Geeky Pedagogy is a funny, evidence-based, multidisciplinary, pragmatic, highly readable guide to the process of learning and relearning how to be an effective college teacher. It is the first college teaching guide that encourages faculty to embrace their inner nerd, inviting readers to view themselves and their teaching work in light of contemporary discourse that celebrates increasingly diverse geek culture and explores stereotypes about super-smart introverts.
Geeky Pedagogy avoids the excessive jargon, humorlessness, and endless proscriptions that plague much published advice about teaching. Neuhaus is aware of how embodied identity and employment status shape one’s teaching context, and she eschews formulaic depictions of idealized exemplar teaching, instead inviting readers to join her in an engaging, critically reflective conversation about the vicissitudes of teaching and learning in higher education as a geek, introvert, or nerd. Written for the wonks and eggheads who want to translate their vast scholarly expertise into authentic student learning, Geeky Pedagogy is packed with practical advice and encouragement for increasing readers’ pedagogical knowledge.
About the Author
Jessamyn Neuhaus is a professor of US history and popular culture at SUNY Plattsburgh, a scholar of teaching and learning, and a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is the author of Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America and Housework and Housewives in American Advertising: Married to the Mop.
Read an Excerpt
“Strange, Specific Stuff”
Just because you know a lot about something doesn’t mean you can teach it.
—Anonymous 1998 student evaluation I received after teaching my first college class
It’s hard to write a catchy statement of teaching philosophy. Required by many hiring and promotion committees, these nebulous documents tend to sound pretty much all alike. When I was applying for college teaching jobs, I tried to liven up and personalize my teaching philosophy statement with this true anecdote:
Learning how to read in first grade was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I still vividly remember the moment the words on the page started to make sense, and the feeling it gave me of unlocking a secret door and entering a wonderful new world. Afire with my discovery, I decided that my sister Alison, a kindergartener, should learn how to read too. After several weeks of sitting together and poring over books, Alison learned to read a year before her classmates and my career as an educator began.
Cute story and a good way to introduce myself as a teacher, right? I know at least one search committee thought so because during my interview for the tenure-track job I eventually landed teaching US history and popular culture at the State University of New York Plattsburgh, one of the department’s most esteemed teachers complimented me on it.
There’s just one little problem with framing my philosophy of college teaching through the lens of this particular childhood story: it illustrates the very worst assumption many of us make about teaching at the college level, namely, that sheer love of a subject inevitably leads to effective teaching and student learning. In my story it’s not a desire to teach that makes me a teacher but instead an all-consuming passion for reading. There’s no need for me to learn how to teach someone else to read because purely through some mysterious alchemy conferred by my own mastery of reading skills and adoration for books, I’m able to impart these skills to another person effortlessly. This is the problematic premise of college teaching because earning an advanced degree is the main criteria for most college teaching jobs, usually with no additional formal preparation for teaching required. But as the reality check given to me by my first student evaluation of teaching pointed out, although it’s a necessary precursor, knowing a lot about a subject doesn’t necessarily mean that you can effectively teach other people how to do things in and with that subject matter.
Yet many advanced degree programs offer little meaningful professional teaching development for their students. Instead, graduate students spend years immersed in their own research, experiments, writing, or art, and completing a dissertation, which literature professor Jay Parini calls “the worst possible preparation for teaching.”1 If grad students do get classroom experience as teaching assistants, programs often send them into the teaching fray with the unspoken supposition that any teaching they have to do will be the grunt work that (partially) pays the bills and thus allows them to continue their real work—the work of the mind. This isn’t the case at every institution, and the growing presence of teaching and learning centers on campuses and increased attention to pedagogy as part of graduate school is a hopeful sign that more students are finding support for developing their teaching skills.
However, the basic model remains firmly in place, and many people teaching college classes today followed this process. Step One: Spend at least a decade grappling with an erudite subject and proving how smart you are to other smart people who know a massive amount about said erudite subject and who, like you, believe the erudite subject is incredibly important and have devoted their professional lives to it. Step Two: If the stars align and you are fantastically lucky, obtain a job teaching college classes in the erudite subject. Step Three: Realize that many students believe the erudite subject is pointless and boring and seem to be unwilling or incapable of learning anything about the erudite subject. This book is for everyone teaching college classes who has reached Step Three and wants to successfully move on to Step Four—become an effective teacher.
