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On today's podcast we are joined by Zoe Bee. Zoe is an English professor, poet, and content creator who produces content for YouTube and streams on Twitch. Some of her work includes "A Professor Explains", where Zoe dives into why Grammarly is a poor product or what makes a poem a "good" poem; or full overview of the themes of H.P. Lovecraft.
Zoe is a successful content creator despite being active for less than a year. We specifically learned about her after seeing her wildly successful video, "Grading is a Scam (and Motivation is a Myth)", which is nearing 500,000 views within 3 weeks. Her takedowns of PragerU, support of progressive education, and overall extensive, fact-checked videos show a growing interest, especially by younger viewers, in educational pedagogy and politics.
In this podcast, we sat down with Zoe to talk about her growth, practices as an educator, and content creation.
Zoe Bee, YouTuber, streamer, professor, and investigator of educational pedagogy, poetry, and English
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to episode 94 of our podcast at Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Tim Fawkes, Jennifer Mann, and Abigail French. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. On today's podcast, we're joined by Zoe Bee. Zoe is an English professor, poet, and content creator who produces content for YouTube and streams on Twitch. Some of her work includes A Professor Explains, which is a series where Zoe dives into why Grammarly is a poor product, or what makes a poem a good poem, or something like a full overview of the themes of HP Lovecraft. Zoe is a successful content creator, despite only being active for less than a year. We specifically learn about her after seeing her wildly successful video, Grading as a Scam and Motivation as a Myth, which is nearing 500,000 views within three weeks. Her takedowns at PragerU, support of Progressive Education, and overall extensive fact-checked videos show a growing interest, especially by younger viewers in educational pedagogy and politics. In this podcast, we sat down with Zoe to talk about her growth, practices as an educator, and content creation. To start off, here's a short segment from Grading as a Scam.
Zoe Bee: So teachers and administrators, and even parents to some extent, think that grades are these really helpful tools that measure our learning, communicate that measurement to us, and then work to motivate us to do the stuff we need to do to succeed in school. But as I'm sure that most of us can attest, it doesn't really feel that way to students. I mean, how well do grades actually meaningfully measure our learning? Imagine you've written a paper, and when you get it back, you see that it says A- at the top. What does this communicate to you? Does it mean that you have successfully learned how to write a paper? If you received a C-, does that mean you didn't successfully learn how to write a paper? Or does it mean that you can do some things well, like organization or writing thesis statements, but you struggle with other things, like topic sentences or comma splices? Or maybe it means you wrote a perfect paper, but you just turned it in a few days late. This is even the case for more objective subjects, like math. If you've taken an algebra test and you see you have a B+, what does that mean? Does it mean you know all the concepts, but just made a couple arithmetic errors? Does it mean you understand most of the concepts, but it's just one type of question that really throws you off? Does it mean you actually understand everything, but you didn't eat breakfast that morning, or you were distracted during the test because you had a headache, or you didn't get enough sleep last night because you had to stay up late to work on that English paper? And even if you had comments on your tests explaining exactly what you did well and what you needed to improve on, research shows that if a paper has a comment and a grade, most students just skip the comments and focus only on the grade. When something is graded, feedback is ignored. And even if we knew what grades meant…
CM: I was just saying before we started talking before the podcast that Nick introduced me to your YouTube channel because you had covered an in-depth look at ungrading and motivation, and connections to the modern workplace. It was super informative. I'll have it in the show notes. What kind of has brought you to covering these topics via YouTube and Twitch, and just why are you here today?
