I recently presented a talk, “‘Arts of Noticing’: On Creating Breathing Room for Dissent,” as part of a roundtable discussion on Pedagogies of Dissent for Asian American Studies. I wrote up a detailed recap of the event on the Futures Initiative blog, so for this post I wanted to share some reflections on the process of writing about my pedagogy.
Although I have prepared numerous conference presentations before, they were all focused on my research rather than my teaching; and while I’ve written statements of teaching philosophy (mainly for job applications), this was the first time I had to deliver remarks on my pedagogy in such a public way. I twas difficult to know how and where to start.
The experiences I gained over the years teaching at a range of different institutions, with students of diverse socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, blurred together and felt too overwhelming to articulate clearly, in a way that would resonate with my potential listeners. I knew I had to offer up my personal reflections on encounters with students in the classroom carefully so they could open up, rather than foreclose, conversation about pedagogy as a practice of dissent.
Knowing this forced me to pause and really think hard about my teaching. Eventually, the strategy I came up with was to treat the preparation for this talk as a kind of course in itself. I asked myself how I would normally approach teaching a class on Asian American literature and the feelings of doubt and uncertainty dissipated. I was on familiar ground.
Thinking through this hypothetical course led me to the first line of my presentation:
Pedagogy involves more than the techniques we use in the classroom.
It was a thought that came to me in the moment because pedagogy is often associated with the practices we implement in our classes, through assignments and exercises intended to cultivate an inclusive and dynamic environment for students to share their thoughts on course readings and questions. But there is so much advanced preparation that goes into designing a course even before you step into the physical classroom space- decisions that might seem small but will determine how your students encounter both the material and you as a teacher.
And so, I started with the course title, which is where I usually begin, suggesting a class on “What is Asian American Literature?” I talked about how a title like this, as simple as it appears, conveys an openness that a course titled, “Introduction to Asian American Literature” might not have (at least, not as immediately). Questions in course titles and descriptions serve as invitations for students to participate in the knowledge-making process; they announce that these are shared inquiries you will pursue together.
From there, my thinking and writing gained momentum as I shifted into my favorite part of the course design process: text selection. As I considered the different works I would include on a syllabus for this hypothetical course, I was able to offer insights on how important the first text is for setting up the tone and shape of the discussions to follow. Some of the works I touched on were Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010), Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero (2014), Cristina García’s Monkey Hunting (2003), and Manjula Padmanabhan’s Harvest (1998), all of which suggest different points of entry into the question, “What is Asian American Literature?”
And so, what began as a daunting exercise became unexpectedly fun and invigorating. It reminded me of how much I miss being in the classroom, even as I am thankful for the time I have to focus on my research this year.
All in all, writing about my pedagogy taught me that I had a lot more to say than I initially realized. I kept coming across myriad lessons I wanted to share based on my teaching experiences. On the day of the event, one of the things I talked about was something I have found hardest to detach myself from,
the impulse to fill up my course syllabi with all of the texts that I want my students to read and know and love.
What I have learned is that it is important to pare down and take care in selecting texts to give them the time and depth they deserve. I described a practice of leaving literal blank spaces in my course schedules, spaces that can serve as “breathing room” in the class, a concept that takes inspiration from M. NourbeSe Philip‘s evocative poetry collection Zong!. (You’ll have to see her work to really understand the impact of these blanks spaces).
Actively structuring this breathing room into my classrooms allows time for thoughts and conversations to overflow into subsequent sessions; it gives students an opportunity to bring in other texts, objects, and knowledges to enrich our discussions; it creates space for different opinions and perspectives to be heard. In this regard, a pedagogy of dissent is one that refuses the rigid ordering of class sessions and units. It remains open instead to change, disruption, and constant revision.
To sum up, the thing I took away from this experience and the thing I hope you’ll take away from my reflections is a confidence in your voice as a teacher–a recognition that you’ve already been doing it, and that finding the right words to say gets just a bit easier when you learn to ask:
How would I teach someone about my pedagogy?