Allowing Room for (Possible) Failure: A Favorite Teaching Moment

Ah, so many transformative moments in teaching … But here’s a recent one. In a project-based, interdisciplinary class I just co-taught at Stanford, students in English, Comparative Literature and Computer Science worked in teams on projects developing connected or social media forms of reading, studying, and enjoying literature in the digital age. The format was influenced by design thinking, which asks you to ideate, launch, test, iterate, and try again to make a product and a user experience better. This was both exhilarating and sometimes frustrating for the students, who had to let go of some grand ideas and initial perfectionism to go through the cycle of the course.

My own teachable moment came when I read a student’s final learning reflection. She included a graph that documented all her ups and downs in the course, with a vertical axis for “Affect” (plus above and minus below the line, you get the picture), and a horizontal axis for “Time” (spent in the course—ten weeks, sicne we’re on the quarter system). It was a true up and down, with high Highs at points of emotional engagement and actual success with project milestones, and really low Lows at points where things did not go as expected or hoped. The narrative described those in great detail. The amazing thing about the graph, though, was that it ended on the highest High right at the end—when it was time for the final project report and the final learning reflection the student was writing at that very moment. She was able to look back and understood, to her amazement, how far she had come, and what she and her team had, in fact, been able to accomplish in ten weeks—an astonishing amount. Although there had been frustrations and low points, she realized that those had been crucial as touchstones and turning points in her own and her team’s learning, which would never had happened this way, had they not experienced the difficult phases and worked hard to come out of them.

That’s when it hit me, too. I’m a caring, involved teacher and want my students to succeed, of course, and so I tend not to make enough room for failure and growth that comes from stumbling and trying again. I had read Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset and believe in the importance of failure as an opportunity for learning, and yet, I had not truly applied this knowledge to my own classes thus far. It is hard to stand back calmly and watch while students figure things out for themselves. It is hard to watch them be frustrated by the process. And yet … what rewards. This student (and others in the course) was able to own her learning in such a meaningful, deep, wonderful way.

I’m still processing the lesson I learned this past quarter, but I have a feeling it will be one of the most important ones I’ve learned in my career. Failure is an option, and it is a beginning rather than an end. We need to design for that.

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Defining Teaching Excellence

The best teachers are the ones who inspire us to be better than we thought we could be, to work harder than we thought we wanted to, and to be more curious about the subject going out of a class than we originally were going into it. For me as a teacher of the Humanities at Stanford, and especially of 19th-century and modernist literature and feminist and LGBTQ history and culture, teaching these subjects is a personal and a professional calling with deep significance: at least partially on my particular effort rides whether or not my students can discover, understand, and feel invested in historical cultural developments that I believe are deeply relevant for the world we live in today. This is a great responsibility, but it is also a great joy and goal that keeps me on my toes. Being flexible and open enough to learning how to adapt and improve one’s pedagogy, truly listening to students and taking things from where they are to lead them on and out beyond themselves, no matter the circumstances, are hallmarks of the best teachers I have ever had. They were brilliant, but most importantly, they cared, and I knew they did.

In my experience, the most exciting moments in the classroom happen when students discover new insights and directions that excite them because they matter to them. Guiding students toward and through such moments of generating curiosity, proficiency, confidence, and sometimes sheer delight is my most challenging and rewarding goal. To make possible such independent and inductive learning, I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how my syllabi, teaching methods, strategies, and styles can help make these insights happen organically, arising from the texts and contexts we are studying, including interdisciplinary relationships among the arts and sociopolitical developments. I also think about added experiences with guest speakers, field trips, etc. outside the classroom, which often provide unique perspectives that can really enrich the students’ learning experience. Along with the literary canon, I try to introduce students to unfamiliar works and give them the confidence and skills to approach them. I strive to create a learning or research mentoring experience that supports and challenges the way students closely read and write about ideas and concepts on their own, while simultaneously nurturing them with honest, intense quality feedback and putting my expertise and knowledge at the students’ disposal as much as possible. My goal is to find the right balance between highest expectations for the academic quality of students’ work, and the right care and support to make it happen: to make it possible for them to dare to ask new questions while studying old thoughts, pursue and discover both old and new answers, experience some inevitable setbacks in their exploration and recover to move on with more confidence, and ideally to become lifelong learners in the process. For me, excellent teaching highlights that knowledge is never static but requires renewed creativity and constant revision for each individual and for each generation.

