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It’s only fitting that I recorded this episode with a D.C. Comics shirt, just after watching an episode of The Boys. Jessamyn and I speak about what introverted teachers bring to the classroom, how we can engage introverted students, the problems with the loud and “inspiring superteacher narrative”, and how embracing nerdom/being authentic is paramount to success.
As an introvert, I struggled in professional development, specifically motivational speakers, who made me believe that the best teachers had “Robin Williams” moments (which we discuss on this podcast!) Certainly, this isn’t to berate those who are loud, inspiring, and engaging - but us “nerdy folks” would not do well in a profession that requires that skill-set. I worry that many educators who choose this path and read certain teaching strategy books will come to believe that teaching isn’t for them - solely because of the false narrative of what “good teaching” can look like. Jessamyn and I dive into this and what we can do to change the narrative.
Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus is author of Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers, which releases on September 1st, 2019. Jessamyn is a full-time professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, teaching US history, pop culture history, history methodology, as well as “Superheroes in US Culture” and “The Apocalypse in USU Pop Culture.”
Chris McNutt: Hey there, and welcome to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris, and I'm a high school digital media and design educator in Springfield, Ohio. This episode is brought to you by our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Dino Lowe, Stephanie Hurte, and Lisa Byber. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can find out more about the Human Restoration Project on humanrestorationproject.org and use the Twitter handle at HumeResPro. Check out our recently released deprogramming guide, which is a collection of activities to introduce students to progressive ed, such as restorative justice and critical pedagogy, plus our other new resource, the Ungrading Handbook, which gives you tools and resources to begin a journey toward grade-less learning. Today we're joined by Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus, author of the new book Geeky Pedagogy, a guide for intellectuals, introverts, and nerds who want to be effective teachers, which you can pre-order through the West Virginia University Press. It releases on September 1st, 2019. In this episode, Jessamyn and I talk about what it means to be an introverted teacher, how we can engage quieter students, and the mythos surrounding the typically loud quote unquote passionate educator. Jessamyn is a full-time professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, where she teaches American history, pop culture, and history methodology, as well as superheroes in US culture and the apocalypse in US popular culture. Jessamyn facilitates professional development, hosts teaching conferences, develops online resources, and consults faculty on effective teaching. You can learn more at geekypedagogy.com. The topic of your book that we'll relate into right now is geeky pedagogy.
Jessamyn Neuhaus: Yes.
CM: And if you can't judge by the way I look or the way I'm dressed or anything about the podcast in general, obviously I am in your camp.
JN: Yeah, I can tell.
CM: Yeah, so I'd like to hear more about it. So I want to hear more about then this upcoming book that you have coming out called Geeky Pedagogy. Can you give us an overview?
JN: For as long as I can remember, I've loved to read and write and think. I've always been a huge introvert. I need a lot of solitude to function. And I've done well academically too. But my son, on the other hand, he is an off the charts extrovert. And he's a pretty lackadaisical student. And watching him grow up and go through the education system made me realize how differently he and I experienced school. As I say in the acknowledgments section of my book, living with him and with my husband, who's a lot like him, has been a masterclass in all the differences between nerds and normals. So that's been on my mind for a long time and a big part of what inspired this book. So he was saying what I think is pretty self-evident. The people who earn advanced degrees are by and large pretty nerdy. And that's not as consistently true in high school and elementary. But generally speaking, really good students are drawn to education as a profession. And that's as it should be. We geeks and nerds are the experts in our fields. And introverts are also disproportionately represented in academia because we take more easily to those long hours of isolated study that's required to earn an advanced degree. I also wanted to get more faculty focusing on being effective teachers. And I use that word deliberately. I understand why scholars of teaching and learning, and I think you can tell me if this is true, I think in professional development for high school and elementary teachers as well, I understand why people use terms like excellent teachers, outstanding teachers, the best teachers. But I think those terms feed into widespread and for teachers disempowering myths about teaching. Myths like good teachers are born, not made. Myths like only the most outstanding, life-changing super teachers are having an impact on student learning. Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Captain My Captain, those are the only good teachers. And I think those myths and that way of talking about teaching really undermines teaching self-efficacy, setting up such high standards that instead of helping faculty and teachers feel confident, it can feed doubts and insecurities about teaching. I began a Twitter account in January and my most liked tweet by far has been a joke about how even if 19 out of 20 students in your class are doing fantastically well, you tend to focus on the one student who's not and judge your own teaching efficacy by that one student. And I think we need to do a better job of helping faculty fight those unrealistic standards. One way I do that is to use us and we when I'm talking about teaching, I want to create a sense of shared undertaking with my readers. You know students who hear a teacher repeatedly refer to our class, our work, our discussions are more likely to view themselves as members of a learning community and to maybe hopefully ideally be more aware of their own responsibilities for advancing their learning and contributing to a positive classroom environment. I've seen so many scholars of teaching and learning authors and presenters who hope to invite others to join the teaching commons to enter into a conversation about teaching, but they undermine the school by handing down these rigid dictates from on high. Make sure you do such and such, you must do this and that. Make sure you never forget blah de blah. As if the person writing isn't a teacher themselves, someone who has to constantly learn and relearn effective pedagogy. So in contrast, I deliberately refer to us and we, I talk about all my major teaching fails and how I got better after. It's one of the ways I want to build confidence and teaching self-efficacy. One other thing I wanted to do was really bridge the divide between scholarship of teaching and learning converts and faculty who are due to or even resistant to professional development. Now I'm not sure if this is as prevalent among high school and elementary teachers, but so much of the conversation about college teaching splits along these two extreme poles. So on one side you have faculty, pro student, they're ultra caring, they're practically perfect, they never have any trouble with student incivility. Anyone who expresses any frustration about students is totally wrong. Then on the other side, faculty who are completely burned out, just nothing but pessimistic and cynical. And I'd like a lot more conversation in the middle.
CM: That's the exact same, by the way. There's no difference in our professional development.
JN: Okay, good. Yes. So yes, we need to build compassion. We have to be understanding. But yes, also sometimes students are irritating because they're people and people can be irritating and teaching is really, really hard. One last point. The other thing that inspired me to write the book was that I want to see more professional development that repeatedly acknowledges the importance of our individual teaching context. What works for one teacher just might not work or not work exactly the same way for another. Even what worked for you in one class may not work as well in another. Like the joke I made in my 9 a.m. class falls totally flat in my 10 a.m. class. That's because they're different classes. This is a widely known fact about teaching and learning. So it's not that I'm saying anything new but I don't think it's acknowledged consistently enough especially for new teachers. Instead there's the sense, well, if you just do this, you'll always get that result and that's just not nuanced enough.
CM: Yeah, and speaking of new teachers and relating it back to that introvert point, you brought up before this idea of, and I'm going to steal Cornelius Minor's words here from a couple podcasts back. He wrote in his book, teaching is often viewed as performative but it's actually relational. Speaking of Robin Williams, I wonder if some introverts aren't turned off from going into especially K-12 because of that notion of seeing on TV the best teachers being someone who's very over the top. I am as far as you possibly could be from Robin Williams when I'm teaching my class. I remember distinctively when I was student teaching, we had a professional development where they brought in a Myers-Briggs personality test person, which people have different opinions. But introvert-extrovert is pretty clear and concise. I remember I was one of the two people in the room who was an introvert in a professional development of probably 40 people, give or take. I was a student teacher and everyone else was like a seasoned veteran. That feels really awkward at first, it's like, man, am I going into the wrong field? Can you survive in this profession if you're constantly surrounded by people? It never bothered me unless I felt like I was pressured to be that performative teacher because I feel like if I were going in this profession acting over the top all the time, it wouldn't work very well for me. I worry sometimes that introverted teachers turn to books or teaching strategies that reflect this, you got to be giving it 120%. In a certain context, that's a very bad way to look at things. I understand the idea you should be working really hard and read books, I don't care about things. You're not going into your room running around and acting like it's a comic con or something. That's not how life is, that's not how a normal class goes. Could you speak to a little bit more about the state of the introverted teacher and what that looks like in a college context?
