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Using Shared Questions and Expert-like Activities to Promote Student Engagement

As with most things pedagogical, my teaching takes many cues from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas. For me, at the heart of Bean’s book are two foundational concepts:

  1. Students are engaged by ideas—and those ideas are the same questions and concepts that you (the scholar-teacher teaching those students) are engaged by. Following from this insight, coursework is focused on open-ended questions and problems that teacher and student share.
  2. Students are engaged by activity—and those activities are the same cognitive and physical actions that scholar-teachers enact in their own disciplinary work. Following from this insight, coursework involves using disciplinary modes of thinking and making to explore these questions/problems.

Underlying both of these, of course, is the idea that engaged students are students who learn.

Every once in a while, I need to remind myself of these two concepts as I’m planning lessons and assignments. The reminder goes something like this:

  1. For this topic, what are the aspects of the topic I have questions about, that I am confused about, that I don’t know what to do with, or that I am really just enticed by?
  2. Given my PhD training, experience writing papers and articles (not to mention a dissertation), experience conducting research, etc., how would I go about approaching these questions? How do I break down those strategies or processes of thinking, researching, and argumentation into activities that students and I can do together to explore these questions, activities that will also give students opportunities to practice critical thinking, research, and argumentation?

On a practical level, answering the first question often leads me to check the questions I’m asking in class. If I know the answer to the question, I need to reframe the question into something I don’t have an answer for, or I need to develop a different question. This, I think, is a good rule of thumb; students can tell when a teacher has an answer they want the students to get to—and they see right through it.

Answering the second question requires a bit of reflection, since part of the fact of becoming an expert (via graduate school, etc.) is in automating many of the strategies and practices the expert uses in solving problems. Turning those strategies and practices into activities useful for teaching students also involves breaking down steps clearly and, especially, thinking about what you want students to do or make. Here, Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy is a helpful guide: do you want students to analyze, evaluate, create?

To get a brief look at what this looks like in practice, this past week, the students in my upper-level postmodern literature and culture class began reading Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy, a novel that challenges novelistic conventions at every turn. (As one example, the first half of the book is presented as one long, unbroken paragraph.) For our first class discussing the novel, I wanted to first get ourselves situated with what’s going on with the characters and plot. But, following Bean’s insights, I also wanted to get to activities a bit higher up on Bloom’s taxonomy, activities based in questions or challenges I have with the book.

So I developed a brief activity that asked student groups to collaborate to close-read a knotty passage from the book—a passage that I myself had questions about. The activity was based on a disciplinary process of critical analysis and was open-ended in the sense that I didn’t have a particular answer in mind that students would somehow need to guess. Rather, we’d be working through the activity together, and through our discussion and collaboration we’d be constructing our knowledge about the passage (and about the novel more broadly) together.

Let me tell you, dear reader, once I gave the instructions for the activity and put students in groups, the classroom erupted with conversation and activity. When we came back together, student groups brought forward insights that often astonished me; moreover, the groups would often piggyback off each others’ ideas to push forward what we—as a community of learners, including me—understood about the passage. Engaging ideas, indeed!

(I think that using Bean’s concepts in constructing activities built around shared questions and that ask students to engage in expert-like thinking, researching, and argumentation has another benefit. Introducing these questions and activities at an expert-like level of complexity serves, I think, to short-circuit the ability of some students to use online and other study aids like Sparknotes in place of actually doing the necessary reading. Students doing so might have a sense of the plot and characters of a particular literary text, but would have a much tougher time, for example, making appropriate sense of the close-reading activity described above, or with doing activities that require synthesizing ideas or making complex arguments.)


Notes re: a Poetics of Contingency

“Precarization means more than insecure jobs, more than the lack of security given by waged employment. By way of insecurity and danger it embraces the whole of existence, the body, modes of subjectivation. It is threat and coercion, even while it opens up new possibilities of living and working. Precarization means living with the unforeseeable, with contingency.”

Lorey, Isabell. State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious. Verso, 2015. Ch. 1.


What is a poetics of contingency, a poetics of precarity or insecurity? What does it look like? How does it work?


Sources (from initial search)

  • Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004.
  • Frassanato Network, The. “Precarious, Precarisation, Precariat?” Mute (9 Jan. 2006).
  • Jaussen, Paul. “Envoy: Postings on the Digital Life Poem.” Jacket2 (14 Dec. 2011).
  • Lorey, Isabell. State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious. Verso, 2015.
  • Morson, Gary. “Contingency and Poetics.” Philosophy and Literature 22.2 (October 1998): 286-308.
  • White, Gillian. “Poetics of contingency.” Textual Practice, 32:3 (2019): 529-550.


“For many, the anxious worry arising from existential vulnerability is no longer distinguishable from a fear arising from precarization. There is no longer any reliable protection from what is unforeseeable, from what cannot be planned for, from contingency” (Lorey, Ch. 5).


A poetics of contingency takes into account the chance-oriented poetics of Cage and Mac Low—specifically those processes grounded in randomization. The process would need to produce unforeseen results.


