About Josh Eyler

After receiving his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Connecticut in 2006, Josh moved to a position as Assistant Professor in the English department at Columbus State University in Georgia. Although he was approved for tenure at CSU, his love for teaching and his desire to work with instructors from many different disciplines led him to the field of faculty development and to George Mason University, where he served as an Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence from 2011-2013. In August of 2013, he came to Rice to take the position of Director of the CTE. He has published broadly on medieval literature, and his eclectic research interests include the biological basis of learning, Chaucer, and disability studies. His current projects include the book How Human Beings Learn: A New Paradigm for Teaching in Higher Education, which is under contract with the University of Nebraska Press.

Just Keep Swimming: A Semester of Teaching Pixar

Sometime during July of 2013, I was distracting myself from a writing project by scrolling through Facebook, when I started to see a bunch of my friends sharing a new piece by writer Jon Negroni called “The Pixar Theory.”  Since publishing his essay, Negroni has fleshed out the timeline a bit further, created a video describing the theory, built a website devoted to the theory, and is reportedly working on a book centered on the theory.  Essentially, Negroni argues that all of the films in Pixar’s body of work exist in the same universe and are contributing a small piece of a much larger story.

To be frank, I disagree with much of the Pixar Theory, in large part because I think it takes leaps of logic that are simply not possible without the presence of direct evidence.  For many of these points, such evidence either does not exist or has yet to be found.  Most of all, Jay Ward–the Art Department Manager at Pixar for 9 years–has indicated that not only was this sort of conjoined timeline never intended by the studio, but also the films were made over so many years by so many different people that it’s just not feasible to think that they fit into this sort of elaborately conceived schema.

Lest it be said of me that I have rained upon everyone’s Pixar parade, I will admit that Negroni’s idea is a cool one and some of his evidence (like the easter egg in Brave) is very, very intriguing.  What the piece ultimately did for me that July was to convince me that there was enough commonality among the films to teach an integrated course on Pixar.  I knew it would take some time, so I started collecting films and planning the course.  Finally, this semester I launched my first-year writing intensive seminar called The World According to Pixar.

My students have been fantastic, and I have enjoyed teaching the course immensely.  They have adopted the mantra of Dory in Finding Nemo (“Just keep swimming!”) as they have worked through essays, blog posts, reading responses, and Twitter assignments. Final projects, with presentations, are due on May 2nd.  Students will either be responding in depth to Negroni’s theory or creating their own unified theory with respect to the ways in which the larger body of Pixar films work together to forge a broader commentary about the world.** What I have loved most about the course, though, is the excitement felt by students as they have been constructing a new body of knowledge.  Beyond blog posts, movie reviews, and the occasional essay, there is not much at all written about the Pixar films, so students have been creating their own field of inquiry as the semester has unfolded.  I’m grateful to them for the terrific intellectual journey we have all shared.

Below I describe what are, for me, some of the highlights of the course–ideas, discussions, and new ways of viewing the films that I think are fascinating and significant:

Highlights from the Finding Nemo/Incredibles Unit (Supplemental text: selections from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

One day we spent an entire class period discussing one student’s hypothesis that the bulk of Finding Nemo is largely a narrative constructed by Marlin in his mind to cope with the loss of his wife and children. At first, I thought “No way,” but I wanted them to understand the process that scholars undertake when we evaluate arguments, so we looked at 1) evidence that might support this reading; 2) potential pitfalls; and 3) the kinds of evidence we would still need to find to make it work.

I wouldn’t say I was completely convinced by the end of class, but I began to find the argument much more plausible. Some of the evidence they came up with:

  • Nemo is Latin for No one/Nobody/No name (I helped on this one). Thus, the title is literally, “Finding No One.” We also considered the Captain Nemo connection, of course, and one student even pointed out that the letters “nemo” are found in the middle of “anemone,” which is where Marlin builds the home for his family.
  • There is a break in the film after the barricuda knocks Marlin unconscious and another one after he discovers the death of his family and the lone surviving egg.
  • Dory appears out of nowhere in true “deus ex machina” fashion. She can never remember Nemo’s name and often has no idea why they are going on a journey. She does, however, seem to exist to provide Marlin help when he most needs it, particularly in the emotional realm.
  • When trapped in the belly of the whale, Dory, ostensibly translating whale-speak to Marlin in reference to their physical predicament, has the poignant line, “He said it’s time to let go. Everything’s going to be alright.”
  • Once you start down this path, the entire ending changes a bit. There’s far too much to explore in this brief space, but Nemo and Dory are never in the same physical space once they all return to the anemone, and there is an inexplicably serious moment where Nemo and Marlin say good-bye to each other.