JN: It's funny, in a higher education professional development, that ratio would be exactly flipped. I'd say maybe there'd be one or two extroverts in the room, but the point that you're getting at and that I want to emphasize is the need for authenticity. Fully acknowledging that you're an introvert is key to any of the successful social navigating that you have to do, and you do have to do it. That's why writing a book about teaching to geeks, introverts, and nerds is more than just a gimmick. It really goes to the heart of my argument, which is that we as a group, we do face certain obstacles to effective teaching and learning. Effective communication, building rapport with students, fostering productive, professional social interaction with students, those can be a little bit harder for us as a group. Especially because if we've been highly successful academically elsewhere, and that doesn't magically transform into effective teaching, that could be discouraging. But the other part of my argument is that we also bring important and necessary skills to teaching effectively because to teach effectively, you have to keep learning and relearning how to teach effectively. As a group, we are incredibly good learners. Don't ask me to play sports ball. Don't ask me to talk to people at a party or even like to call my best friend very often. Give me a homework assignment. Give me something to learn. Yes. Yes, please. We're passionate about our subject. We're great at learning, and we can draw on that passion to create what I call a geek culture of sharing pedagogy. So that is creating classrooms and instruction that invites everyone into the study of whatever crazy topic it is we love with all our dorky hearts. So instead of geek gatekeeping, and I think you know what I mean by geek gatekeeping beyond saying, well, you're not the expert. I know more. You're not a real fan. Keeping out people, a geek culture of sharing is inviting people in and saying, look at how I love this thing, this crazy nerdy thing with all my heart. I think you'll love this thing too. It's not going to look the same for everybody. An introvert shares that passion differently. Effective teaching takes all kinds of different forms and different ways of expression. Students can respond to your passion, even if there's a weakness in another area of your pedagogy, even if you don't run screaming up and down the aisles and it's a party every day in your classroom, they will respond to the passion you have for your topic. That's true for everybody and it's just a fact of how humans learn as well and you inspire curiosity.
CM: Yeah. And I want to jump in too and acknowledge the flip side, which is when you were speaking about the fact that this is obvious, but many teachers excelled academically in school. However, that can also lead to some problems because then you go back into the room and you teach a lot like your quote unquote favorite teacher, which that was probably not everyone's favorite teacher because you were really good at school. So therefore you like the teacher who catered to the people who are really good at school, but probably 80% of the room is in this thing was like both as you. So can you talk to the, and also to add into that as well, you know, the fact that you said that most college professors are likely introverted or at least nerdy people. I think back to the teachers I had in college and no offense, but I mean, overall my college experience classroom wise was not, was not good. There was some interesting stuff in there, but I was the kind of person that, you know, skipped class and read the book and then, you know, got the exam done, at least for the most part. So could you kind of talk about then the context of how the introverted or even just nerdy academic person develops in a learning experience either at the college or K-12 level that caters to the entire class rather than just the academically accelerated?
JN: Well, throughout my book, I argue that effective teaching demands that we know and accept ourselves. Not because that's a pop psychology platitude, but because to be effective, we have to understand our own strengths, where we need assistance, and where we will always keep learning and improving. Ever since I fully embraced the fact that I'm pretty nerdy and super introverted, it's not only improved my teaching efficacy, but it's also made it easier for me to spot the other introverts in the room. And I'd say improve my teaching efficacy because now I stop myself and whenever I think, oh, this assignment is so great, this book is so awesome, this thing we're going to do is so cool. I think, okay, so I think that, but will my non-nerdy students think that? I caught myself once thinking, oh, this article is so hard to understand, my students are going to love it. No, no, they're not. That's not normal. Or anxiety about grades. Academics have sought out being graded. Essentially that's all it is. That's all scholarship is, is having your work constantly assessed. But grading is a huge source of anxiety for normal people who don't like being graded. I'm also able to teaching self-efficacy by giving myself credit when I step outside my comfort zone. So one example I talk about in my book is connecting with students before and after class, talking not about class stuff, but just casually interacting. Often some days that's the hardest part of the class for me. When I do it, I gear myself up to do it, I plan for it. And then after I do it, I pat myself on the back. I interacted socially as a socially awkward smarty pants and being fully aware of that, I plan for it. So in my book, there's five areas of pedagogical learning that I encourage people to way to frame their teaching careers, awareness, preparation, reflection, support, and practice. So I'm aware that it's hard for me to talk to people socially. I would rather come in, rush into the classroom and look at my notes and look at the computer and not talk to people. But I'm aware that that's not going to work. So I prepare for it. I prepare for the social interaction part of teaching. I reflect back on it. Wow, I actually talked to so and so. Did you win your game? What else have you been doing? And then I found ways to support at scholarship that affirms that I'm doing the right thing by building social connections. And then I just practice it. I keep doing it. But it all had to start with me being aware that this isn't one of my strengths.
