Currently reading: “Geeky Pedagogy” by J. Neuhaus

The subtitle “A guide for intellectuals, introverts, and nerds who want to be effective teachers” really intrigued me, and below is a collection of thoughts on it.

In a way, there isn’t a lot of groundbreaking new content in the book, it’s a typical introduction to teaching (albeit one in a conversational style that makes it easy and entertaining to read, with references in endnotes that don’t hinder the flow of reading). BUT! Sometimes you read the same thing many times, until someone says it in a different way and it suddenly clicks… For example, even though I have thought a lot about biases in how teachers are being perceived and evaluated, and how student expect very different behavior from teachers based on the teachers’ identities, and about how we need to show up authentically as teachers to build trust with students and act as role models, for me, something clicked when reading in this books about the contexts we teach in, and how even the body we inhabit changes the context. I will never be teaching in the same context as my male, Swedish colleagues, just by being female and not from Sweden (and of course, none of them are teaching in the exact same context, either!). And that means that “best practice” teaching advice might actually not be applicable, not just depending on the wider context of what and where we teach, but also on who we are. The example given in the book is about “smile more to build rapport”, which can certainly be good advice for some people, but which might also reinforce stereotypes and traditional distribution of labor, because two smiling people will likely still be perceived very differently depending on other markers of who they are. And what seems like friendly chit-chat in one context might quickly become an uncomfortable or scary boundary-crossing inquisition, just saying…

The book is really good in both always pointing to what we know about teaching and learning from literature, and at the same time pointing out that it might absolutely not applicable in our specific context. What works for us, and our students, is not something we are born knowing, or that we will figure out just by reading, without spectacularly failing every now and then. I really enjoyed reading the encouragement to use centers for teaching and learning — like the one I work at — for support, to find community, to get feedback and bounce ideas. And also the hint that even if your university doesn’t have one, or you don’t want to interact with them, there is so much available online; both in resources and in community. But again, the most useful advice will probably come from someone familiar with your context.

Another point in the book that I find really interesting to reflect on is what being an introvert (who the book is aimed at) means for us as teachers. Not just that we like being alone with our thoughts and our students might not, but also that we need to plan for entering teaching situations, and any other social situation, as something that will cost us a lot of energy and that will require time to mentally prepare and recover from. If we acknowledge that and act on it, it’ll make life a lot easier (Same actually for other aspects of “accepting what is” — if we are on short-term contracts, all the “best practice” teaching advice might just not be feasible and we might have to go for the low-hanging things that lead to good student evaluations on short time scales).

Also really important for introverts is the part about “put on your professor pants”, i.e. putting on our “teacher persona”, meaning acting the role of an effective teacher, even though that might not be how we would want to show up if we were “just being ourselves”. Yes, we need to be authentic (and we can be that by acknowledging that we are consciously making an effort to be sociable!), but we need to be approachable for students. To me, being authentic as a teacher is to fill the role to the best of my abilities, and acknowledging where that doesn’t match with my natural urge to behave (for example, one teaching tip that I often share is to clap to silence a room at the end of a group session when I want the group’s attention to make an announcement or something. I find it extremely uncomfortable to suddenly have everybody go quiet and would much rather walk from table to table and tell everybody what I want to tell them. So when I do the clapping for the first time in a new group, I share that I hate all the sudden attention on me, but that it’s a really efficient way to get everybody to turn to me and listen, much better than trying to shout over a group (at least with my voice)).

One tip that really resonated with me (and reminded me of very similar advice in Rachel Forsyth’s book on assessment) is “If you have any flexibility in what you can use to assess [the students’] learning, assign things that you actually want to grade” (my emphasis). So often we feel stuck in the ways things have been done historically, when we, in fact, are not. So why not dream up something new that suits us and our context better?

I also really enjoyed the frequent reminder that emotions are part of learning. Having “destroyed” a movie for someone means that they have fundamentally changed how they see it (in some cases possibly meaning that a threshold concept has been grasped!) and that they cannot “unsee” what they now know (like I find it impossible now to enjoy Harry Potter, even though I used to very much). Being frustrated and learning how to deal with it is part of learning. Often we’ll have to buffer student emotions, and in many cases those emotions might have nothing to do with us or our course (sooo important to remember!). Preparing for difficult situations ahead of time and having scripts available (whether to actually write via email, or to say verbally in person) is a really useful tip. And of course scripting these is very personal!

Another really useful reminder is to keep track — and record — of positive experiences and interactions, for our own well-being and a more positive approach to teaching, that will then lead to more positive experiences and interactions; both because we have shifted our focus and because we are probably approaching the whole situation more constructively.

It took me a little while into the book to appreciate the (what I perceived to be) stabs at the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) literature about how inaccessible a lot of it is, but I have come to see them as good reminders to consider what we publish and for whom. What do we think will happen with what we publish? I have recently published repeatedly on teaching topics in Oceanography, where we try to write articles for oceanographers (or other teachers) who want short articles with practical tips and a little bit of grounding in the literature. We hope that people feel inspired by our articles, and implement some new ideas in their teaching. But that format also implies that we quickly brush over methods and results and basically write an introduction, discussion and conclusions, so those articles are not well suited for, for example, people who would want to replicate our studies. But then I really enjoyed how doing SoTL ourselves is sold as something that we nerds should actually be enjoying — a scientific approach to our own teaching!

So if you identify as “introvert” and “nerd”, this is a great book to check out! It’s really about embracing your nerdiness and making it an asset (also in terms of vicarious learning experiences. The most boring assigned reading can become fun when someone models what it is like for them to read and think about the reading!) instead of a handicap, and it offers quite a lot of useful tips for how to do that.

Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky pedagogy: A guide for intellectuals, introverts, and nerds who want to be effective teachers. Morgantown, WV, USA: West Virginia University Press.

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