Jan 272018

findingyourwhy9[A version of the essay was presented at the 2018 MLA Annual Convention in New York City.]

On the surface, I have the job that nobody else wants. I am a contingent faculty member at a Research I institution that values research more than teaching. I asked a previous university president how he would ensure our students would continue to receive high-quality instruction in this era of enrollment-based funding, and he responded that he would hire more adjuncts so that people like me could do more research (not realizing, of course, that I was one of those “adjuncts” who teach). Later, when speaking with another administrator on the problems plaguing non-tenure-track faculty at our institution, I jokingly suggested that we get rid of non-tenure-track faculty altogether. Their reply: if we were to get rid of adjunct faculty, the university would go bankrupt.

Bankrupt? The title of my unpublished monograph is: Daughters of Bankruptcy in Victorian Literature: Narratives of Ruin, Work, and Survival. Overwhelmingly, these narratives feature heroines who reveal a greater propensity for risk-taking and professional growth when they lose their basic financial and social securities. Of course, I had never imagined that I would become a “daughter of bankruptcy” myself, that is, if I consider myself heir to what is clearly a bankrupt system of funding in higher education. Yet here I find myself, in a position that denies me access to the rights of tenured faculty, such as the right to academic freedom and shared governance, and, even more importantly, the right to feel like I am a valued member of my department and institution.

And yet despite all of that, like the daughters of bankruptcy that came before me, I have found myself to be the heroine of my own narrative. I have found that despite the fact that I belong to an unprotected class of faculty, stripped of basic academic rights and securities, that I have achieved greater professional happiness and success than some of my peers who have gone down the path toward tenure.

To be sure, my non-tenure track position, even right from the start, was legions above other contingent faculty positions. In 2012, I was offered a 3-3 teaching load on a semester system with a salary in the mid-40Ks, but this offer was made as a spousal accommodation, and it was extended to me because I had a tenure-track offer at another institution. Nevertheless, I spent my first two years at WSU teaching in the composition program, feeling at times like I was a graduate student again, as if that PhD was nothing more than a certificate of debt and guilt. Even after 6 years at the institution, my lack of value and relevance in my department is enough to drive me to tears, but I have also learned that senior faculty members all across the university have experienced these same feelings of irrelevance.

And so yes, despite all this pain, all this struggle, I have found peace in my professional practice. Increasingly, I choose to place my ethical beliefs and personal values ahead of what I know could bring me greater prestige. Namely, I temporarily abandoned my monograph on Daughters of Bankruptcy in order to build the Passport Program: a humanities-oriented approach to mentoring and professional development. I have formed profound and powerful networks across the university through the Association for Faculty Women. And I have been steadfast in my value that every human being can make meaningful contributions to our community. These three activities form the basis for my advice to English PhDs.

1. Launch your Research into Action.

When I was a post-doc at Georgia Tech, I was given the unparalleled privilege of teaching my research to high-achieving engineering students. What I quickly experienced was a crisis of the profession: why do engineers need literature? I had two years to work through this problem, developing courses on sharing economies, Victorian architecture and design, invention mobs, and posthuman literature. These creative, multimodal, and applied interventions served me well on the job market. But more importantly, they laid the groundwork for my future developments in putting my research into practice: The Passport Program. Professional development is a hot topic in undergraduate studies these days and it’s a market response to skyrocketing tuition rates and declining majors in the humanities. I realized that I had the power to implement my research on confidence, purpose, compassion, and adaptability into workshops for our students, and that these workshops would not follow decontextualized and depersonalized approaches to professional development that are often the norm today.

My advice is that you convert your research into practice, informing interdisciplinary collaborations, student success, a new medical school, or other money-making ventures, not only so that you treble your value as a faculty member and perform better on the job market, but also, because you’ll feel the much deeper rewards of putting your research into conversation with public practice. Even better, your research enables you to provide nuanced insights into otherwise meaningless market-oriented enterprises.

