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Teaching and Learning as Paying Attention

Last semester, I taught a book and an author I have long loved and studied, but haven’t been able to engage much with in a classroom setting: I am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière (yes, he’ll come up a lot in this space). The book is a meditation on identity, authorship, creativity, and memory. I knew it would be unlike just about anything the Introduction to Literature students had ever read.

One way into literature that I like to introduce students to is to look for patterns. You might not know what it means, but when an author keeps coming back to a theme or an image or some other noticeable repetition, then we, as readers, should stop and take a look. What is also interesting to me, as an educator and scholar, is how we each notice different things, based on our own embodied self and experience.

One pattern that I hadn’t noticed in the book was how the author refused coffee and only drank tea in the narrative. A number of students picked up on it and pointed it out. They weren’t sure what it meant, thought about the connection to Japanese culture, but were stumped beyond that. What they didn’t (and really couldn’t) know what that the author’s grandparents lived on a coffee plantation and one of his other autobiographical novels was called An Aroma of Coffee.

So then we looked at the scenes where he refused coffee. Each one was an instance of his radicalized identity being emphasized in some way as a Haitian living in Montreal. We looked at the scene before and after it. We noted the significance we get from only reading the text but then also knowing how the reference may fit into his larger canon.

Pay attention, the author is telling us. This might be significant. Take notice, take note.

These moments of shared revelation (I told my students honestly that I hadn’t noticed the coffee vs tea and we were going to try to make meaning of it together) happened quite a bit in this class. I was taken to task in some of my course evaluations for being “disorganized” but really I was trying to model a version, my version, of trying to make meaning. Learning is messy. Often it begins as a disorganized mess, and we weave our way into something more meaningful.

I am conscious, as an educator, that one of my responsibilities is to introduce students to things they may not have noticed before and to try and start making meaning from them. This semester, I’m teaching Digital Studies 101, Introduction to Digital Studies. I was thinking about the class just as Hook and Eye was blogging and tweeting about #inclusivesyllabus, a challenge to take a hard look at who and what we teach in our classes.

And so I made the commitment to try and assign a majority of women and people of color authors, scholars, and activists in the course. You can see the full syllabus here, but it is a work in progress. This is what I told my students the class will be about:

The theme of this class is going to be Absence, Invisibility, Erasure. We will be focusing specifically on interrogating what is not seen, not recognized, marginalized, and even silenced through the digital. We will also be looking at approaches that address these gaps and lacks. 

The first act was to assign the Afrofuturist novel Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. What does Afrofuturism have to do with digital studies? We’re going to find out (a lot actually, but I’m still formulating these ideas and reading all the things), but this particular novel (among many other things) provokes us to imagine the digital from a different cultural heritage and perspective.

And I built out from there. The suggested readings and resources for the modules will consist of a number of different sources and perspectives, including Model View Culture, Auntie Pixelante, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and others.

(In other news, I need to get my links organized…)

I want these discussions to be varied and to have these voices brushing up against each other, to notice the differences, the spaces, the gaps, the silences. To have the students ask, if they have never thought of these issues, why not? If they have never heard these perspectives, why not? And what does that mean? And what will they do?

I believe very deeply in empowering students to take ownership of their learning. But I also believe in my role as someone who facilitates a space where they are confronted with the limits of their knowledge, of their perspective, of their worldview. This class, then, for me, is an opportunity for all of us to pay attention, notice, and then create and learn.

Let’s see how it goes.

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  1. When I teach seminars, I try to model how disciplinary practitioners approach issues. It works better in upper level seminars than FYs, who may not be ready to recognize what the modeler is doing. Not to discourage you–I still do it, but with FYs I try to explain more about what I am doing and why. Of course, some students just want the facts, ideally in a bulleted list for memorization. Those students are likely to always see real learning as disorganized.