Archives for posts with tag: pedagogy

Here’s an extra credit assignment for my students in CMN3109: Advanced Theories in Communication at the University of Ottawa (Winter 2018).

I’m rethinking how I will teach CMN3109. I’ve taught it a half dozen times, and I want to try something new.

So I’m writing a textbook, which I’ll pair with primary-text readings. For extra credit this semester (Winter 2018), I’d like you to read the book as it currently stands (with three of the six chapters written). You can download it here.

For your assignment, please read the text and devise an exercise to do in class based on any part of it you find interesting. Please turn in a one-page (single-spaced, 1″ / 2.5cm margins, 12-point Times New Roman) description that:

  • Describes the exercise (what students will do)
  • Explains how the exercise relates to the text
  • Explains what students will gain from the exercise

Please note: I’ll stop reading after one page, so please respect the formatting described above. If you’re running long, pare your description down to only what’s necessary.

The assignment is due electronically (emailed to before the final exam. It is worth 25 points. IF YOU DO NOT FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS YOU MAY NOT RECEIVE CREDIT FOR THE ASSIGNMENT.


I’m trying (and, for lack of time, usually failing) to use this blog as a public notebook, much like the countless paper ones I carry around for jotting down ideas to explore more later.

So here’s a quick note. I’ve been trying to find ways to make what’s intuitive about phenomenology clear for students, despite the impenetrable writing of many phenomenologists. (For that reason, I’m very excited about my friend Sam Rocha‘s book Folk Phenomenology, which I’ll likely read over the winter break. This exercise was inspired by one he does, although by the time I worked from his notes to my lesson plan, it was almost unrecognizable.)

Here’s a quick experiment we did last Thursday that worked. I came into class with about $20 worth of Smarties (the Canadian kind, not the American kind) and set them prominently on the table. I then ignored them for twenty minutes as I talked about class-related stuff.

My students’ interest was piqued, and I finally explained that today we would be candy phenomenologists. I handed out Smarties to everyone in the class (there are about 80 students, which is why I spent so much), but told them not to eat them yet. I made them start by describing what they looked like, sounded like, and felt like. I told them that as an American, I don’t know anything about Canadian Smarties, and they were aghast. I told them they’d have to describe them to me.

Once they wrote down their descriptions, I told them to eat one at a time, and tell me what they tasted like, again keeping in mind that I didn’t know firsthand.

What made this work, I think, was that the silliness of the exercise allowed them to let down their guard. It was fun, so they were willing to take a risk in what they observed. They were also more open to the act of observing itself. Their curiosity about the prominently displayed but studiously ignored candy put them in the right state of mind, one where they craved an explanation. That craving — that hunger? — opened them up to my explanation of our task, which broke from their expectations of how class should go. I needed to overcome those expectations so they’d be open to something new — a new way of interacting with the world around them, paying attention to the things they’d habitually overlook.

At some point I need to come back to this, but I wanted to write it down so I could use it again in the future.

This semester I’m teaching CMN 3109: Advanced Theories in Communication. I’ve taught the class before, both at the University of Ottawa and at the University of North Dakota.

This semester I am trying something a bit new. At first glance, theory seems like an impractical exercise in abstraction, the type of thing parents would discourage their children from pursuing, ‘cuz how’s that gonna get you a job? But I think, on the contrary, that theory is practical. It’s an effort to explain how we experience the world, and it helps us maneuver through the world more effectively. Theory helps us understand problems and solve them.

That’s the idea I want to put into practice this semester. I’m going to use my blog (read by a total of four people, perhaps? two? just me?) to think through the pedagogical side of that idea. What exercises can I lead my students through to help them see for themselves how the abstractions of theory help us understand our everyday experience?

I’ve put together three axioms to help clarify that process. They are:

  • Axiom 1: Theory is an attempt to explain our experience of the world.
  • Axiom 2: If the explanation theory offers doesn’t match our experience, it’s bad theory.
  • (Axiom 2a: In the end, it’s all bad theory.)
  • Axiom 3: We must refine our explanation to replace bad theory with good theory.

In addition, on Tuesday I’ll be leading a presentation on “How to Succeed at University.” It’s for first year students, and I want to make it valuable, despite its atrocious title. I offer four pieces of advice:

  • Show up.
  • Take notes.
  • Get lost.
  • Find your way back again.

It’s the final two that are the most interesting. They’re about “productive negativity,” or the value of confusion. We can get lost in a lot of ways — we can lose ourselves in a book, we can follow a map wrong, we can be confused. They are all important (I follow maps wrong all the time!), but I want to emphasize the value of confusion: when we find ourselves in a place we don’t understand, we’ve been given two gifts. First, we are not beholden to the rules that would normally govern that place because we don’t know them and haven’t internalized them. Without them, we have the potential for a dizzyingly free range of movement. Such freedom is scary, but it is also liberating.

