Today, as many days in most of my classes, I presented a question, and asked students to come up with an answer in conversation with the person or people around them: talk to your neighbor.
In lots of teacher-training this technique is known as “pair share” or “turn-and-talk,” and it has a bunch of purposes. One is, in a lecture course (especially a 200 person(!) lecture like the one I gave today), it breaks up the monotony of the lecturer speaking, which makes everyone more attentive to what’s going on. Another is that, from a Freirean perspective, it reorients the classroom towards the students as producers – and not just passive consumers – of knowledge. Yet another is that it is generative: students are likely to come up with answers that the professor may not have anticipated, or to bring up issues that are unclear in how students understand the topic. Today, our first turn-and-talk did all of these.
But another reason that I think this is a significant little teaching tactic is that it makes students speak to one another, and to meet people they might not know. They will talk about the question and then – I hope – they will talk about something entirely else. This gives an opportunity to shy students, people who don’t know anyone in the class, foreign students, and probably a bunch of folks I haven’t thought of to have a conversation instead of going from alone to passive listening to out-the-door. This is also important for a group of young people who tend to head for their phones when they are in an uncomfortable social setting; I concede that this may be a generational difference but I stand by it.
And so, in the service of pair-share, I do something that I think a lot of students don’t like: I wander around the room and make sure that everyone is participating. If someone is just sitting there, or typing away at their computer, or messing with their phone (which I expressly ask people to put all the way away), I encourage them, in a passing and friendly way, to talk to a person or join a group near them. Oh – do you mind if she joins you? How about you two work together? Can you move closer to them?
And I get that some of them might not like it. For some, I bet it can come off as meddling, as condescending, as not trusting a room of adults to do what is assigned, as not respecting their autonomy as students. I bet some of them roll their eyes when I walk away.
But I also think it is my responsibility to not always do what they like, or what makes them most comfortable. If I believe that teaching and learning are relational, which I do, then I have to intervene in the classroom to get people talking, relating. Even if they don’t want to relate at that moment, I think it’s good for us to connect. And maybe some people do want to connect, but they don’t know how; in fact, I think that is becoming more and more likely.
I don’t claim have research on whether this does what I think it does, but I have a pretty good hunch, and sometimes that’s what we have to go on.
I read about writing, perhaps more than I should, when it’s the writing I ought to be doing. In the end, all the writing advice – academic or not, pedagogical or not – is pretty much the same: write every day. Write all the time. You’re not a writer unless you write, and you don’t write unless it is a habit.
There’s some tinkering to be done around the edges: write when you first wake up; make sure your writing diet is accompanied by movement (running and swimming are favorites); write at the same time every day; keep a journal; break it up into discrete chunks; make small deadlines; turn off the internet; one project at a time. The list goes on.
I’m trying to write every morning, in a practice I established this past summer. It’s hard. I forget. I feel guilty.
But when I manage it, particularly when I get there for many days in a row, it does something. It changes the brain. Things start to flow.
As I was feeling pretty confident about this, I tried to see what effect it would have on my students, just in a small way. Indeed, the pedagogical research says a different version of the same thinking: students improve their writing (and thus, their thinking), more than anything, by writing.*
In my graduate course this term, we wrote for about ten minutes at the start of each class, by hand, based on a prompt I gave. Students did not hand in the writing. Prompts went from the future-facing – how will the people who present you with your lifetime achievement award talk about your work? – to the very immediate – what’s on your mind today? The point was to establish that flow.
We went on like this for 12 weeks, and yesterday I asked them how it went. Based on their (very thoughtful!) feedback, this is how I will proceed in future terms:
– I will continue with this exercise, at least in some courses. This is a useful transition between the noise of outside and the inner space of the classroom. We all need a reminder of the value of quiet. In order to work, I think, this practice must be consistent.
– We will start smaller. Ten minutes is a long time to write (by hand) especially if you are new to this, and really especially if you haven’t chosen it for yourself. Maybe five minutes, and maybe I increase over the term. Not sure.
– Prompts should relate, in some way, to the course, even if in an abstract way. Next term, I’ll teach qualitative methods, where the governing question is how do we know what we know? Prompts should relate to big ideas about the course, and their education.
