestlecturer. I really don’t know what I’d tweet for that – there have been so many academics that fit that category for me. It’d be like picking a favourite book, or a favourite Horrible Histories sketch, or some such impossible task. But it does make me want to tell a story that’s too long for a tweet.

Early in my MA, sometime before I was cruelly disabused of my ideas concerning a certain German philosopher, I took a class taught by a brilliant (and generally all-round lovely) visiting professor. We had a meeting to discuss a coursework topic, and I told him I wanted to write on an incident from the 1550s but was worried that I didn’t know enough about Mary’s reign.

The professor, without an ounce of patronisation, started with ‘Well – Mary was a Catholic…’

And because I knew the stuff with which he started, we quickly moved on to less basic matters and he recommended books and whatnot. But I remember being just so grateful for the kind, non-patronising way he spoke to me. Like, if I – a student in my mid-20s, on an early modern MA, worried about what academics might think of me – hadn’t known that Mary was Catholic, that wouldn’t have mattered. Because it didn’t matter what I did know, it mattered what I would go on to know, and how I would use that knowledge. Really, all of the people I would put in my overflowing category of ‘My Best Lecturer’ have this skill. My supervisors are masters of it, and lord, that makes a PhD so much more of a pleasant thing to do. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve taken from all the good teaching I’ve been a recipient of. The importance of conveying information in a way that is nice, and comprehensible, and doesn’t skip the basics. And which, crucially, doesn’t make the student feel small or like they’re being ridiculed.

I didn’t actually write a particularly good essay for the visiting professor’s class. It was the first essay I wrote for the MA and I kind of messed it up a bit. I guess I’m my own worst student, but I try to learn from my mistakes.

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When monographs attack

Quick note: I spent ages trying to think of an appropriate title, and I couldn’t, so I defaulted to a tried-and-tested formula. Apparently I’m not allowed to use said formula for the title of my thesis, which I feel is unfair.

I’m an idiot, perhaps this is why I can’t read books

Let us imagine a book. The book deals with some very interesting texts and makes some fascinating points about them. The author displays impressive depth of knowledge and their research is very thorough. This book is, I’ll be honest, a real book, and I’m getting the nice stuff out of the way so I can devote the rest of this blog post to why I hated it.

I do feel bad about this. I’m not going to name the author, publisher, topic, etc. And like I say, there were some damn good things in it. But what frustrated me, what led me to scrawl angry pencil all-caps notes on my notepad (being temporarily computerless in the library due to an unfortunate but comical tripping-over-while-carrying-my-laptop incident) was the fact that said good stuff was buried under a mountain of bloody obfuscation.

The writing was not good. Lord knows, this is not a crime, and I’m not prepared to start throwing stones in the direction of another person’s academic style without good reason. What annoyed me about it was not its occasional clunkiness – man, at times my writing is so clunky it reads like travelling on the Hammersmith and City line on a Saturday – but the ways in which it seemed purposefully difficult. The style was very self-consciously ‘academic’. Rhetorical terms and philosophical concepts were not always explained. Sentences were long and loopy. Most notably, the writer quoted extensively in multiple languages. As well as long quotations, there were a flurry of short embedded ones in the body of the text. No translations were offered. 

I’m used to early modern authors doing this, but this was published a few years ago. Mate, this ain’t the Republic of Letters, and you’re not Erasmus. I am glad you are comfortable and confident operating in multiple languages. I am impressed, and I wish I was as good as you clearly are. Such evident skill must be a boon to you as a scholar. But if the point of your book is to communicate your ideas, rather than simply to demonstrate your abilities, I don’t think your ‘no translations’ policy helps.

I know, I am a terrible colonialist eejit and showing my privilege, etc. But look, the book was in English. If it was in French or Urdu this objection would still apply. It seems like basic good practice to me: if you quote something in a language other than the one your work is in, offer a translation of that text into the language your book is in. If your book is in Swedish, translate it into Swedish. If your book is in English, translate it into English. Include the original as well, so people who have the skills to read it can do so (and, y’know, judge you). By writing in English you send out a message that this book can be read by people who can read English. If you have objections to Anglophone cultural hegemony (which would be perfectly reasonable), write in a language of your choice. This particular book was about English texts, so it made sense for it to be in English.

