Guest Post: “Teaching to the Choir” by Cameron Hunt McNabb

I organized a roundtable on “Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education” at last week’s International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, and there was a lot of interest from the audience in having access to the papers read by the panelists.  In that spirit, I will be posting many of those remarks on this blog in the form of guest posts.  Today’s post is by Cameron Hunt McNabb.

Cameron’s Bio:  Cameron Hunt McNabb is an assistant professor of English at Southeastern University. Her work focuses on medieval and early modern drama, and she has publications in or forthcoming in Pedagogy, Neophilologus, Studies in Philology, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, and Early Theatre. She is currently the Director of Southeastern University’s Best Ideas teaching and learning series.


Teaching to the Choir

I’d like to begin by affirming our many current efforts on researching and writing on teaching in the Humanities. I think we have done and are continuing to do a great job marketing ourselves and what we teach to those outside the disciplines. We’ve been selling skills like analytical thinking, problem solving, written and verbal communication, empathy, etc. These sales pitches are incredibly important and need to continue.

But they are for administrators and parents and the general public. They are not for us in the Humanities, who are uncomfortable with the economic language I just used to describe our work (marketing, selling, pitching, etc.) not least because we likely don’t feel like we “bought” anything in the first place. We might be drawn to it, called to it, fascinated or intrigued by it, but whatever it is, it wasn’t a calculated purchase and it didn’t involve phrases like “analytical thinking” or “verbal communication.” I didn’t become an English major, and later an English professor, because of any of those things. I did it because I loved to read. I loved to write. I loved what texts could do. I found them beautiful. And they changed me profoundly.

Many of my English majors feel the same way, as I’m sure most if not all of us in the Humanities do too. We, then, are not the buyers but the choir. And the question then becomes not “How do we sell our teaching to others?” but rather “How do we teach ourselves and our like-minded students? How do we teach to the choir?”

What follows is a preliminary list of a few ways that we might begin or continue to do this kind of teaching.

  1. Teach the texts that converted you

For me, it was Paradise Lost. I was in 10th grade and had this notion that if I was going to be a writer, I should read all of the “classics.” I had heard of the poem but didn’t even know enough to actually call it a poem. I purchased it and the Cliff’s Notes (I felt like it still “counted” even if I had a little help!) and dove in. After months of lonely lunches with Milton in Mr. Boette’s classroom, my life was radically changed. “This,” I thought, “is what I want to do.”

Inspired–or perhaps deluded–by my own powerful experience with the poem, I regularly taught portions of Paradise Lost not only in my early modern courses but also in my gen ed, Intro to Lit class (or, as I like to think of it, Intro to Joining the Choir!). And each year before we’d begin, I’d tell my students, “This will be hard and you may not like it at first. But hang in there. It changed my life and it has the possibility of changing yours.” In turn, students strongly resonated with the poem. Many read it in full on their own. I even had one student sign up for my recently revamped Southern Intro to Lit course and say that she was disappointed at the syllabus because she had heard that we covered Paradise Lost.

2. Confess what didn’t convert you

The flip side to sharing conversion is sharing confession. At the time of my first foray into Milton, I was in a sophomore English class reading Chopin and half a dozen other texts that I don’t even remember. Clearly, these did not resonate with me. I think confessing such experiences is extremely important because Milton won’t convert everyone. Neither will Chopin. So our conversion narratives must always be balanced by a recognition of texts that did not speak to us.

I found such a balance in the co-teaching I did with a Victorianist colleague and friend of mine. He was fairly skeptical of anything that wasn’t a novel, while I didn’t have the stomach for penny-a-word prose. We co-ran a reading group and co-led a study abroad trip, and between these two experiences, we had ample opportunities to explain, defend, and simply dialogue about what drew us to our own fields and what repelled us from others. Our students engaging with us reaped the most benefit: we were able to assure them that they didn’t have to like everything that they read (even if it was a “classic”) and cultivate in them a sense of readerly and literary identity.