The constant renewal of how we, in turn, think about and strive for teaching excellence is perhaps more important now than ever, as we have entered a new era of digital pedagogy. I see exciting new opportunities for making the Humanities centrally relevant to society again and have deliberately taken up this challenge by experimenting with digital pedagogy in my classes. The most recent example is a new interdisciplinary project course that I developed and co-taught with my colleague and husband, Sebastian Thrun, for Comparative Literature, English, and Computer Science students all in one classroom. It brought the spirit of Silicon Valley to the Humanities in an experimental, playful way. I am also giving talks about my pedagogical approaches and experiences at conferences and other universities, as well as blogging about assignments (such as my public literary role-plays on Twitter). Teaching excellence in the classroom is one thing, but teaching excellence in blended and online environments is another one. It poses new challenges and affordances that have to be tested with confidence, critical thinking, and creativity. It takes a community of dedicated teachers to develop a new culture of teaching excellence for the digital age.

Research and teaching really go hand in hand for me, too: when I get excited about my research, I think about how I can share it with students, and when I talk with students about it, I often take their questions and ideas back to my research. Teaching is never a one-way street, and it doesn’t happen in isolation. My students have taught me a great deal and challenged me in ways that have been complex, wonderful, and often unpredictable. I may be the official teacher in our classroom, but I am also a co-learner, and an excellent teaching and learning experience is something that we are privileged to create together.

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A new Stanford course, a new Twitter role-play: #Frankensteinplay

As part of this quarter’s investigations into the ways social media and technology can enhance, complement and translate the study of literary classics in my new Stanford class,”Literature and Social Online Learning,” my students tried out a literary Twitter role-play for themselves: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to be impersonated, interpreted, spoofed and socially connected for two days and nights over Halloween, October 30 and 31, 2014, with the hashtag #Frankensteinplay. This time, the prompt for the play was a virtual literary conceit: Victor Frankenstein, hot in pursuit of his Creature on the Arctic ice,  and presumably shortly before he gets picked up by Walton’s ship, falls asleep on the ice one night and has a nightmarish vision of being in front of the gates of hell, where he is verbally assaulted by all sorts of shady and illustrious characters from literature, history, popular culture, even sports (dead or alive). They were allowed to ask @victorasleep questions or prompt him to respond, using  #pokefrank as the hashtag, or  try to get into a direct dialogue with the Creature himself, @franksdaemon, who was (strangely) reachable in the virtual world via #pokemonster.

(Note for context: I first developed the idea of a literary role-play on Twitter for Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray back in October 2012. I have blogged about that experience here, and posted prompts for two more role-plays here and here.)

The full Storify of #Frankensteinplay is now available.  Some wonderful things happened this time ….

Because it was Halloween, people combined their Halloween experience with their novel-reading and role-playing experience and merged the physical event (trick-or-treating, party-going on Halloween) with the virtual one (the Twitter role-play) by posting pictures of decorations or themselves in costume, making costume-related jokes, and bringing Frankenstein’s creature together with other monsters to give him some company on Halloween.

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The instructors (Petra Dierkes-Thrun and Sebastian Thrun) made a special effort to dress the part for the role-play, doing their best to look credible as a Zombie Creature and a Haunted Bride (Elizabeth).

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They even enrolled their six-year-old son, who doubled as a (very changed) little William.

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The role-play announcement was widely retweeted and picked up on Twitter. At least one other literature professor assigned the role-play to her English class for extra credit:

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For the first time ever, a Twitterbot (built by @stargould, currently teaching her great Augmenting Realities 2.0 class at Duke University).