For The Incredibles, we began by exploring the historical, religious, and socio-cultural significance of superheroes. As a case study, we looked at the evolution of Superman and the range of interpretations of his character. We then unpacked one of the images from “The Death of Superman” and discussed why the demise of superheroes often creates such a buzz in popular culture. We used all of this as a backdrop for our discussion of the film and its use of superheroes.

We also discussed Brad Bird’s (the director’s) explanation of the ways in which the Parrs’ superpowers are both assets and also metaphorical reflections on their characters, e.g., Violet’s powers of invisibility and force fields reflecting teenagers’ desires and emotional responses to the world.

We even had a great conversation about the film’s exploration of nostalgia and the role the past plays in shaping our identities. Bob, for example, is trapped in the past to the detriment of his family life; Helen, on the other hand, refuses to think about the past, thereby cutting off an important part of her identity.

Highlights from the Toy Story 3/Up Unit (Supplemental texts: A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking)

For our unit on grief and loss in children’s literature and media, we used Up and Toy Story 3 as our primary texts, but we added the supplemental texts listed above for context.

In the course of our discussions, students argued that The House at Pooh Corner and Toy Story 3 fundamentally say the same things about the loss of childhood, but because Andy is older in TS3, we are able to come to more of a resolution at the end of the film. Christopher Robin can only hesitate, stop, pause, redirect at the end of the book. They suggested that this is because he is much younger than Andy, so the momentous transition from childhood is ineffable for him, while Andy can articulate exactly why saying goodbye to Woody and others is so hard. Also, the more serious adventures in TS3, including the possibility of the toys’ destruction in the fire, mirror Andy’s internal struggles as he matures and gets ready to leave home.  As a bonus, the last thing we see in TS3 is Andy’s car driving off to college and then we get a shot of the blue sky, which is exactly the image with which the first Toy Story began. Brilliant.

Side note:  When you get a chance, watch Toy Story 3 again and take note of the look on Woody’s face early in the film when he hears Andy answer the phone. Unexpectedly poignant.

Then we turned to Up and mapped out, shot for shot, the ways in which Carl’s journey with his house in Up serves as an allegory for his efforts to overcome the loss of Ellie. Students were particularly drawn to the house, and the changes it undergoes, as a symbolic key.

One element of the film that we kept coming back to was Russell’s comment that it’s “the boring things” about his time with his dad (before his dad moved out) that he’ll remember.  This resonated with many in the class, and it may very well be these “boring things” that serve as the foundation for our most cherished memories.

Highlights from the WALL-E Unit (Supplemental texts: Edward Humes’s Garbology:  Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Henry David Thoreau’s “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” from Walden, and Genesis from the Hebrew Scriptures)

Easily the jewel in the Pixar crown, WALL-E was a gold mine for class discussion.  We looked at the film through the lenses of environmentalism and philosophy, but we also paid some attention to the religious allusions in the film.  By this point in the semester, students had fine-tuned their skills in criticism, and I was very impressed with their readings of the movie as both a dire warning about our habits of consumption, while at the same time being a kind of love letter to humanity, suggesting that even with our flaws and wasteful behaviors there will always be something redeeming about the human spirit.

I am teaching the course again next semester, and I look forward to the insights those students will bring to the material.  There is always something about the first run of a course, though, and I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time to come.

**Jon Negroni has been good enough to agree to Skype in for our presentations to talk about his Pixar Theory and to give feedback on my students’ interpretations.

A Crisis of Bread: A Thinly-Veiled Satire

Joe:  I’m worried about bread.

Sue:  That seems arbitrary.  And odd.  Why?

Joe:  Bread is tasty.

Sue:  No, why are you worried about it?

Joe:  Oh, right.  I think there maybe a crisis in the bread industry.  Fewer people seem to be buying bread now than they did a few decades ago.  This clearly suggests to me that the entire industry is going to crumble.  Crumble–get it?

Sue:  Yes, your wit is impeccable.  But your facts are not.  I just saw some data that suggest there are far more bread buyers, bread bakers, and bread corporations now than there were in 1948.(1)

Joe:  Hmm.  But now there are so many more options!  You have pitas and wraps, for example.  Surely these are drawing away some of those who might otherwise have bought bread in the past.

Sue:  Although pitas and wraps are delicious alternatives, just over 10% of carbohydrate consumers are still bread purchasers, which is ever so slightly higher than the percentage in 1987. Surely you would concede that there are more potential purchasers of bread now than there were then, so the 10% in 2013 actually represents a far larger number than the 1987 figure did.(2)

Joe:  I’m confused.

