Working with Failure: On Course Design and the Craft of Teaching

I have now been teaching for ten years, full-time for almost six years.

During the past few years, I have been trying to teach a course on “Religion and the Body.”

I begin the class with an essay that starts much the same as this one: Kathy Acker’s “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body.”  In this essay, Acker writes about the relation of language to the bodily and the relation of bodies to selves.  She speaks of one bodily phenomenon (weight-lifting, bodybuilding) in relation to both of the above.

“Bodybuilding is a process, perhaps a sport, by which a person shapes her or his own body,” she writes.  Such shaping takes place through the targeting of specific areas of muscles and, through exertion, breaking down those areas.  Growth results by working to failure, working around and with failure.  “Bodybuilding,” she writes, can be seen to be about nothing but failure.”

There are a number of reasons why I begin my “Religion and the Body” class with this essay, but one of them, as I tell the class, is that we, too, are set to work around and with failure, that our syllabus will take us repeatedly to the point of failure, that through such failure we will, ideally, grow.

As an as inquiry into a series of questions about the roles of bodies and bodily (conceptual and experiential) in religious communities and practices, our work together as a class stutters, gestures, unsettles.  As a teacher, I break down preconceptions (the natural, for instance, should, after lecture three, seem a little less given), and as a group we wrestle collectively with how to approach, analyze, even discuss that which is lived, subjective, pre- or non-verbal.  I highlight the dependence, in the history of the field as well as in my own work and classes, on textual approaches to religion, but then we note, too, the dependence on textual approaches in this class.  Our entry into the bodily is, while augmented heavily by projected photographs, still mainly through a stack of books and photocopies.

Among other sources, we work through Sarah Coakley’s collection of essays on religion and the body, Michael Atwood Mason on bodily learning in Santería, Caroline Walker Bynum on blood in medieval theology and practice, Anne Fadiman on negotiating between Hmong shamanism and contemporary Western medicine, Elizabeth Fuller Collins on the psychological and political meanings of Thaipusam in Malaysia, and Judy Rosenthal on the carnal and carnivalesque in Ewe Voodoo, along with Robert Fuller on the biological as an approach to religious history and Sam Gill on movement and dance.  I belabor the bibliography, because I want to flag the labor involved in it: there’s a great deal of reading here, an excess, even.

In my “Religion and the Body” class, in design and in teaching, I stumble against some basic pedagogical challenges: the issue of pace (how quickly can one plan to move through difficult material, thick case studies?), the issue of load (how much reading can I expect my students to do, of what level of difficult, and at what level of depth?), and the issue of intention (as much as I want to design my courses to function, as it were, on multiple tiers, with lectures and class discussions intersection but not overlapping with the separate and thus somewhat independent work of reading texts and writing response essays, my students aren’t all taking this class because they have gnawing questions about religion and the bodily—in reality, they need a diversity credit, or they need a 300-level elective, or they just need another class and this one, at 8:20 am, fits their schedule, plus they’ve heard I am “fun” which is not a terribly coded way of saying that it’s likely I’ll keep them awake).

These challenges are not unique, but in “Religion and the Body” they are, I feel, encountered in more extreme form.  I can offer a quick list of justifications for this (as a 300-level course, the reading needs to be substantial and tough; as a class pursuing these questions, the work needs to be rigorous; to be a responsible stab at the issue, there needs to be a good deal of ground covered), but there is also the simple matter that this course, now in its second iteration, is a departure from my research interests and training.  I strain under the weight of the material as well.

Acker writes, “I want to shock my body into growth; I do not want to hurt it.”  For me, this echoes a basic, recurring, pedagogical riddle:  how to calculate failure, to control the degree to which the class, as assorted individual students and also as a collective endeavor, falls short?

I can offer some thoughts on ways to guide students through shock and away from pain, and I can enumerate some ways I fail in the hope that awareness of failure can help others and my future self and future students.

Here are three things that I strive to do consistently and well:

  • Model failure. Students need to know that inquiry is distinct from certainty, that the work of the religious studies classroom isn’t memorization but, rather, real wrestling with questions.  We will not “solve” or “settle” much of what we discuss, but in the course of the discussion, in the course of our own unsettling, we learn a great deal.
  • Reward work. My courses, increasingly, use a point system for grades, meaning that you can potentially earn a higher grade by doing more work.  “Extra credit” is built into the system already (for instance: of five books read for the class, one is only required to turn in a response essay on four of them, but if one opts to write a fifth essay, that work contributes to the point total).
  • Connect with students. I teach at a very small school with a culture of open office doors and all-day office hours, but even here students are timid and establishing a connection takes work.  Students need to be guided and encouraged in multiple ways, from basic skills (how to approach a hard text, how to read and take notes) to the participatory (to ask questions, whether in class or after class, over email or in office hours) to recognizing opportunities and approaches that may be quite different from the sort of classes (STEM, for instance) that they are used to (i.e., yes, I’ll discuss your essay ideas and read drafts of your work in advance of the due date, and, yes, if there’s a way to relate your personal interests to the course material, I want you to pursue that).

