If You’re Reading This, You Might Be a Geek

Review of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers by Jessamyn Neuhaus, WVUP 2019

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I set out at the beginning of this academic year with a new professional goal: read more scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). But where to start? A couple of resources have been really helpful for me in identify books and articles to read in this area. One is HASTAC’s Progressive Pedagogy reading list, a crowd-sourced bibliography you can access here. Another great resource has been the higher education and pedagogy communities on Twitter. These resources embody the best in collegiality and collaboration: teaching is a social activity, and becoming better teachers should be too. So, in that spirit, I’m also going to be sharing my take on some of that work here, hopefully to continue the conversation. We at PALS would love to hear what you think if you read any of these books or try out their approaches in your classes, so let us know via social media or, even better, a guest post!

One of the books I’ve recently read is Jessamyn Neuhaus’s Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers, published in 2019 by West Virginia University Press. Initially, I bristled at the title. I’m not a geek! You’re not going to find me reading Kant or Clarissa at the beach, and instead of watching PBS, I’ll be tuned into whatever football or soccer game is on, beer in hand. And despite my interests in early American culture, I’m not listening to the Hamilton soundtrack before class, I’m listening to Lizzo or Cardi B.

I. Am. Not. A. Geek.

nerdsBut, even though Neuhaus takes advantage of recent trends to reclaim terms like “geek” and “nerd,” the image of the spectacled, socially awkward bookworm isn’t what she’s actually invoking. Neuhaus’s basic premise is this: our interest in what we study can get in the way of good teaching. What she does differently from other teachers and scholars is to frame that as a product of scholars’ inherent geekiness. Referring to “geeks,” “nerds,” and “introverts” as “GINs,” Neuhaus explains how the traits associated with these personality types can impact our teaching—both negatively and positively.

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Though Neuhaus never outright says it this way, my takeaway from the book after reading was that being a “geek” or a “nerd” simply means being so invested and immersed in the things that you enjoy the most and that matter to you most that you forget how to interact with other humans who don’t share that same level of interest. Do you have strong opinions about VAR? Do you have a favorite symphony conductor? Can you name all of the pandas born at Zoo Atlanta, in birth order? Congrats, you’re a geek. I am a geek. Apparently.

nerdzoneGeeky Pedagogyis as much about communication and introspection as it is about teaching, and this is what really appealed to me. As Neuhaus points out, all of the qualities of GINs benefit academics as we move through graduate school and then in our research as faculty—but then those same characteristics work against us in the classroom. Smart as we are, we often can’t read the room (or don’t think we need to), and that’s a communication problem. While I’ve seen this over and over, I had never really thought about it in these terms. As I’ve mentioned before in my writing here, my current position has a significant pedagogical support element: in various collaborative models, I work with faculty from disciplines as diverse as chemistry, music, economics, art history, and engineering in the first- and second-year writing and research courses that they teach. I’m both an embedded writing instructor and resource for the students and a pedagogical resource for the lead instructor. So, I’ve sat through my share of awkwardly silent classes and read my share of papers from students who struggle to find purpose and meaning in the assigned tasks. What Neuhaus reveals to her readers is that this isn’t a result of negligence or lack of care. Rather, it’s a case of an expert in a field projecting their own geeky interest in their subject onto their students.

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While I struggle with my share of these moments in my classes too, over a decade of experience teaching general education courses has gifted me with an extensive set of strategies and tools for responding to these moments. For those who haven’t had that experience, Neuhaus provides a great resource. The book is also great for a “tune up” when you find yourself teaching a new class, as I’m finding out now. This semester I’m teaching a new sophomore-level writing and research seminar and an upper-division literature survey, and in both cases I find myself making use of the lessons from Geeky Pedagogy. Week in and week out, I’m having to relearn how to communicate what I love about these new topics and texts; Geeky Pedagogy provides a structured approach for doing that.

Geeky Pedagogy is organized by chapters focused on Awareness, Preparation, Reflection, Support, and Practice. The chapter on Awareness is a personal favorite of mine. I identify deeply with this particular bit from that chapter:

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“As a highly cerebral person and as an introvert, I love my thoughts. Like many professional intellectuals, my brain is constantly teeming with ideas scurrying, burrowing, and rushing to and fro like brainy little hamsters.  We scholarly geeks, introverts, and nerds…frequently cope with college teaching stress by retreating into our minds and staying well out of the present moment.” (21)

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Especially in teaching new courses and new texts, it’s easy to “retreat” and avoid the hard work of communication. Neuhaus argues in her chapter on awareness though that the key to good teaching—to connecting and communicating with students—is to be in the moment. That awareness is, she says, what will allow us to adapt to the situation we are in because it plays to our strengths as GINs. Neuhaus sees teaching as an intellectual endeavor just like research, and urges us to approach our teaching like we do our research, turning our weakness into our strength: awareness allows us to see the situation, identify the problem, and then work to address that problem.

