CFT Mini-Grant Report: Visiting Ballet Instructor Kevin Thomas

On Tuesday, April 27, Kevin Thomas, artistic director of Collage Dance Collective was a virtual guest teacher for Ballet II and Ballet III. On that day, these classes were also open to any Sewanee students who have ever expressed an interest in theatre and dance.

As Mr. Thomas introduced himself, he joked about his extensive use of French, his native tongue, when he teaches. He shared a bit about his background as a former principal soloist with Dance Theatre of Harlem, a guest performer with the Royal Ballet, and on Broadway in Phantom of the Opera. He taught from one of the studios in Collage’s newly opened 22,000 square foot complex (built during the pandemic!) where the professional company rehearses and he and his faculty train 250 students. We were inspired to learn that they also engage with an additional 500 students in the Memphis community each week.

I was particularly impressed with Mr. Thomas’ ability to “read the room” over video and teach the mixed levels of students who were present, offering them specific, useful feedback that they can continue to work on beyond this class, and offering appropriate levels of challenge. The students commented that he made them feel simultaneously at ease and inspired to put forth their best effort. As a participant-observer, I danced parts of the class with the students while observing them and, at other times, stood back to fully observe and remain out of the camera’s view. It was a gift for me to witness the different approaches to exploring concepts that the students most connected with and which images and phrases allowed them to access familiar ideas in new or more fully-realized ways.

I also observed Mr. Thomas’ values as a teacher emerge as he guided the students through the class, some of which illuminated areas that I tend to place less focus, and revealed some areas that I can place more attention in my own teaching. In particular, an emphasis on strength in the arms coming from the back, “like bird wings” was a powerful image for the students. We now have access to visual examples of Collage’s professional company performing this imagery in Kevin Thomas’ re-imaged choreography of The Firebird ballet, inspired by African culture. The ballet premiered the same week as our classes in an on-air broadcast by a Memphis television station. We all left the classes sweaty, uplifted, and inspired.  

-Courtney World, Associate Professor and Director of Dance

Never going back

Last week, we asked faculty to tell us what new teaching tools, strategies, and approaches they’ve tried this year that they would be keeping even after (touch wood) the pandemic is over. Now that we’ve had the opportunity to try some new things, what are we not going to give up?

Small group and individual meetings

One of the most obvious effects of the pandemic was a restriction in how many people could be gathered together in a regular size classroom. Some classes were moved to larger spaces to allow for physical distancing, but other professors took the approach of breaking their classes up into smaller groups. Lisa Burner (Spanish) wrote: “Meeting with groups of 3-10 students at a time has completely transformed my relationships with my students. I hope to be able to find a way to continue to integrate elements of these tight-knit interactions in the future, even as we figure out what it means to return to ‘normal’ teaching.” 

While a number of professors adopted the strategy of breaking their classes up into small groups for regular meetings, others made increased use of individual meetings for grading and providing feedback on assignments. Matthew Rudd (Mathematics) was one faculty member who found this approach to be fruitful: “Students worked on their tests independently and then met with me individually to discuss their solutions. These individual conversations have been much more effective for assessing understanding than traditional written exams, and using homework discussions in class to prepare students for this exam structure has bolstered attendance and participation.”

More frequent low-stakes assignments

In the knowledge that many students have been dealing with an increased level of stress this year, some faculty members decided to tweak the assignment structure for their classes. Emily Puckette (Mathematics) switched from 3 large tests during the semester to 7 bi-weekly quizzes and found that the change had a number of benefits. She reports that, with the new approach, students “are more likely to come to see me throughout the term, rather than only right before the tests” and that they “appreciate more frequent and timely opportunities to correct their misconceptions”. From the instructor’s perspective, she also found that “dividing up grading into more but smaller assignments has felt much less onerous”.