Second, if we can figure out why we’re confused, we can identify a starting point for finding our own way back to places that are familiar. We get confused when there are two possible answers to a question, but only one can be right. We don’t know which because we haven’t acquired the tools to discern between them (or because our teacher has not given us the tools). But that’s our starting point — we can identify and evaluate the two possible answers.

But when we find our way back, we see our familiar places differently. It’s something like a parallax effect: it’s the same world, but our angle on it has changed.

So my goal this semester is to find ways to translate these abstractions into concrete experiences for my students. I’ll keep my notes here — if I do luck into finding a reader, I’d love to hear what you think.

If we want to ask how different technologies mediate our experience of the objects they present to us, what do we actually do?

We’ve already taken the first step. In my last entry, I quoted from Sam Rocha’s book on folk phenomenology, where he describes how a fig becomes “figly” through the culinary process of reduction. That description was a way to work through the first step in the mode of inquiry I’m encouraging — it should bring about a certain disposition toward figs (or other objects) by bracketing them off so we can pay attention to how we experience them. By “bracketing off,” I mean setting the object aside for the moment to focus on our senses as the way we come to know the object. (For what it’s worth, Edmund Husserl, in The Crisis of European Sciences calls this break the “epoche.”)

I describe the second step below. The first step is necessary so the second doesn’t become routinized. If our inquiry is to mean anything, we must be responsible to the object and our experience of it. We experience different objects differently, and we can’t simply go through the motions of inquiry — the second step — without being responsive to the object. If we perform these steps by rote, we risk missing what makes one object different from another. This disposition makes us responsive to the object and our experience of it.

In section 45 of The Crisis, Husserl talks about what we do after we’ve bracketed off the object. He writes:

[L]et us now take a first, naïve look around; our aim shall be, not to examine the world’s being and being-such, but to consider whatever has been valid and continues to be valid for us as being and being-such in respect to how it is subjectively valid, how it looks, etc.

For example, there are various individual things of experience at any given time; I focus on one of them. To perceive it, even if it is perceived as remaining completely unchanged, is something very complex: it is to see it, to touch it, to smell it, to hear it, etc.; and in each case I have something different. What is seen in seeing is in and for itself other than what is touched in touching. But in spite of this I say: it is the same thing; it is only the manners of its sensible exhibition, of course, that are different. If I remain purely within the realm of seeing, I find new differences, arising in very manifold form in the course of any normal seeing, which, after all, is a continuous process; each phase is itself a seeing, but actually what is seen in each one is something different. I express this somewhat in the following way: the pure thing seen, what is visible “of” the thing, is first of all a surface, and in the changing course of seeing I see it now from this “side,” now from that, continuously perceiving it from ever differing sides. But in them the surface exhibits itself to me in a continuous synthesis; each side is for consciousness a manner of exhibition of it. This implies that, while the surface is immediately given, I mean more than it offers. Indeed, I have ontic certainty of this thing [as that] to which all the sides at once belong, and in the mode in which I see it “best.” Each side gives me something of the seen thing. In the continuous alteration of seeing, the side just seen ceases being actually still seen, but it is “retained” and “taken” together with those retained from before; and thus I “get to know” the thing. […]

Even if I stop at perception, I still have the full consciousness of the thing, just as I already have it at the first glance when I see it as this thing. In seeing I always “mean” it will all the sides which are in no way given to me, not even in the form of intuitive, anticipatory presentifications. Thus every perception has, “for consciousness,” a horizon belonging to its object.

What is he saying? Let’s break it down step-by-step. First, we take take “a naïve look around.” We pretend we don’t know what we’ve got — that’s what makes our look around naïve. I pick up the fig (I have an actual dried California mission fig in front of me), feel its weight in my hand, observe its black, wrinkled skin, taste its sticky sweetness. I put each of these sensations together — it’s not like I think each sensation comes from a different fig. So when I’m looking at it, I can imagine tasting it. Even if the sensations are not all present simultaneously, I put the fig together an object whose different qualities are continuous with each other.

As a result, even when it’s not there, I can conjure it up. I just ate the fig I was holding, but I can still see it in my mind, if I choose. Husserl describes this as “meaning” or “intention.” I intend it by directing my attention toward it, in a way that anticipates what I will find. That anticipation results from my many experiences of figs. They have a regular set of qualities I have come to expect. My expectations constitute the “horizon” Husserl refers to.