Here are some ways I fail, some further complications:

  • Too much material, too little time. On the one hand, there is always too much ground to cover; on the other, I prefer books (students engage in them differently, giving them more serious attention, plus I like that they at least hold the possibility of lingering around on some shelf, taking up space and demanding attention) but books are long.  As much as I try to build crumple zones into my syllabi, to plan for the unplanned, I still, always, end up with too much, particularly in terms of reading I’m asking (requiring) students to do on their own.  I know that in many ways less is more, but I find it very, very difficult to design syllabi that offer nice, wide margins around well curated short texts.  Likewise, I speak too fast, we move too fast, the semester ends too swiftly, the hour and fifteen minutes allotted to me on Tuesday and Thursday mornings evaporates mid-discussion or a mere five images into a fifteen-slide series.  The diabolical engine of college teaching, or the ouroboros of it:  you race against the speeding clock, when somehow the wiser stance would be to slow down.  I repeat myself (and repeat myself reminding students that I will repeat myself), and I set aside time for questions, and I am explicit in walking students through review (eliciting recaps from them in addition to providing such a service myself).  Still, there is only so much time, and there is always more to cover.
  • The problem of vocabulary. I was more conscientious, years ago, teaching at a large state university, with flagging and explaining not only technical vocabulary but also merely “big words.”  Recently, with a new batch of students, this has been pointed out as a problem again.  One easily overlooked pedagogical task is gauging comprehension at this level.  For other classes, I’ve asked that students keep and submit electronic journals (basically reporting, to me, on their reading and their lecture notes).  In “Religion and the Body,” I naively thought, at the start of the semester, that because of the topic and the course level, I could expect some level of shared vocabulary.  That this is not the case requires some intervention, both in lectures and in relation to reading assignments.  Recognition of the problem depends, moreover, on a level of trust from and connection to students, who often feel embarrassed about asking questions about words and can get easily flustered by and frustrated with a text that they find “too hard.”
  • The mixed classroom. In part this results from institutional pressures and departmental choices: “Religion and the Body” is a 300-level course with no prerequisite (none of our departmental offerings have prerequisites), and, as such, attracts a wide range of students.  Half of the class has never experienced or thought about the work of the religious studies classroom before.  Moreover (to lapse into that flip-side to “the craft of teaching,” the art of institutional bureaucracy, at my school stress is placed on numbers, on getting a certain number of students to register for your class and then retaining a certain number past the drop date.  While enrollment at the college is, this year, at an all-time low, administration officials have told some faculty members that some courses with too low of an enrollment will not count toward contract requirements (they won’t be cancelled, but they will be taught under the same rules as independent studies, meaning they won’t count as classes toward the required number of classes one must teach each year).  While dissemination of this news has been selective, not to say strategic, that has been sufficient to spook the junior faculty, at least, into prioritizing numbers.  And a classroom that prioritizes the filling of seats (and the retaining of bodies in those seats) is not the same as a classroom that prioritizes collective inquiry into challenging topics.

Acker’s essay about bodybuilding emphasizes the meditative nature of counting, of measuring breath, of completing a set and doing it again, rep after rep.  I find inspiration in this as well, and I am explicit, in my first lecture, on the first day of class, that I am doing this course differently than I did the time before and with an eye to do it differently again—and better—next time.

I want students to understand my course design as an ongoing process (of failure but also of strength-building, of growth), and I want them to feel that they are part of that process.  Their feedback matters, not merely on the official forms at the end of the semester but all along the way, their reactions to and engagement with the class as a set of tasks, an experience, a conversation.

My feedback matters, too, my record of my own failures and my reactions along the way.  It is essential to keep track of this process, to come out of a given class session with not only the rest of the semester in mind but also future iterations of the course.  As with bodybuilding, transformation is the long-term goal.

For me, building from failure, working through and with failure is a useful metaphor for teaching, from course design through that work of leading a class of students through the semester, both in and out of the classroom.  The usefulness lies in awareness of the inevitability of failure, openness to the potential value of failure, and recognition of failures large and small along the way.

One thought on “Working with Failure: On Course Design and the Craft of Teaching

  1. Thanks for organizing and articulating these points so well, Spencer. The timing is very helpful for me, as I try to balance various demands. I am sitting at my desk, on our fall break day, reading mid-term course evals, trying to celebrate the positive and not to obsess about the negative comments (because HOW COULD THIS STUDENT HAVE MISSED THAT WE’VE DONE THAT?), thinking about how to modify the course going forward to accommodate some thoughtful points made in the evals – and also working on text selection for Spring and puzzling over how to market my Spring courses so that they get sufficient registration. [I do wish I felt more gratification from the hours and hours spent over the past three weeks on assessment…] Two of the concerns that I tend to push to a back burner are incorporation of explicit attention to vocabulary and managing a mix of majors and non-majors, so it’s especially helpful to hear your thoughts on those fronts. Looking forward to your future posts!

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