CM: This is going to sound so bizarre, probably. But you'll probably relate to this, is that it's something that I struggle with as well, is that I'm not good at small talk. It's really difficult, especially since I don't watch sports. I watch very little reality television. So when I go into a room and the kids are in there, I've actually in the past, this sounds so weird, I've prepared like talking points, like legit, like I've had like memes like on my computer. So I have something where it's just like, oh, I could talk to you because I came to the realization one day, you know, people don't like sitting in my room because they consider it to be awkward silence. I don't really even think about it. To me, it's just like, oh, yeah, I'm just I'm reading this thing for the beginning of class. But there's like seven other kids like sitting in my room at the beginning of the day. And they're just like, you know, what's this guy doing? Like, like, you need to actually say something. And that's why you'll put some music on or you know, like, like that's why-
JN: I'm doing that next semester. I'm going to try doing that. The classroom is a social space. That's not particularly good news for some of us who did not set out to engage in social spaces, who thought teaching was going to be all about sitting in an ivory tower, reading our books and thinking our thoughts, preparing for it, just as you say, preparing for it is a great way to do it better, giving yourself props for it when you do it well. And also taking into account without making big generalizations about the generation or about the impact of technology, I have noticed over the 20 some years I've been teaching students today do seem to need more direct assistance in connecting with each other as well. So the classroom is social space isn't just about us, the teacher connecting with students, but helping students just talk to each other. This might be slightly different for a high school class or an elementary class, but my students generally, each fall, each year seem to need a little bit younger students seem to need a little more of a push to just converse with one another and to get a study buddy to even make a connection with one other student in the class who they can get in touch with if they want to review notes. They seem to need a little more of a direction, a little more of a push from me, a little more space to do that, a little more assistance in building those skills. So it's not just you as an introvert coming in and there's a silence in the classroom. They too, I'm speaking just generally, but generally speaking, they too seem to need a little more permission to converse, to connect with each other, to not default to looking at their phones, but try to make some human connections in the classroom.
CM:Yeah. To speak to that too in a second here, I want to know more about what that looks like in the room. I graduated from college not that long ago, it's six, seven years ago, somewhere around there. I can't really remember. And I went to OSU, which is a gigantic public school. Ohio State.
JN: Ohio State.
JN: Oh yeah. That's its own city.
CM: Yeah. I mean, it is the city of Columbus. And that was maybe not the best decision on my part in retrospect, no offense to OSU. Some of my classes were really good, but it's like 40,000 people. I mean, it's a giant school and that's just where everyone went. It was the cheapest option. As a very introverted person, it's incredibly difficult to make connections outside of the classroom. When I was in high school, the way that I made friends was based off of purely academics. I would talk to my friends, we'd work together on a group project and then we'd become friends. Whereas at the college level, in my experience, there was little to no interaction at all, let alone. So you had to get involved in clubs and I probably was kind of left behind in some regards of that quote unquote college experience. Now, that being said, I like that. So maybe that's kind of a catch-22. I like being able to go to the coffee shop and kind of be left to my own thoughts and just kind of leave me alone. But I do acknowledge the fact that I probably would have benefited from having a little bit more group interaction and being exposed to more perspectives when I was in school. I didn't really have that until after I left. So could you kind of go into more detail about what that looks like at the college level to make a more interactive experience for everyone?
