Blog: The Jigsaw

Book Review: Badia Ahad-Legardy and OiYan A. Poon, eds., Difficult Subjects: Insights and Strategies for Teaching about Race, Sexuality, and Gender


By Laura Pruett

As the co-editors write in their closing remarks, this book, which “was in progress well before the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency,” was produced in part as a response to the cultural moments of terrorist attacks, police shootings, #BlackLivesMatter, the Syrian civil war, and college protests that have shaped our world over the past ten years. The chapters in this timely volume are organized into three parts: (Dis)comfort, Fragility, and the Intersections of Identity; Embracing Embodiment and Emotion as Pedagogical Praxis; and Radical Pedagogy in “Neutral” Places. The contributors to Difficult Subjects tackle not only subjects listed in the book’s title but also White privilege, fat studies, intersectionality, and diversity in the STEM classroom. Most of the writers come to their topic from a clearly articulated left-leaning perspective; frequent references are made to the “neoliberal university” and its challenges for the professoriate dedicated to teaching and learning within the framework of social justice and interdisciplinarity, and with an eye to the current political and cultural climate.

Three chapters most engaged me as a musicologist looking for ways to utilize these lenses and frameworks within my own classes. “Addressing Incivility in the Classroom,” by Chavella Pittman, provides anticipatory strategies as well as specific, practical responses to both indirect (eye-rolling, texting) and direct (verbal outbursts) student incivility, notably including for faculty with marginalized social status. In “The Least We Can Do: Gender-Affirming Pedagogy Starting on Day One,” Erica Chu defines terms including gender variant, heterosexism, cissexism, gender identity, and gender attribution, and recommends “coming out” to your students on the first day of class, giving your own preferred pronouns both verbally and on the syllabus, and making space for students to do the same in a written format, rather than out loud. (As a southerner, I also appreciated her suggestion to use the collective “y’all”.) In the book’s final chapter, “Uncomfortable Learning: Teaching Race Through Discomfort in Higher Education,” Jasmine L. Harris defines “safe spaces” and “brave spaces” but goes on to challenge them as “raced and gendered” (252), offering an alternative (along with specific examples) in the practice and cultivation of an Uncomfortable Learning Approach, which loosely follows Bloom’s taxonomy using the tenets of remembering; understanding; applying, analyzing, and evaluating; and synthesizing (254) as progressively challenging modes of learning.

The co-editors’ introduction, with the delightful title of “When the Shit Hits the Fan, Do We Throw Out the Lesson Plan?” also resonated with me. When a national news event occurs, whether it directly relates to our curriculum or not, should we as educators acknowledge and process it together with our students? I taught Music History the day after 9/11. As I attempted in class to both address the attack and find a meaningful way back to our syllabus, I reflected that as musicians, we ourselves are part of (music) history; yet without studying it, we can’t fully understand who we are or, further, how we as individuals and as a society move forward following such a national tragedy.

I suggest that Difficult Subjects shares pedagogical tools and methods with a similar goal: to help us discern where to go from here. While all the topics, ideas, and tools might not connect directly with the music history classroom, there are many that are applicable or at least potentially noteworthy. I, for one, will definitely be using Chu’s suggestions for gender-affirming pedagogy in my fall courses; it may be a small step, but from my perspective, it’s one worth taking.

Who needs technique?

By José Antonio Bowen

As musicians, we all understand that some technique is essential. Yes, we are ultimately bored by someone who is only fingers, but the best musicians combine something to say with an ability to say it. The same is true of teaching.

Our content knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. We need teaching techniques to be able to present our material in the ways that the most help students learn. Teaching and pedagogy are design problems: what situations, sequences and ultimately techniques will most motivate students to do the work that only they can do? Think of learning like fitness: only the person who does the work gets the benefit. Watching someone do exercise (even intellectual exercise) provides fairly little benefit. Teaching techniques allow us to design better learning environments, activities, classrooms, assignments and assessments.

There are lots of books full of techniques (including my own), but Claire Howell Major and Elizabeth F. Barkley (author of Student Engagement Techniques (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2010) have combined to write a series of excellent ones including Interactive Lecturing (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2018), Learning Assessment Techniques (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2016), Collaborative Learning Techniques (also with K. Patricia Cross, Wiley/Jossey-Bass, Second Edition, 2014).

Major is a professor of Higher Education at the University of Alabama and has a long and distinguished history of teaching and research in pedagogy and faculty development. Barkley is a Professor of Music History at Foothill College, in Los Altos, California who was named California’s Higher Education Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in addition to earning many national teaching honors. Together, they see techniques as the merger of pedagogical research and practical experience. While faculty should have a basic understanding of what we are trying to do biologically and physically to the brains of our students, none of us has the time to invest in also becoming deeply immersed in the most cutting-edge research in the science of learning. (For example, in the last decade pedagogical research has facilitated both an explosion of research and a convergence of the neurobiology and psychology work (think fMRI scans) and the practical experimental classroom data.)

In their publications Barkley and Major have distilled this vast research into a set of reliable teaching tools, and recently they launched the free K. Patricia Cross Academy online. Named for one of the most important early researchers and advocates for higher education pedagogy and former Harvard and Berkeley professor, the Cross Academy is an entirely free online library of teaching tools and techniques.

The heart of the site is 30 very short videos (2–3 minutes) of either Barkley or Major describing one of their techniques. You can sort this library by activity type (so you are looking for ideas about group work or discussion), the teaching problem addressed (cheating or lack of participation, for example), or the level of learning (according to the various taxonomies of learning). Each video has clear step by step instructions, and for those of us who still like text, you can download the same content in a written summary, often with extra material.

Barkley and Major think of techniques as recipes: they expect you will want to customize your approach for your particular students, situation and content, but they have summarized the research, outlined the steps, and given concrete guidance for how to assemble your next class session using this technique.

Think of these strategies as pedagogical snacks. In a few minutes you can not only be stimulated to try something new, solve a problem or get fresh ideas for your teaching, you can also get enough structure and understanding to implement something new today. The K. Patricia Cross Academy is an invaluable resource for all faculty, at whatever stage of teaching you are. Visit now.