2. Build meaningful human networks.

Ultimately, in academia, you are on your own. You have to motivate yourself to do the work each day. You have to feel good about what you are doing, and where you’re going. It’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s infuriating. The stronger our networks, the safer we will feel in speaking up. A network holds us up, enables us to take principled risks, to be bold, to change lives, and to resist.

It’s not enough to form networks with your academic cohorts. Look beyond your discipline to other players in all sectors of your institution. Wherever you are, and whatever role you are in, I assure you, that you can and should be part of larger conversations in the profession well beyond your academic home, and it almost always begins with you being an active listener and staying in the room when you don’t feel like you belong.

When I first began attending the meetings of the Association for Faculty Women, I felt too young, too adjunct, and too humanities-oriented, in a group of STEM-strong female administrators. But I kept going, and every conversation I had, however awkward or difficult, filled me with new opportunities to learn about the university and its people. Over the years, I have formed powerful and long-lasting professional relationships across the university, and now I’ve been elected president of this very association. In other words, your anxiety that you don’t belong or don’t have anything important to say is temporary and illusory.

3. Know your values.

Happiness, John Stuart Mill writes, emerges from struggle. Perhaps he could not have predicted the number of struggles we would face in the 21st century. We confront racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and much more in higher education. We face too many struggles to capably combat them all. To survive, we play the game and we make compromises. But what values are you unwilling to compromise on? I recommend that you choose to value and struggle against the very injustices that your research points to—injustices you didn’t even know were at the heart of your original study—and put your research into practice, laying the groundwork for institutional change. From these values, you can continue to draw your strength, rise up, and resist.

Increasingly, I have chosen people over publishing. I have chosen students over status. And I feel better about myself as a practitioner in my discipline than I have ever felt before. My advice is that you treat every encounter you have on the job market and in your careers with openness, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Approach everyone and every situation with a growth mindset–be ready to shift, pivot, and adapt. Don’t think of these job interviews and networking opportunities as moments to be judged; think of them as moments to engage in personally sustaining and life-affirming conversations.

Group Reading Activity

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Jun 222013

I have had great success with the following in-class activity when discussing assigned readings, images, or videos.

1. Ask basic, generative questions at the beginning of class in the large group, and list responses on the whiteboard.

  • Promote short-answer responses by asking questions such as: “identify major terms or keywords in the text,” “identify modes of communication used,” “what are some types of X that we see in our own lives?”
  • Use this brief activity as a way to gain a sense of students’ grasp of the text. Also use this opportunity as a way to pull together a basic understanding of the text.

2. Break into small groups with specific roles (during the first session, introduce these roles; during the second session, have students identify and describe the roles for you).

  • Moderator: keeps the conversation going, asks follow-up questions, encourages every group member to actively participate
  • Responder: provides a ready answer to every question
  • Challenger: challenges the responder, seeks new ways of looking at the material, asks probing questions
  • Reporter: keeps track of the discussion, asks clarifying questions, records the discussion in a document, presents the material to the class or instructor

3. Ask 4-6 questions that move from “old knowledge” to “new knowledge.” Always start with easy, familiar, and provocative questions to get students comfortable and excited about the text.

  • Ask questions one at a time by writing them on the whiteboard at intervals. This tactic allows you to moderate how much time each group spends discussing each question.
  • Actively listen in on group discussions. Are they performing their roles correctly? Are they responding as you expected? Do you need to tweak your next question to get them on the right track?

4. Have students wrap-up their discussions with conclusions that summarize the themes and big ideas unraveled during their discussion.

  • When there’s time, ask the reporter to share the group’s conclusions with the class.
  • When time runs out, ask the reporter to submit a copy to you (be sure to specify that the notes are to be typewritten, not handwritten!)

5. Reflect. What was your objective? Did you meet it? Should you use this text again? How could you improve the activity? Record your notes in an annotated syllabus for future reference.

The Multisensory Classroom (MLA 2013 Presentation)

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Jan 162013

I am here to talk about the Learner’s Body in the face-to-face classroom. Now, we have a lot of smart people developing creative online and hybrid pedagogies in ways that surpass anything we can accomplish in the classroom. But that’s only if we don’t change the classroom in this post-digital or new digital era. What we need is a new pedagogy of f2f.