JN: Ever since I fully acknowledged and embraced being a nerd, being an introvert as a professor, it's made it easier for me to reach out to students. It can be just as easy as asking a student, do you think of yourself as an introvert? In one of those like before classes, you're just talking casually and then listening, just listening and asking some follow-up questions about their academic experience. If you've really made an effort in your classroom to embrace inclusivity and inclusive pedagogy, it boils down to making sure you have included multiple paths towards to enable students to demonstrate learning in your class. If you've thought through some of your own biases and assumptions, your classes will include more opportunities for introverts to shine. The number one thing I'd recommend to anyone teaching a college class or any class, but especially geeks, introverts, and nerds, the number one thing I'd recommend is get to know your students. Learn their names, talk to them informally before and after class, ask them what they want to learn, why are they in school, what are their goals, what matters to them. Students consistently say, this is so important. It's the first step in what you're talking about in creating a way to inspire the most number of students to do good work in the classroom, to engage and to feel a part of the classroom. They have to feel like they're seen and they're recognized. That's hard for us, for nerds to do, especially even if you're not that introvert, but it's hard for nerds to do because we just want to get to the content, that nerdy stuff that we loved so much. We studied it. Let's just get to that. But the social aspect, the peopling part of it is the crucial first essential step and students will say it very clearly. They have to feel seen and recognized first by the faculty, by the teacher, and then that can spread to the class as a whole. Helping them connect with each other starts with helping them feel seen and known by the teacher, by the expert in the room. I often talk to faculty about this issue as not just trying to get students more engaged or connected or active, but empowering them. This is about power. I encourage people to think of student passivity as not just an issue of classroom management or pedagogy, but an issue of educational and intellectual power. What your whole human restoration project is addressing, the emphasis on standardized testing, no child left behind, common core, decreasing resources. And also let's not forget a very, very scary world. The world's burning. The students who are anxious, that's a realistic fear. All these factors come together by the time they get to my college class. So many of my students have been successful in school by staying quiet, being undemanding, and filling in the blank. That's worked. They got an A. They were successful. So to create energized and engaged students, that's going to really vary from class to class, student to student, I mean, class to class, college to college, teacher to teacher. But that humanizing aspect that you're talking about, I would say that's the very best first step we can all take. Additionally, understanding why and how students struggle. What's going into that dynamic when students struggle? How can we inspire students to problem solve, to do that kind of work when they're in the college classroom? I'm reading a great book right now by Professor Laura M. Harrison called Teaching Struggling Students. And she points out that creative problem solving, including solving a problem in your own learning when you're not understanding something, requires a lot of tinkering time, thinking through something like trying this, trying that, brainstorming, kind of pondering, mulling, just fooling around with it. But time is a privileged commodity. Being able to do that is much harder when you're stretched thin for financial or health reasons if you don't have time. This applies to teachers as well. You're more likely to panic when you hit an obstacle when time is scarce. We all know how we make decisions in panic mode. And I guess the final thing I'd emphasize to all teachers and really any teaching context as a way to engage and help students connect with your material and with each other is really let your nerd flag fly. Passion for your topic can truly and deeply inspire students. It inspires anyone trying to learn how to do something new, seeing somebody else just totally fall in love with it and being so eager to share it. It's something I've started to do frequently in class, especially if students hit a roadblock, if they're struggling with something, and I just totally nerd out about it, like, oh, I can't, this is so interesting, what do you think about this? Not necessarily in a big extroverted, showy way, but in a way that's authentic to me, which is I'm crazy about this idea, I want to think through it with you. To give you an example, in the Twitter world, I follow Dr. Chris Martine from Bucknell University and Serafina Nance from UC Berkeley. Dr. Martine is a biologist and Nance is an astrophysics graduate student. And their Twitter feeds are basically just nonstop geeking out about their topics, which I know nothing about, I've never studied them. But I'll read a tweet from Dr. Martine and I'll think, well, hey, are plants interesting? Maybe they are. Or I'll read a tweet from Nance and I'll think, maybe I should learn more about the solar system. They just love their fields so much, you can't help but be drawn in. And I would argue that even the most introverted nerd can share their intellectual passion. It's a practical strategy because it will help students learn, but it also models the best part of educational achievement, that if you can do something you'd love to do, there's like, what's better than that?