Sue:  I thought you might be.  In the intervening years, the numbers of bread purchasers actually exceeded 12% and held steady for decades–until the recent economic collapse.  A dip over the last few years, though, does not quite amount to the kind of crisis narrative that we are being sold, however.

Joe:  So bread is safe then?

Sue:  There is no doubt that the political waters remain dicey for bread.  Funding for national grant programs in bread-baking continues to be cut.  But can you imagine a world without sandwiches or croutons?  No!  People will always want these things, and they will want folks who know about bread to be baking them.

Joe:  But I’ve even heard about this crisis from the bread bakers themselves.

Sue:  The bread bakers are feeding into the rhetoric by buying into it themselves.  What if they stopped listening and just continued to make the best bread in the world as if there were no perceived crisis?  What if, in fact, they countered this discussion by demonstrating the value of bread through their output and through teaching the public just how good bread can be?

Joe:  That seems pretty radical.

Sue:  Really?  I’m not so sure about that.

Joe:  What about the bread companies that have been shut down because of poor revenue and lack of buyers?

Sue:  We certainly mourn their losses, but those decisions were more likely the result of  CEOs who were concerned about the limited number of purchasers in local bread-buying markets rather than a large-scale devaluing of the nutritional benefits of bread.

Joe:  Important folks are always joking about how silly it is to study the art of baking bread.  Doesn’t that have a lasting impact?

Sue:  Lots of people say lots of things, but it doesn’t affect the taste of the bread.

Joe:  Where do gluten-free products fit into all this?

Sue:  I’m not sure we can stretch this rather poor attempt at an analogy that far.  It’s already gone on long enough.

Joe:  You can say that again.(3)

(1) http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=34

(2) http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/binaries/pdf/HI_HigherEd2015.pdf. Page 8.

(3) In case it is not abundantly clear, I hate this kind of corporate-speak, and I don’t think higher ed should be treated like a business, which is why this kind of example is so revealing for the national discourse about the humanities.

What in the World Is Happening in North Carolina?

You may have heard about the current witch hunt fiscal deliberations happening right now in North Carolina.  As the New York Times reported a few days ago, the university system’s Board of Governors has been considering significant budget cuts for institutionally-affiliated centers for several months.  The list began with approximately 240 centers and by December a special task force had cut it down to the 34 that the board was considering for closure.  Ultimately, the full board will vote on a proposal to close 3 of the centers and to subject the rest to further review.

On the list from the beginning, and landing in the final proposal as well, is UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE).  In fact, there are three centers focusing on education that are on the list of 34, but–as someone whose professional life is intertwined with teaching and learning in higher education–I am particularly appalled at the inclusion of the highly regarded CFE on this list.  Although I am never surprised when conservative politicians slash public funding for higher education (as we’ve seen recently with Wisconsin and Illinois), it is amazing to me that the Board of Governors would even consider putting on the chopping block a center focused on effective teaching at their flagship campus.  When will they realize that teaching is at the heart of everything that happens at the university?  To see teaching as something that only happens in the classroom is to discount all of the co- and extra-curricular activities that help to shape the successful lives and careers of college students.  Even more, it ignores the very real pedagogical value of research.  After all, we do not simply create new knowledge through research; we seek to communicate its value and importance to others.

Centers for teaching and learning have come under threat quite a bit lately.  Yes, overall the field is growing, but we have recently lost centers at Endicott College and Western Kentucky University.  Both of these centers fell victim to budget cuts that were confined to their own campuses.  Still, their losses were deeply felt by all of us who work in CTLs nationwide.  The CFE is being threatened by a larger-scale effort to dismantle public education, though, and I believe we must be vigilant.  If we cannot even make the case to others that effective teaching is an essential part of the mission of our colleges and universities, what can we do?  I don’t have easy answers for this, but I do think that we need to publicize the great work our centers do more prominently and that we need to improve with respect to telling our story and communicating our value.  What do you think?  How can we do better?

A Multiplicity of Voices: My Reflection on Rice’s De Lange Conference

It has been just over two weeks since we wrapped up the De Lange Conference at Rice University, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the questions raised by the event.  The planning committee, of which I was a part, knew that we wanted to tackle some major issues relating to “Teaching in the University of Tomorrow,” and I think we succeeded in doing so.  If nothing else, we turned over a few stones in order to start important conversations, although this inevitably meant that we also left other substantial issues underexplored.