 

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In addition to the bot’s uncanny visits, not one but TWO virtual avatars from other digital writing projects related to the Hybrid Pedagogy journal and operated by one of its founders, Jesse Stommel (@jessifer), tweeted with us and engaged the novel in creative ways: @MOOCMOOC is a grumpy virtual monster who eats MOOCs (and presumably people in MOOCs if they are not careful), and @digiduck is the virtual mascot duck developed for DigiWriMo (Digital Writing Month, a digital writing project running along NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which is happening every November).  @digiduck is clearly good with words and likes punning, in this case on the famous last line of Frankenstein, which sees the monster disappearing into the dark night:

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Transgender Studies Today: An Interview with Susan Stryker

litilluminations:

My interview with Susan Stryker for boundary2.

Originally posted on boundary 2:

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Petra Dierkes-Thrun interviews Susan Stryker, leader of an unprecedented initiative in transgender studies at the University of Arizona, and one of two founding co-editors of the new journal TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly (together with Paisley Currah). Stryker is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, and Director of the Institute for LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona. The author or editor of numerous books and articles on transgender and queer topics for popular and scholarly audiences alike, she won an Emmy Award for the documentary film Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, a Lambda Literary Award for The Transgender Studies Reader, and the Ruth Benedict Book Prize for The Transgender Studies Reader 2.
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Transgender Studies initiative at the University of Arizona. Left to Right (Front): Paisley Currah, Susan Stryker, Monica Casper, Francisco Galarte; (Back): Eric Plemons, Max Strassfeld, Eva Hayward. Not pictured: TC Tolbert. Transgender Studies initiative at the University of Arizona. Left to Right (Front): Paisley Currah, Susan Stryker, Monica Casper, Francisco Galarte; (Back): Eric Plemons, Max Strassfeld, Eva Hayward. Not pictured:…

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On the Road with Lolita and Humbert Humbert: A Public Literary Role-Play on Twitter

The most notorious road trip in American literature, live on Twitter next week!

24 hours only: THURSDAY, JUNE 5, 2014 (anywhere in the world)

Follow @LolitaRoadtrip, use hashtag #lolitatrip on Twitter to find and play with us!lolita2

Join our Stanford University Literature and Transgression class as we take to the road with two of American literature’s most famous characters, Lolita and Humbert Humbert. Follow and interact with them as they travel through America, meet many strange and interesting characters (some of whom may be on the run themselves), and stop at notorious sights and watering holes along the way. Embody your favorite character from Nabokov’s novel or tweet as an author or character of other scandalous literary works or films (road movies!), popular culture or history, or make up memorable characters of your own.

Make sure you include your character’s name at the start of each of your tweets so we know who “you” are. Feel free to switch your persona, include links and visuals, be creative and engage others directly. Make sure you include that hashtag, #lolitatrip, so we see your tweet!

Sample tweets:

  • LOLITA: Daddy-O is getting on my nerves again about enchanted hunters and stuff. I’d rather hunt for cute clothes. #lolitatrip
  • MOTEL OWNER: Why did they not ask for a rollaway? Better keep my eyes on this guy. #lolitatrip
  • EMMA BOVARY to Lolita: I know of a really lovely county fair nearby. Worth a stop! #lolitatrip
  • Milton’s SATAN: Getting ready for you any day now, Humb. Hear you’re a smooth talker like myself. Enjoy that evil #lolitatrip while it lasts!
  • HAROLD (from Harold and Maude): You’re so young. Not my thing. #lolitatrip
  • RYAN GOSLING: Hey girl, look here … #lolitatrip

More details:

Lolita is a 14-year-old, fully social-media-savvy teenager. She has a smartphone, secret thoughts and agenda, and lots of contact with other people as she travels with Humbert Humbert. She visits internet cafes, chat rooms, may sometimes even “borrow” strangers’ phones. She loves comics, fashion, pop culture, so she often also posts visuals or links to stuff she likes. Humbert Humbert is a true technophobe, so he mostly has no clue about Lolita’s electronic life as they travel–which may be one reason why he truly doesn’t know her. Through the Twitter role-play, we get a privileged insight into Lolita’s character and thoughts via her tweets, instant messages, and postings. Don’t forget that she may also be into emoticons …

You can invent new characters or expand existing ones in Nabokov’s novel, even dead ones ( e.g. Charlotte Haze, a brawny mechanic who talks to Lolita at a gas station, hotel chambermaid who makes up HH’s and Lolita’s room, a former student of HH’s, someone at a restaurant who looks at Lolita and HH and wonders what they are doing, etc.) Is anybody back home wondering about Lo and her stepfather? Had she confided in any friends at school or camp? Are any friends, moms or teachers suspicious or worried? What’s happening to the Hazes’ empty house?

Other characters, authors from literary texts, or authors or ideas from theoretical texts about transgression also tweet. E.g., what commentary or advice would Madame Bovary, Bataille, Madame Edwarda, Herod, Satan, or Sam Delany have for Humbert Humbert or Lolita? How would “the Limit” tweet? What would “Transgression” say? How would “Carnival” chime in? etc.

Suggestions for intertextual tweeting:

Some transgressive works that our Stanford class has read and discussed as a class this quarter (besides Lolita) and that may enter our mix of tweets include the following–but feel free to add your own books, movies, or favorite authors to our transgressive road trip!

  • Ibsen’s Ghosts
  • Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
  • Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost (Satan passages)
  • Wilde’s Salome
  • Bataille’s Madame Edwarda
  • Excerpts from Joyce’s Ulysses, Samuel Delany’s Hogg, Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless
  • Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
  • Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (and Valentine de Saint-Point’s Futurist-Feminist response)
  • Ionesco’s The Chairs
  • Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

For information about previous literary Twitter role-plays about Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and a Decadent Twitter Soiree, please click here and here.

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Exploring New Boundaries in Gender and Sexuality Studies

Originally posted on boundary 2:

Petra Dierkes-Thrun commits The b2 Review to a focus on Gender & Sexuality

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It is with great pleasure that I have agreed to join the collective as an advisory editor to launch a new online initiative for Gender and Sexuality Studies for The b2 Review. While boundary 2 has a longstanding interest in the best scholarly work of any kind, it is both fitting and necessary that gender and sexuality become a more obvious area of interest for the journal’s intellectual inquiry. The new Gender and Sexuality section aims to provide a flexible and mobile platform for the discussion of important new work both in feminist and LGBTQ studies. We will publish brief essays on current trends or events, interviews, and reviews of interesting books and other projects (including digital ones), keeping in mind boundary 2’s commitment to identifying and pinpointing important contemporary intellectual, conceptual and performative…

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Dorian Gray and Friends: A Decadent Twitter Soirée

 

Update: The Storify of this Twitter role play is now at http://storify.com/petradt/dorian-gray-and-friends-a-decadent-twitter-soiree-1 …

 

It is time to do a public literary role play on Twitter again! After the smashing success of last year’s 24-hour role play, in which hundreds of people from all over the world participated and lit up the Twitterverse with their wit and creativity, my Stanford students and I are ready to do it again–and to add some new twists and tweaks. Play with fictional characters not just from from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray but also from other Decadent novels, plays,  and visual artworks, impersonate a Decadent author or artist at our virtual soirée, or visit Dorian Gray’s Shopping and To Do List on our new PINTEREST page. There are also rumors of Dorian Gray’s Portrait getting ready to rumble over there in the Facebook attic. (I’m sure that old chum will have interesting things to reveal while Dorian fools around with his friends on Twitter.)

Please join us! Spread the word, invite your students and colleagues, and get ready for 24 hours of unabashed 19th- and 21st-century Decadence on Twitter!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014, lasting a full 24 hours, day and night (like any self-respecting Decadent party).  Feel free to dress up in mask, tie, or cocktail attire and read on for all the juicy details below.