One of the ways I’ve begun to think about f2f pedagogy is via interactive communication. I describe the face-to-face classroom as multisensory, because it’s one of the few features that are difficult to replicate online. The New London Group—comprised of 10 scholars–devised a set of five primary forms of communication in the mid 1990s that were already considering embodied space as a form of communication. They introduced the categories of Written, Visual, Audio, Gestural, and Spatial modes of communication. In 2008, two members of the group revised these categories to also include oral and tactile modes. What I want to focus on here today are gestural modes of communication, which they define not just as movements or expressions, but also demeanours and sequences.

My Background as a Coda (Child of Deaf Adults)

My purpose for focusing on gestural modes / nonverbal communication has to do with my personal history. I come out professionally today as a CODA: a Child of Deaf Adults. With 6 hearing children and 2 deaf parents, facial expressions and body language were our primary mode of communication prior to learning American Sign Language and English. For better or for worse, lighting, movement, tone, gesture, and space were my primary tools for communication.

Face to face? I had to be face to face more than I ever wanted to be. As soon as I could disappear into a virtual body, I did. If I could order a pizza, shop for clothes, and schedule my haircut without ever interacting with a single human being, those were the companies that earned my business.

Face to face? We get bad breath, smelly underarms. Temperatures to rooms we can’t control. Desks that cause distraction and discomfort. Difficulty seeing and hearing the speaker, especially when the lighting is bad, the air conditioner is too loud, and the person sitting nearby is watching LOL videos on Facebook.

In short, the physical classroom setting, for the easily distracted (or highly sensitive) student, can be nothing short of a nightmare.

(How I went from a silent, nonverbal child of deaf adults to become an English professor is a story for another day.)

Face-to-face pedagogy in a post-digital era

I fast-forward to the more recent present when my parents came to visit my classroom at Georgia Tech in spring 2011. I asked my students to remediate their group project into a nonverbal and deaf-friendly format. And I thought they were excellent. They put together fully captioned slide shows, performed mini action sequences, and even learned a few words in sign language.

To my surprise, my dad was utterly unimpressed. Indeed, my dad ended up giving ME a lesson in what nonverbal communication means. It does not include signed English, it does not include captions on a screen, it does not include visual aids. Rather, it is the story we tell with our bodies.

And my dad is a master. Prompted by my father’s disappointment in my students, I invited him up to the front of the classroom to perform one of his own skits in mime. He performed the one called, “The Teacher.”

“The Teacher” tells the story of a dim-witted professor leading a boring class, droning on and on about the textbook, turning around to scratch words from the textbook on the chalkboard. Every time the teacher turns his back to the class, he gets hit with a spitball. Of course, the grumpy old teacher gets mad and threatens the students with the archaic punishment of a ruler if they keep it up. Finally, he spins around just in time to catch the culprit in the act, while also taking a spitball right in the face. But no matter, he’s caught the student in the act and is delighted he gets to punish the student. But, to his surprise, the student stands up to a height of 8 feet. The teacher becomes speechless, frightened, and cowardly. Apologizing profusely, he hands the ruler to the student. The teacher turns around, bends over, and awaits punishment.

The skit itself is a parody of the classroom, in which the teacher thinks he knows best, but students try in their own nonverbal ways to say that what he’s doing isn’t working. Students don’t throw spitballs any more, and teachers don’t use rulers. Instead, we have mobile devices and teachers who give dirty looks and point deductions to students looking at their personal screens.

But why shouldn’t the student “play” on facebook or “play” with spitballs? If nothing happens when we ask students to put away their screens, we are ignoring the embodied interface of the classroom, the multisensory affordances of gathering in a room together.

I have since performed the skit for my own students as a way of teaching them nonverbal gestures and the language of space BEFORE I ask them to perform. I ask students to create and perform their skits based on my mini directions, and I do it in the space of one class period to reduce the stakes of the assignment and induce spontaneity. I also ask students to comment on well-played gestures or to replay a concept with different gestures.