The premise of Geeky Pedagogy is that those of us who have reached this moment often have another important thing in common. People teaching college classes are usually intellectuals and frequently some combination of introvert, nerd, and/or geek. Although they bring some hefty baggage with them, “geek,” “nerd,” and “introvert” are not necessarily pejorative or inherently derogatory terms. Emulating other writers and commentators today who are proudly self-identifying as geeks and nerds, expanding the definition of geek culture, and challenging negative stereotypes about nerds, I use these words as a wry, occasionally self-deprecating, but also affirming and celebratory way of describing certain characteristics we in higher education often share and which have an impact on teaching. For ease of reading, I’ll refer to geeks, introverts, and nerds as GINs, and I presuppose that identifying college teachers as such is not in any way to criticize nerdiness, denigrate geekdom, or decry introversion. I am all of those things myself and, in fact, these are qualities that make many of us scholastically successful during our own education.
However, many GINs have neglected to figure out how these particular qualities may enhance but also may impinge upon our ability to teach effectively. If we want to be effective teachers, recognizing and embracing these characteristics and learning how to deploy them strategically in the classroom and during interactions with students is essential for those of us with advanced degrees in our own specialized scholarly subjects but little formal training in pedagogy. I argue that effective teaching is fundamentally an intellectual activity, an endeavor to which we brainiacs in higher education are particularly well suited, but as introverts who may be more practiced at studying than at peopling, we also have to understand and prepare for all the important ways that teaching and learning are social and emotional interactions that require clear verbal and nonverbal communication. In the following introduction, I will briefly unpack the terms “geek,” “introvert,” and “nerd,” and explain why I see them as a useful way to describe college instructors and to frame our work as teachers. I will also set forth my conceptual framework of five general categories—awareness, preparation, reflection, support, and practice—for organizing the activities which effective teaching encompasses. Finally, I will summarize what Geeky Pedagogy adds to the scholarship on teaching and learning (SoTL).
“Geek,” “introvert,” and “nerd” all have their own etymology, with introvert being perhaps the least debated. Coined by Carl Jung in the 1920s, “introversion” and “extraversion” are now accepted as measurable personality traits by social scientists and psychologists.2 Though often mistakenly equated with being shy, an introvert is not perforce someone who is awkward in social settings or has trouble connecting with other people. These things may frequently go together, at least according to #introvertlife tweets, but being introverted just means that you need time alone to recharge your mental, physical, and emotional batteries. You draw energy from time by yourself. In contrast, extroverts draw energy from interacting with other people, explains journalist Michael Godsey, who writes that introverts are those “who are energized by quiet space, introspection, and deep relationships and are exhausted by excessive social interactions” while extroverts “are energized by social interaction and external stimulation and tend to be bored or restless by themselves.”3 Whether you only slightly tend towards introversion or whether you are an off the charts “I” on the Myers-Briggs, you almost certainly already know this about yourself. There’s an obvious divide between those who favor social situations over solitude, and those who need more time by themselves and find socializing tiring.
For example, when he was only a year old, I took my son to his first playgroup. The moment we entered the community center teeming with shrieking toddlers and parents I’d never met, I felt a wave of exhaustion. My extroverted child, on the other hand, lit up as if he’d seen the Promised Land and immediately began trying to wriggle out of my arms, eager to plunge into the seething mass of other tiny noisy people. He’d been looking for this his whole life! Instantaneously energized just by being surrounded by other people—that’s an extrovert for you. Fifteen years later, he expressed genuine dismay when his summer job with a landscaping company required him to spend time by himself mowing grass and painting fences. “What am I supposed to do all day?” he lamented in real outrage. “Be alone with my thoughts?!” There’s no better definition of what it means to be an introvert. If “being alone with your thoughts” is something you regularly seek out, if that sounds pretty good to you, you belong on Team Introvert.
In academia, there are some major benefits to being an introvert or having introvert qualities because “being alone with your thoughts” is the essence of doing intellectual work. Introvert qualities are what enable many of us to undertake successfully the hours of concentrated, mostly solitary mental labor required for research and for writing. Due in large part to the 2012 publication of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, many Americans seem to be increasingly recognizing that introverts’ introspection and thoughtfulness is a valuable quality in a world ever more chaotic and noisy.4 Twitter humor about our social awkwardness aside, introversion as a descriptive term about individual people does not for the most part conjure up highly problematic stereotypes.
