Category Archives: Teaching

Cuba-Canada Connections

Last year Arlequino and I attended a conference and gave a teaching presentation at the University of Holguin, Cuba. This year we did it again. The experience was even better this year. Why? Partly because we took the kids with us. Partly because there were more Canadian academics with us–seven professors in total. Partly because we were better prepared, having learned from last year’s experience how to pitch our material to a group of really interested Cuban professors and students who have few resources in Canadian studies and little extant knowledge about our topics. Probably the best thing that happened was that we finally understood that the books we should be sending are primary texts–novels, anthologies, works of poetry and drama (in multiple copies), not the critical texts we have been sending or taking with us. A presentation by a Cuban professor made clear to us how difficult it is for their students to be interested in Canadian literature when they have no books. Nor can they photocopy the ones they do have. Photocopiers can’t be fixed when they break down; maybe there is a shortage of paper; maybe the cost of toner cartridges is just too much. It is such a useful reminder of how much we have and how much we take for granted. I commented last year in a blog post how Cuban universities, professors, and students are much the same as academics everywhere. We all share the love of learning. But our work and study contexts are so very different. Ever optimistic and enthusiastic, and incredibly resourceful, Cuban academics nevertheless work in buildings that are crumbling, desks and chairs are rickety or broken, air conditioners don’t work. Even the plumbing was not functioning this time. No working toilets. Yeah.

It’s good to get off the resort. Even the bus ride into the city is revealing. Cubans riding horses and donkeys as often as in old cars and makeshift buses. Goats grazing in fields that are dry. Houses in various stages of construction or demolition. Farms producing the fruits that are in abundance at the resort restaurants. After the teaching day we were generously taken for lunch at a nearby restaurant. The lunch conversation revealed more important realities: for example, the Cubans are not permitted to buy seafood at the markets, as it all goes to the tourists. The restaurant was a local place, but since it converted its business to the convertible peso (the tourist currency) few ordinary Cubans can afford to eat there.

Playa Esmeralda was as pristine as ever. The sea was warm and inviting. The whole experience was divine. With useful reality checks.

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Field trips for English students!

If we were anthropologists or water specialists or architects we’d often be doing our research and teaching elsewhere. We’d do field work. We’d pay site visits. We’d gather data from the environment. English students, however, tend to fairly bound to university classrooms, desks in offices and libraries, or inside their own heads. So whenever I can dream up a field trip for English graduate students in my courses I do it. And I’m not talking about a trip to Stratford to see a Shakespearean play (though there’s nothing wrong with that, of course). Over the years I have managed just four field trips.

1. Ste. Marie Among the Hurons. This was in a course about spatialization and Canadian texts. We read books that created verbal maps of different parts of Canada at different points in history. We began by reading excerpts from The Jesuit Relations, so we made the trek to the place from whence most of the missives were sent. Not only did we tour the site, talk to the re-enactors who play priests, donnees and Indians (Wyandot) we talked to the archivist who showed us originals and made us aware of the other unpublished texts written by the Jesuits that are held at Ste. Marie Among the Hurons. Mind blowing.

2. In another course that connected texts and places we read Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion, which is set primarily in Toronto. The novel maps some offbeat parts of Toronto, including the iconic R.C. Harris Water Purification Plant. So, of course, we did the Michael Ondaatje walking tour of Toronto, complete with a visit to the Riverdale library, a stroll across the Bloor Street viaduct, a tour of the water plant and lunch on the Danforth in a Greek restaurant.

3. A course in African Canadian literature culminated in a trip to North Buxton, Ontario, site of a Historical Museum and location (in the wider area) of a once large and vibrant African Canadian community. It’s not gone, of couse, just rather smaller than it used to be. This was one terminus of the Underground Railroad, but as we learned in that course black history (and literature) in this country is much more extensive than what is popularized. In the museum we saw a model of a slave ship, the printing press upon which  Mary Ann Shadd’s work was printed, a Ghanaian mask that had made it over the middle passage and all sorts of domestic objects that spoke to life in the community. Josiah Henson’s house, which is a historic site, was, unfortunately closed. Timing is everything.

Today, after the students have met each other to peer review drafts of their final essays, we are going on another field trip, this one closer to home. In the Waterloo City Museum, which is tucked away inside Conestoga Mall, there is an exhibit of Scott Chantler’s work Two Generals, which we have read in the autobiography course that is just winding up today.

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Chantler came to talk to the class the week we studied his work–which was brilliant!–and now we are going to look at artifacts that are associated with it.

Field trips for English students. Fun, informative, informal. But teaching opportunities nonetheless.