While the skits themselves are priceless journeys into exploring spatial and gestural codes, it is what happens after the skits that surprises me. After spending 20 minutes decoding nonverbal skits with their eyes, a small transformation has occurred. I walk to the front of the classroom and see they are all sitting with their laptops open, as usual, but they’re not looking at the laptop screen, they’re not looking off into space, they’re looking straight at ME. All of their eyes are on me. The attention of their eyes has been recalibrated and retrained to look at me rather than just listen to me. Their eyes respond to me as an embodied classroom interface.


On the surface, the nonverbal skits seem silly. What kind of academic development occurs in a room full of adults goofing around? But I’d like to demonstrate a small series of the payoffs.

In Cathy Davidson’s discussion of the future workplace, she focuses on the changing needs of the 21st century concept of work—which is no longer a place, but rather a mode of thinking. Consequently, the informal free time we spend with colleagues (or classmates) is lost. Davidson points to IBM’s Chuck Hamilton’s belief that “playfulness is part of creative, innovative, collaborative, productive work.” He creates a space in Second Life for his colleagues to informally and personally interact with one another.

If play is so valuable, why do we leave it to chance? Why do we leave it up to students and workers to decide what constitutes play in a face to face setting? With nonverbal skits, students are playing together in a planned interface.

Many of us ask students in the composition classroom to perform rhetorical analysis of an advertisement. I also ask students to re-create the advertisement in terms of their lived and embodied reality of a product. A student creates a parody of an old Tabasco ad from 1959. The student dramatizes the physical impact of Tabasco when it is consumed with the frequency the ad encourages.

Many of us ask students to reflect on their identities as X. To identify themselves as consumers, I ask them to conduct experiments with photo documentaries. This student documents the excess of owning TWO coffee mugs. In composing her essay, she physically enacts lessons in redundancy, both in objects and in rhetoric. If a second coffee mug does not add anything to her life except the burden of more weight (or more text), then it does more harm than good.

[Omitted from Live Presentation]

A student once presented this famous image[1] to my class as an object of study for visual rhetoric. The student pointed out the romance depicted in the setting, the embrace, the onlookers, the contrast. The student saw what others had seen for decades. But what he and others couldn’t see were the gestures. So we put ourselves in the position of the woman: her face squished, her arm limp—not in a passion, but in de-attachment. And then we become the sailor: the man, with his left arm locking the woman into his embrace, locking her head into a forceful kiss. Not so romantic. Only in the last year have we seen accounts that critique this once-acclaimed romantic photograph.[2]

We communicate relationships of power, aggression, insult, and fear via nonverbal gestures. In embodying the gestures we see in the media, we’re practicing empathy. We’re reading body language in a way that moves us to identify with others, with people who seem so different from ourselves.

With everything shocking in this world available on YouTube, it’s not enough to do these lessons via video messaging. What happens in the real life of the student? In the embodied life? In the live-stage life?

Consider how we are sitting. Face forward. Bent in the shape of a chair. Our main physical interaction is the traditional one from speaker to audience. So why are they even sitting here together when we could be home on our computers?

Let’s take a moment to reflect on all of the talks in this panel with a small interactive activity. Academic Speed Dating.





[1] From Wikipedia: “V-J Day in Times Square is a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt that portrays an American sailor kissing a woman in a white dress on Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day) in Times Square, New York City, on August 14, 1945.”

[2] On September 30, 2012, the anonymous feminist blogger named Leopard writes “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture’”—and raises the support and fury of many.

Ruin in the 19th Century: A Poster Session

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Dec 072012

On December 7, 2012, students at Washington State University hosted an interactive poster session on nineteenth-century representations of ruin in art, philosophy, and literature. In addition to a critical response to ruin as picturesque, tragic, and sensational, students also displayed contemporary artwork and media reflections on how ruin has taken shape in the twenty-first century. View the course website.

The Posthuman and the Nineteenth Century

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Jan 092012

My spring 2012 course at Georgia Tech considers the ways in which nineteenth-century authors began constructing visions of what would come to be known as the posthuman. We’ll also turn toward contemporary new media that echoes these early visions. Visit the full course website at: www.leeannhunter.com/posthuman.

