Radical Pedagogy DuckTales, Vol. 1

I’m a little loopy today, because I have a record six client calls in one day. I really love helping my clients, but at the end of today I may also feel like this:

Coincidentally, that is also how I feel at the end of most Tuesdays and Thursdays, after teaching three sections of the same class in a row, to students of vastly differing levels of enthusiasm. Combine that with my fairly steady stream of freelance writing assignments (I am now under contract with two national publications! Suck it, haters!), and you would assume my spare time was now spent like this:

Alas, while my three jobs have kept me from destitution so far (it helps that St. Louis, where I live, is cheaper than a miser during a sale at the dollar store), I am neither capable nor desirous of a Scrooge McDuck-style money swim. I have “better” things to do with my spare time, such as come up with evil assignments that turn recalcitrant students into recalcitrant student-ade.

The course I am currently teaching is a broad survey of world literature from the ancient Cuneiform of Gilgamesh through Shakespeare. As such, we spend a fair amount of time in the ancient and medieval worlds, which are alien to 18-year-olds. The texts are quite challenging, and if students are not game for the challenge–if, for some reason, a group is not the usual wide-eyed angels of the honors college willing to do anything if it’s what I ask, which is how my classes usually go, no joke–they may find these texts “boring.” They may kvetch about them extensively, so much so that their kvetching echoes through the school’s massive hallways until it reverberates off my own office door and I hear it (or, you know, loyalists in other classes snitch on them).

At any rate, the challenge of these “boring” texts birthed what might be my most dastardly–and thus amazing–pedagogical triumph since I first tottered into a for-profit secretarial school as a “professor” of composition in 2002.

Yesterday I asked the students to write a few sentences and turn them in–a normal occurrence in my class. But this time I asked them to share their least-favorite text of the year so far, and why. Once they had all turned their choices in, I cracked into a maniacal grin, and said:

“Congratulations, you just chose the topic of your next paper.”

Their third, and final, essay of the semester is to write about the text they enjoyed the least, and, specifically, to argue why it fulfills three or more criteria William Cronon sets forth in the essay “Only Connect,” which is about the joys, challenges, goals and (most of all) benefits of a liberal-arts education. They are to tell me why they didn’t like the text, but why, in the end, it was important for them to read anyway, and made them smarter and better people.



What’s your radical pedagogical solution to a radical pedagogical challenge?

6 thoughts on “Radical Pedagogy DuckTales, Vol. 1

  1. For courses with a research paper due at the end, I make everyone turn in a short topic proposal. The proposal is due several weeks before the actual paper is due. The proposal isn’t graded, but it IS required to pass the course. This eliminates those “hey, do you have any idea what I should write about?” emails that arrive Friday before the paper is due but also–and most importantly–gets students thinking about a topic early enough so they’ll actually have time do a decent job. It also give me a chance to (try to) head off any disasters–i.e. those “Shakespeare was really a woman” papers. The short proposal helps me out, it helps the students out, it’s great. I got the idea from a veteran prof I admire a lot.


  2. Back in my early days, I used to lose my voice for a week every semester. My solution was to write computer tutorials — seems ‘ho-hum’ today, but this was back in ’87. My students had some of the earliest physiology computer tutorials – on the Apple IIc platform!
    Also, if they got the questions wrong they would kill the patient and have to restart the whole thing. Lots of groans around the classroom as virtual patients bit the dust.

    I love the idea of having them write about what they dislike most. But I have to wonder about one thing — what if students demonstrate understanding of the criteria but end up determining that it *wasn’t* important for them to read the book, and it hasn’t made them any smarter or better? Can they still pass?
    I remember taking a philosophy class from an ideological professor once. I wrote what I thought on the first paper and got a ‘C’ — so on subsequent papers I wrote stuff that lauded the professor’s ideology, and got ‘A’s. 40+ years later, I still view that as the worst experience of my college career, and wish I had been brave enough to take the honest C. Are you leaving an honest ‘out’ for students who disagree with your choice of text and can defend that position?


    • No, because it is a common syllabus across several sections, with the greatest texts from the world-lit canon on it, that are unassailably important to knowing how the world came about. It’s not ideology–it’s fact. No student who actually read or understood these works could argue successfully that they are not important to understanding the world.


  3. Hi Rebecca,

    I’m really enjoying your blog I don’t remember how I came across it, but it’s a lot of fun to read. I’ve been out of academia for awhile, but I especially love your creative pedagogical solutions. My only teaching experience was in a writing fellowship program in which I assisted the professor in writing classes for college freshmen, and I’m in business now, but I find a lot of the problems you face with students relevant in my attempts to work with colleagues.

    Just wanted to say thanks for writing pieces that are both diverting AND relevant. 🙂

    Kind regards,

    Sarah Donahue

    From: pan kisses kafka <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: pan kisses kafka <comment+pg8gtt7xnbw9z1fhvpp-qy3@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Wed, 13 Nov 2013 13:58:51 -0700 To: “sarahdonahueistaken@gmail.com” <sarahdonahueistaken@gmail.com> Subject: [New post] Radical Pedagogy DuckTales, Vol. 1

    Rebecca Schuman posted: “I’m a little loopy today, because I have a record six client calls in one day. I really love helping my clients, but at the end of today I may also feel like this: Coincidentally, that is also how I feel at the end of most Tuesdays and Thursdays, a”


  4. Hahaha, nice! They will learn whether they like it or not. Especially not.

    On a slightly unrelated note, I saw a ridiculous trend on the academic jobs wiki that strikes me as potentially up your satirical alley: the vaguely but narrowly themed humanities postdoc. Open to all fields, as long as your research focuses on “water” or “color”!


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