Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A pedagogy of provocation

Boyda's excellent post from yesterday, on how to cultivate a healthy detachment in teaching, got me thinking about my own pedagogy of care. I've long since made the move that Boyda describes, of sticking to her guns and not over-explaining or apologizing for decisions on deadlines and readings and attendance policies.

Here's something I've found, as I grew comfortable teaching that way. When the rules of engagement--the contractual parts of the course--are clear and consistent, it creates a boundary around the classroom and students come to feel more supported and more secure. Everyone knows there are going to be five quizzes and they'll all be about the textbook. Everyone knows there is a final exam. Everyone knows that every day there will be informal writing, and group work. Everyone knows I'm actually really serious about having the reading done before class, and that I will in fact answer absolutely any question if someone bothers to come to my office hours to ask it in person.

From that security and predictability comes the possibility to push into what I call the pedagogy of provocation.

The pedagogy of provocation means pushing back against my students' ideas, letting them work through contradictions, prompting them to consider alternative views, correcting them on facts, asking them to differentiate between opinion and scholarship, to name the methodology or theory from which they draw their arguments.

Yesterday, I provoked my first year Digital Lives students. Just for context, I will note that this is the first time I've taught it where the classroom demographic skews 90% to Math and Computer Science and Engineering students and the vibe in the room is palpably different. Much of the course content interrogates tech culture, from innovation to business practices to digital divides of various sorts to web culture to Silicon Valley. I've never taught a cohort who so clearly mark themselves as invested in the tech industry as programmers, entrepreneurs, or engineers.

We opened class with two questions I'd written on the board:

  1. What happens to your digital stuff after you die?
  2. What is "free speech" on Twitter? What is "criminal harassment"?

I gave everyone 10 minutes to write notes towards answers for these questions, and prompted them to think through some of the material we'd already covered: what do we know from the history of media technologies that sheds light on these questions? What are some different scholarly approaches to these questions? Are there technical answers, or legal answers, or regulatory answers, or geographically specific answers, or cultural answers?

And then we discussed.

The first question revealed that notions of "property" and "ownership" are complicated online, and that regulations about willing property to beneficiaries is not readily analogous to taking over someone's iTunes library. Or that maybe I want to have my Facebook persist as a memorial after I'm dead, but I want some way to nuke my account without my family ever knowing it existed. Students offered their ideas, and I pushed back ("Are you sure?") or I grabbed keywords ("Aha! But you don't 'own' your music on Spotify! How is subscription different from ownership?"). Some of it was frustrating: it turns out there's no easy answer, and not one answer, and that different answers are more or less true in different ways on different services in different contexts.

The second question was a little more contentious. Many of us are free speech absolutists. Others pointed out that in Canada we don't have free speech but rather "free expression." Some were Darwinist in their belief that the strongest Twitter users should set the pace and tone of the service. Others wanted Twitter to act as arbiter in cultural norms disputes. Someone looked up the legal definition of "legal harassment." And then we debated the fuzziness of "reasonable person." I told them about my own Twitter experiences with hate speech, and those of my friends. "Why?" one student asked--"Because I am a lady on the internet, talking about ladies on the internet" I told them. People furrowed their brows, shot their hands up, nodded yes while scribbling. Some crossed their arms and snorted.

It was super difficult and it was great. The discussions managed to address most of the methodological and historical questions from the readings, through the lens of a contemporary controversy (or two). By the end more students were leaning forward in their chairs than leaning back. The material had become interesting and no one, in a first for the semester, began packing up their bags before I dismissed the class.

For me, it was hard. The stakes feel high when an 18 year old with an expressed wish to move to Silicon Valley and work with a startup tell me how progressive social media companies are and I answer "Why do you think that? Because Twitter has more guys named Peter on their board than they do women. And they have zero people of color." I expose my own blind spots when a student from Eastern Europe puts a caveat on our discussion of libertarianism and what it is--a core belief in the freedom of markets is a feature particularly of North American libertarianism, not all libertarianism. Quite right.

There's a chance, of course, that by constantly provoking my students like this I risk alienating them, losing them. They may find me disagreeable or biased (although I try to poke holes in my own favorite arguments as well). I hope to make this pedagogy feel a little safer for them by showing them how dependable, consistent, and fair I can be by crafting a detailed and full syllabus with all readings and tasks and due dates in advance, by having the quizzes and papers graded so quickly, by affirming everyone's efforts, particularly those students who want to challenge something *I* have said. I never let myself get upset by things they say, but to always remain detached enough from my own emotional responses and preferred outcomes that I can stay attuned to what they need to say and to hear in order to learn.

So that's my pedagogy of provocation. Make all the mechanics of the class, from reading to attendance policy to returning marks quickly, very very predictable and stable--but turn the classroom space into one where any idea might come up, and be thoroughly tested, and the outcome might be surprising.


  1. Great post, Aimee! I had to nod my head because I had an Eastern European student also expose my blind spot about a similar issue.

  2. Aimée, I only just saw this--I'm so touched that you found my post inspiring! And I can only hope that with a little practice and further detachment (and consistency of expectations), I can also engage a pedagogy of provocation.

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