Teacher of the Ear 022 — Optimism
With Jessica Zeller
This is Teacher of the Ear: a show presenting conversations of learning, teaching, and technology, listening for ways to empower educators and champion student agency. It’s the aural side of Hybrid Pedagogy. I’m Chris Friend from Kean University.
Nothing like starting an episode by confessing a backlog of interviews, right? On that note, back in October 2021, Jessica Zeller posted a tweet about a particular class session. She said her class “went everywhere” and that she already missed being in that class by later that same day. Jessica said they discussed “not passing down our own pedagogically-induced trauma; the problem with ideals; ego, power, & responsibility; how words shape students' feelings about their bodies; & pedagogic optimism.”
While each item on that list is a great conversation in its own right, it’s that last item that most grabbed my attention: Pedagogic optimism. I don’t know about you, but after teaching through a pandemic for four semesters, I could sure use a dose of optimism. I wondered what her secret was and, if I’m honest, what the heck she was talking about. I confess that I’d never heard the phrase “pedagogic optimism” before, and I wondered whether there’s a secret to it.
Turns out there is, but the secret isn’t really mysterious or unknown. It’s more a frame of mind that lets us tap into our energy reserves right when things get rough—which, let’s face it, is pretty much all the time these days, am I right?
Jessica teaches dance (particularly ballet) at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. And that fact added another layer of bafflement to my curiosity: How on earth does one teach ballet in a pandemic? I mean, I’ve had my share of struggles with synchronous sessions and webcams and whatnot, but I teach writing classes. Give me collaborative document editing and a clear view of someone’s face, and I’m off to the races. But…dance? How does that work virtually? And how does the essential embodiment of dance curriculum affect teaching, both in general and in the crazy times we’re all facing these days? And how does Jessica miraculously find optimism through all that? I had to find out.
I’m thrilled that Jessica agreed to chat for a bit, to share her perspective and insights with us. We start with a blunt and direct definition of pedagogic optimism, but then we sort of tug on that thread and see what it unravels. Our conversation winds through pedagogy, kindness, and even un-grading. So here’s my chat with Jessica Zeller.
Zeller: I think of pedagogic optimism as a thing. Like it is an entity that we I hope some people have—who are teachers or want to teach—as sort of a foundational element of why we're there, like the idea that students can learn. Learning can happen there. Something is possible and it's I think it can be that broad, like “I think something exciting is going to happen and we are going to grow in some way when I walk into this room with these people and meet up with these people and we have an experience together” and whatever happens in that room, whatever subject, area or whatever methodology you're using.
It feels to me like without that optimism, none of us should be there. There's no reason to be there, right? So, like we all have—we have it. I'm going to say we all have it. Because it pains me to think that someone wouldn't, and I see how gradually that optimism that has a it has a pathway. It has a like a a curve to it. Sometimes we have more of it and sometimes we have less of it and certainly in the last year and a half I've become aware that it exists for me, and that when it is threatened or diminished or taken away, or put in peril, I struggle as a teacher.
And that certainly happened with the onset of the pandemic, when all of a sudden cracks were exposed that I'm sure some people had been seeing for a long time. People in historically excluded groups were probably experiencing from the fissures in higher Ed long before some of the rest of us who were not exposed to that or chose not to see it, I think.
Maybe we just were blissfully unaware in this sort of ignorant way, but I do think so many things sort of started to really crack open institutional value systems when budgets are threatened. You really see where people values are and the choices that they made as a result of that have just absolutely come down immediately through all the levels of administration to faculty and staff and those of us who work with students every day. And I think when we talk about the relationship between the administrations and the faculty staff being damaged, the employees being damaged, we're talking about this sense of like optimism in your work being threatened. That you no longer believe that there is somewhere for your work to go because you're being told that you are being either hamstrung or restricted or excluded, or somehow you know there's there's no equity in in how your work in how you're able to work.
And I think that really hurt us last year, and I think that's where a lot of the anger and the fear and continues to be, but certainly was acute right at the onset and has sort of continued in different ways depending on the institution. And we see all sorts of ways that the institutions are navigating this that seem—I think everybody is being affected differently, but it hits us in the optimism.
You know, for me what I noticed in in looking at the dumpster fire—and I'm sure other people had this experience, but—there were moments last year when even though maybe I was teaching you know ballet from my living room by Zoom to students in their living rooms. Which is just all sorts of wrong. But dance doesn't do that. We don't. We don't do that, but it was precarious on a number. Yeah yeah, lots of animals were kicked unnecessarily and I felt really bad for it. Yeah, I mean there were just a lot of really both comical and sort of tragic moments that came from that.
