Last weekend, I took an online seminar (via The Shipman Agency) led by Garth Greenwell, one of my favorite contemporary American writers, titled “Some Recent Queer Aesthetics”. It was glorious and exactly what I needed — during the pandemic, for various reasons, I’ve been feeling disconnected from both body and being, disconnected from communities, and, more than anything, disconnected from my artistic self. Feeling, in short, a whole lot more flat than fabulous. The seminar did wonders for all that, but that’s not what I’m here to write about; this blog is about education and pedagogy, and that’s what I want to chronicle, because I learned some important things about teaching during this strange era.
Greenwell did nothing innovative with the format of the course — it was traditional in pedagogical style, and used only online tools that are now pretty familiar to anybody who’s been online recently — and yet it was still a course I am going to remember, and profit from, for a long time.
The two technologies the course used were Zoom and YouTube. Greenwell explained that while we’d be looking at some pictures via the screenshare function in Zoom, in his experience, trying to share videos via a shared Zoom screen is tough, so when we needed to look at a YouTube video together, he shared the link via the chat function. (This offered our only real technical glitch: A few times, he sent the link in a private chat to someone rather than the general chat. This is a super easy mistake to make in Zoom, but also easy to correct, so it wasn’t a big deal at all. In fact, it was humanizing: It’s nice to see that a writer/thinker I hold in something like awe struggles to notice when a Zoom chat is private or public! I’m actually better at that than he is! There may be hope for me yet!)
When we began, Greenwell had us take a few minutes to practice some of the Zoom functions we would be using, primarily the “raise hand” function, but also the icons for raising hands and clapping. Most of the 50 people in the seminar were relatively experienced with Zoom, but this exercise — we all practiced raising and lowering our virtual hands, and clapping — felt weirdly good to me, the little community-building gesture of doing something super-low-stakes all together, waiting for everybody to be able to do it, helping people who were confused, until we were all set and ready to go. Those of us who had experience with these functions could feel good about ourselves (“Ha ha, I am a Zoom Master!”), while people who were uncertain about the technology could feel supported. It was a tiny thing, and if you had told me beforehand that I would find it to be anything other than slightly annoying, I would not have believed you. We talk a lot about the challenge of creating and sustaining community in online courses, but maybe it’s not the giant impossibility that so much of the rhetoric around online teaching makes it seem? I mean, we didn’t create a community in that moment by finding and using the “raise hand” button or by playing with the silly clap icon … but it did feel (to me, at least) like we could create a community after that exercise.
This idea connects to the work of one of the artists we spent some time talking about in the seminar, Taylor Mac. (If you’re wondering why my previous post was full of Taylor Mac, this is one reason. I had known of Mac’s work before, and had been sad to have to miss an opportunity to see part of the legendary 24-Decade History of Popular Music a few years ago, but hadn’t connected at a deep level to Mac’s work until Greenwell shared with us a video I had not previously seen of a 2007 performance, a video that has become one of my favorite things in the universe.) At performances of The 24-Decade History of Popular Music, audience members had to do things together: throw ping-pong balls, dance with someone of the same gender, etc. This was both challenging and exciting for them, silly and serious. Knowing myself, I know I would have hated the first and maybe even second moment of audience participation, whatever it was, and then, the ice in my cold and empty soul broken, I would have loved the whole thing and everybody around me.*
Once we all had practiced some of the basic functions of Zoom, the seminar proceeded as a lecture, with various illustrations and videos, and with a couple of pauses for questions. That was the format. Greenwell would talk about some ideas for a bit, we’d watch a video or look at a picture, and he’d stop and let people raise their hands to ask questions (or post questions in the chat, either privately to him if they wanted them to be anonymous, or to the whole group). It lasted a bit over 3 hours and was riveting.
That it was riveting had to do with a few things. First, great content: Greenwell’s ideas were provocative and inspiring, and his choice of material to explore was varied and surprising. Second, even though at its core this was a lecture, it never felt lecture-y because of the way we moved around between the different artifacts (videos, music, pictures, poems, and a short story we’d read in preparation for the seminar). There was nothing for us necessarily to do, per se, which is why I think of it as at core a lecture, but the variety of material and the opportunity to ask questions was enough. Ask questions … but not have a discussion. Some people might have been put off by this — the seminar was very much a one-way affair, with us as the receivers and Greenwell as the presenter — but I think it helped keep things coherent, especially given how much material we had to work with. Anyway, we, the audience, could participate, but we (or, at least, I) had not paid good money to hear the extended opinions of people other than Garth Greenwell.
At the end, Greenwell hung out until everybody who wanted to ask a question had a chance to. And then it was done. And I’ve been thinking about it all ever since.
One of the things Greenwell said early on stuck with me, and is key to the pedagogic success of the seminar, I think. He said that show and tell is his ideal of instruction because show and tell is fundamentally libidinal, and its fundamental mode is delight.
