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Notes on My Dunce Cap

By Brendan | 2020-11-21
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Notes on "Notes…"

Notes on My Dunce Cap is a wonderful, short collection of insights and provocations from an experienced teacher.

Jesse Ball shares a loose numbered collection of notes on pedagogy, a manifesto for syllabus creation, and a number of examples of his own creative syllabi, ending with an overview of a workshop method called "The Asking."

Below, some highlights!

Notes in No Order

This section presents a list of insights, lessons, and reflections drawn from the author's teaching experience. While most of these can stand alone, they work nicely as a compact collection, pithy and profound.

"The teacher should at all times refuse authority. … The teacher should through word and action demonstrate an understanding. That understanding is the entirety of the authority that they may have, and it is simply this: that one can expect similar words, similar actions."

"…I felt, I must do everything in my power to right the initial wrong, and I must make the class as strange, as fascinating, and as suited to each particular student as I can."

"Be patient. Let the class teach itself. Try to incite a fruitful sort of chaos and stir yourself like a sheepdog at its edges, striving to see that every last one is included. In a way this is the most crucial mantle of the teacher."

"…[the classroom]…is a place that is made out of an amalgamation of rules, imagination, and consensus. It is formed from gifts of bravery that you and the others make."

"Imagine a school in which every kind of class is taught — literally every possible class, on every subject, taught in every way. If you were to teach at this school would you teach as you do? Would you teach the same materials and in the same way? Or would you teach something else? Thinking of the classes taught at this imaginary school, would you become jealous of some of the classes taught? Would you be aghast that someone is permitted to teach in such a way — a way that you would love to have taught, if only you had thought of it? If this last is true, then please, by all means, begin tomorrow. Steal the class from its imaginary teacher. Become that person."

"Please do not under any circumstances attack the silly or the ridiculous. The silly and ridiculous are often the advance guard of the remarkable. There may be an army faintly coalescing beyond the hill, and your scornful laugh can render it to dust."

"Although you may have a particular aim for a class (at the day's beginning), be prepared to teach the class that is actually happening before your eyes."

"It should not be necessary to say this, but please value questions above answers, and try to only receive answers and praise them unconditionally."

On the Creation of Syllabi

This is one of the best things we've read about what a syllabus can be — a trenchant manifesto for learning, telegraphing the identity and ethos of your course, a beacon for the learners likely to get the most out of it.

"It is a very good thing if your syllabus is contagious — that is, if one of your students shows the syllabus to someone else and if then that person is possessed by a sudden desire to take the class, or even to begin conducting research along parallel lines."

"So — the syllabus should not reflect the exact day-to-day doings of the class. What then should it reflect? I think the syllabus is a sort of instigation. It instigates and provokes a particular sort of behavior and encourages a particular sort of person. You want your syllabus to choose your students for you."

"A syllabus should frame the kind of encounters that you would like to have happen in the class. The language of the syllabus should be the language that you would like to hear spoken in the class."

And following this essay, a long section of "Sample Syllabi" — reproductions of syllabi from several of the author's own classes, from a course on Kafka that used Instagram posts with hashtag "kafkafancy" and created its own class journal to which all participants contributed an article, to an amazing "Brothers Grimm Variation" course, where participants must read the complete Grimm's Fairy Tales (at least twice!) and every other week write a version of a tale.

The Asking

In this final piece, Ball outlines a very interesting method adapted from Quaker tradition; an alternative / constrained form for feedback and critique "to serve in place of the workshop".

Basically: a writer supplies a text to the class, the class prepares questions (with answers not easily known or guessed), the writer has an "advocate" and discusses privately what to focus on, the advocate helps guide the discussion and "defend the silence", and through a series of questions the writer is "led to a better understanding of the work that she is doing". A few further highlights:

"The fourth role is: Recorder. The Recorder writes down all the questions asked, but none of the answers."

"The Asking is a sort of inciting. The minds of the audience attempt to incite the mind of the writer to exceed itself, to overflow its bounds."

"The class is there only to serve in kindness as amplifiers of possibility."

"A FINAL NOTE ON QUIET: It is a great comfort to learn to use silence in pedagogy. Figuring out the difference between when a quiet class is thinking and when they have given up and are just waiting for the next thing, it is a difficult skill. I'm sure no one gets it quite right. But as a general rule people tend to call a halt to silence too early."