Author Archives: rcowan2

Gut wrenching, yet overwhelmingly positive.

One of the chief differences between my current job and teaching is my audience.  Every time I prepare for a class presentation, such as the micro-teach lesson, a wave of anxiety hits.  My pulse quickens and soon I’m asking myself, what’s the big deal.  This is the best audience I could hope for.  Why do I get so caught up in my performance in this space when I am so completely at ease in front of my occupational audiences?  That settles it.  I calm down as I recall cranky lawyers, dissatisfied clients, demanding CFO’s, and straight bitchy IP legal assistants jaded by their long days of feeling under appreciated and under paid.  I remind myself I am teaching what I want to teach to the audience I want to teach it and I smile inwardly, thankful for this opportunity.

I was prepared for this scenario as I stepped up to the computer on Wednesday night.  I was excited to share one of the most gut wrenching poems I know with individuals whom I knew might in the very least appreciate the art of it.  I wasn’t prepared however for their overwhelmingly positive feedback.  Was I the only one continuously saying thank you?  Gratitude.  That’s what I was feeling.

As for the poem, we only scratched the surface.  In a longer class I would’ve likely told the groups to pass their stanzas to the right and practice the same activities with a new stanza.  Perhaps bring the group back to a guided discussion of how these stanzas could be woven back together as a whole.  I’m still on the search for an audio recording of DiPrima reading her own work (not sure this ever occurred).  Many of her contemporaries have a dearth or recordings that would be enjoyed if incorporated in a given class period.

There is something still very out of body that occurs for me in front of the class (possibly it’s the nerves).  All space and time except the classroom, the students, and the text cease to exist.  My mind can only focus from image-to-image, interpretation-to-interpretation, as critical engagement supersedes everything else.

For the past couple of years I have been focusing much of my graduate inquiry on research that supports teaching as an adaptive pedagogy whereby the teacher embraces their dual role and student learning from their students.  Similarly, adaptation of goals, identities, and reflection corroborate the learning that occurs within and outside of the classroom.  The finicky thing about it is that there is no magic generalization that unlocks it all.  We will forever be adapting our teaching methods to our students, the situation, the text, and so much more.  But perhaps that is the draw for me, the challenge is never ending and continually diversifying.

Lofty Optimistic Edicts Can Be Motivation

Wiggins & McTighe write in chapter 4 that “Students must perform effectively with knowledge to convince us that they really understand” (82).  This statement reminds me of another perspective on the matter that criticizes that students often perform for their teachers, trying to give them what they think they want, rather that actively engaging with the material for the intrinsic reward of learning and knowing as a whole person.  Somewhere between this liberal holistic view and the demonstrative rhetoric of administrative assessment in school there is a middle ground to be struck.  As a Francophile, I particularly appreciated the reference to the differing verbs ‘to know’ in French as an indicator of the complexity of knowing people and things vs. ideas and concepts (how to do something) etc.  In fact, the six facets of knowing exemplify something much more than the rhetoric behind teaching for understanding.  In many ways these facets are also edicts of character value and philosophy.  They are culturally embedded and place emphasis on certain personality and habitual characteristics such as self-reflection and empathy as the basis for intelligence in its most complete conception of the terminology.


As we go down the rabbit hole of understanding we are given little glimmers along the way, glittering bits that differentiate how educators must remember not to simply display their knowledge for consumption, but create a gateway whereby students can discover it themselves.  Many of my yoga teachers over the past decade have employed that adage, “This is your journey, I’m just the tour guide,” which I think is also relevant here.  We are told that we should create activities that are inherently ambiguous to create such a learning environment.  Specifically, “Schooling cannot be the learning of what someone else says is the significance of something, except as a way to model meaning-making or as a prelude to testing the interpretation so as to better understand the possibilities” (92).  Through reflection and meta-cognition the students will then stretch their own goals they set for their learning (if given the free will to do so).  As I write this I realize how lofty, idyllic, and squishy these aims are starting to come out, but I can’t imagine that as a bad thing when we must go into the classroom with a mindset of empowerment in understanding.   A glass half full will set the tone you wish to express.


Once we as educators can distill what understanding is necessary in the course and how interpretation can begin it is then time to put a wrench in those gears and force change.  Adaptation is the name of the game.  The authors write, “We show our understanding of something by using it, adapting it, and customizing it.  When we must negotiate different constraints, social contexts, purposes, and audiences, we reveal our understanding as performance know-how, the ability to accomplish tasks successfully, with grace under pressure, and with tact” (93), hopefully similar to what I’m doing right now.  Piaget would’ve argued for radical adaptation and innovation, but I’d say it could be subtle as well.  It all depends on the frame of reference for that individual.  Since these goals are not inherent in all the students do within higher education, explicit goals will need setting, and those will need to be addressed, and re-addressed over time as learner and learning shifts like a moving target as experience and thinking accrue.  These chapters read like a mission and the declarations and imperatives contained therein are a welcome clarity amidst so many other more chaotic theories in practice.