3. Don’t be scared to teach relevance

In the past, I have admittedly been wary of a teaching approach that centers on a text’s modern relevance, particularly the medieval and early modern ones I tend to teach. It felt a little like selling out the texts’ intrinsic value for their utilitarian worth and a little like showing Narcissus how to stare in the pool. “Here is how this text is relevant to you” instead of “Here is how this text is maybe kinda trying to say something.”

But slowly I’ve come to realize that one of the things that drew me to literature–one of the things that made Paradise Lost able to radically change my life–was its relevance. Plainly, Milton (and later, the medieval and early modern texts I’ve devoted my life to) asked the same questions I was asking, struggled with the same thoughts I was thinking, and experienced many of the things that I was experiencing. Relevance, I think, opens us up to those moments of conversion. Last year, I had a student from my Milton seminar tell me he read the lament from Lycidas at his twenty-one year old friend’s funeral. More recently and more humorously, my Shakespeare students performed the Shylock-Antonio-Bassanio bond scene in Merchant of Venice as an underhanded Super PAC deal between Trump, Clinton, and Sanders.
As we continue to research and write on teaching in the Humanities, we need to continue considering how to navigate the demands of both the business-model university as well as the devoted choir of students. We must render unto the administration what is the administration’s, but we must also feed the sheep.

Active Learning Is Not Our Enemy: A Response to Molly Worthen

If the social media response I have observed is any indication, then it is fair to say that Professor Molly Worthen’s Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times (“Lecture Me. Really.”) has been a bit polarizing among college instructors.  In brief, Worthen valorizes the lecture as the engine for student learning in humanities courses (particularly those at the introductory level) at the expense of what she terms “[t]oday’s vogue for active learning.”  Some readers have loved it and see in it a reflection of their own practices, while others–to put it mildly–feel less amenable to it and see in it a regretful look backward at the pedagogical days of yore.  As both a fellow humanist and someone who is ensconced in the scholarship of teaching and learning on a daily basis, I too had a visceral reaction to the piece, but I want to try and remain as objective as possible.  Rather than highlight my initial response, I want to call attention to the fallacies in Worthen’s argument and to the damage such “either/or” pieces can do to the discourse regarding higher education, particularly when they are published in extremely visible outlets like the NYT.

To begin with, I want to be absolutely clear: I don’t have any problem with lecturing as one tool among many that we can use to help our students learn.  It can be a very valuable strategy in certain instances.  After all, storytelling is the world’s oldest form of teaching, so there are times when a well-delivered lecture can be as powerful as anything else we do in the classroom.  The key is we have to keep them short, and we also need to use other teaching methods as well, because the research simply does not support the notion that courses dominated by lecture will be effective for student learning.  Derek Bruff, Director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching, has recently written a phenomenal piece about the research on lecturing, so I won’t retread the same ground, but I do want to note from the outset that lectures should not be dismissed out of hand.

Worthen, on the other hand, clearly does not feel the same way about active learning. She not only dismisses discussion, group work, and other forms of pedagogy, but does so with derision.  As a result, she ignores decades worth of research and relies almost exclusively on anecdote.  It’s hard to build a case that way.  In what follows, I want to get to the bottom of all of the assumptions that underpin Worthen’s piece by closely reading passages from the essay itself, which I’ve placed in bold font.

“A 2014 study showed that test scores in science and math courses improved after professors replaced lecture time with ‘active learning’ methods like group work — prompting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has long campaigned against the lecture format, to declare that ‘it’s almost unethical to be lecturing.’ ”

Calling the Freeman, et. al., report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “a 2014 study” is akin to looking at a highly influential book (choose your favorite!) and calling it a pretty decent piece of work that changed a few minds.  This PNAS article was a bombshell meta-analysis of 225 different studies that didn’t merely suggest lecturing was less effective than a combination of active learning strategies; indeed, for many it definitively proved that this was so.  Yes, as a part of the wealth of data on grades and test scores, it began to reframe teaching as an ethical issue, going as far as to say, “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”  Those are very strong words by well-respected scientists, and they cannot be brushed off by mere hypotheses.  As a humanist, I can easily see that these findings are generalizable to my own discipline.