In contrast, the words “geek” and “nerd” are historically thickly layered with meanings in popular media as well as people’s lived realities.5 A high level of intelligence is the common denominator in all iterations because the one agreed upon attribute of nerds and geeks is that we’re smart. The debate begins when trying to define just what other aspects of personality and personhood constitute a nerd or a geek and to make value judgments about those qualities. Both terms gained traction as demeaning descriptors about certain kinds of studious men beginning in the early to mid-twentieth century, but some of those at the receiving end of the slang embraced and repurposed “geek” and “nerd” in order to claim membership in a self-defined subculture, marking the beginning of a discursive and embodied struggle about the meaning of these words which continues to this day.6
“The nerd” remains in many ways a negative stereotype in our culture and in our visual media, depicted as an overabundance of intellect, a sad lack of social and physical skills and other sexually desirable traits, and perhaps most notably, a man whose repeated failure to fulfill masculine ideals makes him the hapless victim of jocks, bullies, and attractive women. The stock figure of the nerd, gendered as male, also reinforces the stereotype that intellectual superiority, with all its potential advantages and social drawbacks, is raced white (and, in the early 1900s, as Jewish).7 Similarly, popular usage of the term “geek” equates being geeky not only with being obsessed with and good at technology but also regularly assumes a white, male identity that falls short of masculine norms.
However, in contemporary culture, numerous commentators, feminists, and writers reject the derogatory meanings of “geek” and “nerd,” including any attendant assumptions about gender and race. Instead, online and social media users such as Nerds of Color, Black Nerd Problems, and Geeks of Color celebrate qualities such as science fiction fandom, insisting that we geeks and nerds exemplify what Star Trek’s Spock called “infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” and although they’re still rare, a few fictional characters on television illustrate increasing diversity in popular representations of nerds.8 Another significant development in diversifying the image of the nerd in popular discourse is the ascent of the “blerd”—the black nerd—online, in media, and in real life.9 Successful black performers who’ve declared themselves proud nerds include Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Donald Glover, and W. Kamau Bell, and fictional representations of black nerdiness are increasing as well.10 Though criticized by some African Americans, the assertion of blerd identity poses an important challenge to stereotypes about both black Americans and nerds.11 Many people find “blerd” an empowering term, and this is especially true for black women because, as Jamie Broadnax, creator of Black Girl Nerds, points out: “Black women [nerds] face twice the scrutiny. A lot of folks have an idea of what a nerd is—and it’s that they look like a white dude.”12
Broadnax’s observation about gender and race assumptions holds true among certain groups of white men who position themselves as nerd victims in a culture war.13 For these trolls and flamers, being a geek or nerd entails elaborate patrolling of just who gets to do/read/play/say what, and who doesn’t. Such “policing” of geek identity has reached a frenzy pitch in contemporary society with the blurring of subculture and mainstream culture entertainment, when comic book superheroes are today’s most profitable film franchise juggernauts and Game of Thrones is an HBO megahit.14 Some self-identified male nerds and geeks resent such mass-market intrusion into their carefully curated and proscriptive subculture. People of color like Broadnax who identify as nerds additionally confront this subculture about issues of representation and diversity, but at the same time they face what self-defined nerd Erika L. Sánchez describes as being “doubly ostracized”: “We don’t fit in mainstream white culture and our Latino communities often shun us because of our bizarre ways, interests, and beliefs. Many times we’re accused of ‘acting white,’ whatever the hell that means.”15
Sanchez’s summary of this double ostracism, of “acting white,” also evokes a crucial point for GINs in the academy and in the classroom. When we’re women, people of color, and/or queer, being a scholar means fighting stereotypes outside and inside geekdom and academia, having to continually proclaim and prove ourselves as knowledge producers and our authority as teachers. Whether cosplaying at a Comic Con or teaching English 101, GINs of color and “female nerds” challenge the stereotype of the hyper-smart nerd as a white male—a stereotype that has real-life consequences. Stereotypes about nerds and geeks contribute to sociocultural factors that discourage girls from entering and women from flourishing in STEM fields where a “brogramming” culture still dominates.16 And while some observers of youth culture suggest that stereotypes about geeks no longer doom studious teenagers to ostracism, others argue such hierarchies remain firmly in place and nerds are still at the bottom.17 There are still popular kids and the guy playing D&D all weekend is still probably not going to be crowned prom king (or whatever the equivalent is for cool kids these days, maybe number of “likes” on Instachatface).