Why is it that no one is touching the actual events of this story with a 10’ pole?

What do we make of the mass murder that we’ve nominalized ‘slave rebellion’?  If the perpetrators of the crimes were indeed taking a stand against slavery, aren’t these choices counter-productive to their fight?  We can talk about who has the right to speak on behalf of these individuals all day long, but we can’t forget the actual acts that occurred resulting in 53 deaths.  I think what I’ve seen from my colleagues here as well as in the Text and Context is an arduous attempt to get into the actual mind of Nat Turner.  The graphic novel, the confession, and the historical details cannot get to the granular level details we are all hoping to see.  As we’ve seen argued here the voices have even been manipulated by author in all senses.  Are we to cast the stories aside as untrue?

Or are we willing to bask in the ruin porn, graphic renderings, and melodramatic language that fictionalizes the truth?  In the Text, we hear that “Gray …thought of himself as performing a public service.”  I’d be interested as to what Kyle Baker has to say about it (more than the introduction). If authorial intention is illusive, than the interpretation vastly falls on the reader.  We have only the sources and ourselves to draw upon.

The graphic “graphic” novel and a robust lit survey course

What are your most memorable classes?  Most of us would like say something that includes multiple mediums: listening to readings, performances, watching film, and being shown examples of concurrent artwork alongside the literature of the time.  Some of our most robust lit survey courses in undergrad likely contained a healthy dose of art history as well.  Whether it was the tapestries or illuminated manuscripts of medieval literature or Pablo Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles alongside late 19th and early 20th century modernist writers, art is ubiquitously connected with literature.   Therefore, (for me), it is easy to build a bridge between the literature classroom and a graphic novel.

I was unprepared literally or graphically for the gruesome nature of Nat Turner, which probably made my reaction to what I was “reading” all the more interesting in hindsight.  I won’t finish the frames with the baby dangling over the shark, or the inset frames depicting dead faces or severed limbs.  That being said, I am likely not a prime example of someone whose softer sensibilities would be violated by such things.  My guiltier pleasures include films by Guy Ritchie, shows like The Sopranos and Sons of Anarchy, and smuttier non-literary books I don’t wish to divulge here to the public.  To me, Graphic Novels and other non-traditional literary genres are equally important in terms of our student’s interpretive faculties.   The lines of distinction by high-art and street-art are continually blurred and why the hell not?!  It’s not like graphic novels will discredit the value of those that preceded it.

McCloud’s meta-renderings of showing and telling the visual and literary concepts that go into the design renderings of graphic novels was particularly enlightening to me as someone who has not had the pleasure or privilege to have the material brought into class with any fervency.  The graphic novel allows the literature student to step back from decoding text and sit back to observe as moment, subject, and action occurs in front of them, much like watching tv or film.  Rather than busily consulting supporting text and reference lit, images and occurrence can simply wash over one’s consciousness with the effective force of display.

All of this being said, I refrain that text and picture are complementary and should therefore be practiced in balanced unison, as much as this is possible.

Quit gaming around – We have work to do – Goals & Realities of Learner Theory

Reading Gee’s book often had me thinking that some of his principles of learning were an act of re-inventing the wheel (saying something other disciplines have said in other ways before).  The more learners I engage with throughout my graduate studies or in my day job the more engrossed in learning theory I find myself.  At work my students vary from young administrative staff to older lawyers and corporate executives.  I teach my corporate students how to work with my company and maintain their intellectual property portfolios with respect to international IP law.  Therefore, I currently find it hard to relate to the sentiment that “Learning should be frustrating and life enhancing.”  Not only is the landscape of my “classroom” constantly changing, but the “affinity groups” and existing domain knowledge of my “students” is either unknown or unlike my own.  I suppose if I help a client understand the aforementioned business factors more readily they will have improved day-to-day practices both within their roles, but also in relationship with others sharing that domain content knowledge/experience.

Like many others, I have little experience with “gaming” and I consider myself a novice at best of very old games (but I can play a guitar decently and sing).  I also have my own opinions on some of the psychosocial drawbacks of gaming that are not mentioned in Gee’s book.  That being said, I’d love to have time to devote to practicing things that are entertaining as well as brain exercises that would lead to greater critical thinking skills.