But I think that's the thing, right? Like, we were able at some point to see the comedy in it because it was so absurd. And that's the odd—That's the little glimpse of a glimmer of optimism in that for me it was always I would dread logging into Zoom, and as soon as the students popped on and I could engage with them, I felt like they would bring me back to that place of something good can happen in the world because of the way we were engaging and because of what was happening. And I do think for so many of us it's the students who are the wellspring of that optimism and that it is just, you know, that sense of fighting with our administrations and fighting for budgets and fighting for just our general social respect as a person who is an educator in any field right now seems so difficult.
And then we meet with students and we feel like our jobs and lives have a little bit more meaning and and it There, that to me is, yeah is that really where it it's, It's like that's the Center for me. Like, I'll take all the rest of it away, wouldn't we? Wouldn't that be amazing like we could have our jobs and just work with students all day long and not have to do any of the other you know, bureaucratic stuff. Yeah, I I, that's one and it only it only struck me.
Friend: Yeah, a lovely thought.
Zeller: I think Chris because the because the world is going to hell and and it and that was such an extraordinary backdrop for how much more important it is to do what we do in light of this.
Friend: And what's really interesting to me about the anecdote you just provided where you said you logged into Zoom, basically with trepidation, and then as soon as the students connected and you engage them. That's when things kind of like refilled themselves to use that metaphor. It to oversimplify that to be reductionist about that it would be the technology versus humanity debate where technology is evil and makes you feel drained and humanity is great and refills you cup. But what I find fascinating about it is that you were signing into the technology that allowed you to connect with your students. The thing that you used in order to get to that stuff that makes you feel whole and rewarded as a teacher, that system was filling you with almost dread.
Zeller: Yeah, yeah, it's fascinating.
Friend: Do you?
Zeller: It's true.
Friend: Do you know why that would be like?
Friend: Why would that happen?
Zeller: I don't think I was dreading logging in. I think it was the the exhaustion and the sort of drain of all the other things that we were dealing with. And then to have to find the energy to go in and teach people. Or, you know, be in a room in a learning space and and and sometimes and not know what they're bringing to this to the table, either because they were in all sorts of different states. But I think that happens to me sometimes even when I'm in person where it's like I'm just so I'm just so tired like do I have to go teach this class right now? But the minute I walk in, it's like, you know, the sun comes out. And not always because teaching is hard. There is certainly an optimism when you see people who are responsive to your efforts.
Friend: And to your to your observation there that not every day is, you know sunshine and roses and everything.
Friend: It forces kindness on us.
Zeller: Yeah, it and and quite a bit of compassion.
Zeller: It's that's that's been big for me this year. I've gotten to a place with the students where they'll sort of come to me if they really are having a crisis, or I can just spot it, because fortunate for me and I guess here's a bit of a segue into the into the ballet pedagogy piece.
I walk in and I am seeing them in their full bodies moving right off the bat and it's really apparent when you read someone's body language, how their posture is, what their, you know are they downcast eyes today? You know, how much energy do they produce from their body? You can spot it right away. And so my go to forever has been and and this was something I learned from a teacher of mine that I really appreciated. Right at the beginning of the class, we're all standing out at the bar, so everyone is stationary, even though they're moving. And I basically make a circuit.
The first exercise of any ballet class is really slow and long. It usually takes about four minutes and it's just some slow bending in the knees. It's called pliés and it's it's a lot of bending and you're just getting warmed up and starting to move things. And once I set that exercise and send them on their way and then music starts. When they are moving, I can circulate the room and so I'll verbally check in with people and try to make sure to get to every single person in the room by the end of that four minutes so that I've at least looked them in the eyes. Because the feeling that that we're all seeing right away like that, you go around and speak with each person and ask each person to respond in some way.
That to me feel so critical to not letting students feel like they're just getting lost and from a pedagogy stance, it's the feeling seen being seen. Maybe you make yourself more seen on some days than others. Like I I know there are students who will deliberately and I used to do this to hide and almost purposely hide in the corner of the room. Just stay way back and those are students who I, they respect their choice to station themselves back there, and usually I won't, you know, ride too hard if there's something going on that I see, because I can also tell that there's something going on with them that they need to process. If they're staying far, far away from the front of the room, or me or other people, the the tendency to want to isolate in a room full of people is really visible, and it comes to a movement based course in a studio like that, 'cause there's just space, there's no furniture. It's like the bars around the edges of the space. And so there everyone is exposed.
Friend: You almost make this sound like it's easy.
Zeller: There's no getting away. It, I think it makes it easier. I think the introduction of the body into a place where there is likely some trauma makes it easier to see. I think the idea that you're you're the we are embodied people that you have body language, that it even exists. You know, I see it, like tenfold. And because I've been doing this as long as I have, I've gotten better at noticing some cues. You know I've had—it's funny. I've had students who will just stand there at the bar and do the bar work and do their warming up and they will just be crying while they're dancing, and I usually just walk by and say yeah, OK and they they kind of nod and I just like let them go. Let them keep crying. It's fine like they're doing what they need to do, and this has been a rough year and a half. You know?
