Monthly Archives: September 2016

Reinventing the hamster wheel: The new frontier of teaching.


As I look ahead to the syllabus assignment for GRAD 5114, I am pondering my current teaching practices and whether they are really “enough.” I’ve touched on my teaching style before; I sometimes feel as I am doing my duty because I have moved beyond a pure lecture-and-multiple-choice exam format, incorporating videos and fun application assignments, pulling contemporary examples from the media and the world around us. This week’s readings got me thinking, though, about whether I have accidentally (that is, despite my best efforts) sunk into a routine of my own. After all, students don’t always seem to resonate with my examples, and sometimes my activities turn into generic “think of a situation in your life when [insert principle here]”-style discussions. Until this week, I was at a loss as to how I could improve this.

I was particularly drawn to Carnes’ “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire.” The students and teachers he describes are doing things that are just cool, like creating strategy games based on real historical events. These are activities that would make me look forward to going to class. I reflected back on some of the activities I thought were cool once upon a time. For example, in one class, I asked students to write a case study of a movie character suspected of having a mental illness, and to rate the accuracy of the film’s portrayal. Wouldn’t it have been more fun for students to tape their own versions of the film’s trailer in order to show what an authentic portrayal would look like? Another example that comes to mind is the project where students were asked to use operant conditioning to solve a “real-world” problem that affects VT undergrads. But why didn’t I ask them to try out their proposals, rather than just write and present them? Surely there would be lots of opportunities to use social media to get the word out about their ideas. Did I think they would complain about the effort? Would it just have been too difficult for me to grade? It seems like the potential hurdles to be confronted in this process might be worth the potential benefits.

I have to ask one question, though – where is the incentive for designers and coding gurus to develop these types of activities? Must the burden of developing and enacting these activities and tools fall squarely on the shoulders of teachers, or can educators and engineers collaborate more effectively and infuse these hands-on activities into curricula? After all, I have to blame part of my problem on an apparent lack of creativity, or perhaps more specifically, the experience of having reached the asymptote of my creative skills (at least until I get more coffee and a few days of sunny vacation). I think that part of the reason why innovation has stalled in education is that creative ideas like this take money, and they aren’t always rewarded, especially when a big grant with other clear and important implications is competing for attention and funding. I have hope, though, that eventually the tide will turn, once word about these exciting developments and programs and their potential positive effects on learning gets out.


And to my classmates who are also grappling with their definition of what a “good teacher” is and whether or not they are one, I say this – someone once told me that if you care enough to question your teaching abilities, you’re already doing better than most of the other teachers anyway. So take heart, and press on.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy

Too seriously, or not seriously enough?

If I had to sum up my authentic teaching self in a bumper sticker, here’s what I’d choose:






As a teacher (and, frankly, as a clinician) humor is my go-to communication tool. I engage in a certain amount of self-deprecation because I feel like it makes me more relatable to my students and because funny examples might help them remember some of the topics we cover. Like Sarah Deel, I came from a liberal arts school that emphasized the importance of teaching and entered a graduate program where the predominant message has been that if I am spending the full twenty hours allotted to my assistantship on teaching, I am spending far too much time. I would consider myself one of Seymour Papert’s “yearners,” someone who bucks against the constraints of typical teaching practices in my department and tries to have fun while working with students in the classroom. This week’s readings, though, made me wonder if what feels authentic to me might be perceived as posturing by my students or could be detrimental. As Deel points out, young female teachers are already at a disadvantage when it comes to being respected or seen as authority figures in the classroom, particularly in the sciences. In my efforts to ease tension in the classroom and engage students in the material, am I inadvertently chipping away at my own credibility?

Shelli Fowler’s guidelines seem very helpful as I pursue my goal of becoming an effective teacher and avoidance of being typecast as an amateur comedian. She makes good points that good teaching is not without boundaries and not the same thing as “edu-tainment.” While I am good about maintaining boundaries with my students outside the classroom (I wouldn’t enjoy a beer with them at FloydFest), perhaps I need to work on establishing more of a sense of authority and credibility within the classroom. It seems that a big part of this process involves becoming very knowledgeable about the material for the day and being able to smoothly tie any examples or activities, humorous or not, in with the point I want to make. I should be careful when choosing my moments of humor to make sure that my purpose is to help the students engage actively in the classroom rather than to get that rewarding laughter after delivery. I will admit that I struggle with being conflict-adverse, but it might help bolster my credibility if I can set and maintain clear guidelines from the beginning that allow appropriate flexibility for lighter moments. Perhaps this will be something that I can practice when working on the syllabus assignment…

And now, another glimpse into my classroom:


(Just kidding.)