I’m very proud of the event and all of the work my colleagues did to put it together.  The program for the conference combined keynotes by well-known figures in the world of higher education such as William Bowen, Ruth Simmons, Nancy Cantor, Roddy Roediger, and Stephen Kosslyn (among others) together with break-out sessions on pedagogy featuring folks like Derek Bruff, James Lang, Jose Bowen, as well as some of our finest faculty at Rice.  Moderators for the event were Jeff Selingo, Caroline Levander, and George Rupp.

The conference was strengthened by the inclusion of five social media fellows–Kelly Baker, Jason Jones, Dorothy Kim, Ben Railton, and Liana Silva–who worked hard to create a robust conference backchannel on Twitter at #delange9.  They were joined by others who were either attending the conference or who were following the hashtag from afar, including Jennifer Ebbeler.  The discussions on Twitter were boisterous and incisive, skeptical but persuasive. (Full disclosure: I not only personally invited the social media fellows but was an active participant in the backchannel as well.)  Many of Team Twitter, as I like to affectionately think of them, have already written about the event.  Ben, for example, has a wonderful series of blog posts; Kelly wrote a thoughtful critique for Vitae; and Jason wrote two nice pieces for ProfHacker, one of which dealt specifically with the conference’s use of Twitter.  There have even been two articles written by people who weren’t in attendance at the event but were following online–one by Elliot King and the other by Jonathan Rees.

With all of this commentary already available, I won’t belabor the details.  What I’d like to focus on is a holistic assessment of the conference.  Much has been said about the ways in which the tone of the keynotes was very different from the breakouts and from the backchannel.  I think this is fair, and–in many ways–was intentional.  Although there were common threads recurring throughout the event, it would be difficult to see the conference as having a unified vision for the future of higher education, because such a thing is not yet possible to achieve given our different institutional contexts, politics, etc.  Attendees and speakers were sometimes diametrically opposed in their philosophies regarding the purpose of universities.  There was no better example of this than the final panel where audience members put pressure on speakers to address the issue of contingent faculty.

Here is my main takeaway:  this kind of disagreement is not only okay, but it is vital.  This is the nature of academic debate.  Some of the commentary on and offline expressed either a kind of surprise that such a gulf in perspectives would exist or an outrage directed at one side or the other of the debate about teaching and learning.  I’m glad the conference evoked this response, because we wanted the event to mean something. How boring and unproductive it would have been if everyone at De Lange had said and thought the same thing as if we were in some sort of echo chamber.  Ultimately, we can only really build a future for higher education if we acknowledge many different perspectives, put them on the table for honest dialogue, and work together.  The conference brought together people–speakers, workshop facilitators, writers, commentators, and (most importantly) teachers–who I think can take important steps in this direction.

It is perhaps most valuable, then, to view the De Lange Conference as the sum of its parts, and I said as much on Twitter, as Jason notes in his ProfHacker post.  I think the legacy of the conference will be that we asked the tough questions via a multiplicity of voices and through a variety of media.  We didn’t arrive at any answers yet, but there will be time for that…

 

Lessons from a Toy: New (to me) Research on Pedagogy and Cognition

Now that the summer has brought with it the slowing-down that is the hallmark of the academic calendar at this time of year, I have found some time to work on my book that explores the ways in which understanding the biological basis of learning* can benefit those of us who teach in the Humanities (the book proposal can be found here).  As I was doing some research the other day, I came across a fascinating article from 2011.

In it, a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists from UC Berkeley, the University of Louisville, MIT, Stanford, and Harvard report on an experiment they conducted with 85 children between the ages of 4 and 6.  The children were divided into four groups, with each group experiencing a different experimental condition.  Each condition involved the use of a specially designed toy.  In the first group,

the experimenter said, “Look at my toy! This is my toy. I’m going to show you how my toy works. Watch this!” The experimenter then pulled the yellow tube out from the purple tube to produce the squeak sound. She said, “Wow, see that? This is how my toy works!” and demonstrated the same action again. (325)

In the second group, the experimenter began the same way but interrupted herself before the second, reinforcing demonstration of the squeaking function and left to attend to other matters.  For the third group, the experimenter appeared to suddenly discover the toy, wondered aloud about how the toy worked, and “accidentally” discovered the squeaking.  The reinforcement demonstration was completed in this condition.  Finally, in the fourth group, the experimenter simply showed the toy to the children and walked away.  As the researchers note, “In all conditions, the experimenter then said, ‘Wow, isn’t that cool?  I’m going to let you play and see if you can figure out how this toy works.  Let me know when you’re done!'”

Can you guess where we’re headed here?