Zeller: Yeah, I mean if I'm with them for yeah like all of them for like an hour and a half, hour 20 minutes and it's just twenty of them and they're all moving past me. I'll I'll speak with each of them multiple times throughout the course. Like throughout the day, because that class is intended for me to be feeding back with them, there's a loop. So we were constantly in dialogue of some sort.
Zeller: I also have a bit of a unique situation in that I work with dance majors who I know for four years. So they yeah, I know them when they come in as freshmen first year students and then they I see them periodically in different environments. I see them in studio classes. I see them in dance academic courses. So like dance history, dance theory, I see them in courses like that throughout their four years. So I know them pretty well my whole the all of my colleagues and I, we know them well by the time they leave, so I think that's why maybe some students just feel more comfortable being emotionally engaged around us 'cause they've known us too for a long time.
Ballet for hundreds of years has been taught with students absolutely silent. I mean from the beginning, it's like the ideal concept of what what dance was dances gets articulated in writing all the time, which is ironic in some ways because all the drawings or photographs of dancers are two dimensional in the books. But it's been written down for hundreds of years and so there is this ideal. And when students walk in the room, none of them are that. And there's a lot of dance pedagogies that use that ideal I want to say to the detriment of the student. Because they are constantly being compared to this thing that they will never functionally be like. You're supposed to have certain things you know certain shaped hip sockets and your hip sockets aren't that shape. And guess what? They're never going to be. Like, there's an acceptance that you're just not that thing.
And and it puts these students in a frame of mind where they will consistently feel this deficiency, like they just always feel deficient or like they're always pushing against something that they can't possibly reach. And lately I've been drawing parallels between that and like learning outcomes or like standards. Or grades anything that is sort of an umbrella expectation for a student to reach that, like all of them, however idiosyncratic, with their individual paper topics and things that we need to remember that, you know, that those that we're trying to standardize that. So that everyone looks the same. And none of them are the same.
I mean, I think the body is a perfect representation of of that in a classroom because it's a visual and corporeal representation of how idiosyncratic the brain is and how how each person learns differently. But we're doing it through the body so it becomes really obvious, because like you know, this student's legs aren't as long as this, just legs, and that's fine that they just are. But like, if you're comparing them to anything, whether it's some ideal from 100 years ago or some learning outcome, or you can't expect them to all do the same thing. Because they just functionally won't. So it makes a case in a way to like up to overturn anything that's standardized.
Dance is this kind of fusion of the body itself, right like the individual body with our individual skeletal structures and musculatures, and you know, musical sensibilities and ways that we engage with space. And you know, some people have spatial problems like that just in general, like in the world, like people who just struggle to understand or be, you know, like to know how much space you have around you and to be kinesthetically aware like that is something that's on a range. People were just on and, uh, people have different ways of engaging with that. For various reasons and and answers you too, so it's like there's no standard there.
And I do think the way that we put together the idea of the standard expectation plus the body plus, how do we put those things together is the question, and that's where the pedagogy is right? Which explains why for so long, dance in particular has been brutally authoritarian. Teachers used to teach with sticks like early part of the 20th century ballet teachers, especially they're all photographed with these, you know, these canes and they would actually hit students with them…like, that was a thing. And that was part of how you make the student, how you force the student body that doesn't look ideal into the ideal. You literally force it.
And so it was abusive on a number of levels, and I think that as we got away from for the most part, the physical abuse of it it turned into this sort of mental well, now you've got to just fortify yourself and and push so hard that you. There's this sort of self flagellation that happens with dancers a lot, and it's it's really, really detrimental and damaging and awful. And I actually find myself undoing that as the vast majority of my work. Like how do I introduce someone to a process that won't do that to them, but I think that that pedagogy has come in reaction to pedagogies that were developed to instill this ideal that, or a standard, that's impossible for someone to reach.
And so sometimes I feel like that about learning outcomes. And you know grades and those things that we have created those structures we've created that really need to be taken down. But I think the body is the perfect example of why that doesn't work.
Friend: So while you were explaining all of that and the the need to basically and unlearnt to to help students unlearn the things that traditional or historical dance pedagogy have taught students while you were explaining that I was thinking, oh, we're getting into un-graiding territory here.
Zeller: Yeah for sure.
Friend: We're getting into like that's that's going to be the solution. That's where this is heading. So what does on grading look like? Is it fair to ask what is un-grading look like in a dance classroom? Is is that too simple of a question?