The biggest resistance I often see when I talk to people about the PNAS findings and  similar studies is the class-size argument.  Many, especially in the humanities, will argue that once the class gets too large, it is difficult to do anything other than lecture.  But discussion is possible regardless of how many students we have. When we get up to a certain number (say, 40 and beyond), though, it has to morph into small group discussion. This approach can be very effective, but there need to be clear guidelines, good questions, and the groups need to share their findings.

“In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts.”

I don’t resent experts.  I know lots of experts.  On my good days, I even like to think I bring a bit of expertise into my own classroom.  Here is the crux of Worthen’s argument, though.  She seems to think that it is enough to be an expert in a discipline, that students should somehow feel grateful to sit in our classrooms and bask in the glory of our knowledge.  Somehow–perhaps through note-taking (see below), perhaps by chance, perhaps by osmosis, perhaps by magic–students will absorb this knowledge and immediately understand how to make complex arguments and to think like scholars in the discipline.  The trouble is that learning doesn’t work this way.  The human brain does not work this way.  In order to build knowledge, students need to be active participants in creating it.  For the humanities, this can mean discussions, debates, in-class writing, course projects, etc. There is a whole field of inquiry called constructivism that has been demonstrating this for decades.  But you don’t have to believe me.  Just ask your students what their most meaningful educational experience has been.  I’ll bet a lecture is not at the top of the list.

None of this is to downplay the importance of expertise, which is an essential part of being a college educator.  However, by being so adamant in suggesting that lecturing and active learning are polar opposites, pitting one against the other, Worthen feeds right into the ill-founded criticisms of higher education that have been dominating the press.  A refusal to change in the face of a proliferation of research or, at the very least, to add other strategies to the mix only serves to bolster our critics.

“They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.”

Who on earth is trying to assimilate all of these disciplines?  That’s almost literally impossible, and it strikes me as an argument more rooted in the crisis narrative surrounding the humanities than anything else.  Plus, what’s wrong with the sciences?!? They have found a way to demonstrate that students are achieving the learning goals that faculty are establishing.  Perhaps instead of being antagonistic, we could be more open to seeing how we could adapt similar strategies to our goals in the humanities.

“And it (i.e. the lecture) teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the ‘critical thinking’ that educational theorists prize.”

This assumes that we could ever be certain that all students were paying close attention, a point to which I’ll return below.  If we cannot be certain of this, Worthen’s argument begins to fall in on itself.

“Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article.”

There is no getting around it:  this statement is snarky, condescending, elitist, and derives from a privileged position within the academy.  Clearly, those of us who advocate strongly for more diversity among the pedagogical methods by which we teach the humanities just “do not understand what a lecture is.”  Trust me:  as a student, I have sat in plenty of lecture courses, and I’ve been to countless professional conferences, where–in the humanities–the lecture reigns supreme.  Yes, I know what a lecture is, but I choose to put my faith in the following rather than disproven notions of teaching or the echo chamber that can result from circling the wagons within our disciplines:  1) the research, and 2) the demonstrable gains in student learning seen by my colleagues who have implemented active learning methods in their courses.  Part of me also thinks Worthen is telling us that if we don’t have a similar educational background to her, then we just don’t know what a good lecture really is, so of course we would choose another mode of teaching.  Well, I won’t dignify that kind of ad hominem rhetoric with a response, except to say that I’m proud of my graduate degrees from the University of Connecticut (Go Huskies!), where–among other things–I was trained to be an effective teacher and to read research on teaching and learning.

“Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this.”

I actually agree with Worthen that all of this is hard work.  But is a lecture really our most effective tool for helping students with argumentation, synthesis, and organization?  Are we to presume students are able to do all of these things on their own simply by listening (not even reading, but listening) to a model argument?  Even if we assume that the argument being presented in the lecture is of the caliber that it will revolutionize the field, it is a stretch to believe that students can take what they are hearing and apply the methods to their own work simply by taking notes if they haven’t been given any opportunity to practice through other means.  If it is happening for some students, how do we prove it?  Worthen is dismissing active learning in favor of lecturing on the basis of a hunch about what might be happening in her students’ minds.  Mark Sample makes a similar point in a comment on the Derek Bruff post I discussed above, and it is a vital one to consider.  There are no data to back the notion that this kind of learning is actually taking place, largely because such a claim would be difficult to ever verify.

“Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. “

I confess that the word “suggests” here really bothers me.  The research doesn’t just suggest that lecturing is less effective for these populations of students. The research is, in fact, pretty clear.  Here is a great example of a study on the ways in which lecturing is detrimental to underrepresented students and women.   Also, here is Adam Newman‘s brilliant Storify on the limitations of using lectures to teach students with disabilities.  On this latter point, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that universal design for learning has been around for a very long time, and its framework fully supports everything Adam says in his Twitter essay.

There also seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding here about the way learning works.  If a student is struggling with something–say a concept or a pedagogical strategy like lecturing–simply doing that thing over and over and over again will not necessarily help him or her to learn it better.  Plainly put:  different students need different strategies in order to learn most effectively.  If we approach education with a one-size-fits-all model, we are sure to fail our students.

“Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.”

Again, I agree with the premise here.  I assume Professor Worthen is training her students how to take notes productively and to build attention while giving them opportunities to practice, because–otherwise–how can we be sure the strategies they are using are effective?

“Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes.”

If I had to write a script and rehearse lines before walking into the classroom, I would be an unhappy fellow.  What is so beautiful about the teaching of literature, history, philosophy, and all of the other fields under the umbrella of the humanities is the serendipity of discovery, when (through discussion or other activities) students and instructor together find a new way of seeing something.  Following the path Professor Worthen has laid out for us–practicing like actors awaiting their cue–shuts off the possibility for what makes education so meaningful to begin with.  This approach, of course, also focuses on the nature of our “performance” at the front of the classroom, rather than student learning.

“I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty.”

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think the point of teaching is to get our heart rates up and to improve our resting pulse. Rather than an aerobic workout, shouldn’t we be focused on getting people to learn things?

I think it’s important to note that Worthen mentions asking questions here.  I want to know more about the kinds of questions she’s asking.  I’d like to think they are deeply analytical questions that require students to engage with the material and that spark debate.  Due to the rose-colored glasses I wear, I choose to believe that they are.

“Such words of caution are deeply unfashionable. But humanists have been beating back calls to update our methods, to follow the lead of the sciences, for a very long time.”

First, Worthen seems to be assuming that all humanists feel the same way about new modes of teaching–that we all pull out the garlic and scream in terror at the suggestion that we might consider changing.  This is hardly the case.  But again, why take such pains to further expand the gulf that has been created between the humanities and the STEM fields?  Maybe, and I’m just putting this out there, we could all learn from each other.

“Such a student learns ‘when to speak and when to be silent,’ Newman wrote. ‘He is able to converse, he is able to listen.’ “

We have heard much from Worthen about the silence and the listening, but I would like to hear more about the speaking and the conversing. What role do these play in her classes?  They are, after all, elements of active learning.


I’d like to close with an anecdote of my own. Yesterday, I had the good fortune to observe Dennis Huston, a professor of English and one of Rice’s legendary teachers, for the book I am currently writing.  Dennis has won every teaching award our university offers, along with many national awards too, including the highly regarded CASE/Carnegie U.S Professor of the Year Award.  I was observing a Shakespeare course (and, yes, I have his permission to write about what I saw).  Certainly there was a fair amount of what Worthen would probably consider to be lecturing, though it came closer to an expert glossing of and commentary on the text, but he also was masterful about incorporating discussion.  When a student would respond to a question, he focused intently, kindly, on each person who was speaking, often walking right up to where they were sitting in the room. He would listen and then push further.  I must have heard him ask “Why?” dozens of times as he helped each student move beyond the surface to a more nuanced interpretation.  For Dennis, each student, each speaker, is the most important in the room while they contribute, and then they are all a team working to put together their own understanding of the text. To be sure, that interpretation may have existed before, many may have written about the same aspects of the play, but for these students, in this place, at that time, it was brand new—a thing that lived for each of them. For such a thing to happen in the humanities, we must first admit that we are not the most important people in the room (notice that I’m not dispensing with our expertise as faculty), and then we must acknowledge that learning trumps the delivery of our knowledge every single time.

