Get Your Awesome Class Here! Promoting New Course Offerings

Between a 5-course teaching load, presenting at a workshop for regional k12 teachers, committee work, and preparing for my upcoming summer course on the graphic novel, I haven’t had much time for blogging. But I find that it’s always good to stop and reflect on things, even when I don’t have an issue pressing my buttons or something I’ve read/watched/listened to itching for a response. I thought that this week, I’d reflect a little bit on something that I’m having to do for the first time–promote a class.

I have a distaste for selling myself or any of the goods that I regularly hawk as a college instructor, blogger, and tweeter. But, like it or not, sometimes it’s necessary to sell ourselves and/or our “goods.” I have a hard time convincing my oral communication students to sell themselves when they’re giving speeches and preparing for their public service campaign team pitches and interviews; they feel that doing so makes them seem self-important or overbearing. But sometimes, if you live in Rome . . . well, you know the rest.

If your university is like mine, proposals for new courses are not exactly encouraged. When someone in my English department does suggest a new course, that course is typically relegated to the May short-term (a 4 week, 2 1/2 hour four times a week bootcamp-style term) for a trial run. It takes a lot for that course, however successful it may be in the May term, to become a regular fixture during the Fall and Spring semesters. And, increasingly, it’s difficult to fill a May term course because so many students are now having to work and can’t fit such a time sucking course into their schedules and those who use their full financial aid during the regular terms cannot receive additional aid during the summer terms. Thus is born the need for your average, everyday college professor or instructor to become a kind of manipulative, smooth-talking ad man, trying to sell our innovative new class in the hopes that the demand will help us push it out to the masses as a regular offering.

And thus I find myself needing to sell my summer graphic novel class. Not because students won’t be interested in it. But because, even if they’re interested, that class is facing competition from their jobs, their bank accounts, and other classes that they need for their degree.

I’ve developed a three-pronged approach to advertising and creating hype about my class. In many ways, I’m taking my cue from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s peace campaign–combining attention-grabbing visual ads with a lot of verbal noise.

First, I’ve let my English colleagues know about the course and asked that they let their students know about it. At the same time, I’ve told my own students, both past and present, and encouraged them to spread the word. Word of mouth, I’m hoping, will help raise awareness with any students who might miss the visual campaign that I am waging.

Secondly, I’ve created some flyers that I hope will attract both hard-core fans and those students who have never read or heard of graphic novels. In several of the flyers, I use widely recognizable images–Batman and The Walking Dead–in an attempt to draw in students who might not be familiar with the graphic novel, but who have been exposed to characters from graphic novels via pop culture. I am placing these flyers in high-traffic zones around campus that see a mixed population of students. The second set of flyers emphasize the insider culture of graphic novels, utilizing images–a Guy Fawke’s mask, a blood-spattered yellow smiley face–and phrases–“it begins” and “watch for it”– that only those “in the know” will recognize. These flyers are being placed throughout the buildings in which English, art, and computer classes are held.

batman

 

walking dead final

 

v for vendetta

 

watchmen

 

The next component of my campaign provides a point of contact for those students who are interested enough in the course to want more information and a way of knowing when it opens for registration. I’ve created a website with a teaser homepage (it simply has the course number and “coming to JSU May 2013”) with a list of texts we’ll be reading and a link to a course email list, where students can leave their contact information for updates. Once word of mouth began to circulate and my flyers were posted, I had several students come by my office when I was not in. So, my final step was to create a QR code that linked to the course website and post it outside of my office door (I used the free QR generating site GOQR.me).

create-qr-code

 

Ideally, my course would sell itself. But this is the real world, one filled with competing responsibilities and opportunities. And the average college student only has so much time and so much attention. Sometimes, they need a little nudge. So, I suppose you could say that I’m less of an ad-man and more of a carnival talker crafting a ballyhoo, enticing students to step inside and take a look.

On the Virtues of Not Being an Expert

“[H]e who makes the programme is the god.” –Peter Carey, The Chemistry of Tears

“Expert, text-pert, / . . . Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” –Lennon-McCartney, “I Am the Walrus”

In Peter Carey’s novel The Chemistry of Tears, he fictionalizes the building of Charles Babbage’s Difference Machine, including the dramatic moment when the machine produces it’s first calculations. The moment is a disappointment to the workers who had spent months meticulously hand-crafting the parts for the machine because they think it miscalculates 102 + 2, not realizing that Cruikshank (Babbage’s fictional namesake) had written a new law regarding the product of 102 and 2:

[A]s a result of a decision beyond your knowledge . . . [y]ou saw two plus 102 equals 171. In nature this is what we call a miracle and I, who predicted it, would be called a prophet.

Cruikshank, as engineer of the programme, possesses a god-like power: he can determine facts and rewrite Truth. He can subvert others’ knowledge and expectations.

In many ways, teachers share this god-like position. We are the writers of programmes, i.e., curriculum, courses, and lessons. We determine what needs to be known and how it is known. Our knowledge and expectations take precedence over the knowledge and expectations of our students. In our role as expert, we determine the Truth as our students come to know it.