ZB: So I mean, there was never a single kind of a light bulb moment where I was like, this is the thing that I want to dedicate my life to. But it's sort of, I think if I had to pinpoint a moment that it started, it was in a literacy class that I took in graduate school. This was my first semester of grad school. And we talked about the history of literacy and how we developed reading and writing systems and stuff like that. But we also talked about what counts as literacy and how we define literacy, how we decide who gets to be literate, how people are allowed to kind of use and present their literacy and their reading and writing. When I was in this class, and through all the readings and everything, I realized that we have these social structures and pressures that are telling us what the quote-unquote correct way of speaking and writing are, and they tell us whose literacy really counts and who even gets the opportunities to learn all of these secret language rules. When I saw that, and when I learned that, I realized that there are these whole swaths of people who are being left behind. People whose language is policed, essentially, and that's neurodivergent folks and poor people and people of color, second language users, and even LGBTQ people. When I learned this, I also saw that schools were kind of part of the problem here, especially reading and writing classrooms. I mean, think about what's considered quote-unquote academic English or proper grammar or the correct way to write a paper. Reading and writing classrooms are perpetuating these problems. When I realized that the space that I was coming into as an educator was part of the problem, I was not super happy. I didn't want to be part of the problem. I wanted to fix the problem, but trying to fix the entire education system fresh out of grad school is kind of a tall order, so I'm still working on it. I think it really was that class and realizing just how much the structures of our system are built to keep some people from experiencing education the way that it could be.
CM: Did you find that when you took this class and you were still pursuing your degree and you realized that you would likely be teaching and being within the system, that you maybe didn't want to continue or you questioned whether or not you wanted to get involved in a system that you know can harm others?
ZB: I don't think that I was that disheartened right away. I think at the time, and to some degree I still feel this way, that I can fix things from the inside. Even if all other teachers or many other teachers are teaching in a way that perpetuates these issues, I can be one of the good ones and I can do things differently. But now, I mean, the more that I dive down this rabbit hole and read Alfie Kohn and all these other sources, the more I realize that maybe it is something that's a little too baked in and not something that just one teacher can fix and maybe we need to look a little bit broader for a solution.
CM: Yeah. I ask because that's something that I personally deal with all the time. You constantly feel like you're entering the classroom knowing that, yes, I am making things better, which is definitely a benefit of being a progressive educator. You are making a humane environment. However, there are systems at place, for example, having to give a grade at the end of the year. You can circumvent that in ways. You can use portfolio-based grading. You can use a more humane assessment system. At the end of the day, there still is a rank and file system that exists in the exact same way that there's discipline issues and who defines that discipline, dress codes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There's a lot of, as you describe it, bad psychology and bad economics baked into the education system. I want to talk more about just the content of your grading is a scam video. I think, correct me if I'm wrong, it's one of the biggest ones on your channel and it's relatively new, so it seems like it's taken the world by storm. Could you briefly describe some of the issues that you see with grading and why it's potentially a problem?
ZB: I think that it really comes down to the issue of grades as motivators, and motivators is a very weighted word. It has a lot of baggage because when we think of motivating, really what we mean is manipulating. In most cases, that is what we mean. It's a really slippery slope to try to help children and kind of nudge them in the right direction and help them figure things out on their own. Going from that to basically just controlling their lives and using grades or other rewards, whether it's gold stars or the little cards that you get for being good at the end of the week, using those to try to control students' behavior. When it becomes a control issue, which I think is inevitably what it leads to, then you're not respecting students. This is the human restoration project, the humanity of students is really important. When you have a whole system that is dedicated to controlling them and manipulating them, then you're not treating them like human beings. You're treating them like dogs or pigeons or rats or any of the other animals that were used by behaviorists to study these things. I do think that grades, like I said before, inevitably lead to this. I don't know that there is a way to have a grading system that doesn't use grades as manipulators. Obviously, we can evaluate, and evaluation is a good thing, and that's the thing that we're aiming for, but slapping a number or a letter on a student at the end of the day is, I think, just ultimately bad for them.
CM: It's inherently competitive, too. It's one thing to feel like you're being evaluated, but there's a completely different sense of being evaluated versus others, where I know that if I'm not doing well, then there must be something wrong with me or other people are better than me. It's just this constant ... Everyone remembers this, I'm sure, back in middle school and high school. If you got a low grade on something, you would hide your sheet of paper because you didn't want people to see the grade on it. As a result, it completely defeats the purpose of education, which is to learn. This is really basic, but if you go, in my case, entering into biology, which I was terrible at. The first time I took a test in that class, I think I got a D or an F, and so I just never tried again because I was completely demotivated. We know that from the research upon research upon research, that once you get a low grade, you tend to not do too well. I also want to talk about something else that came up, and we'll tie this all together in the second half of the conversation, which is the connection of grading to just motivation in general. Things like pay raises, lack of autonomy at the workplace, things that are used to control us through motivation that really, I would argue, we're almost trained to do via grades in school as being an okay practice. Could you talk about really where we see this issue of conditional motivation past the classroom level?
ZB: I mean, like you said, we are really conditioned to do this. For the first 18 years of our lives, and even more if we go on to college and grad school, we're conditioned to only do things if we're getting a reward to do it. Like you said, we see this in the workplace with things like bonuses and even commission pay to some extent. You know, if you sell X number of things, you get a pay raise, et cetera. The place that it is most clear, at least at this current cultural moment, is the issue of unemployment in fast food restaurants. So we have all of these fast food restaurants that are putting up signs telling people that they'll get a sign-on bonus, and they have signs on their doors apologizing to customers because they don't have enough people working, because according to them, it's just that people are lazy and nobody wants to work anymore. But in reality, this is just a consequence of the way that our current economic model is set up. The reason that people aren't coming to work or the reason that people aren't working for these jobs isn't that people are lazy. It's that money is required to live, and if they're not making enough money to live, then that's, you know, not a good thing. And so these places are taking advantage of that and trying to manipulate people to come and work for them for wages that are not good. And so I think we are kind of seeing a, potentially, a cultural turning point where people are starting to realize that there are these cracks in the system and that rewards, things like money, in a lot of cases, are used to manipulate people. And so hopefully, you know, if people can see that this is the case with our economic system, maybe they can apply that same lens to the educational system and we can fix everything all at once. That would be ideal.
CM: Yeah, I mean, for sure. You said in your video that until we as a society understand the dangers of rewards on a wider level, things are not going to change. The cornerstone of this is recognizing that a neoliberal society is always going to structure itself so that we rank out the people at the top versus the people at the bottom, and we naturally fly into those two segments of the population. And when you're in school, you learn that from an incredibly young age. And sadly, if you're successful at said system and you're someone who achieves in said system and can make decisions, you are going to assume that that's the way that things should be done, that societally things are working out in your favor, so therefore it's okay. Hence why many teachers, not all, but many teachers are perfectly okay with ranking and filing students because they did well in school, hence why they're teachers. That kind of deprogramming from that mode of view can be difficult for many. What would people do to start thinking about changing reward structures in the classroom?
ZB: There are a lot of different ways that people have tried this, and there are big steps and there are little steps. And the big steps I recognize are not possible for a lot of teachers because, like you mentioned, at the end of the year, we have to give students grades. Our bosses tell us they have to have a grade and there's nothing we can do about that. So a lot of those things, you can't just get rid of grades in one day and have that be the end of it. We have to take these little steps. What I have been able to do, and I have to take the teeniest of steps because at my current position my hands are sort of tied, where I am literally forbidden from changing anything about the classes that I teach, but that's a whole other conversation, is the treatment of adjuncts. But something that I do is emphasize evaluation over grades. So I minimize grades as much as possible. And one way that I do that, people think that you have to get rid of grades from a course level, but what I do is get rid of grades from an assignment level, because that's a little step that you can take. So for instance, when students turn in rough drafts of papers, I never grade those, because why should students be judged on a work in progress? That is one thing that directly leads students to be afraid of mistakes and failure and to play safe. That's not good, because that stifles creativity and risk-taking and all good things that we want our students to do. So I never grade drafts, and I emphasize feedback, I give lots and lots of comments. One resource that I use for that and for how to give good feedback is Peter Elbow, who most of his work is in the field of composition, but he also talks a lot about pedagogy, and he's one of the early grade-less adopters, especially in the composition field. And what he suggests is not writing on students' papers, because that sort of perpetuates the power imbalance between students and teachers, and instead, what he would do is he would write letters to students, like a formal, like, dear so-and-so, and then multiple paragraphs describing his experience of reading their paper, what he felt worked, what he felt didn't work, suggestions, questions, stuff like that, and then would attach that to the paper. And I think that's really interesting, because it brings up the, not just the power differential between students and teachers, but also the demoralization of any kind of feedback on student papers. Like, even if you're just writing comments, students don't like to see writing all over their papers. It makes them feel like they've done something wrong, even if the comments are positive or, you know, constructive. Writing them a letter, I think is a really, I mean, it sounds simple, but it feels really radical, because it's, you know, you are treating your students like equals, and you are treating them like adults and like real human beings. Those are some of the little steps that I take. Just really emphasizing that feedback and evaluation, getting rid of grades on individual assignments as much as possible, even though you have to give a grade at the end of the semester in most cases.