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In the chill mid winter

Minus 14 today and it feels like Minus 27. Lucky me I didn’t have any meetings scheduled for today so I can work at home. This is beginning to feel like a luxury. When I was just a professor, I had a flexible schedule. Although not the practice at all universities or in all departments, it’s generally acceptable for faculty members in my shop to work wherever they want to when they are not in the classroom or in meetings. After all, we’re constantly connected anyway, living in the cloud, and if someone really needs to talk to me rather than sending an email s/he is free to phone my mobile—which is always with me. So I’m “there” even when I’m not. The work all gets done. Because I’m teaching this term I also need to carve out some time and quiet space to get the readings done—which is impossible if I’m in my office. Even after all these years I still have to re-read every single book and article every single time. I need the prose to be fresh in my mind and I need to be able to discover new things about the works I’m teaching, even if I’ve taught them several times before. But of course, I’m also constantly refreshing reading lists and that means I not only read and reread but also write lecture notes.

This is what today looks like so far, written from mi casa:

• Constantly check and answer emails.

• Write emails on topics such as scheduling meetings, requesting information, reviewing a new graduate program proposal….

• Pick up voicemail message remotely and phone the person back to consult about an academic grievance case.

• Read this book, which I’m teaching next week. It’s good. I recommend it.

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• Make gulaschsuppe which we will eat for dinner tonight.

• Throw a load of laundry in.

• Cuddle a cat or two.

• Check out the websites for a upcoming trip to Washington, DC—The Museum of the American Indian, The Library of Congress, and TripAdvisor for hotel recommendations.

• Update calendar, marking off the time when I’ll be at conferences—in Cuba in April and Puerto Rico in July (yes, I love that my work takes me to interesting places).

All of this before noon.

I have been thinking a lot about how important our workspaces are. While I love my big bright office at the university I can only do certain kinds of work there. Sometimes I just need to be alone, inside my own head, reading and absorbing, thinking. I know that this work is invisible to others—those who think professors are spending their work-at-home days napping or watching movies. I can’t do without this quiet time. And if dinner is ready when Arlequino gets home then all the better.

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The pleasures of marking

That’s right. There’s a certain kind of marking that I really like: reading a strong PhD student’s dissertation chapters. That’s what I’m doing today. At home. Rainy day. Coffee nearby. Homemade soup for lunch. Cats asleep. And a really, really engaging chapter to read. One that provokes, explores, takes risks, argues, illustrates, illuminates. . .the best kind of academic writing. I find myself agreeing with but also disagreeing with some of the critic’s statements–which is a good thing because the ideas and claims are not wrong but provocative and worth arguing about.

As an editor (which is a primary role of the dissertation supervisor) I find the places where more explanation/discussion would make the point clearer. I read paragraphs that should engage with work done by other critics–work that I know about but the student (by this time really a junior academic) might not know about. I correct typos and grammar. I note when stronger transitions need to be written. I can point out where the logic is wonky. This is how I can be helpful.

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I don’t know if I’m THAT good, but I’ve done a lot of editing or other people’s work. Although it can sometimes be tedious and is pretty much always time consuming, it is a real pleasure to see another person’s brain at work. A privilege, even.  And in this case, reading this final chapter of a very good dissertation, I also get to see a young scholar surpass my expertise in this particular area of research. S/he now owns it, at least for a while, and that’s wonderful and makes me proud.

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rethinking how we learn

At a recent meeting, a colleague mentioned a book that the Dean and Associate Deans are all now reading. I got to it this week. The book is Cathy N. Davidson’s Now You See It, a study of how the way in which our brains have been trained have kept us basically stuck in a 19th/20th century industrial model of education. Our students are not engaged by our current modes of instruction, so they don’t always do well in school, and their various talents are not nurtured. Top-down education, where the instructor knows everything, students learn what they are told to learn, and then are tested on how well they have remembered what they have been told to learn–this model has been essentially unchanged for decades. It produces workers who are obedient and trained for singular tasks. But they are not the workers that we need in today’s world.

The internet and the World Wide Web have changed everything.

People–and young people most of all–now are in control of what information they access (even if they are not necessarily very good critics of what they find online). They determine when, how, and where they access information, be it a YouTube video, a scientific article, or a wiki. They are used to surfing, browsing, mashing up, crowd sourcing, downloading, uploading, customizing, and sharing. They are more likely to work collaboratively than singularly. They are gamers, writers, musicians, communicators in a wired world that is their natural habitat.

So when they come to school and we tell them to stop doing what they are doing (put away computer, smart phone, tablet) and do what we did when we were their age and the world was different (sit still, listen to the teacher, write notes, write tests) IT MAKES NO SENSE.  We’ve all faced this struggle already. Students swear that they are paying attention to our classroom activities, even if they are also checking Facebook or responding to a text message. And maybe they are.  Davidson brings “brain science” into the equation to argue that they are probably right. More than that, we should all be learning how to take advantage of multitasking. This is the way to work in the information age, writes Davidson.

We can retrain our brains. We can engage our students by understanding better how their brains are working (we have known for some time, for instance, that they are a lot more visually literate than a previous generation). We can remodel classrooms and assignments, emphasizing more collaboration among students, designing projects based on problem solving, encouraging students to search for material online, as well as in the library, making the classroom less hierarchical and more driven by student curiosity.

These students will also be a different kind of employee. Plugged in but not necessarily at the office, working across timezones and geographies with colleagues around the world, working in teams and groups towards common goals, problem solving, researching, mashing up…Many of our youth are already working this way.