A poetics that barely coheres, almost falling apart (or falling apart). The examples I have at hand are musical: the ramshackle nature of The Faces or The Stones of Exile on Main Street; the Joy Division songs that fall apart; Captain Beefheart’s Trout Fish Replica, in which the members of the band (at least apocryphally) weren’t even in the same rooms as they recorded.


A poetics (necessarily, I think) against closure—

Hejinian, Lyn. “The Rejection of Closure.” The Language of Inquiry. University of California Press, 2000.


Thinking about how systems are made explicit in poetry. How they may be spoken to, may be made externally explicit, or may be made explicit, but explicit as something internalized by the speaker or the form of the poem.

I’m thinking of the way Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone With Lungs inhabits a particularly American national framework (Whitman’s catalogs), naming the systems (military, economic) in which the poems arise and against which they rage, prompting considerations of the poems’ complicity in occupying a space in these systems (a kind of impossibility of not being complicit, an automatic complicity).

What are the systems in which contingency/precarity arises (neoliberal capitalism = survival capitalism)? How to maps those systems, interrogate them in poetry?


How does contingency/precarity relate to anxiety?


The contingent may also be seen as a failure or glitch in an automated/programmed system, a system assumed to be efficient, ongoing, running smoothly. The contingent in this sense acts as the wrench that breaks the machine and the broken tool (re: Heidegger) that alerts us to the fact of being.


What does a contingent poetics look like in practice?

  • Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts
  • Ammons’s A Tape for the Turn of the Year
  • Richard Greenfield’s Tracer
  • Mac Low’s Forties as a contingency of attention
  • ???


Formal contingency may present itself as a kind of in-coherence from one line to the next. An incoherence due to what?… Not just fragmentation or indeterminacy (or is it exactly indeterminacy) or collage. Does it have something to do with intention, control?

Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Northwestern University Press, 1999.

How to map and make explicit the effects of systems or outside powers on the form / content / process of the poem itself? How to chart variations in control of the poem?

How is contingency or precarity different from indeterminacy? Is, perhaps, contingency a emotional/physical/existential mode of indeterminancy?


“How can a perspective on social and political conditions be developed that does not reject relationships, connections, and dependencies among individuals, in other words, one that imagines and practices forms of self-reliance that start from connections with others?” (Lorey)


A memory from grad school, a fellow student discussing an experiment of burying drafts of poems then digging them up after a month or more, using the decomposition of the paper as a form of revision.

A poetics of contingency challenges a normative poetics of craftsmanship.

Community and/as Professional Development (+ A New Article Publication)

The recent publication of an article I co-authored, “State of the Field: Teaching with Digital Tools in the Writing and Communication Classroom” marks the end (or at least a possible end) to a long and fruitful project. The project began in postdoctoral seminars in technical communication pedagogy (Fall 2013) and in research methodologies (Spring 2014), then developed into a successful CCCC grant proposal (2015), research project, and, finally, the published article.

My collaborators—Drs. Joy Robinson (University of Alabama-Huntsville), Lisa Dusenberry (Georgia Southern University), Liz Hutter (University of Dayton), Halcyon Lawrence (Towson University), and Rebecca Burnett (Georgia Tech)—and I worked on the article for close to four years, through rejection, a revise-and-resubmit, and a major top-to-bottom revision of the article. We met on Google Docs and Skype, sometimes several times a week, for two or three hours a session. We needed to develop, often on the fly, ways to work together—ways to honor each co-author’s ideas, concerns, and contributions while ensuring that the article was ultimately coherent and persuasive. That we did so, I think, is nothing short of a miracle, and those hours and months and years will remain special to me, even as the whole thing seemed crazy at the time.

The collaboration, ultimately, only developed, only worked, through the development of a friendship of four of us (Joy, Lisa, Liz, and Halcyon), all of whom began as Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellows in the Writing and Communication Program at Georgia Tech (where Rebecca serves as Director and I serve as Associate Director). The cohesion, collegiality, and friendship that began (sans Halcyon, who arrived in the program a year after the other three) in the two seminars and developed over the years, even as each of the four moved on to tenure-track positions at four different universities, is nothing short of astonishing.

While a writing program, postdoctoral program, or other academic program can’t take credit for the development of such a friendship (of course), I do wonder about the role of community as a mode of professional development—here, a community of postdoctoral fellows teaching technical communication, all with their very real concerns about the horrific (and unjust) state of the academic labor market—a community forged through things like the postdoctoral seminars themselves, through a programmatic culture that values collaboration and experimentation, and through administrative support (and, indeed, collegiality).

The friendship of these four colleagues is something special and certainly may have happened even without the specific community-forming strategies—the seminars, the culture of collaboration and experimentation, and the administrative support—that writing program administrators can put in place. But the role of those community-forming strategies as ways of supporting faculty professional development efforts is really something to consider. What are the best ways to develop those strategies? How can writing program and other higher ed administrators support the development of collegial collaborations?