Sunday, April 17, 2016

Trickster Envy

As I was reading “Trickster at Your Table,” I was particularly interested in the tension that seems to exist between two epistemological theories — one that encourages the “trickster” moments that are unpredictable and nonlinear and one that adheres to traditional, structured forms of instruction. I realize the article wasn’t polarizing these two perspectives as mutually exclusive, but it did make me think about whether upper administrators – who seem to value efficiency, cost-effectiveness, clear data, etc. – would support the trickster approach.
I’m actually extremely interested in the idea of “play” and how low-stakes games and opportunities for students to truly experiment can generate new ideas, connections, and a renewed sense of curiosity. I just went to a writing conference this past weekend in which one of the speakers was talking about angles of a story and the importance of learning to write about age-old topics in new and fresh ways. She said that studies have been done that indicate how much more receptive people are when they are presented with information in new and different ways and that they are more likely to remember the content because of it. The logic goes like this: We are more likely to remember information when dopamine is released in response to certain stimuli, and our brains are more likely to release dopamine when we are presented with information that extends beyond familiar concepts and methods of delivery. However, when information seems too familiar, then we are less likely to engage with or remember the content.
I think that this relates to the “trickster” moments that are described in this chapter and the idea of helping students explore familiar concepts in new ways to enhance learning and forge new connections. It makes a lot of sense to me that this process isn’t linear, clear-cut, or predictable, which I think is more in line with how learning actually happens, but I also think there is an underlying premise within the university that learning should be controlled, organized, and predictable. We always have to name our course objectives and make clear steps toward those objectives, and as much as professors might try to cater to different learning styles, it often isn’t possible in large class settings, particularly considering the constraints of time and space. And the students themselves are often too caught up in concerns of their course grades and overall GPAs to engage with more chaotic, nontraditional activities that might (or might not) enhance learning.
I was actually just talking with some of my students the other day who are feeling stressed out about the projects that they have coming due in the next few weeks, and why they are feelings so stressed. Even though some of the projects they are working on seem interesting and certainly have the potential for exploration and creative application, my students don’t see it that way. There are too many things to do in too little time, and they are worried about getting the best grade possible. So, they don’t explore or engage in the process of trial and error.
My overall point is that although I am very interested in finding ways that will really make learning engaging and new by engaging students in the chaos and unpredictability that accompanies true learning, I’m questioning the practicality within the built-in structures of the university. What are some ways that a writing center can meaningfully and intentionally engage in “trickster” teaching methods alongside more traditional approaches? What are the challenges that they might face in terms of resistance from administrators (who value order, cost-effectiveness, and hard data) and the students themselves (who value GPAs and efficiency)?
Geller, et al. say this about the value of trickster approaches: “It is learning to unlearn, learning to be flexible in the face of newness, and learning deep listening that is hard. At those moments, we come to see that staff education practices that welcome a Trickster state of mind are even more important than we thought” (21). I completely agree, though I’m not sure that students, upper-administrators, and other various constituents hold these same values.


  1. I think you bring up some interesting points here. Really, what it all comes down to is a matter of conflicting values, and matter of negotiating those conflicting values.

    First though, I think it is worth mentioning that while students value grades, I'm not sure I would completely agree with efficiency--although I understand what you mean--they want to finish their work quickly. However, I see this more connected to not wanting to have to think deeply/critically, which ties back into your point about not really wanting to engage with the ideas in their projects. I had a similar experience several weeks ago when my students told me that their composition courses were they only ones that required them to think at this level.

    Going back to negotiating differences in values--the students are still developing learners, which means we can help them develop values about learning and writing. We won't always be successful, but using this kind of trickster mentality may be helpful in giving them a push in the right direction.

    With administrators, I think you are absolutely right in thinking that they would find this approach counter-productive and not what we should be doing. I'm not really sure how you would reconcile the trickster mentality with administrator values...

  2. Cara, the questions you pose are exactly the ones I wondered about as well. I think we ultimately have to refer back to the goals and mission of the writing center. As WCA, we would need to be able to point out the ways our methods (regardless of how playful they may seem) achieve these goals (to upper administrators, I mean). I think there may be more flexibility in writing centers with these trickster moments than writing programs because course evaluations and retention is not pressing down on writing centers in the same way. Then again, writing centers might seem more expendable because of this and thus, may face even more pressure to show efficiency. I guess I'm talking in circles because I have no answers. For me, it's about making sure that people are learning and we can point to countless studies within the discipline of education that shows that people learn in different ways so why should we expect a center of learning to try to tutor or teach in only one way? Again, what are the goals and how are our spontaneous or organized activities/approaches meeting those goals?

  3. I think all of you are highlighting an issue with the university and higher education: it's become corporatized and education is a commodity. I'll be the first to admit that I reinforce some of these values and ideas. I definitely buy in to the professionalization of our field, and sometimes in class I am defending the need for efficiency, for a "harder" approach to research in the field. In my classroom, I sometimes promote--and at the same time, give students what they want/expect--real life, practical applications for the work they're doing. In many ways, I value these things. But, I also value the ideas forwarded by Geller et al. (and Boquet,too): trickster, playfulness, chaos.

    This is dissonant for me. I ask myself: how much can I "afford" to be messy, to let a truer process of learning take place? It's interesting to point out how my language is even entrenched in this corporate language--affords. Like Cage the Elphant sings in their song we listened to last week, "their ain't no rest for the wicked, money don't grow on trees..."

    Also, we're at points in our educations and careers where it feels like we need to just do the things, make the moves that will get us through our graduate degrees and into jobs. I feel like this at least.

    I also think, though, about sustainability as well: at what point does the chaos, the play make my life, my work, my teaching, my tutoring unsustainable? Geller et al. address this in a way: "But like any conceptual frame, his use value in the everyday is not universal but particular, and contingent on
    circumstance and issue" (p. 19). That is, the trickster habit of mind is not always useful for every situation or as a permanent or default lens through which to view life/work/a situation; rather, it is most useful when used or applied consciously and intentionally to "shake up" conventions. I can agree with this.

    At last point I was thinking about while reading is this: who can be a trickster? does the trickster persona rely on the fact that a person has enough authority, enough privilege to be able to "dupe" the system--to be able to draw attention to and mock what is revered and respected?

    What do you think?