Use of electronic resources

Although many Sewanee faculty have been using electronic resources in their teaching for some time, the pandemic encouraged many others to try out these tools for the first time. Among the different applications on offer, Perusall was particularly popular. One respondent to our survey wrote that they were planning to continue using Perusall from now on, noting that “it motivates students to do the reading and it facilitates an out-of-class dialog about the material.” Other professors have found video assignments to be a surprisingly effective alternative to in-person presentations. Lisa Burner wrote: “In my literature and the environment class, students made video presentations of their research projects. We then met in groups of 4-6 students to discuss the videos during class time. The discussions were great, and it felt so much more productive, engaged, and supportive than a series of back-to-back in-class presentations, where everyone was too drained to ask meaningful questions. This year, students’ faces lit up when they got a chance to answer real questions their peers had about their research.”

What tools or techniques have you started using this year that you might not want to give up? What are your “keepers”? Our survey is still open and we’d love to hear what’s worked for you, so whenever you have the chance, take a minute to let us know!

The Woman Behind the Woman: White Allyship in the Archives

Aided by technology and supported by the Center for Teaching, my RHET 331: Voices of American Women class welcomed Dr. Wanda Little Fenimore, Assistant Professor of Speech Communication at the University of South Carolina-Sumter, to remotely join us on March 29, 2021. An award-winning teacher and scholar of rhetoric and public address, Dr. Fenimore holds a doctoral degree from Florida State University and previously taught at Hampden-Sydney College, where she also served as the Associate Director of the Ferguson Center for Public Speaking. Dr. Fenimore has recently completed a Mellon Faculty Fellowship through the American Council of Learned Societies to finish her upcoming book Elizabeth and Waties Waring: Paving the Rhetoric Road to Brown v. Board of Education. Students had the chance to read an advance copy of Dr. Fenimore’s forthcoming article on Elizabeth Waring in Rhetoric & Public Affairs to foreground a robust and engaging discussion of allyship, archival work, and research strategies.

The conversation began with an overview of the life and times of Elizabeth Waring, a largely forgotten yet rhetorically significant elite white woman who‒along with her husband, Judge J. Waties Waring‒publicly advocated on behalf of desegregation in the years leading up to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Dr. Fenimore has spent the past several years locating and excavating Elizabeth Warings’ speeches. Many of these texts have been previously unavailable to scholars of women’s rhetoric in the Civil Rights Movement until now. As part of her time with us, Dr. Fenimore generously contextualized her research trajectory within a broader struggle to find complete and authentic texts amid “archival absences.” Such absences reflect how women orators, even those who are prominent in their own time, oftentimes end up lost to rhetorical history. In the case of Elizabeth Waring, her voice has been obscured because archives privilege the papers of her husband. Dr. Fenimore’s scholarship identifies, navigates, and rectifies the archival absence surrounding Elizabeth’s rhetorical contributions to anti-segregationist campaigns both in and beyond the South.

Elizabeth Waring’s anti-segregation rhetoric, Dr. Fenimore argues, presents us with a nuanced and timely look at the rhetorical strategies and missteps of white allyship. RHET 331 students engaged unpublished archival materials to unpack key differences between “provocative” and “problematic” white allyship. In the end, we found ourselves (as one student aptly put it) able to discuss “the complexity between analyzing historical rhetoric both as progressive for it’s time and still maintaining problematic aspects.”

By design, Dr. Fenimore also created a space for students to reflect upon their own challenges in researching lost, marginalized, misunderstood, and/or underrepresented women orators for their RHET 331 final research paper. The assignment requires students to select and analyze a speech by an American woman orator, deeply research the existing literature about speaker and text across disciplines, account for the historical context and rhetorical situation surrounding the text, and advance an original and supportable argument about the text. As one student noted, “I thought the presentation was very engaging and Dr. Fenimore gave some great interactive opportunities for us to consider our own research.” Another student appreciated the chance to collaboratively discuss “what rhetorical research best practices look like.”

We greatly appreciated the opportunity to connect with Dr. Fenimore, add to our analytical tool boxes as rhetorical critics, and deepen our understanding of the significance and responsibilities of white allyship through a historically-grounded case study with lessons for the current moment. Many thanks to the CFT for making this visit possible!

Melody Lehn, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Women’s and Gender Studies

What are comps for?