I’ll try to elaborate on his idea and see where it can take us: There is, in show and tell, an energy fueled by desire. The pedagogy is simple and powerful: Here is something I love. Here is why I love it. Thank you for letting me show it to you. What is something you love? Why? Thank you for showing that to me.
We didn’t have time in the seminar to get to the second part, but you could in a longer course — students sharing what has meaning for them, what they have discovered, what they are drawn to in the subject matter.
This idea reminds me of two science courses I took in high school, one of which was awful, the other of which I soon gave my heart and soul to, and which still influences my life now, more than a quarter century later. One interesting thing about these courses is that the first (awful) one was taught by someone who I’m sure thought he was a pretty good teacher, and the second was taught by someone who doubted himself the whole time and ended up thinking the course was a failure (which I didn’t discover until, a year or two later, I told him how much it had meant to me). The first (awful) course was biology, the second was ecology. The biology teacher made us do such exciting activities as memorize all the muscles of a frog. The ecology teacher shared with us his fear for the future of the world, read to us from Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey, tried out experiments with us that he wasn’t sure would work, etc. The first class had nothing of show and tell. It was the teacher teaching how he’d always taught, getting us through the textbook, grading us on our memorization, leading us through ghastly dissections that showed no love for the animals whose bodies we were tearing apart. The ecology class was almost all show and tell. It was messy. Lessons went awry. Experiments fizzled (we tried doing a population count on local birds and, for reasons I don’t remember, the whole thing just completely failed). But we never doubted that the teacher cared about every topic introduced in that course, and he encouraged us to find ways to care, too, and to share that caring with each other. It didn’t matter when lessons or activities became messy and inconclusive, because we knew why we were there, we knew what matter to our teacher and to ourselves, and we kept trying to find more information and knowledge that could connect to what we already cared about. (Also, we learned that science can be messy and inconclusive. A useful lesson, itself!)
I don’t have a settled (or unsettled) theory of all this yet, but in the spirit of show and tell, I am putting it out there.
In summary, then, here are some of the features that made Garth Greenwell’s seminar so powerful for me:
- Clarity and simplicity of tools.
- Low-stakes practice with the tools before we began the material of the course and needed to use those tools.
- Rich, provocative content that was thoughtfully organized and presented in a meaningful sequence.
- Varied types of content that allowed a mostly monodirectional mode of learning to feel dynamic.
- Opportunities to ask questions in a variety of modes: full video, public chat, private chat to the teacher.
- Show & tell as a pedagogical philosophy. We were there to learn, yes, and to challenge ourselves, certainly, and but we were also there to experience the delight of experiencing things that at least gave the teacher real pleasure, and he then tried to convey that pleasure to us. (And it worked! Pieces I might not have paid a lot of attention to otherwise, I found a way in and am still exploring now that I have more time to experience them and think about them.)
What I like about this is that it doesn’t require any pedagogical genius to create it. I think Greenwell is a truly extraordinary writer and thinker, but I don’t think he has a particularly greater-than-average ability as a teacher — and that’s important. Great, genius teachers exist. But we need pedagogies that ordinary teachers can carry out, because most of us are ordinary.
As I am thinking about how to reconfigure my courses during a pandemic, I’m going to keep thinking about what a powerful experience this simply-presented class was for me. It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking I need to figure out a bunch of complex technology, that I need to somehow solve a bunch of unsolveable problems of remote learning, that I need to be superhuman. But I don’t. I’ve already got plenty of good content and goals. I need to keep things as simple as possible to be able to convey the content and approach the goals. I need to not let the inevitable messiness make me think I am failing (and if I am failing, I need to embrace the failure and figure out a way to use it). I need to provide variety of content and of ways of accessing it, engaging with it, expanding it. I need to come up with low-stakes ways for us to do things together as a class. I need to show and tell, and I need to encourage students to do the same. To find delight.
Meanwhile, here’s something from Greenwell’s seminar that delighted me, a home recording by Shamir of his song “Straight Boys”, which starts out well and then goes toward the stratosphere. Enjoy!
*Here’s something Mac said in an interview with Garth Greenwell that I also think is important to a lot of what we do, especially now:
Image: by Sarah Wolfe on Unsplash
What I’ve learned by touring and performing and living a life as a performing artist is that when something bad happens, it’s also an opportunity for something incredible to happen. Sometimes it happens in the next moment, and other times it happens in the next week, in the next performance. I call it incorporating calamity, and it’s about transforming it—when something horrible happens, you turn it into something useful. That’s what the entire show is about—how communities are torn apart but because they’re torn apart, they’re also rebuilt. That has happened in the United States over and over again. It comes from the AIDS activism I saw, where an entire queer community is devastated by the epidemic and by the government’s response to it and by their families’ response to them. But meanwhile, they’re building themselves because they’re all gathered to fight this thing together and to take care of each other.