I treat what I know of history, popular culture, literature and philosophy as a conceptual toolbox, introducing a heterogeneity of concepts and techniques in applied contexts to address particular problems. My goal is to broaden student vocabularies in a number of fields at once, to make them realize that there is a material aspect to communication, and to argue that technological choices always have political and ideological implications.
The teachers that I admire most and aspire to emulate are people that create environments for learning by providing students with the tools and knowledge that they require to develop and pursue their interests. From such a perspective, the classroom is not a pulpit for the dissemination of an instructor’s knowledge; it is a space that makes it possible for students to showcase their talents and use them to contribute to the collective production of knowledge in the classroom.
Discussion is an essential component of the classroom dynamic I strive to achieve. I want students to feel comfortable speaking about subjects that concern them, and to have the freedom to respectfully disagree (with me, with the text, and with each other). As Gerald Graff articulates in Clueless in Academe, I believe that persuasive argument in the context of specific problems is central to academic practice (22), and, moreover, that academic argumentation is “an extension of the more familiar forms of persuasion that drive the public discourse of journalism and often the talk of students themselves” (23). I want students to realize that ideas are complex, that the narratives that convey them are always subjective, that it is possible to have a dialogic relationship to history as well as to each other, and that robust discussion is beneficial even if it doesn’t always produce a single definitive answer. Fostering vibrant classroom discussion is a first step toward emphasizing the importance of collaboration and group work, which encourages students to regard themselves as active producers and critics of culture and knowledge as well as passive consumers.
I see a direct connection between developing oral discussion skills and critical writing skills. As John C. Bean suggests in Engaging Ideas, writing in an academic context, like oral argumentation, involves real emotional and intellectual struggle with particular problems (19). Moreover, I take very seriously Bean’s observation that writing is not just a product communicating the results of the thinking process; it is also a major part of doing critical thinking itself (3). Students in my classes do a significant amount of writing, both as individuals, and in group exercises of various sorts. I encourage them to consider the impact of the stylistic choices that they make while writing as an important aspect of how they present an argument. In many cases, these in-class writing exercises are not “for marks,” because I want students to become accustomed to the idea of writing as process in a non-threatening environment. I also try to structure major writing assignments for my courses as two-stage processes that first involve the creation of a proposal and outline or working draft, then the completion of a final paper after I have commented on the first assignment. Too many students do not see revision as a key aspect of the writing and thinking process, and I want to do everything that I can to emphasize that “the actual act of writing causes further discovery, development, and modification of ideas” (Bean 29).
Though critical writing and academic argumentation work best in small classroom environments, large lectures are part of the reality of teaching in most universities today, so I try to incorporate argumentation and critical writing practices into my large lectures as well. I was initially surprised at the success of these techniques in my first-year lecture (350 students), but after students repeatedly began to remark that the parts of the lecture they were most likely to remember were the parts where they were required to work with each other to develop answers to particular problems, I have begun to adapt my lecturing style accordingly. I now employ a number of the active learning techniques that Wilbert J. McKeachie describes in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, such as the two-column blackboard method, which lists points from both sides of a given academic argument (51), the one-minute paper on major points made so far in the lecture (256), and buzz groups, which briefly break the class into small discussion groups to encourage peer learning (48).
No matter the size of the class that I am teaching, I try to break the material down into 10 or 15-minute conceptual chunks, punctuated with some form of change in delivery method. Every lecture, I make frequent use of digital audio and video clips, still images, and the occasional full-length film or video, but almost never resort to text-heavy slides. Here I take my cue from Edward Tufte’s essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” in Beautiful Evidence. Tufte’s extensive qualitative and quantitative research argues convincingly that PowerPoint-style slides of bulleted text and information-light charts and graphs “corrupt statistical reasoning, and often weaken verbal and spatial thinking” (157). Further, Tufte contends that the cognitive style of PowerPoint is contrary to the core teaching ideas that I have already flagged as important, such as reasoning, questioning, and providing scholarly evidence to support argumentation rather than arguing by assertion (161). Instead, to supplement reading materials and identify key concepts in lectures, I do oral reviews of the previous week’s material at the beginning of each lecture, and post skeletal lecture outlines and lists of important terms on the class website.
I consider hands-on learning to be vital to the study of new media, and useful in the study of most communication forms, when appropriate classroom resources are available. Various sorts of Internet-based social software have become increasingly important as teaching tools since the mid-1990s. I have been actively using database-driven websites, wikis, discussion forums and mailing lists in my teaching since 2002, both with the residents at the Canadian Film Centre’s CFC Media Lab and with my undergraduate students. Many of the software tools I use have been heavily customized, as part of the development aspect of my research project, Artmob. During my bi-annual three-day teaching stint at the Canadian Film Centre’s CFC Media Lab, I spend mornings in discussion with the residents, then work with them during the afternoons on assignments I’ve designed to introduce them to social software and tools for online collaboration.
While I was teaching at York, I was the heaviest single user of the Communication Studies media lab in the new Technologically Enhanced Learning (TEL) building. All of my seminars had a strong experiential component, making use of the Artmob software for mixed-mode pedagogical strategies (in-class discussion combined with synchronous and asynchronous student interaction through the software). Laurier’s lack of a humanities computing lab was the motivation for my immediate embarkation on the creation of a similar research and teaching space. I was engaged in securing all the necessary resources for my own computing labs (separate graduate and undergraduate facilities) for four years, and saw them become operational in summer 2009. I am currently in the process of building a new media lab at Concordia.
Finally, I am committed to the prospect of continually updating my pedagogical skills as well as my technical and research skills. When available and appropriate, Inspired by early Communication Studies and Cultural Studies scholars who also had a strong interest in pedagogy, such as Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Neil Postman, I have begun exploring the extensive body of contemporary pedagogical literature; some of the names I have cited in this document are examples of texts that have influenced my thinking in important ways. Ultimately, I aspire to the kind of flexibility that Michelangelo expressed in his 80s with the words “Ancora Imparo”: I am still learning.
Concordia ENGL 377: Contemporary Canadian Fiction
Concordia ENGL 662: Media Poetics
Laurier CS 100: Introduction to Media History
Laurier CS 325: Digital Media and Culture
Laurier CS 400: Free Culture
Laurier CS 400eA: Introduction to Video Game Studies
Laurier CS 610: Media Archaeology
York AS/SOSC 3310.06: Communication for Tomorrow
York AS/SOSC 4320.06: The Electronic Information Marketplace
York AS/SOSC 4300C.2: Popular Culture: Digital Interactive Media: Visions And Realizations