In the chapters that follow, Neuhaus helps us to rethink what it means to prepare for class, to reconsider how we process and use critique and failure to become better teachers, how we can find support, and how to put what we learn into practice. Throughout, she stresses that all of this is unique to our individual teaching contexts—and that might be the greatest strength of Geeky Pedagogy. As our contexts change, so should how we approach our teaching, and Geeky Pedagogy is a great resource to have when that happens.

Geeky Pedagogy is part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series edited by James M. Lang and published by the West Virginia University Press. Be sure to check out the other books in the series!

Book Review: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest book review from Caitlin Kelly. In this post, Kelly shares a review of The Slow Professor and addresses what the book offers regarding teaching for both full-time and precarious faculty. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University.

Update: PALS is pleased to have Caitlin on board as a full-time contributor!

Book Review: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

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The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber is a book I have been trying to get my hands on for months—when I first requested a copy at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester, it was checked out from every holding library in the OhioLink consortium. As I eagerly awaited my turn to read the book, I wondered whether or not it would live up to the hype. As the title suggests, the authors draw their inspiration from the Slow Movement, a resistance to globalization and corporatization, which “challenges the frantic pace and standardization of contemporary culture” (x). Through this approach, Berg and Seeber aim to “disrupt the corporate ethos of speed” (11) by prioritizing reflection, dialogue, and community.

Published by the University of Toronto Press in March 2016, The Slow Professor is a slim volume of roughly100 pages—a deliberate decision rooted in the strong ethical impulse that permeates their book. In the university, corporatization is evidenced by the rise of contingent and adjunct faculty positions and the erosion of tenure, something that Berg and Seeber acknowledge. As they write in the Preface,

Our guiding principles were for The Slow Professor to be useful, accessible to a variety of disciplines, and affirming. While we acknowledge the systemic inequities in the university, a slow approach is potentially relevant across the spectrum of academic positions. Those of us in tenured positions, given the protection that we enjoy, have an obligation to try to improve in our own ways the working climate for all of us. We are concerned that the bar is being continually raised for each generation of faculty, so the book is also addressed to graduate students. (ix)

While Berg and Seeber do write from a position of privilege, their advice is useful for tenure track and non-tenure track faculty alike. In contrast to the “how-to guides” that aim to help their readers find success in the traditional sense of attaining and maintaining a tenure track appointment, The Slow Professor offers readers guidance in “cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience” (x). Where the typical faculty development book gives us the equivalent of a “couch to 5k” plan, Berg and Seeber offer us something more akin to yoga: reflective, empowering, and focused on where we are now rather than where we think we need to be in the future. The Slow Professor entreats us to be more reflective about our work, and this is where the book distinguishes itself from the many faculty advice books already available.

One of the books that The Slow Professor might remind some readers of is Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members (2000), which also urges faculty to slow down, take time, and be more mindful. Even so, the tacit message in Boice’s book is that the endgame is success on the tenure track. Advice for New Faculty Members is divided into three sections— teaching, writing, and service—matching the three requirements of tenure-track positions. Comparing the approach to teaching between the two books is also telling. Where Berg and Seeber offer advice aimed at bringing pleasure back to teaching, Boice’s advice privileges time management and efficiency. One of the most valuable contributions that Berg and Seeber make is the way that they breathe new life into advice like Boice’s. For example, in their chapter on teaching they recommend his approach to preparing for class but where Boice cites self-discipline and practice as challenges to enacting his advice, Berg and Seeber speculate that the explanation may have more to do with a culture that makes us feel guilty about taking steps that allow us to enjoy teaching (46). This is not to say that a “survival guide” is not useful but The Slow Professor offers a refreshing alternative; despite the fact it is written by tenure track faculty, their advice is not solely in service of the tenure track model.

Over the course of the four chapters, introduction, and conclusion, Berg and Seeber apply the principles of the slow movement to time management, teaching, research, and collegiality. Each chapter situates an element of faculty life within the philosophy of the slow movement and offers small-scale strategies that individual faculty members can use in resisting the increasingly corporatized, administrative university environment. For example, the chapter “Pedagogy and Pleasure” breaks down a typical class meeting chronologically, offering advice at each stage of a class for making teaching more enjoyable. The authors first suggest that we make a conscious transition to class instead of rushing. During class, they urge us to not be afraid to laugh and have fun as well as to listen and create a dialogue even in the moments before class starts formally. In preparing for class, they urge us to think of the course as narrative, as a story we tell. In general, the advice offered in The Slow Professor is not groundbreaking; its value lies not in its originality but rather in the way that it is contextualized as resistance to the corporatization of the university. While contemplative in many regards, The Slow Professor is still well researched and well grounded in the literature on both faculty development and the future of higher education. The book is, the authors admit, “idealistic in nature” (ix) but that is, I think, exactly what makes it so refreshing and well worth the couple of hours it takes to read.

According to the University of Toronto Press website, a paperback edition will be released in May 2017.

Caitlin L. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. At Case Western, she teaches courses in the SAGES program and serves as a tutor in the Writing Resource Center. Caitlin’s research interests include Transatlantic religious and print cultures of the Long Eighteenth Century, women’s experience, the novel, and digital and multimodal pedagogy. You can follow her on Twitter at @CaitlinLeeKelly.