Every major at Sewanee has them, but what exactly are comps for? Last week faculty from a wide range of different departments—including history, economics, math, theater, religion, Spanish, and philosophy—came together to discuss what comps look like in different disciplines, what has changed in recent years, and what changes we might like to see in the future. It was a rich and thought-provoking conversation that brought out a range of different answers to the question of why we make our students take comprehensive exams and what we hope they will gain from the process. Four general themes emerged from the discussion: 

  1. Gatekeeping (making sure that students have a mastery of the skills and knowledge that ought to come with a degree in their field)
  2. Shared experience (having a process that all majors go through together, in some cases helping with and offering criticisms of each other’s work)
  3. Independent work (using skills and knowledge gained in the major to produce a significant piece of work that reflects individual creativity and/or interests)
  4. Looking forward (applying what has been learned in the major to life after college)

Not all departments gave equal emphasis to all of these themes, and particular themes were much more prominent in some comp processes. In recent years, a number of departments have changed their comp processes by making use of oral exams, spreading out comps over a longer period of time, or de-emphasizing certain elements (for example mastery of a “canon” of great works).

Missed the discussion but want to catch up on what was said? You can watch the recording here on the CfT website.    

-Mark Hopwood, Philosophy

On the Essentialness of Self-Care

Sitting down to write this post was difficult.  Lately, I have been preoccupied by a multitude of things—not just random things but tragic things—breaking news things—such as the deadly protests in Myanmar due to a military coup, the sexualization of and violence against Asian women that resulted in a mass shooting in Atlanta, Georgia, the more recent mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado, et cetera, et cetera. 

The turmoil is real and undeniable, and I know that I am not alone in feeling ambivalent.  As a consequence, I seldom subject myself to live news.  I peruse the headlines every now and then when I can summon the energy to process what is happening and then subsequently counter the negative toll that the chaos takes on my mind, body, and spirit.  If I am honest, however, I must confess that despite these precautions, the madness of it all still finds its way into the inner sanctum of my mind at times. 

This is the tip of the iceberg.  There are realities (both individual and shared) that require time and attention in my daily life that feel even more pressing. In order, for instance, to deal with the inevitable challenges of remote teaching and learning and contend in a healthy way with the various things that threaten to deplete not only my time and energy but diminish my optimism, I have found myself embracing self-care. Melinda Oliver explains, “Self-care asks you to truly tap into yourself and listen to your needs” (https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/black-women-in-wellness). Oliver’s perception of what self-care requires reflects my own. After all, if we are out of touch with ourselves, how can we accurately identify our needs or diligently work to satisfy them?

I knew from the moment I agreed to contribute this post that my focus would be on self-care. Life is short and unpredictable. Striving to exercise more care in how we interpret and navigate our lives with the hope of experiencing more peace, joy, and pleasure seems like a worthwhile venture.  Finding ways to encourage, nurture, affirm, nourish, forgive, and support ourselves is an intentional practice, and it can be lifelong.  Self-care has been my saving grace—a critical part of renewal and redemption—in good times and bad.

Most of us already have plenty of access to self-care strategies and/or activities that when applied can save time, energy, and even the day.  There are many viable strategies floating around, so there is no list of self-care strategies in this post, only one strategy that I discovered earlier this year and have been contemplating ever since.  The strategy boils down to what Caroline McHugh describes as “individuality” in her TEDxMiltonKeynesWomen talk titled “The Art of Being Yourself” (https://youtu.be/veEQQ-N9xWU).

At the beginning of her talk, McHugh discusses the concept of a “true mirror.” According to McHugh, “When you look in a true mirror, you don’t look at yourself, you look for yourself. You look for revelation and not for reassurance.” I found this observation meaningful because self-revelation or being honest about who we are—not who others perceive us to be or who we wish to be—seems essential to being able to properly care for (read:  nurture, love, comfort, forgive, and affirm) ourselves.  McHugh’s talk is intriguing and likely to generate many questions. For me, one of the most salient questions is:  How do we acknowledge our authentic selves in a way that allows us to adequately care for ourselves and create space for others to do the same?

