Event Capsules | December 6, 2019

Emotion, affect, and community building in the CUNY classroom

This seminar tried to bridge the gap between pedagogical practices at CUNY and the theory of emotions and affect. Sarah Benesch, Professor Emerita at the College of Staten Island, started off with a brainstorm activity, asking “what words do we associate with emotions?” Various replies gave her the opportunity to introduce the different approaches to emotions that are currently in fashion: universalistic, cognitive, and discursive – the one which she embraces. Her research focuses on the relationship between emotion and power and the teachers’ response to implicit or explicit regulations (see a list of her publications here). She defines “feeling rules” as the expectations about how teachers are supposed to react in a certain situation. As an example of feeling rules, we read CUNY’s plagiarism policy, reported on her handout analyzing its legalistic rather than pedagogical style. Excerpts of interviews conducted with English language instructors reveal that some resist the punitive discourse of the policy, while others take episodes of plagiarism as an opportunity to review citation practices. Prof. Benesch indicated the double implication of the analysis of feeling rules: on the one hand, it can reveal the roles and affective demeanors teachers are expected to adopt; on the other, resistance to feeling rules can be a tool for initiating a change – for example, reforming the plagiarism policy – with students and other teachers.

A change in the teaching practices was also advocated by the presentation of Asilia Franklin-Phipps, post-doctoral fellow at The Graduate Center. At first, she offered a personal narrative: her choice to teach about race and racism in the particular context of Oregon. Like Sarah Benesch, she draws from affect theory. While embracing Ahmed’s project “the feminist killjoy,” she intertwines the discussions about emotions with the discourses about race. While teaching difficult subjects, Asilia has her students produce anonymous writing. We tried this activity in the seminar answering the prompt: “How does it feel when you learn something that challenges your understanding of yourself? What does it feel like in your body? How do you name those feelings?” Addressing the students’ anonymous replies about what makes them feel uncomfortable helps distribute the burden, privileges community, and gives students time to process and recover from the uncomfortable feelings that difficult subjects might produce, among other effects listed in her presentation.

From the emotional labor of teachers, the seminar moved to student engagement and further strategies to build a sense of community in the class. Monica Calabritto, professor of Italian at Hunter College and at The Graduate Center, uses emotions as a lens through which to look at literary and visual arts in her classes. In her presentation, she explained the structure of a course she taught using this approach. In one unit, her students visit at the Frick Museum and are asked to study the emotions created or expressed in a series of portraits, and to clarify what emotions they feel in response. After a series of scaffolded activities that juxtapose poetry and paintings, the students produce their own sonnets in Petrarchan style. Creating an empathic connection with art, Prof. Calabritto claims, gives students the confidence to create a productive exchange between the model and their creative writing, in which they communicate similar or discordant emotions. The presentation was accompanied by the images of the portraits seen at the museum and by some of the poems written by the students. Being creators of content and sharing experiential learning enhances the sense of community and facilitates learning.


By: Stefania Porcelli

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