Teaching

Play-Doh cyborgs in the classroom

I’m currently sitting at my campus office desk with a wall of Play-Doh canisters in front of me from a classroom activity I did on Tuesday. I get a lot of awkward looks or looks of utter confusion when someone sees them.

I could take them home, but I like them here: it’s a conversation starter about one of the best classes I’ve had in my  teaching career.

Some context: the Play-Doh was for my Digital Lives class this term. For their final project, they have the option of creating a “critical media project.” But because a “critical media project” is something that they may never do outside of this class and have never done before, I needed to provide a workshop where they can can create a critical media response to a particular idea or content.

Enter Julie Funk, a colleague of mine that I have and continue to work with over at the Critical Media Lab. While I do make critical media projects, I do find it helpful to have a person who is not the instructor to lead a workshop on a new idea. Having a guest speaker breaks up the flow, adds another voice (which can be helpful if students think that I am the only person that does this stuff), and adds another kind of teaching style and knowledge that I do not have.

So, when I asked Funk how to run a short workshop on critical media projects, she suggested Play-Doh. And so I ordered a pack of Play-Doh.

Because the final unit of this course is the Cyborg unit, we worked together in making some questions that would have students reflect on Haraway’s conceptions of the cyborg and/or the short anime film, Blade Runner 2022: Black Out. Here were the slides of possible questions they focused on:

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The students haven’t read Haraway, and I don’t expect them to. Rather, I have selected quotes from Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and dwell and elaborate on these concepts. For a 1st year course, it’d be difficult to have them read and then process the whole essay while also focusing on certain aspects of the essay. So far, focusing on certain aspects of Haraway’s essay and connecting it to certain images and quotes from Blade Runner 2022 have been a success: students are grasping those concepts of how cyborgs defy unity, perfection, origins, and completion. Oh, and it’s not just Blade Runner. Next week is Joshua Whitehead Full-metal Indigiqueer, and the week after that is Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer emotional picture.

But anyways, I digress.

The result of these activities were fantastic. Groups focused on factory farming,  the eye in Blade Runner and the meaning it has not only in the anime but in cyborg fictions,  our anxiety over social media accounts, government pet surveillance, and technological bacteria that then got them thinking through medical access and class.

It was a fantastic class, and I just loved to see not only how much the students enjoyed this activity but also how much they engaged with the introductory concepts surrounding the cyborg.

Below are the projects with a short caption description of what they are. Thanks again to Julie Funk would did a phenomenal job facilitating the workshop. Enjoy:

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This group saw a future where cats were used by the government as “spies.” They were sold as pets, but their main purpose was to spy on individuals. This cat’s name in particular is Lucifer. The group was thinking through privacy and data and surveillance.
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This group was thinking through factory farming. The pig on the left was “natural” while the pig on the right was “synthetic.” The synthetic pig was designed so that there would be “more meat per square unit” and perceived as “perfect.” For this group, they were thinking of the lumpy, imperfect pig as the cyborg.

 

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This group was thinking through the multiple social media accounts we appropriate on a daily basis, and the kinds of anxiety it can produce. They chose Squidward from SpongeBob because they felt he represented that kind of anxiety (and he’s also a squid with multiple arms). 
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Another group also did an eye, but they had discussions around how “eyes” are sometimes seen as “windows into the soul.” And they used this object to think through this concept within Blade Runner 2022. 
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This group made electronic bacteria that would be injected into a person in order to keep the body healthy. Julie pushed to group to think through access and class: who would have access to this? The group’s response: the upper class. The group was really into this since some of them are in Science and got them really thinking through access and medical care. 
Teaching

Last term gave me a teaching high (and the course evaluations only sent me higher)

So it’s been almost a month since my Superhero class has ended, and, for the most part, I feel really good about it. The class discussions were always amazing, and the work that students produced floored me every time – they gave a whole new meaning to going “above and beyond.” I also challenged myself in other areas – by sharing my mental health and having discussions of mental health in classroom, interrupting the scheduled material. I also pushed for an intersectional composition of the course reading list and approaches to the reading list, while still being accessible to first year students (or upper year students new to these concepts). And while some students wanted more “mainstream superheroes” than I included (Superman, Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel, Batman, and the deaf issue of Hawkeye) or more historically canonical explorations of the hero (like Gilgamesh) , a lot of students really appreciated the focus on comics and the diversity of the material. And the criticisms I received were rather constructive, giving me a better idea of how students, and in particular STEM students, understand Humanities-related assignments and rubrics.

So, I’d just like to share a few of the comments and then comment upon them, a sort of reflection on my teaching. Let’s start of with a couple that comment on diversity of the material taught:

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I’m not sure how exactly I “subverted traditional lecturing,” but perhaps it’s the combination of including “non-traditional” works and not solely lecturing the entire class. And while the one student, echoing a few others, would like some kind of traditional works included, the benefits of including the kinds of non-traditional/canonical works outweigh the wants of canonical texts. Nevertheless, if I were to teach this course again, I may consider including one or two mythical texts. The reason why I didn’t that term was simply the fact that I’m not familiar with Gilgamesh or Beowulf, and it’s been some time since I’ve read ancient mythical origins. But overall, I was floored by these comments and others liked it – to know that the efforts I put into composing this class were appreciated by the majority of the class because it introduced them to new perspectives and texts they never heard of was so awarding.