Zeller: No no I mean you would think, right, like, you would think. I I sometimes I have a really hard time with—there are these dual hierarchies that I'm working with here. Because ballet and dance, like anyone who has sent their six-year-old to a ballet class, those aren't graded. It's just a ballet class they go to like dance has been outside of academia more than it has been inside of academia.
Yeah, so when you put together this monstrous hierarchy of ballet, which has, you know, as a form rooted in European history. It echoes all sorts of monarchic hierarchies and you know the Royal Courts and whatnot where it sort of started. It was built on that paradigm. And when you put it in a place like the university or academia sort of at large, which is another one of those enormous hierarchies that seems too big to navigate. But I feel like I'm in a nested hierarchical situation where the effects of both of those things happens at the same time when you grade a dance class.
And so I've got students who not only are worried about like am I going to be a good enough dancer to get it to to be in the profession once I graduate, but am I also going to pass this class in case my body fails me and I need to get another job after I graduate? Like, it's this dual pressure and and challenge for them that they face and so un-grading has been incredibly liberating for me and I hope them, but I also, at least in my situation. I co-teach so I'm in a team with several other faculty and we rotate throughout the week. So like I'll teach my own class, but each student 'cause they're in these classes five days a week. Each student will see a number of different faculty throughout the week, so we have to operate on one syllabus. Which means we've had to operate on one set of policies, so we co-policy write and we code, and so I haven't been able to un-grade to the extent that I would like to.
But last year, my colleagues and I did decide to move to a 50/50 grading scenario in these courses where the student provides half of their grade and the faculty collectively provided the other half and there are dialogues and we have meetings early in the semester to set some goals. So it's a collaborative thing with faculty and student that each student has their own goals that they've established with that faculty, and then we go through the semester we meet up again at the end. They write a reflective essay and they provide 50% of their grade, so we are un-grading to that extent.
If it were just my course, I would go much much further. I mean in all of the courses I teach on my own. I just don't even I met with a student an hour and a half ago who wrote her reflection for the end of the course and forgot to give herself a grade. She just didn't. It was like, Oh yeah, she's forgot because we have spent no time on it at all. It's like it's very obviously not the point so. So that I have found to be. Really, the way to go in a way that students feel like they can sink into the work of the course without the pressure.
And I know there are so many people looking into this right now and it's so gratifying to see that sort of exploding. Yeah, even if people are just starting out with it and just trying it little, you know, dip your toe and it's just really exciting to see the momentum behind that and I agree. But in dance it it is it's like doubling down on the hierarchy when you do that. When you grade it. So I've been grateful that I work with people who've been open to opening that structure up a little bit. And it's been great.
The un-grading piece feels right to me when it comes to our bodies because the other piece is that when— And I remember this as a student 'cause I was an undergraduate in in a dance program also. When you get graded in dance, you sometimes conflate the grade as a grade on the work versus a grade on your body, yeah? So yeah, and yourself. And so I mean just in the same way that students in an academic class will say, Oh well, they just liked you more than they liked me, so that's why you got…. OK, it's very similar, but I think it's a little more insidious in dance because of the way that it can affect their own perception of their body and that's a really delicate relationship of oneself to one body, one body and dance that we that can cause real problems for students in the long run.
So I'm I'm very aware that whether or not we never intend for that to be the case when we provide a grade for someone in there, but they but that might be how they perceive it, and I think just being—that awareness alone was enough to get me to completely back off as far as I could, given the value systems of my colleagues as well. So I think the 50/50 has been working beautifully. It gives us a lot of room to really know students.
Un-grading is a gift.
You've been hearing Teacher of the Ear. Just because the show is over doesn't mean the conversation ends. Everyone who contributed to this episode is accessible through Twitter, and so is the show itself. Along those lines, @TeacherOfTheEar and @chris_friend would like to thank @jessicazeller (Z-E-L-L-E-R) for chatting with me on today's show. Oh, and a quick shameless plug: Jessica wrote Chapter 19 of Hybrid Teaching, the edited collection of essays available through Hybrid Pedagogy and as a serialized audiobook wherever you get your podcasts. The audio version of her chapter should be released in Spring 2022.
But let’s get back to Teacher of the Ear. Our theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions. This episode’s cover art is from Sandy Millar on Unsplash. The show is hosted on Anchor.fm, and you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. The full catalogue of episodes, including show notes and complete transcripts, lives at hybridpedagogy.org/podcast. That’s hybridpedagogy.org/podcast.
So that’s it for this episode of Teacher of the Ear. I’m your host, Chris Friend, from Kean University in Union, NJ. That’s it for this episode. Until next time, let’s all keep our ears open for more ways to empower educators and champion student agency.
Thanks for listening!