Dissonant Methods: Undoing Discipline in the Humanities Classroom

By Joe Kadi

edited by Ada S. Jaarsma and Kit Dobson, University of Alberta Press, 2020/$29.99/176 pp.

Ada S. Jaarsma and Kit Dobson frame this anthology with relevant questions about the time we’re in: How do we teach, and think about teaching, when in certain quarters post-secondary education is understood as a consumer item? Teachers from various humanities disciplines share their insights, a cross-disciplinary approach that is one strength of the book, as is the inclusion of voices such as an undergraduate student with mental health issues (Kaitlin Rothberger) and poet/teacher Ely Shipley, who discusses his experiences as a gender-nonconforming student.

I was most taken with essays exploring concrete classroom situations. Kathy Cawsey, a Dalhousie professor, was teaching “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” from Canterbury Tales, when the story about misogynist social media posts by a group of male dentistry students came to light. Chaucer’s writing overlapped with current events: sexual violence, gender roles and questions about whether perpetrators can change. As Cawsey recounts: “My students could no longer console themselves with the thought of how far our society had come since the Middle Ages.”

Guy Obrecht takes us into the field of music appreciation. He had to shift from teaching in a music diploma program when it shut down, and found himself with non-music students without training in history or theory, or knowledge of common terms such as timbre. Obrecht explains his attempts to work from an embodied pedagogy in which students hear with their bodies, and candidly discusses his own faulty assumptions.

A third example comes from Namrata Mitra, whose essay speaks to the difficulties—sometimes seemingly intractable—of dealing with systemic racism so rooted that a text Mitra assumed would help explain colonial violence was interpreted by some students in exactly the opposite way. Mitra takes us through compelling questions and insights before explaining a creative assignment she devised to deal with this tangled situation.

I wish the specificity of these three essays, hinging on classroom experiences, was followed throughout. Instead, some essays fall into problematic academic writing where vagueness, big words and jargon prevail. The book moves unevenly, without coming together in a coherent whole. Another weakness is the regrettable lack of discussion about centring Indigenous worldviews and decolonizing the curriculum, essential work right now. Certainly many brilliant Indigenous professors could have provided such an essay.

Still, the anthology emerges at an important time as we in Alberta grapple with COVID-19, severe budget cuts from the provincial government and the need for clear critical thinking.

Joe Kadi teaches gender and sexuality studies at the U of C.

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