– At the same time, I’ll make prompts optional. If the point is to focus the mind, some of us need a prompt and some need to shake out our feelings: our distractions, our anxieties. This is how it works for me, and that was true for some students, too. No prompt would be too stressful for many, but it has to be optional.
If they aren’t handing it in, what does it matter?, you may ask. My hunch is, students generally want to feel like they are doing what is being asked, even if the option not to do it is part of that.
– Finally, I ought to write too. I have been using that time to set up for what comes next in class, but in order to align the energy in the room, theirs with mine, we have to practice together.
* In fact, marking papers up, while it seems intuitively like ‘good teaching,’ tends to have a lesser effect than writing more often. I am still working on believing this.
To the instructor
To the instructor who is heading into their first-ever day of teaching, and it has been their dream to teach forever and they are so excited they can barely contain themselves,
And to the instructor who is heading into his first-ever day of teaching with a pit in his stomach over the unfinished syllabus or the broken photocopier or the simple fear that he is doing it wrong or the students won’t like him,
And to the instructor who is over it and wants to go home,
And to the instructor who wants to keep caring but isn’t paid her worth, while students pile on with questions, both academic and personal,
And to the instructor who is on top of their game and inspires and knocks everyone’s socks off,
And to the instructor who gives it his all and just wishes the academy cared a little more about teaching,
And to the instructor who has a sick family member or a friend in need, and just can’t be present,
And to the instructor who can’t win because they have a foreign accent, or brown skin, or is a woman, or too gay or too butch or too femme, or doesn’t fit the bill however,
And to the instructor who is still freaked out by that one awful teaching eval from last year,
And to the instructor who is teaching outside of what she knows because she wants to serve the needs of the department,
And to the instructor who can’t get the f*&king projector to turn on, or showed up in the wrong classroom, or doesn’t have a dry erase marker,
And to the instructor who is new at this, and still learning,
I know you.
Some years I have been you, sometimes more than one at a time.
Today, on the first day, so much expectation and anticipation all in one room. You look great. You sound great. It’s ok to be tired. It’s ok to be unsure. And it’s also ok to do great. The term will go, and it will even go well sometimes, and then it will end. And you will have added to the practice of teaching, and some part of that will be meaningful. That’s all we can do, is practice.
 I use the word ‘instructor’ in recognition that college and university courses are taught by professors sometimes, but more often by grad students, adjuncts, and the precariously employed, all of whom are fundamental to the university’s mission of education.
To begin, I feel completely unqualified to write on this subject, and also obligated to put words to it. What do I know about the long trajectory of US immigration policy, the contemporary politics of Central America and Mexico, or the extent of political organizing on/around the US Mexico border? Not much, especially compared to many thoughtful scholars, including Jenna Loyd and Alison Mountz, or Patricia Ehrkamp.
But this is also the moment – the moment of asylees having their children kidnapped by the US government, of concentration camps on the border, of racial incitement by the administration against immigrants – when it is incumbent upon us to speak, even if it is not enough. In saying I’m going to to speak up even though I don’t feel qualified, we ask our communities to hold us accountable to do more.
As a scholar, I have been thinking for a long time about persistence. In my own work, I think about the persistence of things called ‘public amenities’ in the landscape. In turn, I also think about the persistence of ideas that seem outdated, or those which seemed pretty good but disappeared. And lately I think about the persistence of political actors whose cruel actions have overwhelmed many of us as of late. What combinations of power, influence, organizing, and inertia cause things to stick around? For good and for ill.
Last year, I wrote about the current US administration’s call to cut the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB – home of PBS and NPR). I noted then that the proposals were frustrating but not surprising: indeed, they had been hanging around in the CATO Institute’s Handbook since 1995. That is, the plan to cut all that remains of the meager federal funding for arts and culture in the US has persisted for at least 24 years through an independent organization with lots of wealth and ties to power. The policy has been waiting in the wings. It gets published and re-published every couple years, as its supporters wait for the right political moment to roll it out. Persistence.
So as I have been following the current administration’s actions on immigration at the US-Mexico border, I have been thinking about the persistence of ICE, an agency that is relatively new to the federal law enforcement landscape, having been established after 9/11. Before it was added to the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, pieces of ICE came from the US Customs Service, and Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), among others.