Older folks like me have to get with the program. Okay, I’m not a luddite. Look! I blog! Look! I’m on Twitter! Look! I love Facebook! But in the classroom I’m an old-fashioned teacher who sets rather old-fashioned assignments. I don’t know how to do it differently, but I think I have to try.

One of Davidson’s suggestions for how to learn differently? Video games. Simulation games. Multiple player, immersive, goal oriented, skill set building, collaborative. Um, okay. I’ll try one. I already tried Second Life but it didn’t really “take.” I had fun dressing my avatar up and flying around, but I didn’t really know how to do the higher order things, like actually meet and talk to people. And I am not at all interested in the violent “shooter” games. So, are there any suggestions out there?

Have you read Davidson’s book? What did you think?

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Back from the Beach

Actually, we didn’t spend all that much time at the beach; I just like the alliteration!

I have returned from a conference/teaching event at the University of Holguin, Cuba. This was the sixth International seminar on Canadian Studies, but the first one I had been to. Hopefully it will not be the last, as it was a wonderful experience. I love being a cultural ambassador for Canada. I love being a visiting professor. I love that so many people around the world are interested in Canada and in Canadian literature.

It was a mad scramble to get ready for it. Classes ended; marking began. Marking ended; I put my house on the market. Somehow I managed to write two presentations and make two PowerPoints all in a mad dash. It reminded me of being in grad school and power-writing essays over a weekend!

On the teaching day I delivered a course on critical approaches to Métis literatures, outlining some of the current debates in this particular scholarly field. My conference paper the next day was on place-based identities in Mėtis literature where I focused on theorizing the connection between particular geographical locations and Mėtis stories, including life stories. I was a bit nervous because Clément Chartier, the President of the Métis National Council, was there, but apparently I didn’t say anything too silly or completely wrong when we chatted over lunch one day. It was actually great to meet President Chartier. Had to go to Cuba to do so!

Cuba itself has changed a lot since the last time I was there in (I think) 1999. There was more variety of food, more consumer goods to buy, more openness to entrepreneurship and to Cubans owning small businesses. American dollars no longer circulate, but there are two different Cuban pesos: the CUC, which is what we foreigners pay with, and non-convertible Cuban pesos, which the folks use. One CUC is equivalent to about 25 non-convertible pesos, so that tells you something about wages and cost of living. Cubans who work in the tourist industry have access to CUCs and the goods that they can buy, so clearly those are much-desired jobs. But, in true socialist style, tips earned by workers at resorts are pooled so that everyone gets the same. Tourists ride in fancy air-conditioned buses. Ordinary Cubans take cranky old buses, ride in old cars (some as old as the 1940s), or use horses and buggies to get around. Beaches were as pristine and gorgeous as ever, and the people are truly hospitable.

As for the academic context, here are some observations:

  • Cuban students and professors are passionately interested in all things Canadian.
  • They desperately need books and other resources in Canadian Studies.
  • Cuban universities look and feel a lot like universities anywhere: students look like students; professors look like professors.
  • The weather is better than it is here, but some of the buildings are in disrepair.
  • I will never again take air-conditioned university classrooms for granted.
  •  It is possible to show a perfectly adequate PowerPoint presentation projected onto a white piece of cloth.
  • People were so grateful to have Canadians come to teach them, to talk to them, and to mentor them that it truly felt like an honour to be there.

Thank you to Roxanne Rimstead (Universite de Sherbrook) for inviting us!

Here are a few photos: Arlequino has more and maybe he’l send me some 🙂

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Looking forward

One more week plus a day of teaching.

Some essays to grade.

One exam to set and mark.

And then this term’s teaching work is over. Or at least at my home university.

In April Arlequino and I will be going to the University of Holguin, Cuba. We’ll each give a conference paper–mine will be on ‘located identity’ in Metis literature in Canada. And the following day we’ll lead a teaching workshop for faculty and students, along with another Canadian colleague. Who knew that Cubans were so interested in Canadian literary and theatre studies!? But I’m sure delighted that they are.

Here’s where Holguin is located.

As you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about Canadian literary studies overseas, and I’m thrilled to be part of an international community of scholars and students who are interested in, ahem, one of the world’s great literatures. Too bad so many Canadians neither know nor care about Canadian literature. All of us who teach in the field have heard the complaints: it’s boring; it’s all about nature or small town life (and therefore boring); it’s second-rate; it’s only of local interest; it cannot compete with British or American literature…. The “cultural cringe,” as the Aussies call it, is still very much present in our society. But I tell you: when students actually read and research Canadian literature they are (mostly) excited and proud. For outsiders, the sophistication of Canadian literature is self-evident.

So, I’m happy to be going to Cuba, as I was happy to go to Croatia last year. Good things are happening both here and abroad, and it’s nice to be in environments where one’s work is appreciated. The promise of swimming in the Caribbean and sipping Mojitos is kind of sweet as well.

Did I mention that I’m taking Spanish lessons? Soy canadiense y me siento orgulloso!

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