When was the last time you read a book on pedagogy that was both on point and made you laugh? While there are all kinds of resources which address ways to improve our instructional strategies, wouldn’t it be great if you found one that quoted Star Trek’s Captain Picard and your favorite cartoon student, Lisa Simpson? Alas, look no longer: Jessamyn Neuhaus, professor of Pop Culture and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) at SUNY Plattsburgh, brings us all of this and more in Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds Who Want To Be Effective Teachers (West Virginia University Press 2019).
Neuhaus shares numerous practical considerations and possibilities for bolstering our teaching efficacy while actively acknowledging obstacles, both personal and systemic, that may get in the way of that pursuit. By addressing “Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds,” the author recognizes that what often draws people into advanced academic studies is rarely the same thing that brings them to teach. Geeky Pedagogy honors this gap in experience with care, humor, and a healthy dose of scholarly support.
By dividing her book into five clear sections (Awareness, Preparation, Reflection, Support and Practice), Neuhaus offers a roadmap through the layers of challenges that college teaching often presents. The structure of the book flows from a logic that aims to disabuse readers of a fundamental and troubling fallacy about college level instructors: that “the sheer love of a subject inevitably leads to effective teaching and student learning.” Neuhaus invests consistent effort into guiding geeks, introverts and nerds (GINs) towards a more nuanced and realistic picture of how to make their teaching better.
Why introverts, geeks and nerds?
Neuhaus identifies with all three of these descriptors. She is open throughout the text in describing her introvert preferences, geeky enthusiasms and nerdy approaches and how these have sometimes gotten in the way of reaching students but in other contexts have especially prepared her for certain instructional bottlenecks. At the core of her project is the belief that educators must become aware of their unique identities and tendencies which will impact their teaching efficacy and that opportunities to enhance teaching outcomes abound.
Neuhaus lays out in the introduction that “…effective teaching is fundamentally an intellectual activity, an endeavor to which we brainiacs in higher education are particularly well suited, but as introverts who may be more practiced at studying than at peopling, we also have to understand and prepare for all the important ways that teaching and learning are social and emotional interactions that require clear verbal and nonverbal communication.” Even if we know that teaching is more than telling, that learning involves more than passive reception, I appreciate the way the author guides readers to consider the deeper reality of what can make teaching and learning hard. Humans dealing with other humans presents complications, challenges and choices. The good news, according to Neuhaus, is that we can prepare for and meet these realities head on.
At every turn, Jessamyn Neuhaus demonstrates how deeply invested she is in her colleagues’ and their students’ success. She implores readers to begin by delving into the central awareness of four interrelated realities– “identity is important, learning is hard, who our students are, and who we are” –all of which are necessary for focusing on what is, rather than getting stuck on what we want things to be. That requires noticing where our aversions to certain aspects of the teaching process show up. What are the daily annoyances that get under our skin and prevent us from demonstrating genuine care for our students and respect for their efforts? Neuhaus asks readers to cultivate this awareness as a means to develop habits that lead to authentically supportive relationships with learners.
From there she moves readers into the deeply practical and actionable section on preparation. She invites fellow instructors to “put on our professor pants” in the kindest, most generous tone. Putting on “professor pants” becomes a deeply useful metaphor for all manner of preparatory steps that will enable educators to feel both sufficiently armored and suitably informed as they enter into the necessary relationships of the whole educational enterprise. While this conversation could go in multiple directions, Neuhaus homes in on four “Hallmarks of effective teaching that can be especially challenging for GINs:” care, rapport, authenticity, and clear communication. Tackling each of these areas in turn, we understand how these aspects shape student expectations and experience.
If you are an introvert, you will find a special appreciation for Neuhaus’s thoughtful treatment of circumstances that pose very real challenges, including conflicts with students or colleagues. She gleefully admits “the whole reason I became an academic in the first place is because my head is my favorite place to be!” At the same time, while extolling the virtues of developing a clear syllabus, Neuhaus explains, “ Because I am a pretty reserved and not especially effusive teacher, I rely on my syllabus to do some of the cheerleading and encouraging that my students need to hear from me.” It’s a perfect illustration of the pains the author takes to provide relatable examples rooted in concrete practice.
In the sections that follow, Neuhaus draws heavily on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) to underscore the necessity of regular reflection and benefits of seeking support. She elaborates on the variety of methods for this work including the cultivation of a gratitude practice which, she grants, may sound a little over the top for some. Her radical candor underscores her commitment to practicality: “If for no other reason, the fact that gratitude increases our ability to demonstrate enthusiasm for teaching is a compelling and practical impetus for incorporating gratitude into reflective pedagogy.” Neuhaus proves again and again how well she knows her audience.
With regards to looking for help, Neuhaus emphasizes how fraught this may feel for many in a “Hunger Games hellscape where individuals must mercilessly fight for an infinitesimal number of tenure track jobs.” She notes the steady spread of Centers for Teaching and Learning on campuses across the country as indicative of a slow changing tide in favor of greater attention to pedagogy in higher education circles. Readers are further encouraged to dig into the research on college teaching and to access online networks of pedagogy scholarship, but above all, to approach the process as a topic of intellectual study worthy of our deep curiosity and focused investigation.
One of the difficulties of dispensing advice of any kind is the problem of contextual variance. No two teaching situations are the same. Identity markers including race, gender, class, ability, sexual orientation, and religion deeply influence how educators are perceived in the classroom as well as how they are received and supported within institutions. Throughout the book, Jessamyn Neuhaus acknowledges the realities of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression in society and therefore, in every teaching context. She leaves no room for ambiguity that these realities must be addressed. Further, she consistently reminds readers about how differences in status play a role in determining which professors (tenured or adjunct, for example) will likely have license and capacity to offer particular interventions.
Geeky Pedagogy is not a book you need to read all at once. While the chapters build on each other nicely, they each provide a useful set of lessons that one can mull over and practice before taking on the next bundle of learning. It strikes me as a great resource to work through in community with other instructors. Come for the pedagogy, stay for the humor and full humanity of the project. Jessamyn Neuhaus is aware of what college professors at every level are up against in the current moment. The fact that she encourages us to pursue the goal of improved teaching in spite of numerous barriers underscores her commitment to students and their learning. She makes me want to do better and be better in the geekiest way I can.
Sherri Spelic teaches elementary Physical Education at American International School Vienna, Austria. She has written extensively on topics related to education, identity and power and among other things publishes a monthly social justice newsletter for educators: Bending The Arc. Check out her book of essays, Care At The Core or find her on Twitter @edifiedlistener.