This got me thinking about some time I spent in new Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005 – 6. While there, I mostly cooked for the Clinical Staff at Common Ground Health Clinic. I also handed out respirator masks and did some medical interpreting in a weekly mobile clinic for the affiliated Latino Health Outreach Project (LHOP). (The organization, which no longer exists, was formed in when two independent volunteers began going out to give tetanus shots to Latino migrant workers doing demolition jobs, and evolved to provide other basic medical services in downtown New Orleans and in a suburban church.)
What appears here is from an email newsletter I sent to my friends and family (social media wasn’t really a thing yet) after a mobile clinic in a parking lot.
When the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents round up our patients, we are just closing up the mobile clinic at the labor lines for the day. Until I saw the vans with the emblem, I hadn’t realized how creepy and distopian “Department of Homeland Security” seems. The agents seem to come out of the concrete we are standing on; I look up and all of the men are up against the wall. As they empty one man’s pockets, all that falls out is a bar of soap we had given him in a hygiene kit.
[People at the mobile clinic are always happiest to receive these bags sent by church groups from across the country: a face towel, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste. I try to let it remind me about the privilege of a hot shower and the ability I have to take care of myself.]
An aside: We read about the anti-immigrant sentiment in the news, and the bills being put through congress, and I feel like my hands are tied. Truth is, I could probably have called my congresspeople last week and I didn’t. I did, however, go to the mayday rally here in New Orleans, as did tens of thousands of people in LA, New York, Chicago, Philly and San Francisco. To me, rallies feel good, but also futile, as there is an ignorance and power machine running the country, using fear to motivate people to mow over each others’ rights. (Note to self: call legislators.)
So, the men are thrown into these white vans, and driven off. We five medical folk, just minutes earlier feeling so good about a smooth day in the parking lot mobile clinic, stand and watch, powerless. When we get close enough to see, they shout at us. “You are interfering with a federal investigation! Do you want to roll too?” Another patient, a Black man, walks up beside me and says softly “Naomi, I know you think this is wrong, but I don’t want to see you get hurt. These guys are real assholes.” It feels good that these guys are looking out for me, and I understand my own limits too.
The vans drive off. I feel very un-brave.
My great grandfather was an undocumented immigrant in this country; so were lots of our relatives. Then what gives me the right to be here?? I tell that to people sometimes who ask me why I’m helping people who undermine our economy, who steal work from ‘real’ Americans. And though I could also make a million arguments about the varied permeability of the US border over time, about the amount of money that immigrants provide our tax base without receiving equal services in return… I do this work because there is no one looking out for these people. They have come here to work; they work without safety equipment, and often without pay; then they are arrested and deported. So I hand out respirators and talk to men with no homes and no families, and feel un-heroic.
Before I left SF this last time, all sorts of people told me how proud they were that I am going to “save the people of New Orleans.” Oy. Vey. And then the people here are always thanking us for coming here and helping. (And I acknowledge that I suffer from a certain amount of this Jewish tendency: “Oh this dress? I bought it at Marshall’s for ten bucks!”) But really, heroism is trying to rebuild your house in a low lying flood plain and support your grandma and travel thousands of miles from home to send money back to your family in Mexico/El Salvador/Guatemala/Texas. I just try to notice once or twice a week.
Reading my own words 13 years later, I think a few things. One is: I fell down on the job. On one hand, Katrina – and Common Ground in its 2005-6 incarnation – changed me politically, as it did for many people. It got me rethinking race and racism in the US, how governments and their agencies work, and what building justice looks like. On the other hand, I haven’t been calling my congresspeople. I haven’t been paying attention in the ways that were so obvious during the Bush II administration. I have gotten two graduate degrees, I have supported students doing good work, but ICE has persisted, has further embedded its own existence.
Today I persist in writing.
I’m not sure what I have to say yet, but you’re here and maybe I have gotten you to think about what action means, too.
Here‘s one place I think is doing good work; maybe you will give them some dollars and they will pay the bond for folks who have been detained, and provide them with legal services. The organizations that have persisted for so in fighting for justice on the border are spread thin right now; they have big ideas waiting in the wings, too.
About a month ago I came across a number of articles, including this one in the Portland Tribune about proposed budget cuts to Portland Parks and Recreation, and particularly the recreation centers, in light of increasing costs in labor and facilities. In the last week, the city has released the complete budget proposal, which includes shuttering a number of community centers, and dialing back programming at the existing ones, due to a budget shortfall of around $6 million.