CM: I hope you're enjoying the podcast thus far, I sincerely appreciate you listening in. And if you enjoy the work, please head over to humanrestorationproject.org to find our free resources and wealth of writings. And then if you think we should keep going, take a gander at our Patreon page. For a dollar a month, you'll receive a professional print-ready electronic magazine of our work every two months. But as always, all of that work is available free online. I want to bring up actually, this is gonna be quite long-winded, but I have four points. All right, I'm gonna try my best to remember them. First off, this idea of being relational and really embracing your nerdy side. I think part of breaking down that barrier in terms of sharing power is acknowledging and being transparent with your students about who you are as an individual. I open up my class and tell kids, I'm a nerdy, socially awkward person. Kids bring it up, especially like my really out there extroverted kids get a kick out of the fact that I really don't know how to interact with them. They start talking about football quarterbacks and they get excited when I know a team's name. It's like, I'm not that far removed from reality. I know who the Steelers are, but they embrace that fact and they kind of see you as a fellow in the room, especially since you're probably different than a lot of the other teachers that they've had, which gives you kind of a unique opportunity to engage, especially with students who are more nerdy. My best relationship building honestly is with the quiet kid in the corner because they see me as something like they start talking about anime. I'm like, oh, yeah, I know this one and they're like, oh, like, whoa, like, who's this guy? So that's pretty cool. The second thing is, is that speaking of sharing power with students, a big part of what we embrace in progressive education is experiential learning or planning project based experiences where students do have a lot more power in what they say and what they do. And as an introverted person, it's actually really cool because that means that I'm talking less. You know, I'm giving a lot more power to the students to work on their own or in small groups and I'm just there as a mediator and I can still nerd out and express my passion, except now I'm just doing it in a one on one setting as opposed to, you know, me freaking out in front of the room. The third point was, is that this idea of passive receiving, this isn't conspiratorial. I think that our culture, like a neoliberal culture, you know, it breeds apathy. It breeds us not caring about things anymore. I don't think it's shocking or it shouldn't be shocking that, you know, the society is the way that it is. If you are training a passive receivers of information, especially students that excel at school, that, you know, know the most about the things that we're talking about. If their idea of success is being evaluated by others and being really good at filling in the boxes, of course we have a society where people don't really stand up for themselves. I mean, it is a sad reality that, you know, a lot of our world is shaped by corporate interest or by, you know, those that have power. And finally, too, that idea of passion that you brought up there at the end, I think it's important that we acknowledge that there's a very big difference between passion in terms of how loud you speak or in terms of, you know, how good you are at putting on a TED talk versus how passionate you are about connecting content and ensuring that learners understand it. Because I don't know if this is much of the case in the college level, but in the K-12 world, a lot of educational dogma is influenced by those who are really good at selling, you know, a conference and are really good at saying a lot of platitudes very loudly in a way that, you know, sounds nice to everyone, kind of like politics. But when it gets down to like the nitty gritty in terms of like, what are you actually talking about? Like, what is the passion in terms of educational research? It's not really there. It's very minute. That was a lot. I'm just kind of curious about your thoughts on any of that stuff.
CM: What you just said is very true about being an introvert and wanting to talk less is actually a great quality in effective teaching. And especially for academics, we talk too much, like almost to a person. Every single academic I've ever met talks too much. And I used to think that's because we're all pompous windbags, but actually now that I've been doing this work, I understand that that is one way that introverts cope with social settings is talk too much. And especially in the classroom, it's easy to do, especially if your students sit quietly and give you their civil attention. They look like they're listening, but they're not really learning anything. The fact that as an introvert seeking out pedagogically effective strategies, like sharing the power the way you described, that those two things mesh really, really well. And to do that, you'd have to be, again, that self-knowledge, be aware that I'm an introvert and that does prevent, make some obstacles to effective teaching, but it also can make me a better teacher, an effective teacher. Your last point about the passion, yes, I would say again, it's about emphasizing effective teaching and fighting that super teacher myth. It is very, very persistent and that's across the board from kindergarten through college. People have this stereotype of teaching as the most, like you said, how you were describing the TED Talk, the most flamboyant, most engaging. You just learn magically, just by being in their presence, you learn. That's not how it looks for most people. I think using the term effective teaching can help combat that, cut through the fads and the buzzwords. Is it effective or not? And is it effective with your students and you as a teacher in the classroom? I mean, one thing I emphasize in the very first chapter about awareness is the way that embodied identity shapes teaching learning because embodied identity shapes all human interactions. And I think especially I've seen some of those words like the be all, end all, we found the magic bullet that's going to cure everything does not fully take into account the ways that race, ethnicity, gender expression, speaking voice, all those things shape the interactions between teacher and students. We bring all our assumptions and biases from outside the classroom into the classroom. That doesn't mean we can't fight them and shape our pedagogy and create inclusive classrooms, but those things are all present. Just to give you one example, so the scholarship is pretty clear that effective teachers build rapport with their students. That's kind of across the board. But what I have to do as a white, gender normative, middle-aged woman to build rapport with my students is not exactly the same as my male colleagues have to do. It's not exactly the same as faculty of color have to do. I have to manage my authority in a way my male colleagues don't. Faculty of color don't have the presumed authority on the student's part to the same extent that I might come into the classroom. Any pedagogical strategy, any teaching technique will have to be implemented slightly differently. And I'm not saying like the professor who meets every stereotype, the white guy with a beard, smoking a pipe in a tweed coat, leather elbow patches, pontificating, he has to work hard to teach effectively too, for sure. When teaching advice says something like, you have to be friendly with students, you should smile when you're talking to them, well, that means something different to me as a woman than it does to a man. Smile more. Sounds different to my ears.