The first group–the one where the children were intentionally instructed as to the function of the toy–played with the toy for less time and did less with the toy than all of the other groups.  They explored less and tried out fewer possibilities.  The results, in fact were not only statistically significant but impressively so (326).**

The researchers suggest that direct instruction, while valuable for conveying specific information, had a negative effect on the desire to find out new information.  Part of this may have to do with the cues given by teachers that point out significant information.  As proponents of natural pedagogy point out, though, this response may also be evolutionary.  Human beings, that is, may be hard-wired to process information from teacher figures in ways that are the most advantageous for accomplishing essential tasks.

I was drawn to this article because I think it has implications for higher education.  Although our brains change and mature dramatically as we age, the mechanisms by which we learn do not necessarily shift as much as we might think.

Certainly, these findings would add to the recent (and not so recent) mounting evidence on the ineffectiveness of lecturing straight through from the beginning to the end of class.  But might it not also suggest that presenting only one possible side to or perspective on an issue, even in discussion-based courses, contributes to shutting down our students’ innate curiosity and desire to research a question further?

In the end, higher ed’s lesson from the toy might be this:  relying too heavily on direct instruction may be good for teaching to the test but not for our students’ learning overall.

 

*Many thanks to Christina Petersen who, in a recent email exchange, convinced me that “biological basis of learning” is much more appropriate and accurate than “brain-based learning,” which is the more common nomenclature.

**There was a second part to the experiment, too, that involved the ways in which the children processed instruction directly from adults, indirectly from adults, and from children that would make for another post entirely.

 

Saying Goodbye to Medieval Studies (for now, at least)

Every May I attend the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University.  It is both a chance to engage with the field that captured my mind and my heart almost 15 years ago, and also (even more importantly) to reconnect with some very dear friends of mine.  This year’s conference will be a bit different for me, though, as it marks–at least for the foreseeable future–an ending point to my career as a medievalist.

Three forces have converged to lead me to this ultimately inevitable realization:

1. Quite simply, my research interests are changing.  I do have two books under contract, but neither of them has to do with the Middle Ages.  One focuses on the scholarship of teaching and learning and the other on disability in the Oz narratives.  When I have time to write, I tend toward my interests in pedagogy and in children’s literature now.  This is certainly not a bad thing, but it definitely marks a new direction for me as a scholar.

2.  Logistically speaking, my opportunities to teach medieval courses are very limited.  I do facilitate graduate seminars on teaching, and I also teach in Rice’s wonderful Program in Writing and Communication, but a course on medieval literature will be rare to say the least.  I miss teaching Chaucer above all else, as I have seen many students utterly transformed by their study of the poet.

3.  As a full-time administrator, I have not been able to find the time to keep sharp the kinds of skills you need to be a successful medievalist: language study, paleography, etc. When it comes to staying current on the latest research in journals and books, I again have found myself doing so with the teaching and learning literature, but less so with medieval scholarship.  This, more than anything else, has been a signal to me.

When I moved from my faculty position into administration, I knew that there was potential for some of this to happen.  What I didn’t expect was how much my research interests would shift and–quite frankly–how hard it would be to find ways to teach medieval courses.

So, what now? I will still attend Kalamazoo every year.  In addition to seeing those aforementioned friends, I still wish to organize and moderate panels for the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages.  It is important to me to see this small field thrive and to give a platform for scholars who are asking important questions about the subject.  I won’t be producing new research in the area, though.  That is a somewhat bittersweet acknowledgment, but an important one nonetheless.

I am extraordinarily proud of the work done by my students in the medieval courses I have taught over the years (especially those at Columbus State University in Georgia), and I am grateful for the time that I spent deeply embedded in this field if for no other reason than it allowed me to meet some of the most important people in my life.  It’s time now, though, to see where these new paths are going to lead me.  I may someday return to my medieval work, but I’m just not sure.  I’ll always keep a weather eye on what’s happening in Medieval Studies in order to celebrate the great work of all those who devote themselves so completely to this wonderful field.

Before I end this post, I want to say one more thing:  medievalists often get a bad rap as being intellectually myopic or solitary scholars or even out of touch with other disciplines.  I have rarely ever found any of these to be true.  For me, the spirit of Medieval Studies will always be embodied by the time I spent as a graduate student in the Charles A. Owen, Jr. library at the University of Connecticut learning and laughing with Frank Napolitano, Andy Pfrenger, John Sexton, and Kisha Tracy. We shared our work, hashed out our ideas, and–through this field–grew as scholars, teachers, and individuals.  I can’t think of anything that better captures the generous spirit of Medieval Studies and those who work within it.