However, that guy is much more likely to become a professor. If you are teaching an academic college-level class of any kind, from remedial community college course to rarified Ivy League seminar, chances are good that you are at least a little bit of an intellectual, egghead, wonk, or some combination thereof. Even those of us in academia who never think of ourselves as nerds or geeks—because of the terms’ negative, stereotypical associations or because we don’t read comic books and eschew popular sci-fi—nonetheless almost invariably possess a few nerdy and geeky qualities. Certainly many students, in keeping with the contemporary usage of “geek” and “nerd,” will readily define their college professors as such. No matter how with-it we are, no matter how tattooed or adept at social media, the fact is that many nonacademics and numerous students describe anyone with an advanced degree who’s teaching college classes as a nerd, not as a demeaning insult but rather simply as an aptly descriptive noun. Student perception often becomes teaching reality, so it behooves all of us in higher education to consider how we might use geekiness and nerdiness to our pedagogical advantage.
Indeed, there’s significant overlap between an academic, that is, a person who has single-mindedly pursued years of original research and participates in the production of knowledge with a community of other scholars, and nerd or geek as defined by a variety of contemporary writers, commentators, and social scientists. Read their descriptions of nerds and geeks but replace “nerd” or “geek” with “academic” or “scholar,” and you’ll see what I mean:
· “The essence of being a geek is the unrestrained passion we have for the most esoteric things.”18
· A nerd is someone who “pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”19
· “To be [a] geek is to be engaged, to be enthralled in a topic, and then to act on that engagement. Geeks come together based on common expertise on a certain topic.”20
· Geeks are “those with a passionate enthusiasm that may eclipse other life activities. . . . It is a subculture in which enthusiasm, knowledge and skill are appreciated and prided over good looks and attendant popularity.”21
· Nerds have “an obsession with every inane detail of our interests.”22
· A geek is “a person who is wildly passionate about an activity, interest, or scientific field and strives to be an expert in said vocation.”23
· Nerds “obsess over things that are purposefully complex.” “When it comes to our topic of interest, the “studying never stops.” We are “protective of our knowledge” and “before we allow others to claim they are just as smart or have the same acumen, we’re going to test that claim. If someone does not measure up or surpass us, we’re going to inform them of this and seem like pompous, elitist jerks.”24
· “Strange, specific stuff. That’s what makes a nerd a nerd.”25
The same enthralled engagement with complex topics and the perpetual studying of those topics that defines nerds and geeks apply equally well to many of us academics.
Scholars are actually sort of über-geeks because we’ve taken our obsessive individual interests and surpassed even the most dedicated hobbyist or fan: we’ve turned our devotion to a specific subject into our adult workplace and professional identity. We’ve embraced scholarship as our employment because we love “strange, specific stuff” so much we want to study it forever. Michael Flachmann describes this trait, arguing that professors who are effective teachers are “hopelessly, profoundly, inextricably invested in their areas of expertise”:
They drone on at cocktail parties about the inherent evils of deforestation; they scribble obtuse mathematical formulas on napkins at their daughters’ soccer games; and they haunt out-of-the-way bookstores in hopes of discovering a long-lost tome on some obscure seventeenth century German physicist. They go to sleep dreaming about Piaget and wake up thinking about him.26
This is the overlap between nerd and scholar: a passionate fascination with our chosen subjects that distinguishes us from other people at cocktail parties and soccer games. My own intellectual obsession is prescriptive popular discourse. As a historian of gender and culture, I am endlessly fascinated by old cookbooks, classroom instructional films, advertising, and marital advice manuals and how they reinforced sociocultural norms at different points in the US past. I’ve spent a zillion of the happiest hours of my life reading, studying, and writing about these everyday texts and ephemera. Please let me tell you all about them, in exhaustive, heavily annotated, detail!27
In Geeky Pedagogy, I contend that people like us who truly love their field and devote themselves to knowing as much about it as possible, and who are determined to keep learning about that subject for their entire lives—we academic nerds and scholarly geeks—bring some noteworthy qualities to the work of teaching and learning. Yet SoTL has not previously addressed the fact that a significant number of us in higher education—regardless of our rank, salary, place of work, publication record, current position, and other aspects of our individual identity—are nerdy intellectuals and many of us are to some degree introverts. We who love to be alone with our thoughts are the ones generating knowledge, advancing understanding, and shepherding the next generation into the world because we know the most about the subjects we’ve studied. We are the experts in our fields.