But the qualities I anticipate might be different than those someone else expects. We hold each other in check — if I say a fig is this, and you say it’s that, it makes us examine it again. Our experiences are individual, but they’re also shared. Otherwise, we’d live in closed-off, solipsistic worlds, where we couldn’t understand another person’s experience. But we talk to people every day, and we negotiate an ongoing compromise about the world and what it means.

And the qualities might change. We can have new experiences. Maybe someone opens our eyes to some aspect we hadn’t seen before. (When I write “opens our eyes,” I’m speaking figuratively, but we should take the metaphor seriously. How are our senses heightened?) Or maybe we just eat a rotten fig.

The point, at least for now, is to recognize experience as stable, but only relatively so. It can be interrupted or reshaped. To get back to my original question — that of understanding media technologies’ effect on our perception of the world — will require a third step, which will be the subject of my next post.

I’m going to make a bold declaration about what I teach.

But first, I want to begin with a common misperception you encounter when you teach communication. People think that what you teach can be reduced to technical skills. I’ve taught, say, non-linear video editing. I give people cameras, and I tell them how to focus the lens or adjust the white balance, and I show them how to upload video and edit it and make — I hope — a decent-looking video. Technical skills matter.

But they don’t matter the way people think they do, or at least, their value is not limited to what’s immediately at hand. Knowing how to edit video might get a student a job, and if it does, I’m happy to have played a role in someone else’s success. But technologies change. A new version of a video-editing software suite comes out, and it looks nothing like what it’s replaced. (Final Cut Pro X, anyone?) If all I’ve taught is how to use version 1.0, and my student is flummoxed by version 2.0, I’ve failed.

This happens all the time. Planned obsolescence is a great business strategy. In fact, whatever technology I’m teaching at any given moment is probably already obsolete. (Budgets are tight at universities, and they’re outpaced by the rate of change. Who’s going to buy the new update when the old one still works?)

So here’s my declaration: I can teach technologies that are so new they haven’t been invented yet. I can equip students with the skills they need before we even know what those tools look like.

What we have to do — what I began to do in my last post, and in my manifesto — is rethink the value of technical skills. They are not merely instrumental. (Nor is education itself, in case my broader point isn’t clear.) If we pay attention to the ways technologies mediate our encounter with the world outside of ourselves, we can speculate about what other, newer technologies might do. The real value of technical skills lies not in their ability to get someone a job but in the awareness they bring to the logics of mediation.

In the language of philosophy, what I’m suggesting is that we move away from ontology — the inquiry into the nature of existence, where we ask, “What is this technology and how do we use it?” — to phenomenology — the inquiry into the nature of experience, where we ask, “How do we encounter this technology, and how does it mediate our experience of the world?” These are meaty questions, ones I want to bring into the classroom. But first we’ll need to find a way to ask them without the intimidating apparatus of philosophy itself. If words like “ontology” and “phenomenology” get in the way of the work they’re meant to do, we should abandon them, at least in the undergraduate communication classroom.

How we do that will be the subject of my next post.

A year ago, two of my colleagues approached me to ask if I would write something short for a special issue of the North Dakota Quarterly they were editing on digital art. But there was a catch — I’d have about three weeks before it was due. I agreed — I was frustrated by the growing corporate logic of the university (according to which the point of education is mere skill-acquisition) and the recalcitrance of some of my students when it came to engaging with thorny questions. I wrote “Pedagogy and Digital Aesthetics: A Manifesto.” It’s not the most polished thing I’ve written (I had only three weeks, and it was the end of the semester), but it’s held my fascination since then. In it, I ask how the liberal arts in the digital age can help us prepare students with technical skills (an important goal, even if it coincides with the corporate logic I dislike) by thinking about the nature of technology itself.

A week ago, a student approached me to ask if I had research he could help with as part of the TRIO program. He had already shown himself to be engaged and, more the the point, genuinely interesting. Even better, he liked questions of speculative philosophy, he spoke multiple languages, and he wanted to talk about pedagogy.

In my manifesto (I’m pretentious enough to really like the phrase “my manifesto”), I argue that teaching is as much a form of inquiry as research. I also link questions of translation to questions of media and technology. So I asked my student whether he’d be interested in a speculative form of research — an effort to turn my hastily written manifesto into, say, a syllabus, something to engage with someday in an actual classroom with actual students. He agreed.

My plan is to chronicle our work here. I have other projects, but none have captured my fascination quite the way this one has, in part because it’s still so open-ended — it’s a project that exists in the form of pure potential.

We’ll see how it goes.