THE TASK:   

Pick a fictional character from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or from any Decadent or Symbolist literary work–such as Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Huysmans’ Against Nature, Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus, Wilde’s Salomé or  “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” Baudelaire’s or Mallarmé’s poetry, etc.–or from the visual art of the period, such as Gustave Moreau’s Herod in L’Apparition, Klimt’s Judith, Franz von Stuck’s Sin, etc.  Tweet at least three brief statements (140 characters or less) addressed to Dorian Gray or another guest at this Decadent Twitter party throughout the course of the day.  Alternatively or in addition, feel free to impersonate a contemporaneous Decadent, Symbolist, or other author or artist writing to Dorian.  Possible authors or artists to consider might be Huysmans, Flaubert, Zola, Mallarme, Aubrey Bearsdley, Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, etc. Your tweets can include links to visual art–for instance, imagine Redon trying to sell his Ammonaria lithograph to Dorian with a few juicy words, or Beardsley submitting a sketch of attendees at Dorian’s latest orgy for Dorian’s consideration, or Moreau insisting that Des Esseintes and Dorian really misunderstood his Salome pictures … 

You may tweet in character as one or more people throughout the play, and let your character speak from a 19th- or a 21st-century perspective, since we are pretty sure some ghosts from the pasts will turn up and be eager to catch Dorian up on current events, culture, and the latest Decadent haunts on the internet.

And if you have some lingering bad feelings about your host, give Dorian a piece of your mind! Tell him what you think of him and his actions, lament or rejoice at his demise, assure him of your sympathy, flirt with him, insult him, adore him, ask him about his private doings, offer help, offer goods or decadent indulgences, give advice, heckle or praise, etc.–whatever tickles your fancy. Tell Dorian what you’ve always wanted to tell him but never dared to say. Be creative, be bold, be daring.  Snark, wit, and nostalgia are all welcome.  If you’re lucky, Dorian Gray will personally reply to you via our direct and personal line to the fictional and real dead, @wildedecadents!

Important: Please include the name of your chosen character and the hashtag #digwilde somewhere in your tweet. Post your tweets any time during your calendar day (24 hours) on Wednesday, March 19, 2014.  

Here are some sample tweets so you can get an idea of the possible format:

  • DORIAN: Spent the longest time in the closet. Couldn’t decide what to wear to the opera tonight. #digwilde
  • BASIL: This is too much. Next time, I’m painting a landscape. #digwilde
  • SIBYL: Dorian, I pine for you. The water is so cold! Take care of mother… #digwilde
  • SAINT ANTHONY: I wonder if I was reading the wrong book. #digwilde
  • RAOULE: Dorian, I have a thing or two to teach you. Bring your tools. #digwilde
  • EVE (from Stuck’s “Sensuality”): I dunno why you prefer bees to snakes, Dorian. My garden: more fun than yours. #digwilde

Possible fictional characters you might want to consider impersonating are

  • Lord Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward, Sibyl Vane, Alan Campbell, Hetty, Gladys, Lady Henry (from Dorian Gray)
  • Dorian’s portrait
  • Des Esseintes, a Jesuit priest, Miss Urania (from A rebours)
  • Raoule de Vénerande, Raittolbe, Jacques, Aunt Ermengarde, Marie Silvert (from Monsieur Vénus)
  • Beauty from Baudelaire’s “Hymn to Beauty” or the swan of “The Swan”
  • Saint Anthony, Hilarion, the Buddha from Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony
  • The old man in Mallarmé’s “The Windows”
  • Jean Delville’s “Idol of Perversity”
  • a Rossetti or Waterhouse beauty, such as Pandora or Circe
  • or any other character from a Decadent or Symbolist novel, play, essay, poem, or art work you’d like to impersonate in order to “talk back” to Dorian
  • … but we know you’ll come up with even better ideas! Let’s play!

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