“In this course, we will examine the commercial viability, social implications, and ethical consequences of posthuman technology that appears in selected science-fiction series. Our social and cultural critiques of this technology will serve as inspiration for our own inventions to change the way humans interact with each other and with the material world. During the first half of the semester, students will pitch ideas and designs for a new invention, focused primarily on the advantages to science and business. During the second half of the semester, students will integrate these inventions into a science-fiction narrative that interrogates the social and ethical consequences of these technological advancements. In our final reflection on these inventions, we will consider the ways in which these technologies might become a reality.”

Victorians Institute Conference: The Past, Present, and Future of Dickens

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Oct 222011

On Saturday, October 22, 2011, I am presenting a paper at the Victorians Institute Conference in a panel on “Teaching Dickens.” My paper is on “The Future of Dickens: Digitizing Architectural Spaces and Identity in Hard Times.”

Abstract. John Ruskin influenced the way Victorians conceived of the human side of architecture. In his appreciation for the irregularities in Gothic architecture, he embraced the building as an organic entity created by humans with souls, not dehumanized machines or “slaves.” The literature of the period engages with this social aspect of architecture, from the builders who created the buildings to the families who inhabited them. While the Victorians became more concerned about privacy and class divisions, they also began to partition their rooms into single-purpose stations and engineer floor plans to maintain divisions between the two classes of residents. In literature, the social identities of characters might find their generation in the imagined physical spaces that engulf them. It might be that the most socially disconnected characters come from homes in which this space is most carefully divided. Or, in contrast, the most idyllic characters that represent a common humanity might come from a working-class home where everyone sleeps in one room. My hypothesis, as I designed a course syllabus engaged in these themes, was that people are products of architectural spaces and styles, and these spaces are social, political, and transformative.

In Spring 2011, I taught a multimodal composition course at Georgia Tech that was thematically focused on architecture and design in Victorian literature. I had a number of rhetorical goals at the outset: students would be able to articulate major design issues of the nineteenth century, interpret descriptions of domestic settings in Victorian literature, and produce multimodal projects on the relationships between architectural design and human identity. Charles Dickens’s Hard Times was particularly suited to the goals of my class because it explores identity in connection to a full spectrum of architectural spaces, including the schoolhouse, the factory, and the circus, and of social classes, including Stephen Blackpool, Sissy Jupe, Louisa Gradgrind, and Mr. Bounderby. For their final project on Hard Times, I asked students to create a digital poster using Prezi (or another electronic medium of their choice) that symbolically reconstructed the architectural spaces of Hard Times. Within this structure, students diagrammed the social identities and relationships of the characters associated with that space. How does this multimodal project respond to Hard Times in ways that a standard essay assignment could not? In what ways might such a project debilitate students’ growth as readers and critics of literature? In my presentation, I will share examples of multimodal student projects on architecture and identity in Hard Times (e.g. http://prezi.com/esayoj_gpy49/digital-poster/) and discuss their value in the analysis of literature and social architecture.

Invention Mobs: The Event

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Oct 052011

On Wednesday, October 5, 2011, my students gathered in the Neely Room at Georgia Tech to showcase their experimental and interactive creative projects.

Students developed and crowdsourced a variety of games, music videos, websites, fictional narratives, and much more, for the Georgia Tech community.

To learn more about the project, see my explanatory essay at: https://www.leeannhunter.com/2011/09/28/invention-mobs/. To preview some of the student activity on the projects, see the student blogs at: https://www.leeannhunter.com/invention/.


Invention Mobs: The Concept

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Sep 282011

My fall 2011 class was inspired in large part by Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. What I love about Daniel Pink’s book is that half of the book is also a handbook. He offers activities as suggestions for developing specific types of creativity. Thus far, the students have blogged about Symphony and Play (see, for example, “Cutting Out Excess” and “Playing with Comics”).

