Dissed: That Self-Congratulatory Anecdote from MLA

Dissed are excerpts from the dissertation that have been cut, killed, excised, burned on the altar of common sense and distance before being left here to not die…

At the 2017 MLA conference I was set to talk about this very project in a roundtable called ‘Teaching as Theoretical Practice.”* There were four papers on the panel—the first and second papers were co-authored and, therefore, got a few extra minutes. I went last and had been, along with the other single author, allotted a shorter-than-usual twelve minutes. I admitted defeat before I even got up to the mic. You saw the length of the last chapter. You’re looking at the length of this one. It wasn’t going to happen. But a funny thing happened while I was listening to my fellow panelists go before me and scribbling notes on their talks in my ever-present journal. Another talk emerged. And tapped me on the shoulder. And said, “Hey, do you mind sharing me with the group?”

So I did.

In my very first time at MLA, I winged it. But that was ok, because I was supposed to talk about a posthuman classroom, about posthuman education and what it could be, and so, being tuned to the posthuman after working in my hotel room for days on that dead-in-the-water talk, I knew posthumanism at work when I saw (felt? heard?) it and I leaned into the intra-action. What I’d noticed as I scribbled my notes

[my fellow panelists’ theories and thoughts materialized (with countless other actors I’d never know about like computers, texts, other readers…) in words on a page and then sent back out (material still, waves of sound in air) via voices (some accented, some nervous, some quiet) moving through a small room where a full audience (pretty diverse, from younger than me to late sixties, more women than men) sat in hotel conference chairs (all in rows, aisle down the middle of two sides, regimental) blinking or moving or nodding or dreaming or any other number of things while these new thoughts touched their own theories here or slid by them there and I took in the words myself too (flavored with the audience’s reactions and the speaker’s intonations and a healthy dose of you’re-not-really-considering-winging-this nerves that got worse as it became more obvious what kind of cool pattern was emerging) and through an amazing series of instantly (to my human perception of the work my body-machine can do) embodied actions materialized my own thoughts on the matter at hand with a pen with maroon ink on a lined white page (starting right below my shopping list for this very trip) in a hardbound journal I’m never without]

or rather, what I’d noted as I intra-acted within the phenomenon of our roundtable (all that described above and surely more that I’m missing) was that, as the panel went from that first co-authored panel on hybrid teaching/performed theory/collaborative pedagogy to the next on collaborative teaching/collaborative research/collaborative student writing to the one before me on theater-based pedagogy/language as performance/embodied movement, the presentations dealt more and more with posthumanism and posthuman strategies in the classroom. Indeed, the presenters’ ways of talking about their pedagogy sounded more and more posthuman. The mind and the student became less and less cut off from the body and world. Relations between actors in the classroom—not all of them necessarily human—became more and more important. Movement and space played more and more of a role in the consideration of what was taught and how.

So, I stood up. Took my notations and the idea that had tapped me on the shoulder up to the mic, told the audience I’d decided to talk about the panel instead and then asked the panel how many of them considered what they were doing posthuman. Reactions ranged, in almost direct proportion to how “posthuman” I’d felt their talk was, down the line from 1) blank stares only at me to 2) smiles and exchanged looks between presenters to 3) a smile and a nod to me. The looks in the audience as I rolled out my plan to talk through how I saw posthumanism working in the classes they’d already been briefed on while adding a bit about my own at the end were about the same—although there was more of an equal distribution between blank stares and nods/smiles. None of this surprised me.

Nor did the last intra-action with the audience. A man in the back—middle-aged or older, white, obviously well-versed in theory/criticism (he was a name-dropper)—asked Anna (the presenter before me working with theater-based pedagogy in a foreign language classroom) about a particular theory she was using (I forget the exact question). In trying to explain her answer, she looked at me and brought up posthumanism as she talked about movement and a student interacting with a bike while I nodded and mentally prepared to engage…

At which point Man-in-Back raised his hand in a half-wave, said there are many types of humanism, perhaps a more Vygotsky humanism in this case of language development, and, looking at me, finished the wave with a “This posthumanism makes no sense.”