CM: That's all right on point. I am definitely with you. All those ideas are circulating education. I think that we need to have more conversations about those things because sadly, especially in the K-12 world, sadly in rural areas, it's very difficult to bring up issues of, especially in our current political climate, of sexism or racism or anything of that nature because you automatically are associated with like, oh, you must be a liberal. So therefore there's like no way to, this is not a liberal conservative thing. Race was not, well, at least ideologically was never supposed to be that way from a party perspective it is, but that's a whole other story. Kind of building into a final question, our audience is, I would say primarily K-12 educators, but there probably are a few professors that listen, I assume so. What would be kind of like your call to action or your selling point for geeky pedagogy to the people that are listening?
JN: First thing I want to talk about is what is possible within a college classroom that might be less accessible to K-12. And I really liked this question that you gave me because it reminded me of some of the incredible privileges I enjoy teaching college. And I say reminder because this is something you can relate to. It's very easy to get sucked into the negative or at least the challenging or difficult parts of college teaching. The biggest privilege I see college instructors having that's not as available to K-12 is a huge amount of self determination about course content and pedagogical approaches. That gives us a lot of flexibility to try new things or implement certain strategies because we have figured out what's going to work effectively in our own unique teaching contexts. But there is a flip side to that, which is that many college professors feel very isolated. Like we have to figure out every pedagogical puzzle ourselves or that the problems we're facing are somehow all about us as individuals and not realizing that our colleague literally in the next classroom might be having the exact same challenge. In my view, the most important thing college instructors can do with that flexibility, that privilege today in the Trump era and building on our skill sets as academics and scholars is to create inclusive intellectual communities where as many students as possible feel empowered to think critically about the world around them. Now I know that happens in great classrooms, K-12 as well, but what I think college instructors can do is empower students by demystifying the skills and abilities needed to succeed in higher education, emphasizing to students that yes, you can with effort and practice, you can write well, you can communicate clearly, you can research fighting against the imposter syndrome and systematic barriers that especially first-generation students and students of color may face in college. At my small rural state university, most of my students arrive to college underprepared academically and emotionally, personally, and a lot of them struggle to succeed. We don't get a lot of history majors in part because it's perceived as a less practical field and students and families are really worried about the huge financial investment they're making in higher education and what will come afterwards, but the majors we do have, I'd see them transformed by classes that continually demand that they read closely, that they write well, that they support an argument, they discuss their ideas. Most of them, the vast majority do not become professional historians, but what they gain is the self-confidence that comes with mastering these concrete skills and from their four or more years of being asked all the time to think through things and express their thoughts. Our majors present their senior seminar projects at a public forum every semester and not everyone by a long shot has completed some perfectly executed professional level, top level history research project, but virtually all of them demonstrate confidence in their intellectual and professional abilities in that public forum. Even when they're nervous, they demonstrate this confidence because they've spent years with our super smart faculty asking them, what do you think about this? They've spent years discussing with other students, thinking out loud about a wide range of historical topics. So in other words, by the time our students are seniors, by the time they finish their senior project, they know they have something to say. They know that their work matters. This is very essential at this moment. It's always essential, but it's especially essential at this particular moment. It's especially important for first-generation students, for students of color. And that's the biggest privilege I think I have in the college classroom, helping students realize those things. I guess my last word of advice to geeks, introverts, and nerds is to lean into it, fully embrace it. Those words are historically thickly layered, geek and nerd, even introvert to some degree, but there's never been a better time to be a geek, introvert, and nerd. People know what that means now. It was very important to me in my book that I not reinforce the gendered and racialized stereotypes about geeks and nerds, or even actually stereotypes about introverts as well. They've been gendered male and graced as white, but that is changing. It's changing really fast, especially each new generation. Being a nerd, even though there's still plenty of social hierarchies in high school, there's still popular kids and nerds, but being a nerd doesn't mean the same thing it meant 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. More and more, it's just a descriptor, like you described your students. They would readily say, yeah, my teacher's a nerd, but not necessarily in a derogatory way. It's just a fact. You're a nerd, like you're a tall person, or you're left-handed. You're a nerd. That's just the way it is. It doesn't matter how cool you think you are, or how many tattoos you have, or how up to date you are on the current music scene. Your students are often going to see you as a nerd if you're a teacher, but that's okay. In fact, it can even be empowering to embrace it, like you described it, building it into your pedagogy and your approach, and how you connect with students. The stereotypes about being a geek or nerd aren't totally gone, especially in certain fan cultures and in gaming communities, it's still a major problem, geek gatekeeping, but there's also so many of us nerds and geeks who are more and more embracing and celebrating what Spock in the original Star Trek series called, describe the universe as a place of infinite diversity and infinite combinations.