It would be great if all of us who embark on studies of early modern texts could fluently and confidently read, and communicate in, the varied array of languages that our subjects do. I think it’s absolutely key to think of early modern texts in terms of international, multilingual contexts, where texts and ideas and people are all moving and changing and being translated… And I am well aware that native English-speakers, especially those from Britain, are proverbially rubbish at operating in other languages. Not all of us, that is – hello fellow native English-speakers, many of you are brilliant at other languages – but there’s a stereotype that we’re bad at this, and that stereotype’s not entirely untrue. Full disclosure: I find languages difficult, and I get hideously embarrassed by my own failings in them. I mean, when you meet people from other countries, and they speak English, and then they apologise for not knowing a word or something… gawd. I want to drop to my knees and cry ‘Please forgive me, I can’t even order a beer in your language without making an almighty tit of myself.’

holiday

Such failings are often blamed on our frankly risible approach to language teaching in this country, of which my school career could be seen as an undistinguished example. I didn’t study French at secondary school because my school took the practical approach of dividing the year in two when we arrived and teaching half of the kids French, half German. Hence why I can yammer ungrammatically in German to reasonable effect but get nervous when I have to order a sandwich in French. Really nervous. Especially in Paris, where they look at me with deep-seated loathing and then fill my baguette with tuna regardless of what I thought I ordered. This is not a euphemism.

I certainly didn’t study Latin or Greek. I don’t want to get particularly class-war about this but just to note that if you learn something as a child that makes you more likely to be confident approaching it as an adult. I’m not going ‘oh woe is me my school didn’t offer classical languages’ because 1. I know it’s heresy but I reckon learning how to decline Latin verbs is probably of limited use to most people, and 2. Given how we reacted to quadratic equations I have a really vivid idea of how well my classmates and I would have taken to ‘Quintus est in horto’. But just to say that, when I studied Latin during my Master’s, those who had studied it at school were leaps and bounds ahead of those of us who hadn’t.

This isn’t unfair – they had worked hard and deserved the skills they had. The onus was on us to improve, as it should be. I don’t want to blame my rubbishness at languages on my perfectly good secondary school, because I believe I have more responsibility for my education than that. As an adult I’ve worked to get better, especially at things I need for work. In practice, this means that I’m far better at reading other languages than speaking them (fairly standard, I think) and I use a dictionary and grammar a lot when I read. I’m not arguing – at least, I hope I’m not arguing – that I don’t think people should write in a particular way because it’s inconvenient to me and people should dance to my monolingual, Anglophone tune.

My point is that it is quite likely that someone picking up a work of history may well not have had the same education that its writer had. Just as my excellent Latin teachers made their teaching accessible to us Latin dunces as well as challenging the star pupils, the writer may need to include supportive apparatus to open up their work to those who have a different knowledge base to themselves.

Is that possible? Of course it’s not always possible. When you’re deeply into a topic it’s easy to forget that others may not know and may not even care what the Schmalkaldic League was and thus that just dropping in unglossed references to it is not a particularly nice thing to do to, e.g., your flatmate who has agreed to read your chapter. You need to balance explaining what needs to be explained without patronising or irritating your readers. But you’ve gotta think about the readers, right?

The problem is that when you publish something, you’re addressing unknown numbers of readers with unknown sets of skills. It is not out of the realms of possibility that someone who cannot read a particular language might pick up this book. Especially as it purports to be on English texts. And it is not out of the realm of possibility that that person might not care enough about what the writer might be saying to work out their own translations. And I would argue that that’s not some terrible failing on the part of the reader. They probably have other stuff to do. They may not have all the skills and prior knowledge that the writer has, but they probably have some the writer doesn’t. The writer should have just added the translations they are clearly capable of doing.