No matter the type of learning being examined (Gaming, Academia, Corporate America/Earth), the concept of situated cognition is fundamental to any sort of individualized analysis in relation to the personal, material, social, and cultural world (9).   But without the psychological and emotional make-up of our learners we’re viciously lacking in variables, left to guess and check (probe-re-probe-re-think) ourselves.  At work, I called this the adaptive training service model.  Despite this, Gee’s taxonomy of learning principles is quite comprehensive even though his examples are drawn from only one domain and very few test subjects.  The multitudinous connections that are identified through such studies are difficult to generalize upon even when only looking to himself and his son as learners.  Even more essential to his points on critical and active learning is the fact that both he and his son are motivated learners who regularly actively reflect and strive for new meaning.  Their meta-cognition likely far surpasses half of the population that is considered below average.

Don’t get me wrong, I promise I am not always this cynical (maybe I just had a particularly futile day at work).  Perhaps, I am just skeptical and left with several doubts when trying to apply these principles outside of the domain of video games.  Learning Principle No. 6: The “Psychosocial Moratorium” Principle states that while the learner is learning the consequences are much lower than they would be in the real-world.  I would compare this to any simulated training environment such as N.A.S.A. space simulation or practice projects in the workplace.  Both are used to create a “safe” space for learning.  Additionally, Learning Principle No. 10: Amplification of Input Principle state that as a learner applies him/herself to learning their level of effort or time spent practicing (input) is exponentially rewarded with “outputs.”  I’m left wondering: Can a learner discern the outputs from within the realm of the psychosocial moratorium?  Is the learner being rewarded in their room with the padded walls?  In real-life, in a workplace, are the outputs of learning your job always tangible?  Of course not!  So, despite learning how to make learning fun from video games we are still left to confront reality.  I am willing to put reality aside in lieu of critical learning, even if the only output is annihilating your previous “regime of competence.”  It seems to me what we have to impress upon our students is not learning in the guise of a game/design space, but learning in a goal space.  Whether or not a person is goal-driven may be because of their nurture (i.e. how they were brought up/their experience), but I’d hope that it is open for revision.  Gee would likely hone in deeper to discuss the differences therein of process oriented individuals vs. reflective learners.  Considering only about half of our population is goal driven and an even smaller percentage actively reflects and reassesses those goals, the task at hand is lofty. Needless to say… I am left wondering.

Do I drink the kool-aid or crack a beer?

While I often drink the kool-aid that “our classrooms are communities in which a culture is constructed,” there are also days when try as you might, that culture degrades into civil war.  Depending on the citizens in your constructed community, the rules of discourse may be as likely to lead to anarchy as to any positive outcome you were all hoping to reach.  Differing interpretations may degrade into arguments, disrespectful commentary, or simply disconnected interjections, which you then must dutifully extinguish, redirect, or connect as their de facto leader.  Admittedly, my experience in this arena is not in an academic classroom as a teacher.  Instead, I work with compensated adults in the corporate workplace, training one on one, and with smaller classroom type groups.  We are not only brought together in attempts to accomplish company goals, but also to collaborate generally, and generate new ideas often concerning business processes.  Despite being paid healthy salaries to do all of the above, they may sit in a room and either pretend they’re mute or participate only towards the previously mentioned examples of anarchy.  If you’re lucky enough not to experience such rebellious downturns and you have a group of willing followers who take up tacit rules in an effort for the common good… let the work-shopping begin!   After all, even in the corporate workplace, the “Pointing” activity could be re-worked to elucidate parts of written texts that the group does not understand.

While I think many of us are probably taking the “You get the papers you deserve” quote out of context, I have to think that this attitude is a bit masochistic and glosses over the multitudes of constraints that students either face or willingly submit to prior to handing in their work to teachers.  I can’t help but be a bit disappointed that Blau didn’t at least somewhat try to confront apathy in the text and how we as teachers combat it.  Are we to pretend that those students don’t exist?  If they don’t want to try their hardest, are they not worth our effort?  Perhaps, the literature logs/journals are one way to crack a door on their consciousness, but I suppose the purpose of the book is the workshop, not “problem” students who can’t be reached (Where are those books?).