What’s Happening with the CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year Award?

The other day I went to the homepage for the well-known and highly-regarded CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year Award to see if there had been any updates regarding this year’s winners yet.  Rice has some nominees in the mix, and I was a little curious.  I didn’t find any information regarding victors, but I did find an ominous statement greeting me when the website loaded:

The U.S. Professors of the Year Awards Program will go on hiatus, beginning in January 2016, as part of a year-long strategic planning process that the Council for Advancement and Support of Education launched in July 2015. Therefore, there will not be a call for nominations in January.

The full statement explaining the hiatus outlines the decision-making process in more detail.

Say what you will about the politics of awards and the ways in which the processes for all kinds of awards can sometimes seem arbitrary, but the CASE/Carnegie program has been extremely important for higher education.  To often the narratives about our profession, and the accolades given within it, are dominated by research.  The U.S. Professor of the Year program has always served to shine a bright, and highly respected, light onto teaching.  By separating candidates into four categories (by type of institution), the program leveled the playing field a bit as well in a way that underscores the kinds of phenomenal teaching that happen across the board in our institutions of higher ed.

All this is to say that I hope this is really a hiatus, and not a discontinuing, of the program.  Higher ed. cannot afford to lose it.

Higher Education’s Empire Strikes Back Moment

Everybody loves The Empire Strikes Back.  Everybody.  I’ll hear no arguments to the contrary; its brilliance as a sequel is without question.  It’s a film that doesn’t try to chase away the dark plot with too much hope.  The ending, in fact, only promises an attempt to make things right, not a guarantee that the heroes will win.

Lately, though, all of the news about higher ed has made me feel like I’m trapped in this film that I so love.  We hear doom and gloom from all corners of higher ed:  colleges closing (and some miraculously reopening) and frightening shouts of The Disruptors that “Things Have Changed,” not to mention the budget cuts as well as the assault on tenure and academic freedom in Wisconsin.  I can almost even hear the foreboding notes of the Imperial March every time I read a new piece about the WI legislature’s bill and omnibus motion that will have devastating effects on the students who attend the fine institutions in the UW System.

Yes, these are dark moments, but I sense a Return of the Jedi (in spirit if not in cinematic quality) on the horizon.  One look at what folks like Kevin Gannon, Sara Goldrick Rab, Chuck Rybak, Lee Skallerup Bessette, Jesse Stommel, and many, many more are saying about higher ed on Twitter is enough to convince me that the right people are working on the problems and that there is, indeed, hope for our future.  Budgets might be cut and changes may be made, but one thing legislators cannot do is alter the fact that there are so many people out there who love everything that universities stand for–teaching, cutting-edge research, freedom of ideas–and it is only a matter of time before the pendulum swings back the other way.

I won’t do anything as silly as casting parts in this scenario, though it is tempting to think of Greg Semenza as Obi Wan Kenobi, but I will say this:  We’ll need fewer C3POs (“We’re doomed!”) and more Han Solos in the days ahead.

The Grief of Pain

1.  Every time I teach a course, I end up learning something from my students. I don’t think I’m alone in this, and—in fact—this intellectual give-and-take is part of what drew me to the profession in the first place. So it was no surprise to me when I began teaching a new course on the films of the Pixar Animation Studio last January to find that their insights were sparking new ways for me to think about these movies. I wasn’t prepared, though, for how much my students would teach me by the time we were finished.

2.  Kariann and I met in 2008. When she asked me out on our first date (yes, you read that correctly), I was wearing an ugly tie. I know it was an ugly tie because she later told me so, although I always point out that this did not stop her from going out on our date. That ugly tie now sits in a box of keepsakes in my closet as a reminder of the most important moment of my life. We were married in 2011 and became the proud parents of a beautiful daughter in 2012.

On December 25, 2014, Kariann woke up with sore arms. At first, she thought she had simply slept in an awkward position the night before, but the pain began to escalate quickly, and we ended up in the emergency room twice by the time the day had ended. Her pain was excruciating, and it was moving too. While her arms continued to feel as if they had been lit on fire, she was starting to feel what she described as electric shocks in her legs too.