The all-knowing, all-seeing power of a god is also a monstrous weakness, for it renders him incapable of seeing things from others’ points of view. He cannot empathize with mortals’ short-sightedness, their fear and confusion when confronted with the unfamiliar or the uncertain, their lack of knowledge about things the god finds wholly knowable and intimately familiar.

Similarly, teachers often forget what it is like to be a student–to be unfamiliar with and intimidated by a subject; methods for reading, writing, and thinking about that subject; or even by the expert teaching the subject. Maryellen Weimer articulates this insufficiency in her blog post “A Failure to Communicate”:

Faculty, intimately familiar with the content, see how all the details fit, relate and become the big beautiful picture they know, study and love. What some have lost is the ability to see how the picture looks to others who are looking at it for the first time. How could those perfectly obvious concepts be missed?

Far too often, especially in the humanities, when we position ourselves as experts, we do so in terms of our ability to critically analyze a text–whether it be a piece of literature, an historical event, a sociological phenomenon, an archeological artifact, or a film/painting/photograph/musical composition. We attempt to guide our students towards an understanding and analysis as profound and articulate as our own, ignoring, dismissing, or, at best, humoring their initial, inexpert responses to the text. We push them to look beyond the obvious and the aesthetic, to recognize the symbolic, the implicit, the transcendent; in other words, we want them to value and recognize those aspects of the text that we and other experts think are the most important.

And in teaching students to read and interpret a text or understand a mathematical or scientific concept, we often use language that is as bewildering to them as the semantic bantering that takes place in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the incomprehensible nonsense of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” In the latter, John Lennon ingeniously uses “linguistic chaos” to voice an ironic critique of the practice of textual analysis:

“Expert, textpert…” (the latter another probabl[e] portmanteau) deflects the attempts of folks (like me!) to explain what’s happening in the song. However, within the song’s context, these experts are more of those sneering, snide establishment folks, caught in the same trap as the desperate singer (“like pigs in a sty”) but unwilling to admit that there’s something real and fearsome to bewail. “…the joker laughs at you”, the lyrics tell us, but in “IATW” pronouns usually refer to us *all*, not just the second person singular.

In fact, legend has it that much of the song was guided by Lennon’s knowledge that a teacher at his former primary school was having his students analyze The Beatles’ lyrics. Lennon’s semantic hacking is both a commentary on the pedantic nature of school(ing) and an attempt to resist such pedantry. It’s his (unsuccessful) attempt to have his music accepted and enjoyed at face value, in much the same way that our students wish to accept our course content.

But such ideas rarely guide teachers as we create our courses. We are much more concerned with establishing ourselves as the text-perts. Being anything less is an uncomfortable and discomfiting proposition; it hints at lack of control. But what is the worst that can happen if we enter the classroom as something less than omniscient?

This is a question that currently preoccupies me as I plan a course on graphic novels, something that I have never taught before nor am I an expert in. In fact, I am currently very much in the role of student of the graphic novel. I only just “discovered” them about a year ago, and, while I was immediately and inexorably enthralled with the genre, I quickly discovered that my training and expertise in reading traditional texts had not provided me with the skills needed to fully understand and appreciate graphic novels. And so I have embarked upon a self-education in graphic novels, first by reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and now by reading every graphic novel and comic that I can afford to get my hands on. Initially, I had planned to incorporate a third phase in which I read as many scholarly articles, books, and blog posts on the genre as I could before the class starts next summer. But I have begun to reconsider this part of my education. I hesitate to read the numerous scholarly sources that I have discovered because I wonder just how much they may cloud my initial unadulterated awe at the understated aesthetic power of Alison Bechdal’s Fun Home or the pristinely bittersweet humor of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. I could very well become an expert, at least from my students’ perspective, on the graphic novel and teach the course as such, exerting, in the process, control, power, and influence. Or I could enter the classroom at the same novice-level position as my students, affording me a better ability to read the course’s texts through their eyes and to learn to interpret and analyze those texts alongside them, not with the language of the academy, but with honest unsophistication.

There’s equal power in not knowing and discovering for the very first time as there is in knowing from a distance. It’s this distance that I think needs to be re-evaluated. In graduate school, my professors had an easy answer to the anxieties that plague novice teachers: just stay one step ahead of your students and you’ll be okay (read: in control). But what if we were right in step with our students? Or even one step behind? Many educators have advocated for the students to become the teachers (although I suspect that some do so with the expectation that, ultimately, they’ll still have their finger on the automaton’s trigger). But far fewer are advocating for teachers to become the students. In traditional schooling, the teacher stays behind the curtain–remotely extolling facts as gifts and manipulating Truth. It’s the students’ role to discover the right path and overcome the obstacles along the way. But as our role as experts comes under pressure from the Internet and canned digital content and massive open online courses, there is a need to re-discover what it is that makes a classroom so special. It’s not the wizard behind the curtain. It’s the collective journey towards knowledge, the obstacles that problematize our progress, and the discoveries about Truth, as humans have defined it, made along the way.

It’s time we dispensed with the curtain and admitted that we’re really just students, too.