CM: Do you find that when you switch from this model that it's difficult to have students comply? And I mean this in like, it sounds bad, but it's a true factor of teaching that part of the job is students have to complete a certain number of assignments, typically based off of the rules of the course that are not usually assigned by the teacher to begin with. So the grades typically serve as a coercion model. It's how we ensure that students complete all of the assignments, and if there aren't grades being given, then well, why would I do them? When you're in your composition classroom and you have students, let's say, not do a draft, how do you then get around that struggle?
ZB: This is one of those cases where teaching college, I think, gives me a lot more leeway than teaching grade school or high school, because I just tell my students, you don't have to turn in a draft. It's not going to affect your grade at all, but the more that you give me to work with, the more I can help you. So it's like a help me help you kind of thing, where if they turn in a draft, then they get feedback, and then their final project is better. But if they don't, then their final draft is what it is, and there was no opportunity for them to change it, though I do offer revision opportunities. But it's funny that you bring that up, because in a class that I taught when I was at a different institution, when I was at a university that offered me a lot more freedom with how I taught things, there was a class that I used a project-based structure for, and we can talk about that a little bit later if you want. As part of that, my students, I asked them to create their own rubrics, basically, for their projects. So like, what does a successful project of whatever kind they were doing look like to you? And how do you figure out, you know, what are the elements that you need to judge to determine success, and like, what are the levels of that? They hated it. They were miserable. So at the end of the semester, when we were reflecting on the projects, and I was asking them, like, from a structural, like, pedagogical point of view, like, what worked, like, what did you like about doing the projects, pretty much almost universally, they were like, don't make us do the rubrics, like, if you teach this class in the future, don't make them write their own rubrics. I think it was an issue on my part, or a miscommunication on my part, where I didn't make it clear enough why I was asking them to do it, and they were still in this headspace of, you know, you're the teacher, you're going to be the one giving me the grade, you're the one who decides what a success is, why don't you tell me what you want? And they didn't like that I didn't do that, and I didn't give them that information. And so I think there is definitely a learning curve, because, I mean, like I said before, you're, what's the word, I don't want to say indoctrinated, you're used to courses being a certain way and grades being a certain way for the first 18 years of your life. And so then when you're suddenly presented with something new, it's often uncomfortable. Students are willing to give up that level of freedom, because it's more comfortable to be told what to do, I think, in a lot of cases. So I have definitely had some pushback on some things, but I don't know, it's tough, but I think the more teachers do this kind of thing, and the more, sort of, if we can disrupt the way that students are conditioned to think about things, like the earlier we can change their thinking, then I think they will become way more comfortable with it, and we won't face that pushback.
CM: I mean, that's a powerful statement for a student to learn in this way and produce strong evidence of learning. One of the things that drives me crazy about people that view either self-directed education or more progressive education as a negative is they believe that you're lowering the standards, quote, unquote. And the fact of the matter is it's the exact opposite, because now students have to kind of fend for themselves, not like you're not there, but they aren't explicitly being told what to do every single step of the way, and not everyone's producing the exact same thing at the end. So that means I have to think more creatively. I have to be able to manipulate and question the things that I'm doing. I have to fundamentally understand things at a more theoretical level than someone who's just regurgitating what was told to me. And as a result, when you have a classroom that is using these techniques where it is a lot more student-centered, it's going to feel a lot different both for the teacher and for the student. And on the student's angle, it's going to feel challenging because you're going to have to think for your own. You're going to think for yourself. So as a teacher, what that's going to look like, it's going to be a little bit louder. It's going to be a little more confusing. The students are going to be really confused a lot, and they're going to ask a lot of questions. But they're good questions, like engaging questions. They're not questions like, how do I answer question seven, where you just answer that exact same question about 40 times already, and you're like, okay, let's stop. Let's answer question seven. And instead, it's more like, how do I write in this way? Who would I look up to figure out more about this? Which is a deeply engaging inquiry-based question where you can dive into something and give someone resources. And as a result, final products will be kind of all over the place. You'll have some things that are incredible, and you'll have some that are just like, what in the world did you just do for the last two months? But at the end of the day, they were practicing soft skills, 21st century, whatever you want to call the skills, what I would just call like, they're practicing learning. They're practicing learning on their own. It's a hard skill to quantify, but it's something that you're learning along the way. What lessons do you feel like you learned from going through that process in your composition classroom, your project?