Theories were bandied about: perhaps a strange virus, possibly a pinched nerve. One of the ER doctors used the phrase “neuropathic pain.” He told Kariann, “You’ve got it, but we don’t know why.” I had never heard that term “neuropathic” before, but over the next few months I would hear it more than I ever could have guessed.

A few days later, we made it home from my father-in-law’s house in Dallas, where we had been staying for Christmas break, but just barely. On January 1st, Kariann was admitted to the hospital for the first time. Doctors were sure that whatever was wrong involved her nerves in some way, but that’s all they were certain about. They were searching for the root of the problem. The hunt would prove futile; no cause would ever be found. “You’re a mystery,” they told her. We were advised to see our primary-care physician as soon as possible and to get a referral to a good neurologist. “It’s probably just a virus. It should pass soon, but we want to make sure it’s not something else, like MS.”

3.  One of the first films I taught in the Pixar course was Finding Nemo (2003). Moving beyond the movie’s tagline “Just keep swimming” (which had resonated with me long before Kariann’s health issues began but now took on greater significance for me), I wanted to focus in more depth on the journey motif. I had titled this unit “The Hero’s Journey,” and assigned some sections of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces for students to read in conjunction with watching the movie. Finding Nemo is more complex than most people give it credit for. It’s The Odyssey set in the ocean, where a father and a son must each make their own journeys in order to better understand themselves and to see one another in a new light. Marlin, whose wife Coral is tragically killed trying to protect their soon-to-be born children at the beginning, must learn to let go of the past so that he can move on with his life and be a better father, free of the paranoia that prevents him from allowing Nemo to grow up. Nemo, too, begins to acquire a greater understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses while at the same time gaining insight into his father’s fallibility. Their journeys intertwine, and the gains in empathy made by the two protagonists are quite poignant.

And yet at the root of it all is the notion of home. My students were particularly astute at drawing out this element of the film. Dory, the friend with short-term memory loss whom Marlin finds along the way, has a beautiful line toward the end of the film when she tells Marlin, “I look at you, and I’m home” (1:23). Like The Odyssey, Finding Nemo is ultimately about the ways in which we reimagine the meaning of home from something that is place-bound to an ideal that becomes tied to the people about whom we care the most.

When I look at you, I am home. My home is wherever you are.

4.  It wasn’t MS. Instead, the verdict was something called peripheral neuropathy—a condition involving severe inflammation of, and often damage to, the nerves in the arms and legs. February and March were horrific. While we got bounced from doctor to doctor, with long periods of time between scheduled appointments, Kariann’s pain grew worse and worse.

In what I will, until my last day, believe to be a violation of the Hippocratic oath, not one but two doctors told Kariann that they wouldn’t prescribe pain medication, that she should, and I quote, “just go to the emergency room if it got too bad.” We didn’t know it at the time, but the federal government had passed a law in October mandating that physicians must apply for a special script pad to write prescriptions for hydrocodone, more commonly known as Vicodin or Norco. Prior to October, it was relatively easy for doctors to prescribe these medicines. Since then, however, it now requires both more effort and greater assumption of risk in order to get patients these medicines. The end result of this is that most doctors need to be certain about a person’s level of pain and committed to helping them get well, but many will not do so because they would be liable if a patient abused the medication.

We were fortunate enough to finally find a neurologist who was not only top notch, but she also believed that Kariann was in excruciating pain. The doctor believed her—I repeat it only because I can’t put in words how monumental that was.

Here is the truth: while those other doctors were busy covering themselves, worried more about their own reputations than about my wife, Kariann was suffering. I have never seen a human being in so much pain before. Her body contorted itself, trying desperately to find any position that would lessen the torture. Her eyes, glazed and darkened, often shifted relentlessly, as if she were silently looking for any way to escape. Her hands, once her most important tools as a professional artist, now struggled to hold utensils during meals. Her only peace came in those few hours when sleep would overtake her.