But often we are not also experts at teaching students how to do things in and with those fields and all our expertise can in fact impede our teaching goals. Educational consultants Michele DiPietro and Marie Norman explain how college faculty’s “expert blind spot” interferes with fostering student learning:
Their disciplinary expertise allows them to operate easily and intuitively in their domains, but it also means they may fail to recognize the component skills within complex tasks and skip steps without realizing it. This proclivity, called “expert blind spot,” is one of the chief obstacles to successful teaching. Because of expert blind spot, faculty often fail to teach or adequately reinforce key skills, routinely overestimate the abilities of students, and underestimate the time it takes them to complete tasks.28
We know so much about our topic, our brains are so wired with it and we are so adept at making connections and drawing on our previous knowledge that our expertise actually interferes with our ability to teach that topic. We routinely “fail to recognize” when students aren’t getting what has become second nature to us. It can be hard for us to remember, let alone skillfully convey to others, the most basic first steps and foundational assumptions and intellectual practices of our discipline.29 Effective teaching requires much more than subject expertise: it requires effective communication with students and knowledge of how to best foster student learning.
We are often woefully short on this vital pedagogical content knowledge. But GINs are a proud people and we don’t like to let on that we don’t know something. We love knowing stuff. We like to lord it over people too. Graduate programs foster this mindset, whereby admitting you don’t know something is tantamount to lying down and exposing your vulnerable underbelly to the Alpha Academic. Also, being a scholar is mostly a solitary endeavor, with the rewards of grants, fellowships, and publishing meted out largely on an individual basis. So when we begin teaching, usually long after we’ve already made considerable progress in our scholarly work, we often erroneously assume that we’ll be able to do it all on our own with little or no assistance or training. Our big fat brains have gotten us this far, haven’t they?
In an essay about his own short stint teaching a writing class, memoirist David Sedaris describes how he imagined his class would go, contrasted with the harsh reality of the first class meeting. He captures how many of us with vast knowledge of a subject but little understanding of effective teaching and learning envision our future classrooms, and our subsequent struggles:
I guess I’d been thinking that, without provocation, my students would talk, offering their thoughts and opinions on the issues of the day. I’d imagined myself sitting on the edge of the desk, overlooking a forest of raised hands. The students would simultaneously shout to be heard, and I’d pound on something in order to silence them. “Whoa people,” I’d yell. “Calm down, you’ll all get your turn. One at a time, one at a time.” The error of my thinking yawned before me. A terrible silence overtook the room, and seeing no other option, I instructed my students to pull out their notebooks and write a brief essay related to the theme of profound disappointment.30
“Profound disappointment” is right: disappointment in yourself, in your students, and in all of academia, during that “terrible silence” when it dawns on you for the first time that teaching is not going to be an easy, natural extension of your scholarly expertise. The first time you realize that faced with a classroom of students, you’re going to have do something because lo and behold, they don’t seem as besotted with your subject matter as you are. Because you’re reading Geeky Pedagogy, you’ve already distinguished yourself as one of the astute GINs who has faced this moment and accepted this fact and now you possess the single nonnegotiable quality of effective teachers—you want to be an effective teacher and you want your students to learn how to do things.
Here is where our huge GIN advantage comes in. Being an effective college teacher requires first and foremost learning how to be an effective teacher and then repeatedly relearning how to be an effective teacher. And as every nerd knows, we are “enthusiastic about learning.”31 Before we were teachers, we were students. Fantastically good students! That doesn’t always mean getting good grades, though many of us did, but it does mean that out of all the things we might have chosen to do with our time, energy, and lives, we chose school. And more school. Really insane amounts of school. We can never get enough! Then we painstakingly built our expertise article by article, experiment by experiment, analysis by analysis, extensive footnote by extensive footnote. What we almost certainly didn’t get along the way was commensurate knowledge in how to teach other people to use some of the intellectual tools we now possess, and how to speak at least a little bit of the specialized language in which we are now fluent.