CM: I'm sure you've read Quiet by Susan Cain. I think that geeks and nerds have a unique opportunity to showcase to specifically geeky and nerdy students what it means to embrace the counter narrative. We started up esports this year, so a lot of our students are coming in from that quote unquote gaming culture, and there are some realistic problems with gaming culture in terms of racism and sexism that you find, especially on the internet. Part of the curriculum for esports, which I was really happy with, is that they actually have you do lessons on those specific things, like what is trolling, why is there so much racism online? What does it mean to be racist on the internet? Because there's a mythos amongst gamers that when you say intentionally racist or sexist things on the internet, then you are trying to think like gamers think that they're not being racist or sexist. They're just trying to draw attention or trolling, that's what that is, without recognizing the implications about what they're doing and how that, I think that's really important for us to address, especially in the modern narrative of the 8chans or the communities that you can get pulled into if you start to believe these things that you are pontificating upon. So I think that's a really good point too, that you have a special perspective that I don't think the average person really understands what these things are. There is a specific nerdy narrative that I know what 4chan is. I've been on 4chan, I'm very familiar with it. It doesn't mean I respect it or completely engage in the community, but I get it. And I think it helps for students to see a role model of sorts of someone who comes from these communities that understands, or sorry, I shouldn't say it like that, that comes from this community. I don't want to say that I'm a 4chan, don't post on the internet that I'm part of the 4chan community. What I mean is I understand what these communities are and can showcase a better alternative to these ideas, I guess.
JN: I think so. And the lines aren't as rigid as they used to be, not by a long shot. So even if you have someone like my son, who's not only, Chris, not only is he an extrovert, not only is he a lackadaisical student, but he's a freaking athlete. Like what? I'm just like, what? Who is this child? Everything I'm not. But he is a counselor at summer camp right now, and he's playing Magic, Magic the Gathering with other campers, and he loves it. And it's not a threat to his masculinity to sit down with some of his more nerdy campers and play Magic the Gathering. It's fun. It's cool. He can do that, and he's just about the most stereotypical kind of popular athlete extrovert that you can imagine. But the lines are a lot less rigid than they used to be. And I think it does give us opportunity as educators. And even if you're trying to connect with a student who just sees you as nothing but a big old nerd, in their mind, they'll be like, oh my gosh, what a nerd, geez, what a dork, what a geek. But they're also thinking, well, at least he gives a shit, at least he cares, right? And so maybe I can survive this class after all. It's not, in my experience, it's rare now to really have that be used as a derogatory or dismissive kind of way of looking at a teacher or professor. It actually helps me connect with students, even if they're never going to share my interest about spending a billion hours in the archives staring at little tiny dusty documents. But they respond and appreciate to the fact that I love it, and I want to share that a little bit with them.
CM: I can't help but think of 21 Jump Street. I don't know if you've seen the updated version of that movie, but like the idea, you know, like Jock goes back to school and wants to beat up the kids.
JN: My original manuscript, I had to cut it out, but it's the perfect example. Yeah, it switches when they go back.
CM: Yeah. That movie spoke to me so much as a kid who grew up in the 90s. Like this is like, yeah, that's exactly how it is now as a teacher. That's the difference…Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. If you have time, I'd love for you to leave us a review on iTunes and social media or anywhere that you see fit. I mentioned iTunes specifically because the more ratings we have there, the higher we rank on the education podcast list. And the more listeners we have, the better we're going to do. We can't do this without you, and I'm humbled by the opportunity to help broadcast this message to as many people as we possibly can. So let's push forward together and restore humanity.