Jessamyn Neuhaus is a proud combination of geek, introvert, and nerd. What drew her to academia, after all, is the joy she derives from working and researching in complete solitude.
But what does that mean for her role as an educator? In her book Geeky Pedagogy, Neuhaus grapples with her inner nerd and explores how scholars can embrace their introverted characteristics when teaching students. At the same time, she argues that all educators—introverted or not—must recognize their inherent limitations and understand that “emotions and positive interactions play a huge role in effective teaching.” In this interview, Neuhaus discusses living with extroverts, how embodied identity affects teaching and learning, and why she avoids terms like “the best teachers.”
What do you mean when you say your personal life has been a “master class in nerds vs normals,“ and how did it inspire you to write Geeky Pedagogy?
When I was in ninth grade, I learned how to write a research paper and correctly cite sources to support my argument. I loved it! I knew immediately that I was going to be really good at doing this. Fellow scholars may recognize themselves in this anecdote but it’s definitely not a typical student reaction. I didn’t grasp how such formative academic experiences shaped my view of education until my only child began school. For him, academics were just something he had to endure between recess, gym, and socializing. The same is true for my significant other. Not coincidentally, they’re both extroverts who deeply dislike the solitary aspects of studying and having their intellectual work assessed by a teacher. Living with them provides a constant reality check about how people who aren’t professional scholars often feel about the scholastic activities that came so easily, even joyfully, to me. It has also helped me understand how being an introvert influences every aspect of my life, including my teaching. I wrote Geeky Pedagogy because I did not see this important reality—being a nerdy introvert who loves school but is not great at peopling—discussed much in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), yet many of us in higher education fit this description.
Why do you use the term “effective” teaching throughout the book and avoid terms like “good,” “excellent,” or “exemplary” teaching?
There’s a persistent and entrenched myth of the “super-teacher” in our culture. It’s a highly idealized, narrowly defined, and unrealistic image of what good college teaching looks like: a charismatic (usually white, cisgendered male) professor standing in a lecture hall expounding effortlessly while students magically learn merely by being in his mesmerizing, erudite presence. Although it’s unintentional, SoTL that uses terms like “excellent teaching” or “the best teachers” can trigger the super-teacher fantasy, which subsequently undermines faculty’s belief in their own unique abilities to help students learn. For example, I recently read about a highly accomplished teaching professor who’s also a longtime standup comic, and I immediately started comparing my teaching persona to hers. As a geeky introvert, will my pedagogy ever be a stagey laugh-riot performance? Um, no. But then I remembered to ask myself: Can I clearly identify ways that I’m advancing my students’ skills and abilities, in my own teaching context? Am I being effective? Yes, I am.
From the start of your book, you make it clear that identity is one of the most important–if not the most important–aspects to be aware of when it comes to teaching and learning. Why?
I agree with the interdisciplinary evidence-based scholarship on teaching and the science of learning that identifies best practices for any college classroom. At the same time, I believe educational development professionals should, more consistently, acknowledge how embodied identity affects academia generally and teaching and learning specifically. Our perceptions of students and their perceptions of us are shaped in significant ways by identity-based power structures. For instance, patriarchal gender norms are always at work. Systemic white body supremacy (a term I recently learned from Michelle Cromwell, SUNY Plattsburgh vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion) is always at work. The result is what sociologist Roxanna Harlow defines as “disparate teaching realities.” Much of the general advice on teaching assumes a level playing field that simply does not exist and, in so doing, directly contributes to the disempowering idea that any challenges we face as teachers are always entirely of our own making, totally removed from socioeconomic, cultural, and political systems. Nothing in SoTL more dramatically undercuts teaching self-efficacy than the unspoken presumption that “If you simply do X, Y, and Z correctly, you will be effective.” Rather, all teaching advice should be: “In your individual teaching context and taking into account the racial, gender, and other identity hierarchies in which we all live, X, Y, Z may be effective. Try it and see.”
What surprised you the most while researching this topic for your book?
The most surprising, and disconcerting, result of my research was realizing how many aspects of effective teaching and learning are grounded in positive interpersonal exchanges between teachers and students. The reason I became an academic in the first place was because I love reading, writing, and thinking in complete solitude! Of course, effective teaching does require some solitary brainwork—studying SoTL, planning effective assignments and classes, reflecting on pedagogical practices, and so on. But I had to let go of my unexamined supposition that the college classroom is a purely intellectual space in which to explore ideas and debate abstract concepts. We’re human beings, not Vulcans like Mr. Spock, so emotions and positive interactions play a huge role in effective teaching and learning techniques such as building rapport with students and communicating pedagogical transparency.
If there is one thing that you’d want readers of Geeky Pedagogy to take away from the book, what would it be?
We academic nerds and scholarly geeks can use our big brains to teach effectively. We can use our scholarly skills to increase our pedagogical knowledge—that is, how to teach students to do things in and with our academic disciplines—by engaging in the five areas of pedagogical activity described in Geeky Pedagogy: cultivating awareness of the realities of teaching and learning (specifically that identity is important, learning is hard, knowing who our students are and who we are); preparing carefully for all aspects of effective teaching and learning, especially the social interactions and interpersonal communication that may not come easily to introverts; reflecting honestly and systematically on our teaching efficacy, including paying attention to what we’re doing well; and getting support for our teaching by reading and participating in SoTL and other educational development. In short, nerd out about teaching and learning!
Jessamyn Neuhaus is a professor of US history and popular culture at SUNY Plattsburgh, a scholar of teaching and learning, and a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Visit geekypedagogy.com or follow her on Twitter at @geekypedagogy to learn more.