Courtney Thompson, Associate Professor of American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies

Keep Walking

Last week was hard. It was particularly hard for those members of our community who have faced racism and discrimination in their own lives, but it was also a hard week for our community as a whole. Many of us found ourselves wondering what to say to our students in class and how to respond to the complex mix of emotions they were experiencing while also managing our own. As the VC has said, we have a lot of work to do. At the same time, we know that many of us are feeling tired, and have been feeling that way for quite some time. As we begin a new week, we offer a few resources that we hope will help you—in the words of psychologist Mays Imad—to “keep walking”. We’ve taken some of the links we shared for our CfT “un-sessions” last week and added a few extras that people kindly sent us. If you have your own favorite resource for avoiding burnout or cultivating mental and physical wellness more generally, just let us know and we’ll add it to the document. A few highlights:

The whole list—including readings, podcasts, music, and more—is available here. If you need someone to talk to and would like to get a referral to a mental health specialist, Ashley Liston-Avnaim (CAPS Director) can help with that: just shoot her an email

Mini-Grant Report: Race, Revolution, and the Great Dismal Swamp

This past fall my students and I welcomed two guest lecturers to my class on African American History to 1865. Jeremy Williams (Johns Hopkins) led a session on Race and Revolution, while Dr Marcus Nevius (Rhode Island University) spoke on his award-winning book City of Refuge. Both visits were supported by a CfT mini-grant.

Jeremy Williams’s lecture on Race and Revolution was an opportunity to explore the following central focus questions: How has the American government, American broader society, and/or American people reconciled race and revolution? How does your knowledge of slavery in the United States affect the way you understand race? Do the history of slavery and African American people in the US affect the way that you view patriotism? Why or why not? What parallels do you see between the concept of race/revolution of the 1700s and our present-day state of race and politics? The class wrestled with these questions through the exploration of the 1619 podcast, small group discussion and participation in a spectrum activity. 

Dr. Nevius’ presentation was based on his award-winning book, City of Refuge. The book is a story of petit marronage, a clandestine slave’s economy, and the construction of internal improvements in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina during the first half of the nineteenth century. Petit marronage was a type of escape in which enslaved people repudiated legal and cultural enslavement by taking flight to remote swamps and forests throughout the Americas. The vast wetland in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina in particular was tough terrain, considered uninhabitable territory at this time. Once in the Dismal, former slaves who had endured the difficulties of the Underground Railroad engaged in various clandestine exchanges of goods and provisions that sustained maroon colonies and helped to create a sense of community. 

In his examination of life, commerce, and social activity in the Great Dismal Swamp, Dr Nevius engages the historiographies of slave resistance and abolitionism, highlighting each as they unfolded within the Dismal’s early nineteenth-century extractive economy. City of Refuge is a close study of the ways that American maroons shaped, and were shaped, by the complex historical problems of race and economic development in the Early American Republic. It uses a wide variety of primary sources—including runaway advertisements; planters’ and merchants’ records, inventories, letter-books and correspondence; colonial, provincial and state records; abolitionist pamphlets and broadsides; slave narratives; county free black registries; and the records and inventories of private companies—to examine how American maroons, enslaved canal laborers, white company agents, and commission merchants created and sustained communities under extraordinarily difficult geographical and social circumstances.

Anthony Donaldson Jr, History

Executing Plan B

“Did you try turning it off and turning it back on again?” We’ve probably all been given this advice at some point, but do you actually know how to turn off and turn on all of the technology you use in the classroom? (It might be more complicated than you think.) In a recent CfT session, Adam Hawkins took us through some of the most frequently encountered tech issues in the classroom and the best ways to deal with them (as well as avoid them happening in the first place). We also discussed creative fixes for what to do when all else fails, and swapped our best ideas and war stories. As one of our attendees commented, this was “a very useful session”!

Weren’t able to attend the session? Don’t worry! You can watch the recording here and see Adam’s slides here.

Thank you to everyone who attended, and especially to Adam for doing a wonderful job of leading the discussion. We’re also very grateful to the whole faculty technology team for getting us through our crises and helping our classes run smoothly on a daily basis!

