Reading notes: Cultivating attentiveness

As part of a faculty fellow program for innovative teaching at Stony Brook University, I will be embarking on a two-year project that I am calling “Multi-modal Pedagogies in Action.” Part of my plan for the fellowship period is to blog regularly on pedagogy in theory and practice. The fellowship doesn’t start until fall 2023, but I thought I’d point to what is to come with a Reading Notes blog on my recent reading of Jacques Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster and re-reading of Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. As in my other posts of Reading Notes, I offer thoughts-in-process rather than a fully formed and definitive argument. Let me know what you think.

[Photo of Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus on the left and Jacques Rancière’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster on the right on an orange cloth background.]

As I read Rancière’s “lessons in intellectual emancipation,” I was struck by how his discussion of the unconventional teaching methods of the 19th century French schoolteacher Joseph Jacotot echoed some of the ways one might engage in a multi-modal approach to teaching and learning. Jacotot was renowned for successfully teaching Flemish students even though he did not speak Flemish and they did not speak French. According to Rancière’s account, Jacotot sought to overturn “the logic of the explicative system” (6), which established a hierarchy of knowledge based on the presumed superiority of intellect of the teacher and the inferiority of the student. Jacotot believed instead that all people (yes, all people) are equally intelligent, and that the recognition of this fact is the basis for creating the conditions of possibility for an intellectual emancipation for both teachers and students alike. Rancière describes how Jacotot taught his students French by simply giving them a book in French and telling them to “take it and read it” (22). Jacotot begins with the letters in the first word of the book, calling upon the students to “Tell me the form of each letter as you would describe the form of an object or of an unknown place” (23). Following Jacotot’s method, what is needed is an “absolute attention for seeing and seeing again, saying and repeating” (23). This concept and practice of cultivating attentiveness that Rancière describes as a key aspect of Jacotot’s method of universal teaching resonates with what I try to put into action in my classroom, particularly through annotation exercises. It was helpful for me in thinking about how to do annotation exercises with students to recognize that annotation is about seeing and seeing again, rather than about explication as a correct interpretation or accurate translation of a text or image. 

            Rancière emphasizes that Jacotot’s method calls on students to “see everything” for themselves, “compare and compare, and always respond to a three-part question: what do you see? what do you think about it? What do you make of it? And so on, to infinity” (23). Cultivating attentiveness is a practice to infinity and, as Rancière clarifies, “that infinity is no longer the master’s secret; it is the student’s journey” (23). Although much of Rancière’s discussion of Jacotot’s universal teaching method deals with reading and text-based learning, for me what Rancière describes sounds like Lynda Barry’s practice-based, multi-modal methods that she offers in her classes at the University of Wisconsin and shares in her graphic teaching notebook Syllabus. That book has a sub-title of sorts, “Notes from an Accidental Professor,” and this typically self-deprecating self-designation suggests that Barry also offers a critique of mastery and would likely be sympathetic to the claim that “there is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity” (27), as Rancière articulates in The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

            As I re-read Barry’s Syllabus right after reading Rancière, it was immediately apparent that for Barry, as for Jacotot and Rancière, the key to teaching and learning is cultivating a practice of attentiveness rather than knowingness. Barry emphasizes the importance of what she calls “creative concentration” (2), and Syllabus offers numerous drawing and writing exercises for “being present and seeing what’s there” (4), in the words of Barry’s teacher Marilyn Frasca. In notes taken in Frasca’s class on April 5, 1977, Barry recalls anew this instruction: 


How do you stop saying ‘nothing happened.’

One way: pay attention, be quiet, and 

see what’s there.

Not agree with, understand, like, 


Just seeing is neither explication nor a form of mastery; it is an invitation to cultivate attentiveness. For Barry, drawing as an embodied practice helps cultivate attentiveness; she elucidates how drawing is “a side effect of something else: a certain state of mind that comes about when we gaze with open attention” (22).

            Barry has long been fascinated by the phenomenon that while drawing is an almost universal activity for children, as children become adults, most stop drawing. Many adults will even go so far as to say, “I can’t draw.” Barry’s pedagogy works to bring drawing back into people’s lives. As she explains, “I have a theory I’m trying to work out about bringing drawing back into someone’s life—which is different than teaching them to draw. I’m interested in using the drawing that is already there—is still there in spite of everything” (38). For me, this is a lesson in intellectual emancipation through drawing. What is cultivated is not knowledge of how to draw better, but an attentiveness through the practice of drawing—a certain state of mind that we can all access.

[Photo of an open grid-lined notebook with hand-written notes from Lynda Barry’s Syllabus with drawings intermingled. The drawings from top to bottom left to right are: spiral, octopus, child drawing, bank robber, car, bird, bat, a person’s head with glasses and short hair, a full-bodied Ivan Brunetti-esque person also with glasses and short hair.]

Teaching illness & the politics of care

Fall 2022

This coming semester I’ll be teaching two undergraduate classes on illness and the politics of care: Documenting Mental Illness and Life/Death | Health/Justice. The syllabuses for these classes are below. In both classes, I work with comics and graphic narratives (and many other genres and forms). Check out my piece on Comics as Pedagogy: On Studying Illness in a Pandemic. Despite a push to return to “normal,” we’re still in a pandemic, which impacts our experiences in the classroom. I am committed to working together with students to create a flexible and inclusive space for learning that takes seriously the themes of these classes: the need to think creatively about our practices of healing and spaces of care. This includes the space in which we study mental health and illness in a pandemic.