She was also losing weight quickly—forty-five pounds in four months—and her muscles were atrophied from so much time in bed. There were times when I had to help her move from place to place. I tried to do as much as I could for her, but I felt so completely helpless. I would guess that there must be few things worse than seeing the person you love most in the world suffering and not being able to do anything about it.

One night in March, at the end of a particularly bad week, Kariann called me to her side.

“I want to die,” she said.

“No, honey. No.”

5.  From our unit on heroes’ journeys, we moved to a segment on loss and grief in children’s media. Prior to watching the two primary Pixar films that wrestle with this subject (Toy Story 3 and Up), I asked my students to read A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner for its moving meditation on the loss of childhood.

As I’m sure you’ll remember,* the book ends with Christopher Robin holding Pooh’s hand on the edge of the Hundred Acre Wood as they look “out over the world” (175).** That phrase is repeated several times over the course of the final chapter as a way to emphasize that CR will need to move forward. The Hundred Acre Wood and his friends will take on the new role of fond memories of childhood as he begins to grow up.

Milne writes the scene perfectly. Instead of succumbing to the overt sentimentality into which it would be so easy to lapse, he has CR hesitate, pause, even stumble as he tries to say goodbye to Pooh. Such transitions are monumental, and often ineffable, for children, so this is as honest a portrayal of childhood’s end as I’ve ever read.

Traditionally, the image of CR and Pooh looking outward together has been read as a boy saying farewell to the formative, innocent, playful past, with Pooh standing in as a metaphor for all the wonder childhood holds. My students, however, pushed this reading in new directions. What if Pooh, they argued, also represents Milne himself, or parents more generally? In other words, CR is also telling his parents that he must grow up—time cannot be stopped—but he’ll always remember the happy days when he was a child. Read this way, they showed me that The House at Pooh Corner is as much about being a parent as it is about being a child. The moment shared together by parents and their children is so brief and yet so transformational.

This, of course, made me think about our daughter.

6.  My daughter is a very smart almost-three-year-old. (Yes, I know all parents think their children are smart.) She understands and can articulate that “Mommy is sick” and “I can’t sit on Mommy’s lap today” and “When Mommy is better she’ll be able to pick me up again.” She clearly misses the physical closeness of the relationship they had before Kariann became ill. Kariann misses it too, and though she tries to give as many hugs, kisses, and snuggles as she can, it has clearly taken a toll on both of them.

As primary caregiver now, I spend a lot of time with my daughter. She is my little co-pilot as we go to the grocery store, Target, restaurants, the park, and the humane society so that she can pet the cats and dogs—something she loves to do. I’ve always wanted to be a father, and I have relished the role, so we were close even before all of this happened, but our relationship has grown even tighter in the months since. I’m glad of this; I just wish the circumstances were much different.

One evening when I was giving her a bath, I began to feel overwhelmed by everything. Kariann was having a rough night, and I was mired in worrying about the many things that were on my to-do list. I sat back for a moment and said, “I’m just not sure I can do this tonight.”

My daughter, hair full of shampoo and rubber ducky in hand, looked over at me and said, “You can do it, Daddy.” She is such a strong little girl and—at that moment—I drew my own strength from her.

In fact, the only discernible emotional or psychological effect that Kariann’s illness seems to have had on my daughter has to do with her sleeping patterns. Prior to that fateful Christmas day, she had always been a good sleeper. In fact, we’ve been very fortunate in that regard. Since, though, she has woken up and called out for me somewhere between two and seven times nearly every single night. As you can imagine, this has cut into my sleep a little bit, and she often doesn’t want anything other than to have her blanket rearranged. At times, I confess that I have succumbed to frustration because of the wake-ups, but I recognize that this is about feeling comfort and reassurance for her. In the end, it’s the least I can do.

7.  The semester went on, as semesters are wont to do. I just tried to hang in there with my students, knowing that I was only partly there with them. The rest of me was back at home with Kariann. Despite everything, she still found a way to teach her first-year writing seminar every Tuesday and Thursday morning at Rice. I would drop her off at the classroom door and pick her up again right afterwards. Even in the midst of agony, she made it a priority to help those students. Now that, folks, is courage. My wife is my hero.