This is an incredibly shortsighted decision. It goes against the city’s purported values, including equity and sustainability. It will shut down long-standing facilities that will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover, which serve their communities in terms of both physical public spaces, and relationships that have been built up over years, if not decades.
As a scholar of public spaces, I think about how places for gathering in our cities support good lives for people in everyday ways. In my own ethnographic research, I found that elders who belong to a swim team in a local community center report better health as well as an emotional support network as a result of having a local community center to attend every week. Other benefits of public space to the body politic and to neighborhood vitality have been well-documented in ethnographic and large-n studies; this is more than just a feel-good endeavor.
To take one specific example from this budget year, it is cynical to pit the Sellwood community center (which is proposed to be shuttered due to expensive repairs) or the Laurelhurst dance center against the centers in the eastern (poorer) part of the city, with the idea that the relatively-more-affluent families will fend for themselves. Indeed, all should be funded. Decisions like this increase inequality within and across neighborhoods. That is: as one community center goes, so eventually will go all. The ‘realignment’ proposed in the budget (to consolidate programming in bigger centers, rather than support many neighborhood centers) is just the first step.
Furthermore, the notion that the relatively-more-affluent don’t need common public spaces along with everyone else, takes them out of the fight for good public amenities, as they become less and less served by them, and ‘public’ comes to be equated with ‘the worst the city has to offer.’ We have seen this with public schools across America, and we will see it with our public spaces if we treat them like pawns of a particular budgetary year.
The community centers provide recreational, arts and cultural programming, and a place to hang out, for so many. This value is never sexy or photogenic. These centers don’t have epic events, just a slow, plodding everyday vitality that connects people to one another in the halls and on the steps. Senior citizen yoga, ballet for small boys and girls, beginning guitar for people who never plan to become musicians, basketball for young people to enjoy the thrill of playing; these are the small ways a city stays public, and keeps the worst of our increasing American inequality at bay. Those who fight for the cause of public space tend to be few, because we weren’t set up to have to fight for it year upon year.
In a more pragmatic vein, with climate change, the city is suffering hotter and smokier summers, colder winters, and less predictability in terms of when Portlanders will be able to spend time outdoors. This particularly affects small kids, their parents, and our elders. The community center and the pool must be at the center of a plan for climate resiliency, not an afterthought. Anything less will lead to a weakening of our social ties and a retreat into our homes and tribes just at the moment we could use more time together, learning in everyday ways how to build a more just future based in cooperation and sharing of space.
Just as Portland must fight to keep a roof over the head of all her citizens, we also must fight to keep a home for the public in our long-loved community centers. Budget priorities are social and cultural priorities. Beyond the kid in tap shoes, or the elder who keeps fit with their friends is a question of our dedication to public life in a moment at which the social fabric itself is fraying. It would be thin reasoning if a city that has attracted tremendous wealth in the past few decades did not figure out how to marshal enough revenue to maintain these spaces in a meaningful way.
We published an article in Urban Geography: “User fees and the permeability of public space at municipal pools and bathhouses in New York City, 1870 – present.” Find the article here.
In this article, we combined my archival research from The Amphibious Public with Laura’s work on municipal policy-making, particularly in terms of fiscal decision making. Using pools and bathhouses in New York City as an historical example, we show how fees were administered (or cancelled) at various times in the city’s history in order to promote values, uses, and public-making by different groups. Put differently: paying the fee at the pool has a social dimension! It is not just a way to pay for operations (though at times it has), but rather it sets up a relationship of the user to public space that is markedly different from free general entry (though anyone who uses New York City pools in the summer knows that those have plenty of restrictions as well.)
Looking forward to hearing from you. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This coming Saturday night, Sept 15, I will be at La Mama theatre in New York City, in conversation with playwright/director Kevin Doyle about the new play from his company, Sponsored By Nobody, THE AЯTS.
The play deals with the history of federal arts funding in the US, particularly the founding and subsequent de-funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. I am there to chat because of the paper I published this past spring in Arts and International Affairs, entitled Goodbye to the NEA?
I’m so pleased to be part of this effort connecting academic study with the arts as a topic, and with art in live theatrical performance. See you in NYC!