There a few that echoed “more structured guideline for assignments,” though. In the last two years, I’ve been trying hard to include a detailed rubric and guideline, especially keeping in mind that the majority of students I do teach at Waterloo are in STEM. While the Superhero course had a few humanities students, there were a lot of students in Science. So I found their feedback instructive. Most science students said that my feedback was very instructive and helped them become better writers, but the comments in the course evaluations wanted more clearer guidelines and/or expectations:

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Throughout the past couple of years, I’ve been editing and re-editing my rubric and similar assignments, looking over others to how they construct their rubrics and their guidelines. Although this year I did my best to tie my feedback to the language of the rubric, it seemed that students had issues with the language of the rubric. So, my attempts to point to the rubric wasn’t as effective. Going forward, I’ll continue to edit and re-edit my rubrics and assignment guidelines. While it’s difficult to reach out to all learners, it doesn’t hurt to keep trying to create an inclusive rubric/guidelines.

The rest of the feedback remained largely positive, with a lot of comments reflecting on how they were able to connect my lessons to real-world issues and to their own lives:

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With these comments, and considering the evaluations in total, I am seriously touched – I cried with joy, and was so happy that the labour and vulnerability I put into the entire course was acknowledged, appreciated, and had students take something away from it. I understand that I am in a more privileged position in taking these risks, so I don’t want to over-exaggerate these accomplishments. And I also want to acknowledge the labour of my students, and how they also exhibited courage and vulnerability in engaging with the excellent discussions we had. I feel that the class was a very serendipitous event that was so fruitful and instructive both for myself and for my students. I owe my students a lot of thanks for their comments and for the productive and inclusive space that they helped me create!

Teaching

Discussing Mental Health in the Classroom

Last week, I did something that was very difficult for me. And even writing about it is challenging for me, so I feel this post will be short and/or not articulated well. But here we go. Last week, in class, I addressed the recent suicide on Waterloo’s campus, opened up about my own mental health history, and discussed with the class about mental health in relation to campus and strategies to manage and/or alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.

It took me over a week to do this. And while I don’t like excuses, here’s what I was going through: When the news of the suicide happened, I was re-playing Life is Strange because I was teaching it the following week. And in Life is Strange, a student, depending on your actions in the game, commits suicide by jumping off of a residence building. In my play-through of Life is Strange, the student did die and I had to put the controller down and step away. As an instructor, I was deeply concerned with how this may trigger students, especially with the recent suicide. Although I did give out warnings to my students, the timing of playing this game was not good. But I also didn’t want to not talk about it, because I didn’t want to create a stigma around mental health issues. But as a person, I was also triggered by the event because I had a friend last semester commit suicide (they were not a student). I was conflicted, wasn’t thinking straight, and paralyzed in moving on with everything as normal.

On the Monday lecture, my anxiety was high. And somewhere in the lecture, I opened up about my friend because I realized I couldn’t talk about Kate, the character in Life is Strange who commits suicide. Throughout the rest of the lecture, I rambled, I got emotional, and I can tell that the atmosphere in the room got really heavy. So, on Wednesday, I decided that I needed to address the recent suicide on campus and to just talk about mental health, whether in relation to the game or to the culture on campus or to mental health in general.

And Wednesday happened. After a group presentation, I sat down and apologized to the class for not, as their instructor, addressing the recent suicide on campus and reminding them that my class is meant to be a safe and accommodating space (something I open every class with in the beginning of the term). I then opened up to the class about my mental health history, something I do in private one-on-ones with students who come to me but hardly in front of the whole class. And I explained why I delayed in addressing the suicide, though it shouldn’t be considered an excuse. We then just talked, first about campus culture and how certain aspects of campus culture contributes to high levels of stress and depression and anxiety. And then, students started sharing how they manage their stress levels, or how they handled grieving, or how they managed their depression and/or anxiety. No one got into specifics, but they still shared these strategies of managing day-to-day life and their workloads.

It honestly was the most beautiful moments in my teaching history.

Afterwards, I got a number of emails thanking me or some students came to my office hours to thank me for that class. And to my surprise, I was the only one of their lecturers that addressed the recent suicide. I realize, however, that I am in a privileged position as a white, CIS male, and that not everyone can open up about their mental health to the class. It was a very scary thing to do, and I almost didn’t do it. So, I realize and respect others who may not have addressed the suicide in their classes for their own personal reasons, and I hope students understand that point. Students did, however, express frustration that their classes went on as if what was happening out in the world wasn’t happening or didn’t have any influence in the university. Their frustration (and the confusion around this) is completely valid as well.

Moving forward, this has really made me think of ways in which my syllabus can communicate the safety and accommodation that make students feel comfortable in my classroom. It has also got me thinking of how to approach and teach texts that deal with mental health (amongst other topics that can trigger students). I’m glad that my students reached out to me to let me know I did the right thing, but I think there is more than can be done in the structuring of the course, its texts, and the assignments to make students always aware that my classroom is a safe and accommodating space. Of course, as of right now, this falls on the instructor, which is labour-intensive and exhaustive. So I am looking forward to future support that will be given (there are talks) and continuing listening to students.