Quality image editing there

Quality image editing there

I’ve chosen the translation issue because I think it’s the most visible symptom of a general sense I got from this book – that it was aimed at people with a particular range of skills and prior knowledge, and not at anyone else, and that it didn’t need to be like this because argh why. Very basic changes – including translations, explaining terminology – could have made it far more accessible. The ideas contained within it are powerful ones, and the texts discussed deserve to be better known than they currently are. This book was not the best means of communicating either, in my view. More than that: whether the writer meant to or not, they very clearly included some readers in their intended readership, and excluded others. Opening a book and finding that one cannot even read the main body of the text, let alone the longer quotations, without knowledge you don’t have or at least several dictionaries sends a clear message: that this book and this topic is not for you. I’m not saying that academic work should be ‘dumbed down’ to appeal to some cackhanded notion of a lowest common denominator, but that writing clearly and accessibly should be part of what we, as academics, do. I read the book. But I’m a stubborn 4th-year PhD student fairly sure of what I know, with some knowledge of the languages quoted and a long history of reading overcomplex prose. I would not have reacted the same way if I’d opened that book during my MA.

Gonna put this on the first page of my thesis.

Gonna put this on the first page of my thesis.

I griped about all this to a friend of mine who said, rather reasonably, that it was the publisher’s responsibility to make sure edits were made. I don’t, in honesty, think the publisher was particularly proactive. There were a LOT of typos. There were some funny formatting issues. In short, it didn’t appear that much editing had been done.

I know that publishing monographs is the thing you’re expected to do in order to have an academic career. But the idealist in me persists in believing that, as well as getting on that ol’ professional ladder and contributing to the REF and all that malarkey, you do this because you want to communicate ideas. Isn’t that what we do? Isn’t writing a communicative exercise? Do we value the demonstration of cleverness, or do we value what that cleverness lets us communicate? And when we communicate, do we just want to be talking to ourselves  and to people with similar skills and educational backgrounds to ourselves – or to people who know different things and bring different prior knowledge and understanding to their reading? In other words, are we gatekeeping our own little ivory towers, patrolling the boundaries of our own academic discourse and engagement, or are we opening the gates wide and whacking down the drawbridge and going ‘Hey! Come on in! We’ve slain that dragon you were worried about and we’re going to have a feast! You’re all invited’? It is possible I have run far too far with that metaphor.

My point is, though, that we have a choice, both in our own writing and how we approach others. I’ve fallen into the trap before of being intimidated by ‘difficult’ writing and the display of skills I’m less than confident in, when in actual fact many of the most accomplished people I know are fantastic at communicating complex ideas clearly and accessibly. It is not that hard to communicate things without being scary or patronising. It isn’t necessary, if you know something or can do something, to implicitly punish your readers for not knowing it or not being as good at it as you. Just help ’em out. Open things up. Your reader might be so fascinated by what you have to say, and/or by the texts you’re quoting, that they might go away and have a go at them themselves (I’ve done this more times than I can count). But you need to get them interested in the first place, not scare them off.

At the heart of this is the main issue you face as soon as you step beyond the boundaries of the familiar, whether into another discipline, or another vernacular, or simply into more detailed exploration of issues you haven’t investigated before. Basically, there are many things to know and a lot of skills to gain, and you will probably not be able to gain them all. My PhD bibliography is crammed with books that represent years of people’s lives – skilled, brilliant people. The notion that I could possible ‘master’ all the topics they work on is insane – Casaubon-from-Middlemarch-insane – and monumentally arrogant. The work of other scholars has opened up history and literature for me and made it possible for me to work on my little corner, and for me to be able to relate my little corner to bigger things. I’m madly grateful for the books in my bibliography (not to mention the people who have taught me, because that’s a whole other hugely long post) because everything I do, I’m able to do because people with levels of skill and knowledge that I don’t have have used those skills and communicated that knowledge in ways I can access.

Mainly because he is eminently attractive. I mean, c'mon.

Mainly because he is eminently attractive. I mean, c’mon.

In order for scholarly progress to be made we need to bring our various skills to the table and share them and use them, but in a way that aids our peers rather than scares them off. Scholarly progress – especially now that we’re all interdisciplinary – requires co-operation, and it also requires awareness that very few people can hold in their heads all the skills and knowledge they need to do such work to the level that they need them. You do better interdisciplinary and international work if you don’t try to do it all yourself but share your knowledge and expertise with others and encourage them to share in return. Academia does not consist of people with identical sets of skills – and academic writing should reflect that.