Fortunately for us, decades of SoTL prove that acquiring pedagogical content knowledge and engaging in effective teaching is an intellectual activity.32 Teaching offers us an infinite number of puzzles, problems, and research questions, and an abundant SoTL offers us endless avenues for identifying, exploring, and discussing those questions and problems, enabling us to engage in teaching as intellectually demanding work. Scholars know that when we frame anything as brainwork, we will succeed. Don’t ask me to play sports. Don’t ask me to make small talk with random strangers at social gatherings or even to call my best friends very often. But ask me to problematize, hypothesize, research, and reflect? Give me a homework assignment? Yes. Yes, please.
We have to deliberately, systematically learn and keep relearning how to best help our students know and do some of the things that we know so well and do so naturally in our specialized fields because experts teaching college classes must be more than the privileged bearers of knowledge about our scholarly subjects: we have to share that knowledge with our students.33 In other words, we have to foster a geek culture in our classrooms not of exclusion nor of hostile gatekeeping but rather of enthusiastic sharing. In his research on geek subcultures, communications professor Joseph Reagle identifies this point of view as “a more progressive and welcoming notion of geeks who share,” contrasted to “geek policing” of who can and cannot claim the title of geek.34 As professors, we must be like those geeks today who celebrate the diversity and plurality of geekdom rather than unilaterally deciding from our perch of superiority who belongs and who doesn’t. We need to promulgate a geek culture of sharing.35
We must be more like actor Wil Wheaton, a triple-threat nerd because he 1) played a character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, 2) played an ultra-nerdy character on STTNG, and finally, 3) has also publicly celebrated nerdy things in real life. During a 2013 Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo Q&A, Wheaton famously summarized what it means to be a nerd: “It’s not about what you love, it’s about how you love it. . . . The way you love it, the way you find other people who love it the way you do, is what makes being a nerd awesome.”36 As Wheaton suggests, being an expert about something does not have to mean deliberately excluding others or enforcing hierarchies of knowledge. Instead, we can foster a community of sharing and celebrating knowledge. Teaching our beloved scholarly subjects in our academic disciplines should not be about keeping people out but rather about bringing more and more students in and showing them how much we love something and why they just might find something to love in it as well.
We can’t convert every student into a fully realized professional scholar like ourselves, but we can actively, persistently seek ways to translate effectively our enthusiasm for whatever it is we love with all our bookish, dorky hearts into things that our students will want to learn how to do. As introverts, this means constantly pushing out of our comfort zone (being alone with our thoughts) and conveying to students why they should care about and learn how to use the tools of our discipline. Simon Pegg, another celebrity with solid nerd credentials, defined being a geek as “all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something.”37 That’s exactly what effective college teachers do in our classrooms and in our interactions with students: forget “playing it cool” and instead enthusiastically share our passion for our subjects with our students. As described by Flachmann, being “hopelessly, profoundly, inextricably invested” in our scholarly discipline can fuel effective teaching.38
A geek culture of sharing as pedagogy facilitates effective teaching because it underscores that we aren’t teaching in order to show off our own laboriously acquired expertise. We are in the classroom in order to share with as many students as possible what we value most in our disciplines. Pedagogical scholar Robert Rotenberg advises:
If you value the intricacies of the material, teach it in such a way that the students can directly appreciate those intricacies. If you value the give and take of discussion, create a classroom that fully supports the flow of ideas, getting out of the way when necessary. If you value the research side of your discipline, make that experience the core of your classroom. If you value the quiet contemplation of a problem or levels of a text, make journaling and writing reflection the basis of your class. If you cherish the quick and easy recitation of facts, give students tools for assimilating facts efficiently.39
Rotenberg asserts that as college instructors, we should, in today’s common parlance, nerd out about those specific aspects of our academic studies that we most cherish, and find ways to bring them into the classroom and share them with our students.