Like others have noted, I have to also disagree with Blau’s “make themselves stupid” accusation.  I happen to love vocabulary.  If I didn’t forcibly try my hand at “sounding smarter” in the past I would’ve never worked out appropriate renderings in my writing about literature (or anything else for that matter).  Similarly, Blau’s obviously feels that it would be abominable for a student to simply take up a “second-hand interpretation” from another reader or teacher of a text.  But again, I would argue, isn’t it sometimes necessary to imagine from another’s perspective in order to discover our own?  Surely, there is room for some “right answers” or “second-hand knowledge” in the arena of literary interpretation.  By the time a student gets to college or grad-school they will be taught to be skeptics and not only doubt the text, but all the second-hand knowledge they’ve been spoon fed for years.

Self-knowledge and realistic expectations

A theme that pervaded both The Literature Workshop and “Confronting Resistance” seemed one of learning to let go.  Wilner came to the realization that she had to let go of her own preconceptions and biases simultaneous to her students letting go of their previous cognitive frameworks of belief.  Both were forced to identify when feeling ended and thinking began, what was a critical reflection and what was merely an automatic response.  Blau described the deliberate shift a teacher must make when letting go of what you’d like to present in favor of what you’d like your students to discover.

While we often readily seek to de-bunk the tradition of lecture teaching I can’t help but wonder if it’s reasonable that we expect others to let go of anything while in the act of becoming educated.   Blau puts it rather nicely in the guise of a cliché: “What is needed, of course, is the fishing pole and the fishermen’s lore that the wise benefactor gives to the poor man, instead of a handout of day-old fish” (31).  This is all well and good in the context of promoting self-discovery and learning, but it fails to recognize the inherent value in some of that hand-me-down knowledge as well as the real mental leaps that must take place when belief and value networks form the basis for interpretation.   While I very much appreciate Blau’s stance on the righteousness of the academic relationship between teacher and student, I temper my own over-glorification in light of real-life constraints and forces at play inside and outside of the classroom.

Wilner very courageously attempts to confront these forces, but falls victim to one of my cardinal pet-peeves: Humanities experts are not social scientists.  While I believe that there is a dearth of wonderful research out there about pedagogy, rhetoric, composition, learning styles, genre communities, and so on and so forth, there is a hard limit to pedagogical experts making claims about religion, ethics, morality, and psychology.  Cognitive theory can yield some very powerful conclusions about feeling and thinking, but cannot be finessed into a comprehensive overview without also associating the necessary experts in the supplementary disciplines.

Blau’s perspectives on “From Telling to Teaching” heartily preconceives that learning how to interpret texts must be a process that students come about determining for themselves.  It’s not good enough to just “hand-down” our own knowledge or the historical/background information (although, sometimes these lectures are imperative).  If you have ever worked with a “student” (adult or otherwise) than you know that there is something that isn’t being said here… the student will only determine such a process for themselves if they are personally emotionally driven to do so.  Teachers are not just contending with how to present or collaborate on texts; we’re contending with apathy.  I can’t help but think of this in terms of embodiment.  I think of embodiment as the level at which we take ownership of a task and personally care about its success.  Embodiment of a critical practice such as reading or writing is wholly driven by my personal interactions with text, mind, and peers (not to mention a million other variables).  Accordingly, it is all similarly dependent on level of engagement.

Am I able to focus my mental faculties substantially enough on this task?   Stressed?

Is my mind wandering?  Sleepy?  Hungry?  Bored?

Am I distracted by unrelated thoughts?  Did I remember to switch the laundry?

Is this person irritating the heck out of me?

Are some mental distractions actually favorable parallels that will actually catalyze the depth of my engagement?

Are others just a manifestation of my previously held beliefs and values?

Are those impeding my growth or interpretation?

What does all of this add up to?  Think about what you’re thinking about!  Meta-cognitive awareness must be enacted in the individual, but can we actually teach meta-cognition?  Blau says we should embrace “readings that disrupt coherence and subvert certainty” (46), but as we saw in Wilner’s “Territory” experiment, the result can be less than a pleasant ride.   She said she wouldn’t arrange the writing assignments in the same fashion the next time around.  “To move in the wrong direction is not progress, but to move backward in order to correct your course is” (46).   Embrace your fallible nature (as teacher and student)!  If haven’t been bucked off once or twice you’re not riding enough horses.

Student and/or Institutional Limitations and Rebuilding Intrinsic Truths

If we are all on an exploratory path towards enriched knowledge shouldn’t the vehicle that carries us vary as widely and vividly as the differences in ourselves?  Despite making hypothesis, claims, and conclusions throughout our educated and professional careers we’re all merely clawing at anything we can get beneath our nails on a continuous and changing investigation towards an indefinite destination.