-Mark Hopwood, Philosophy

What are office hours for?

We all hold office hours, but what exactly are they for? Should students be incentivized or even required to attend? How can we make office hours accessible to all students? How long are office hours actually supposed to last? Should we even be calling them “office hours” at all? We had an excellent discussion of all kinds of questions relating to office hours at our CfT session on Thursday 2/11, but don’t worry if you couldn’t make it – you can see a recording here and read a very useful background piece on office hours from the Chronicle here.

A few comments on the sessions from our attendees:

“It was extremely helpful to me to hear from colleagues about what they do to promote, and how they relate to students during, office/student hours.”

“I will likely change the way I ask students to contact me about office hours.”

“It was really neat to hear what other people are doing and to just interact with my colleagues.”

Thank you to everyone who attended, and especially to the faculty we invited to share their wisdom and experience: Kati Curts, Evan Joslin, Matt Irvin, and Emily Puckette. 

Mark Hopwood, Philosophy

“I am not a cat”: Some Notes on Filters and Teaching

Many of us have seen the clip of a Zoom meeting with two Texas attorneys and a judge, in which one of the lawyers cannot figure out how to disable a Zoom filter that, well, made him look like a talking cat. Exasperated, as he and an unseen assistant try to wrangle Zoom, he tells the judge, “I am not a cat.” 

We have all surely had to make some kind of assurance like this in the last year: I am a competent professional! Recently, I forgot to turn my own video off during a “meeting break” and someone saw me pick up a bag that had contained cookies—I ate all the cookies, readers—tip the bag of crumbs directly into my mouth, and then brush cookie crumbs out of my own hair. Note: I did not try to eat any of the crumbs that landed on my shirt; I am not a cat, and I did not lick my shirt. 

Filters can malfunction by refusing to reveal us, and by refusing to shield us. We can—I’m sure many of us already do—teach with this tension. Claiming an absence of filters (#nofilter) asserts spontaneity and authenticity, the ease and trust of a “natural” style.  Applying a visible filter emphasizes artifice, sometimes lending a natural aspect to the interaction where the filters are not visible. Do we want our students to see the scene of teaching and learning as natural? 

To different degrees in non-pandemic times, teachers must filter out of student view the messy production of classroom success, the messy lives out of which professionalism emerges. (And the actual pressure on me—a white, tenured professor—is very slight compared to more precarious colleagues or faculty of color.) Students feel that a discussion is completely organic—the ideas bouncing around spontaneously, the electricity in the air as they talk through concepts. Even as they might spark up into how these ideas bear on their experiences outside the classroom, the time in class feels like a thing apart: a clear well-designed space to think is one where the design and the labor that went into it doesn’t draw the eye. In this year, students see all the pressures on the space, and some of the labor that goes into—has always gone into—the design. 

My students have seen the time it takes me to transition between screens, my laptop’s shortened battery power in a cold shed, the accumulating minutes we lose every week to unmuting, remasking, unfreezing, breaking out, regathering. Meetings have been interrupted to sign my kid back into his remote classroom, to admit the repairperson, to shut away dogs barking at what I assume is a lawyer Zooming from Texas. We can’t filter these pressures out anymore. 

Much as I look forward to a less complicated classroom space next year, I believe it’s useful for students to see the vulnerability of the space where they learn and the things that slow us down in uneven and particular ways. There is the leisured slowness of the natural, “no-filters” classroom experience, but that gloriously uninterrupted time and space—is made of filters: accessible child care health care, disposable income, access to technology, job and housing security. Against the memory of leisured slowness, now there is the labored slowness of inefficiency—the layers of filtering labor suddenly in the frame for students. As I joked with my students this week teaching Woolf, many of us are longing again for “a room of one’s own,” but how many of us have the space and safety we need to do our work well? Now, when the question touches so many of us, let’s encourage our students to keep asking the question, to always ask it. The way the “natural” state of things falls apart is funny sometimes, but it must also be instructive. How can we teach the vulnerable classroom as well as within it, make visible the forms of privilege that allow us to look competent and steady?  

-Lauryl Tucker, Associate Professor of English