These days there are plenty of geeks intent on keeping the posers and the normals completely out of the geek kingdom. But others like Wheaton argue that our love for our subject should motivate us to share it, not dismiss or demean others who don’t know as much as we do. Sci-fi author John Scalzi writes:
Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think . . . that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.” When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.” Any jerk can love a thing. It’s the sharing that makes geekdom awesome.40
Similarly, while “any jerk” (well, any smart, self-disciplined jerk) can write a dissertation, it’s the sharing of knowledge with students that makes a college professor an effective teacher. This is our task as GINs teaching college classes: to get our students “grooving on the thing we love,” even when it forces our introverted selves out into the messy and complicated world of social interaction.
That can be really hard. Teaching can be bewildering, discouraging, and tiring. So let me be absolutely clear on this point: I know you deeply love the subject you teach but you don’t have to love every moment of teaching students about that subject in order to be effective and to help students learn. Teaching need not fill you with the same kind of ineffable joy and contentment you experience when you write code or read poetry or track data or study policy or make music or collect bark samples or whatever your vocation. Some books about teaching imply or state outright that a quasi-religious fervor for teaching is a requirement for effective teaching.41 But I take exception to any hint of a suggestion that effective teaching requires a specific kind of innate personal quality or emotional state, rather than being a set of skills, attitudes, actions, abilities, and a reflective, intellectual approach that can be learned, applied, and improved with effort by anyone who wants to be an effective teacher.42
Unquestionably, effective teaching requires a lot of time and effort. We have to work hard at it and we have to demonstrate to our students that we care about the subjects we’re teaching and about student learning. However, there are many and diverse ways to achieve this, some of which align better with intellectual and introvert qualities and personalities than others, as we’ll see in the following chapters. To be an effective teacher you do not have to be unceasingly agog with unfettered delight at the prospect of molding young minds. You don’t have to bring extreme cheeriness or extraordinary inborn teaching prowess to the task. You don’t have to be Professor M. Poppins magically making the learning medicine go down with a spoonful of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious pedagogical sugar.
If the foundational myth of academia is that knowing a lot about something automatically enables you to teach, there’s another widespread and persistent myth about teaching generally in our culture: that good teachers are born, not made, and the best teachers are so good at transferring knowledge that students learn effortlessly.43 These educator paragons make learning continuously fun for everyone, no matter what. The power of their teaching excellence alone counteracts and overcomes any and all obstacles to learning—poverty, illiteracy, abuse, disinterest, disabilities, etc.—that students bring with them into the classroom. These teachers’ preternatural love for learning transforms the life of every single pupil it touches. Utterly selfless, absolutely devoted, and practically perfect in every way, these Superteachers appear regularly in popular culture and are well and truly fixed in our collective consciousness.44
Oh, how I hate them.
That’s why this book is about effective teaching. I use that word deliberately and I avoid other kinds of descriptive qualifiers and adjectives—phrases like “excellent teachers” or “master teachers” or “brilliant teachers” or even “good teachers”—when discussing pedagogical practices. I understand why other scholars and educational consultants use these terms, but I believe that such language may further an unobtainable ideal of teaching as a superhuman undertaking. One of the main reasons I wrote this book is because I was tired of reading SoTL that undercut its own mission to improve readers’ teaching and learning by using terms like these. Some authors laud so many superlative award-winning teachers and detail such an overwhelming number of exemplar teaching techniques that instead of inspiring me as an educator, I’m assailed by self-doubt, complete with a new hyperawareness of all my mistakes and shortcomings in the classroom. Geeky Pedagogy’s mission is the exact opposite: inspiring teaching self-efficacy.45
I hope to empower effective teaching—and learning. Effective teaching is inextricably coupled with student learning.46 Educational reformer John Dewey pointed out back in 1901 that “the process of learning and that of teaching go together, just as do buying and selling. No one can buy unless someone sells, and no one can teach unless someone else is learning.”47 But what precisely does “effective teaching and learning” look like?48 When I say “effective teacher” in this book, I mean a teacher who has found ways in their specific teaching context to increase skills and abilities among that specific population of students and to accurately measure and assess students’ learning. Sound simple? Only if by “simple” you mean mind-bendingly complex, unceasingly contentious, and predictably difficult to do with real live people. But advancing students’ knowledge and increasing students’ skills is something we can learn how to do and keep doing more effectively, if we are willing to always keep expanding our own knowledge about teaching and learning and keep adapting what we’ve learned to our own unique teaching context.