ZB: This project, like the project of doing project-based learning, I did it during my second year as a teacher. So I was still learning how to be a teacher, but that also meant that I wasn't set in my ways and I felt free to explore. And luckily I was given that opportunity at the institution that I was at. It's all about student choice and giving students freedom and space to decide what they want to do. And that's terrifying because you have no idea what they're going to do. And I'm the kind of person who likes to have a very clear plan set out, you know, lesson planning and all of that. I love that. So the first part of the semester was a little bit more traditionally set up because I wanted to have a good kind of foundation to build the project on. And so for my class, I started with the foundation of this problem. So the problem that I chose was the problem of cultural or societal wide anxiety. And I framed it using the frame of the Cold War era of like the 1950s and 60s. You know, anxieties about communism and communists coming over and taking over the country and nuclear war. And so then I had my students try to think, like translate that to today. Like what are some things that people today are concerned about? So things like climate change and LGBTQ rights, also nuclear war to some extent. We started working on like solutions. Like how do we not necessarily solve that problem that is causing that anxiety, but how do we solve those social society level anxieties? And there are two ways to do that. You can either actually fix the problem that's causing the anxiety or you can convince people that it's not something worth being concerned with. An example of that would be something like, you know, marriage equality. Like gay people getting married is not going to dissolve the family unit. Like this is not, you know, that's not something you need to be concerned with. So with that foundation in place, the foundation of then I had my students choose a problem, like a modern anxiety problem, and then decide whose problem it was. So that would be like their audience, you know, who are the people who are concerned about whatever problem it is that you chose. So then we could ask like, how do you reach this person? And that's how you can bring in some of those rhetorical skills. And then you can actually start creating the project by choosing what medium, like how are you going to reach these people, like physically, how are you going to reach them? What does a successful product look like? And then, you know, doing the research and making the thing and sharing it with your classmates and revising it. And at the end of the semester, we had a, basically like a party essentially where all of the groups shared their projects. And you know, some people had made PSA style YouTube videos, several had made posters and put them up across campus. There was one group who, they were so awesome. Their cultural issue that they decided to tackle was young people not voting. And that was actually during the midterm election year, which, you know, has even lower turnout, especially among younger people. Their project was to set up a table in the university cafeteria with like laptops set up so students could take the, I don't think it was the political compass test. I think it was the like, I side with test so that they could see which candidates they were most aligned with. And then they also had another laptop set up to help them get registered to vote. And so they like got people registered to vote on our campus. And like, it's super great. The final part of the project was to write a justification and reflection. And the justification is like, what are the choices you made to create this project? And why? And then the reflection is how well do you think you did? You know, you set these goals for yourself. You created this rubric. Do you think you met it? And what grade do you think you deserve for this and why? So as you can see, like every single step of this is the student's choice. They got to decide the problem, the solution, the audience, the medium. Like I, there were so many rubrics, a different rubric for videos versus for posters versus for, you know, social media campaigns. And there were some that like I had not even thought of. Like one group did a, they made a music video to support marriage equality. And it honestly, it made me cry. It was so wonderful. It was beautiful. But like, how do you grade that? Like I couldn't have guessed that anyone would do something like that. And so while it is scary and uncomfortable and again, terrifying, it was also exciting because you see these young people, given some of them for the first time, the opportunity to really be creative and engaged and do something that they want and that they have come up with on their own and to see them get so passionate about it and do such a good job with it. That makes all of the scariness worth it, I think.