As I said, this isn’t surprising. This—indifferent or (sometimes) disgusted dismissal—is the most common response I get when I bring up posthumanism in a conversation with colleagues and fellow academics not immersed in the conversation. And I am 100% sure Man-in-Back was expressing the thoughts of at least half the people in the room, including the first two authors on our panel. And yet posthumanism played in that room, in those presentations, in my understanding of the phenomenon that was our roundtable. I tuned in to a different station, still in the same room, just working on a different wavelength and saw the knowledge-in-being emerge differently.

I had an opportunity, to either listen and respond to the meaning being made or to stick with the original plan and impose that dead-in-the-water talk on the room, changing the trajectory of the conversation and missing the opportunity for a more productive moment. “Winging it” here, for me, wasn’t the irresponsible move of someone who didn’t like her talk anymore but an intentional movement into intra-action, much like a listening or surfing pedagogy that decenters the teacher (in this case, speaker) and moves continuously between what was planned and what, once all actors are engaged, their intra-action needs in order to be truly productive and meaningful. It was, in a sense, though I didn’t provide this meta-commentary to the panel in the moment, performative. I was giving a talk on posthumanism, so I made a posthuman move.

The room didn’t make it easy (or, more accurately, the human arrangement of the room). Those rows of uncomfortable chairs held the audience in a state of desk-broken attention (or inattention) learned long ago in school: quiet, polite, still, ready to receive the knowledge. As academics we’re more likely to push back at that knowledge via questions (or statements framed as questions) but that’s another layer of learned behavior for learning—conference-broken. We know the drill when we come into those rooms of rows with the table/podium/screen up front. But posthuman strategies, theories, practices, thoughts, being, etc. already exist/move/are in such humanist (or designed-for-humanism) spaces. It’s like the light paradox Barad theorizes her own posthuman theories from—light, this supposed “thing” or observable object is wave and particle depending on the apparatus you use to diffract it. That room: knowledge disseminated and meaning made. Humanist and posthumanist, depending on what lens you use.


Me, the day after said presentation, on the Rocky steps recreating that iconic film moment in a blizzard. Magic. Photo credit to the complete stranger strangely dressed in shorts and a thin t-shirt who asked me to take his pic for him, thereby inspiring me to ask the same.



*January 6, 2017. Sponsored by the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Studies in the Profession and chaired by Caroline Eagan. The papers were as follows: “Hybrid Teaching, or the Performance of Comparative Theory” by Germán Campos-Muñoz (Appalachian State U) and Mich Nyawalo (Shawnee State U); “From Practice to Theory: Collaboration in the Composition Classroom” by Joanna Grim (Lehigh U) and Dana McClain (Lehigh U); “Performance and the Foreign Language and Culture Curriculum: Theory and Practice” by Anna Santucci (Brown U); “English Remix: Curating and Enacting a Posthuman Classroom” by Sarah Shelton. Our abstracts can still be found at https://mlagrads.mla.hcommons.org/2016/12/20/abstracts-for-csgsp-roundtable-teaching-as-theoretical-practice/

3 thoughts on “Dissed: That Self-Congratulatory Anecdote from MLA

  1. As a public school teacher of writing and, thus, of noticing and seeing and thinking and learning and such, I felt that I was swimming against a tide of what I might have called “post human pedagogy.” By which I would have meant a pedagogy that emerged after every human element had finally been removed, when the prescribed lessons were presented without further need of humans. How interesting now to discover that – if I read here aright – what is meant by posthuman pedagogy is more like a pedagogy that resists that non-human, anti-human approach flood.


    • You have read right. The human in posthuman(ism) is referring more to “humanism”–particularly the Enlightenment version. It works to disrupt human essentialism but with the understanding that we do (and always have) make meaning *with* the world (human and nonhuman alike), not that we discover “objective” knowledge by observing a world we can separate ourselves from (our entanglement with the world determines our understanding of it).


  2. Thus, “posthuman” pedagogy creates opportunities for making meaning with (in,of,for,to?) the world that engages with the world in ways that notices and examines one’s ways of engagement and those assumed, prescribed, proscribed, ignored, preferred by oneself and others? Re. the importance of assumptions and attitudes and such for learning, thinking, making meaning, check out this unexpected treasure:

    Meanwhile, are you proposing a posthuman pedagogy for all? Do you connect to remedial freshman comp, introductory linguistics, the romantic era, reading Wilfred Owen, Huckleberry Finn, fat quest literature?

    Did you really write that reply at 2:48 a.m.?


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