There are numerous means and methods for expanding our knowledge about teaching and learning, starting with a plethora of books and articles. Geeky Pedagogy adds to this scholarship in three main ways. First, I emphasize that teaching and learning must be tailored to your unique teaching context, beginning by fully taking into account your GIN qualities, and extending to all the other specific and individual aspects of what and where you teach. The most cutting-edge pedagogical technique or the hottest new research on learning may or may not be applicable and useful for you, teaching your subject, at your college or university. Too often SoTL ignores or downplays the fact that effective teaching and learning can and does look drastically different from professor to professor, classroom to classroom, subject to subject, and college to college.
Second, I have made a concerted effort to avoid unnecessary jargon, obfuscatory terminology, elaborate diagrams, and convoluted datasets. If you’re writing for your select group of colleagues on your select topic, go crazy with your specialized jargon and your insider lingo because that’s how we in academia do things. But this book is meant for college teachers in a variety of disciplines, and trying to become a more effective teacher is hard enough without having to decipher the edu-babble prevalent in too much of the published scholarship on teaching and learning as well.49 For definitions of the SoTL-specific terms I do use (including a couple I coined), please see the glossary. Similarly, there’s no earnest sermonizing in this book about the hallowed halls of learning. Teaching is important work and can be personally and professionally meaningful, but we’re not engaged in such sacrosanct toil that we can only talk about teaching in reverent, humorless tones. If there’s anything worse than impenetrable SoTL argot, it’s depictions of teaching as an unrelentingly solemn endeavor with no room for poking a little fun at all the ways teaching can be an exhausting, only intermittently fulfilling, and often downright weird roller coaster ride.50
Third, this book is an overview of the teaching and learning roller coaster, written with my own tribe of brainy, introverted academic nerds and scholars in mind. It is a critically reflective narrative précis of how we can approach the intellectual work of continually learning and relearning about effective teaching. This means it does not include long nitty-gritty lists of tips and tricks or detailed prescriptive step-by-step instructions. Those can be helpful and are readily available in SoTL but learning and relearning how to be an effective teacher is not a matter of simply trying out a new classroom activity, employing a new grading technique, or creating a new assignment. Rather, it requires continually renewed pedagogical practices, which grow and change over time over the course of a teaching career. It is an extended intellectual activity, a habit of mind, and Geeky Pedagogy is an introduction to that career-long endeavor. For additional materials that can help you continue to build your pedagogical expertise over time, such as bibliographic essays correlated to each of the book’s chapters, please visit geekypedagogy.com.
In the following chapters, I’ve organized the many and varied things we have to learn about and have to do as effective teachers into five general tasks or approaches to learning about teaching: awareness, preparation, reflection, support, and practice. Because both multidisciplinary and discipline-specific SoTL are such broad fields, encompassing everything from scientific study to practical handbooks of specific teaching techniques to philosophical musings, learning about effective teaching can quickly become overwhelming.51 My hope is that organizing your ongoing learning into five general categories will give you a way to navigate SoTL and empower you to engage in the intellectual work of effective teaching and learning. These five categories are not steps in a linear process but rather five overlapping and intersecting areas of widely defined activities.52 Each can be tailored to your own unique teaching context and they emphasize how we GINs can productively approach our teaching as an intellectual endeavor, as a social interaction, and as fostering a geek culture of sharing.It’s not easy to learn how to teach effectively, and it’s perhaps even harder to keep relearning how to do this, as our students, classes, and teaching contexts change. For some of us, the task is made even more difficult by working conditions such as contingent employment, racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination. And of course, it’s really tough to apply what we’ve learned from the SoTL and from our reflections to our actual teaching practices—to progress from the study of teaching and learning to actually implementing the knowledge we’ve gained.53 But with awareness, planning, reflection, support, and practice, we can move past our expert blind spots and be more than people who know a lot about something: we can teach other people how to know and do things, and we can share our knowledge in meaningful ways with our students. Because after all, as the Vulcans say about Starfleet, we’re here to serve.
Table of Contents
Introduction 1. Awareness 2. Preparation 3. Reflection 4. Support 5. Practice Glossary Notes Index