I have, in the past, recommended the book to my engineering students at Georgia Tech. It’s not enough to be good at math, science, and engineering. Creativity, innovation, and creative thinking are absolutely paramount to achieving any kind of great success in their fields. (Even the university’s Strategic Plan acknowledges this need.)

The Process

I didn’t know it at first, but Ze Frank (multimedia, social media comedian), was also going to be inspiration for the course. At the last minute, on the first day of class, I decided to show my students Ze Frank’s Chillout song. While the resulting song is good, what makes it really good is listening to the song after reading through the process.

Ze shows us how the idea for the song was born: an audience member writes that she feels lonely and wishes he could write a song for her.  Ze then proceeds to create a chorus, which he sends out to a small group of people, and asks them to record themselves singing along.

The final result of all this multimodal collaboration: a chorus of strangers telling this one lonely woman, “hey, you’re okay, you’ll be fine, just breathe.” Over and over again. The power is ultimately in this idea that strangers want this woman to feel okay, and maybe these strangers want me to feel okay too. A sense of goodwill emanates from the song and the chorus of voices.

Major lesson achieved on day 1: the secret is in the process, not the product. I realized right away that this song project would serve as the foundation for what would become their “Invention Mobs.”

The Experiment

On the third day of class, the invention mobs began. I asked students to bring a handmade object to serve as inspiration for the activity. The activity was inspired by a technique mentioned in Cameron Herold’s TED Talk “Let’s Raise Kids to Be Entrepreneurs.” Herold suggests that instead of telling your kids stories, that you give them three objects and ask them to tell you a story.  I’ve tried this out with my own nieces and nephews with great success.

Why shouldn’t I try it in the college classroom? The power of play is gaining traction in the workplace and in the classroom.

Time was limited. Students had 25 minutes to group up and craft a creative work out of their objects. Most students, because of the example that I gave them, went with the story option. The last 25 minutes were spent presenting their stories to the class. I insisted at the last minute that they incorporate nonverbal actions into their storytelling. And they did.

The result: I watched students tell silly stories, acted out in silly ways in front of a class of peers, on the third day of their first year at college.

While I worried that the activity lacked substance or was too immature, I found that we had achieved a very clear objective: make something together and engage in spontaneous fun with your classmates. Rather than “show and tell,” they presented their own version of “make and show.”

The Project

This exercise was to serve as the foundation for what would eventually be called their “Invention Mobs.” I posed Ze Frank’s Chillout song and the experimental class activity as exemplars of multimodal, collaborative, creative projects. I challenged my students to use these examples as inspiration for organizing their own projects.

Perhaps the projects could have gone off without of hitch had I stopped there. But I insisted that their creative process include the contributions of strangers. It sounds simple enough, but many students have really struggled to get strangers to willingly (and preferably, joyfully) contribute to their projects (see, for example, “Stranger Danger”). Other student groups experienced some success (see “Creation Flows”). At the same time, I think this added challenge has made all the difference.

Students are nearing the final culmination of their projects, and I look forward to posting the results.

How They Became Athletes

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Sep 092011

During the summer of 2011, I collaboratively taught a special-topic communication course designed specifically for incoming student-athletes at Georgia Tech. The class seeks to equip student-athletes with the communication skills they need to succeed on campus, in the classroom, and in the community.

Playing off one of the strengths of student-athletes, we built the course around the Let’s Move! campaign, Michelle Obama’s initiative to fight childhood obesity. One of our contributions to this campaign is a collection of personal narratives, written by our students about how they became athletes. Their books were written and illustrated for an audience of children ranging ages 4-12 and are designed to inspire children to become more active. Here is a selection of their books for viewing online or downloading.

On Monday, August 1, our students showcased their personal sports biographies in a public symposium held in the Georgia Tech library. In addition to sharing their children’s books, they presented posters that examined audience, visual rhetoric, and motivation in connection to their books. We had over 50 attendees during the single hour that the exhibition took place. Members of the Athletic Association at Georgia Tech showed immense support of and enthusiasm for the work of their athletes. Click on the thumbnails below to view photos of the event.


Student Showcase

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Dec 232010