Sherry Linkon’s The Visible Knowledge Project says it beautifully when she explains her approach to critical reading “with the underlying assumption that the significance of “meaning” of any text, then, pursues the identification of these multiple layers and meanings.”  So, where do we begin?  Meghan Short told an apt anecdote above about she’s experienced her students searching simply for the “right” answer.  Linkon goes on to challenge us to debunk our own assumptions and break apart the frameworks of mistaken intentions we’ve received throughout our learning lives.  Not only do we form bad mental habits of searching for the “right” answer, but we are finitely limited by the stretch of time in which we are expected to learn.  There are many unfortunate truths to reckon with and it is hard not to come away feeling a little discouraged by the odds which are stacked against us as students and teachers, institutionally as well as personally. 

If we are to embark on the new exploration that Sherry is proposing it seems that, like many others, she is proposing a paradigm shift in our thinking of how learning is measured.  Specifically, how we are to tangibly prove that students are exploring, reflecting, and contextualizing that which they read and may eventually write…. This is the new scaffolding on which our institutions may be able to re-inspire the intrinsic value of learning.  I very much love her idea of the research portfolio.  Finally, a specific idea to try!!!  Specifically, the portfolio would be a less formalized interaction between reader and text (and vice-versa) and therefore would encourage the journey and not the destination mentality that would allow students to get to know the process of critical reading and introduce their own writing as a form of reciprocal action where a grade is not begging the answer of the “right” answer.

At a certain point, Linkon notes that the fact that her students “liked” the project was not fully what she intended.  To this, I ask the question:  Does the teacher’s intention outweigh the student’s?  After all, if the students are practicing the “Defining Critical Reading Practices” outlined in our other reading: Self-awareness, recursivity, inquisitiveness, connectivity, and open-ended synthesis, then what does it really matter?  The student’s intercommunication with texts results in learning.  The fact that they enjoyed it at all is a triumph over apathy and signifies the value gained from engagement.

Rachel Cowan’s response – Week 2

I’ve been guilty of taking for granted “How Experts Differ from Novices,” but many of these intuitive claims got me to thinking how this knowledge can be applied.  If, as they say, “Experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notices and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment.  This, in turn, affects their ability to remember, reason, and solve problems.”  Then, we can surmise this information and ability operates on a spectrum, constantly shifting according to attention afforded to the matter, and the fluctuations of knowledge and ability over time.   It seems quite obvious that meaningful patterns are more apparent to those with more experience.

DeGroot (1965) noted that for those who are ‘green’ ideas, “had to be abstracted” – which admittedly at first, I did not understand.  Used as a verb, I think deGroot means to say that the individual has to think of a quality or concept generally and without reference to any specific example (i.e. theoretically) whereas the expert has specific experiential instances to draw upon and make mental comparisons which inevitably lead to more well-formed conclusions.  The more one learns the less they learn in the ‘abstract’ sense.  I can’t help but be encouraged by the fact that from abstraction grows a tangible sense of the world over time.

Each person’s “conceptual structures” or cognitive schemas for organizing knowledge, theories, and assertions undoubtedly differ.   Is it enough to simply be aware that they exist and as authors of our own mental processes we can designates what’s appropriate and determine when our own knowledge is insufficient?   Such a level of meta-cognition is surely unavailable to students until their education and experienced reaches a certain level of maturity.  Personally, it has taken me a long time.  Depending on my mood, environment, or the context, I may be more of less will to admit what I don’t know regardless of whether or not I desire the problem-solving ability.   In this sense, it is the “Big ideas” that will lead to conceptual understand, as the article notes, and we can guide our students toward their own meta-cognition by admitting what we don’t know, the big ideas we do not for comparison, and then bridging the gap between the two.   Certainly, we can find some comfort in being on such a journey together while giving ourselves credit for that which we do know in advance.  This is an appropriate time to tie in the chapter’s next point about how knowledge is “conditionalized” – or pertaining to a specific rhetorical situation.  If the ownus largely falls on the student to identify and generate the “condition-action pairs” then how might we, as teachers, encourage the act of “fluent retrieval”?  Contextualize everything we teach or pair memorization with contextualization?  Shall we encourage original application of concepts through writing in order to re-map conceptual and cognitive schemas in student’s minds and tattoo them on long-term neural pathways?   One can’t help but continually envision DNA tracks like rollercoasters running through our minds, quickly and chaotically driving about without a specific destination in mind.

While I do not yet teach literature or teaching, I train and teach throughout my work-day in a corporate environment.  I struggle to teach foreign concepts to my team by first relating them to known concepts and usually this works.  However, it is largely reliant on their level of understanding of the former.  In this sense I am learning forward to enriching my own pedagogical content of my knowledge area so that I can better foster learning and development with my colleagues.