Finally, though, at the end of April, the pain became too much. Kariann’s neurologist admitted her to the hospital. She was there for five days, and her sister came to help us out. I took off work so that she wouldn’t be lonely. Having once spent ten days in a hospital, mostly by myself, I know how lonely it can be. I didn’t want her to be without someone, so her sister and I were there with her as much as we could be.

Teams of neurologists, pain specialists, occupational and physical therapists, and dieticians were in the room often. Eventually, through a combination of a head-spinning number of medications, they were able to bring the pain down a notch. Few of them had seen a case of neuropathy where the patient was in as much pain as Kariann was in. To contrast the distinct lack of empathy I had witnessed from doctors early in the ordeal, I witnessed some moments of extraordinary compassion for her during this stay. I’ll always be grateful for that.

Kariann came home in less pain, but it is still debilitating a lot of the time. A biopsy taken just a few days before she went into the hospital clarified a final diagnosis—small fiber peripheral neuropathy. Most of the nerves in her arms and hands were completely blown, and some didn’t even exist any more. This is a chronic illness with no cure and only a very small chance of remission.

Suddenly, things became clear for both of us. This was not just a crisis that we could make our way through and then exit on the other side. This would be with us for a long time, maybe always.

I was a wreck the next day and had a hard time concentrating on anything else. We talked for a bit about it that night, but it was all still too big to put into words.

She tried to do so: “You can marry someone else if you want to.”

“Never,” I said.

8.  There have been moments in the classroom where students’ insights have hit so close to home that it has taken me aback. During the course of studying Up (2009) this semester, I had one of those moments.

Up is a film predominantly concerned with grief and the struggle to come to terms with loss. From the opening fifteen minutes*** to Carl’s last view of his house falling from the sky, we are confronted with the devastation of his grief for his wife Ellie as well as the messy, illogical process of grieving.

We spent an entire day in class discussing Carl’s journey floating to Paradise Falls in a house covered with balloons as an allegory for the grieving process. Students deftly analyzed the various scenes with the house as they relate to Carl’s grief. First, he travels in the house itself, consumed by all of the memories of Ellie that surround him. Later, after he lands in Paradise Falls, he attaches himself to the house so that it does not fly away. Though he is beginning to process his grief, he is still tethered to it. It takes the length of the film, and his newfound friendship with Russell (who is himself dealing with grief over his severed relationship with his father), for Carl to gain a new perspective.

The problem is that, throughout the film, Carl continually thinks he failed Ellie while she was alive. Yes, they had been happy, but they never had children, and they never made it together to Paradise Falls. It is only after he looks again at Ellie’s adventure book and turns a key page that he realizes their life together had, in fact, been the journey that she had always craved. In what is perhaps the most moving moment of the film, he sees a note from her asking him to begin a new adventure.

Some of the students who wrote papers on Up moved from this scene to an interpretation that stopped me in my tracks. Carl, they noted, comes to understand that overcoming grief is not about forgetting the past ever happened, thereby erasing what had come before. Instead, the process of grieving is meant to teach us how to fashion a new life in altered circumstances —  one that is not less meaningful, just different. The life after grief is not a shadow of what might have been, nor is it second best. The life after grief runs parallel to the life abandoned, and it is as full of beauty and tragedy as any other of the many lives we might have lived. 

9.  And so, like Carl, we are working together to turn a new page, to imagine a new life for our family—one in which we do not ignore the reality of Kariann’s illness but at the same time do not let it define our future. This is much easier to say than it is to do. How do we begin then? We are trying to make each day as good as it can possibly be without thinking too much about the bigger picture just yet. From there, I think we just keep swimming.

*Note: If you’ve never read The House at Pooh Corner, please do yourself a favor and read it as soon as possible! It’s funny and wise and sad and beautiful.

**Quotations are from the Dutton Children’s Books edition (New York: Penguin, 2007).

***Can anyone among us make it through that opening montage without getting misty?

****A version of this post is now available on Thanks to all who have shared and commented on this essay!

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)


(2) 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.