CM: The ability to see student final products after going through a period of typically very high stress, especially if you've never done this before, is I still remember this is like, I think my third or fourth year teaching, like throwing out the grade book and doing something like this. And for the first, like, I don't know, two, maybe three or four months, I was petrified. I thought at any moment, like it was just going to end. So I was going to walk in and have it be shut it down because there were a decent number of students that I felt like weren't doing anything at all. And that freaked me out because I had come from cinnamon rows, controller movements. It was very traditional. So that was terrifying to me. And at the end of the day, when you see those final products, it's not only a sigh of relief. It's like, well, why wasn't I doing this for the last 10 years? Why, like, why is this not the norm? Because the work is so authentic. One of the things that, especially the college level, but also K-12 is how often we expect students to practice before they actually get to do something that's real with what they're learning. And especially at college level where in theory, these are people that want to continue pursuing something that's specialized to them. These are supposed to be like our super academically focused kids. And they go to school and they write a bunch of papers that they won't ever open again. And that's it. I was looking at the other day, my Google Drive stole all my papers on it from 2010. I don't even remember writing this and it's just, it's like 10, 15 pages long with, I don't know, 50 citations. Like, it's like a pretty in-depth assignment and nothing ever came of it. And I think about the hundreds of billions of these just sitting in perpetual, like virtual world papers that exist that could be something that maybe got someone to vote or maybe convinced someone to, I don't know, have a talk with their family about LGBTQIA rights. I don't know. There's so much different things it could be, but it makes some kind of difference in the world that matters. And that really at the end of the day is what we should be aiming toward. Now, and really to attach this to what you're doing on Twitch and on YouTube and newer media, do you feel like educators should be embracing these spaces to spread the word? Because you're hitting a demographic that I think most are not. As far as I'm aware, I mean, political science has definitely taken a turn towards Twitch and YouTube, but I don't really think about like professors and Twitch. Like, it's not something that's not normal. What has your experience been like on there? Do you feel like that's a platform that more should be getting into?
ZB: It's a very complicated question. What it comes down to is, so these issues that we've talked about, we've talked about how they are really like structural and systemic and just baked into every part of everything in this country. And when an issue is that big, it's really hard to see it. It's really hard to see systemic issues when you are living within them. And especially when it's something that's gone on forever, like these, you know, quote unquote traditional teaching methods and teachers who, like you said, grew up as students of these methods. And so they figure that's what they like, that's the way that they need to teach. So I think the first step in tackling these big problems is to get people to ask questions. You know, you can't solve a problem this big if you don't even know that it exists. So you have to encourage people to think outside the system, and the only way you can do that is by getting them to ask questions. And I think that that question thing is a strength of this new media landscape. So if we think of the old media landscape, things like books, people see books as very, like they are the authority, you know, they offer answers to questions. And there's also an element of like gatekeeping to books, you know, who has access to the books, who is even interested in picking up the books, who can read the books, who has the money to buy the books. So this new media landscape, it is free, and it's open, and it's much more, I don't know if democratized is the right word or egalitarian, but a lot more people have more access to it. But on the flip side, that also means that there's a lot more misinformation. So it's a tricky thing to balance. And one criticism that I get on a lot of my videos is that I don't offer enough answers. You know, I bring up that there are these systemic issues, but I don't tell people this is exactly what you need to do to fix it. Like I said, I get criticism for that, but I see that as a strength of this genre. You know, I'm not an expert. Like I said, I've been teaching for three years, like I'm, you know, baby educator, like I don't have the answers. So the best I can do is to read the experts, you know, read the Alfie Kohn and the Susan Blooms and the Peter Elbows and use them as a jumping off point to help illuminate these hidden structures and to start getting people to ask questions. So I think it really depends on if you're an answers person or a questions person. Like if you want to offer people answers, do the traditional thing, you know, write a book, do like what Jesse Stommel does with, you know, giving presentations and things like do that. And that's great. And we need those people. But if you want to be more of a like middleman or like a fulcrum point, like a threshold where you just sort of nudge someone in the right direction so that they can go find the answers from the answers people, then I think that YouTube is great and podcasts are great. And, you know, shouting into the void of the Internet is, I think, maybe that's for you if that's if you are a questions person and not an answers person.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Project's podcast. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.