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy

Manifest Destiny, Implicit Bias and the Dakota Access Pipeline

Contrary to at least his own belief, Donald Trump was not the first person to think that we need to “make America great again.” In the 19th century, American settlers advocated a policy of manifest destiny in which they expanded the nation as far and wide as possible, so that American virtues and ideologies would touch the furthest corners of the continent. Although it may not have been said overtly, this policy implies that some people, namely Native Americans already living on the land in question, will be steamrolled in the process.

Unfortunately, this process is still ongoing. Events such as the current Dakota Access Pipeline expansion, which is occurring against the will of the native peoples, are often met with media silence or only limited, fringe source-based coverage. As the video below shows, native protestors and their allies are being challenged by pepper spray- and dog-wielding guards. The construction company has already begun to desecrate the land, some of which serves as a burial ground for tribal elders, despite the attempts of the native peoples to slow or halt the project.

Why are these actions being taken by people engaged in non-violent protest? I think what we are seeing when we watch this video clip is an intersection of privilege and implicit bias. Those involved in building the pipeline are perpetuating the notion of manifest destiny and taking what they view as theirs, ignoring the pleas of the native peoples who reside on the land. They are able to move forward so freely because of their privilege, which is based in status and finances but may also be aided by race and gender. As for the violence, I would suggest that the decision to use pepper spray and attack dogs to control the protestors is based at least in part in implicit bias against Native Americans. Cultural stereotypes of Native Americans cast them as “savages” who are wild, uncivilized, and violent. Implicitly, then, there may be a belief that violence is the natural first step to use in combating them. I doubt the response would have looked like this if the crowd of protestors had been entirely White. Interestingly, I also think this theory could be applied to the violence we have seen against Black men and Black Lives Matter protestors, as Blacks (especially young men) are also portrayed as wild and animalistic.

This complex situation merits more widespread coverage, so please share it with your friends.


Filed under Diversity

The Classroom as Ground Zero

Michael Wesch says, “learning is subversive,” and I could not agree more. Learning is a rebellion; in the same way that reading was once considered rebellious (and then we burned books), learning is rebellious (and now we censor teachers), and (I fear) the Internet will be the next target of censorship and suppression. And if learning is rebellious, the classroom is Ground Zero, and my job as a teacher is to inform and motivate the troops.

But how do I do that? I’ve thought of myself as a good teacher for a while; I don’t just take exam questions from the book, I create my own lectures with videos and interesting examples, I incorporate discussion and application whenever possible (in keeping with the theme of “anti-teaching”). I like Ellen Langer’s “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to the increasing interest in technology displayed by modern Americans, and I pull examples from TV frequently (though I could be using social media more effectively) because I know my students will “get it” and may look back on the example with a chuckle. After finishing this week’s readings, though, I felt incredibly motivated to go beyond my current efforts. I felt inspired to re-write my syllabus, to take space away from classroom rules and regulations and instead write things like, “Remember that each student’s perspective is important and we are lucky that you are here to share it with us” and “If you are having trouble seeing why a topic matters, tell me so we can brainstorm together.” I felt charged with bringing controversy into the classroom, to run the risk of butting up against conflicting options while shedding light on important issues.

Maybe I will do some of those things. More than anything, though, I realize the need to be more mindful every time I teach, to take an opportunity to reconsider what I want students to learn from the time we spend together, what I can say that will be memorable and useful to them. If my students finish the semester learning more from the class than they could have just from reading the textbook, if they think about it after grades have been turned in, then I did my job. This is my role in helping the next generation make better the world they were born into.

In all of this, I cannot ignore my privilege in being free to teach as I see fit in a college classroom. Those working with children and teenagers are guided by the rules of “No Child Left Behind” and its trappings, although they really should be the ones with the longest leashes, considering their importance to the development of our youth. To honor them, I must take the opportunity to make my teaching as mindful and meaningful as possible, to help students rediscover what it feels like to want to learn, to yearn for knowledge. When I think about the teachers and classes that impacted me the most, I don’t remember reading a really great textbook or having a particular principle or topic impressed upon me. I remember the educators who were open and honest, who treated me as a colleague when they had no obligation to do so, who acknowledged my effort and made me feel like a contributor. I think about people like Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating, who dared to surpass the lesson plan.


We simply don’t have time for mindless teaching anymore. There’s too much at stake.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy