Category Archives: Contemporary Pedagogy

We’ve Got the Power: Technology, Research, and Collaborative Science

A lot of instructors seem to be intimidated by the idea of bringing technology into the classroom. Personally, I have vacillated between feeling annoyed at students who can’t seem to look up from their laptops at the most engaging moments in my course and feeling as if I, as the teacher, should be doing more to incorporate tech into my instructional style. In my summer Developmental Psychology course, I asked students to present evidence on either side of controversial parenting practices using an interactive discussion board. This semester, in Abnormal Psychology, I used Instagram to illustrate how unfair societal norms regarding women’s bodies contribute to the development of eating disorders. As with all innovations in pedagogy, the response has been mixed, but I don’t regret trying this out.

Benjamin Wiggins’ article, A Pedagogy That Spans Semesters, describes the use of a technological tool that allowed him to carry over the same assignment across multiple semesters. In his Risk and Society class, one major assignment is for students to collaborate on a timeline. Unlike class discussions, the fruits of which tend to evaporate as soon as the first student out opens the door, this assignment preserves student efforts and uses them to set up the work for the subsequent class. As Wiggins points out, no assignment will work indefinitely, as eventually everyone runs out of ideas. In addition, the expectations of each cohort are a bit different: the first cohort has to build a strong foundation, and the last cohort may struggle to connect with the first cohort’s efforts or find little room to expand when adding their contributions.

As I was reading this article, which comes from a history teacher’s perspective, I was struck by how relevant such a framework would be for scientists. After all, isn’t research inherently a long-term collaboration, in the sense that my work builds on those of my predecessors and (hopefully) inspires the next generation to take my ideas a step further? It is relatively easy for me to find out who cited my papers, but it is harder to know exactly how others will take my ideas and what the responses are, unless someone writes a published letter to the journal. In other words, I don’t often get the satisfaction of knowing “how the story ends.” I think it would be so interesting to apply this concept to science courses, in the sense that students would be exposed to the real-world research process and come to appreciate their efforts and how they map onto the network of collaboration rather than merely being interested in the end product.

Technology enables this kind of innovation, and in my view, we should harness its power for good, not evil 🙂


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy, Preparing the Future Professoriate

Critical Pedagogy: Be Helpful, Be Honest, Be Human

I was surprised to learn this week that critical pedagogy is kind of already what I do in my classroom. I pride myself on teaching my students to question the world around them and to apply the material we are covering to potentially controversial topics in the news rather than focus on lifeless “stock” examples. For example, this semester I am teaching a class that focuses on classical and operant conditioning. For the midterm project, I asked students to critique an advertisement and break down the classical conditioning being used in the ad to get consumers to purchase the product. To go beyond this, I asked them to spend time in class discussing how conditioning might be used in presidential campaign and attack ads (how is conditioning used to “sell the product” of one candidate or block the “sale” of another?). I think having to discuss such a fresh and controversial topic was challenging for some students, but many of them did give me insightful, thorough written responses that pertained to both major political parties. My students are the architects of their own learning, although I am there to provide blueprints for them. I find myself repulsed by the notion of Fromm’s “necrophilous” person, who thrives on control and believes that education begins and ends with passively transferring knowledge into student receptacles. I note, however, that I could be doing more to encourage students to question the material itself, not just the potential limits of its application, and this week’s readings helped me realize that I could still grow.


Kinchloe’s overview of Freire’s life and work brings up an interesting effect of classrooms based on critical pedagogy, which is that people from diverse and traditionally oppressed walks of life who may have previously been denied access to the academy can find a new, hopeful place in higher education. In such a classroom, these students would be encouraged to apply the course material to their own struggles and engage in problem naming, critiquing and solving in a way that can benefit their corner of the world. A teacher with a better grasp of critical pedagogy than I might be able to understand how the individual perceptions of these students impact the teacher’s delivery of the material and make some adjustments. A classroom like this would be inclusive and collaborative, with diversity playing a starring role rather than being tucked away in a corner and forgotten. Naturally, this brings up some of our previous discussion on how to construct an effective “brave space” to facilitate healthy, challenging student engagement. It seems that building a successful “brave space” is necessary for allowing students to confront real issues in their communities and feel comfortable and confident enough to challenge the status quo of the material.

I had a couple thoughts on how these two topics might intersect, drawing from Shelli’s slides on critical pedagogy. One is that I think we have to establish the classroom as “ground zero” for making these changes. I’ve used this term before, but what I mean here is that students need to feel safe and at home in your classroom before they will feel comfortable using that space to create and work on difficult problems. I draw an analogy to the adoption system: if you adopt a child, one critical step to helping him or her feel “at home” living with your family is to allow him or her to help create a room of his or her own. This may involve picking out a paint color together, buying sheets and curtains, and choosing furniture. This is a space in which the child has had some input, sending the message that his or her ideas matter. In the same sense, you can allow students to play a role in establishing an atmosphere of respectful and contemplative discussion, and this will give them a “base” to work from when critically evaluating and applying course material. In other words, students ought to feel safe speaking up and sharing their opinions on a topic in your classroom, so that they can feel more comfortable doing so out in the world.

Another thought I had was about unpacking and reconsidering power dynamics in the classroom. To be honest, it takes a lot of pressure off me (especially as a graduate student) if I can admit that I don’t know everything about a subject and allow there to be room for questioning what is covered in the textbook. Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with asking a student to let me go out and do some independent research about a question, rather than saying “I don’t know” or “that’s not on the test.” Freire makes the point that teaching and learning have to occur together to foster critical pedagogy. My experience is that taking off my “instructor hat” and just being more of a guide to my students by asking the questions that will help them work through their own thought processes is effective for helping students settle into the course, and it also seems to make me more approachable when they need help. This practice may help level the playing field for students who are underprivileged or at a disadvantage.

Another of Shelli’s points is to allow personal and political aspects of the material to seep into the room. Part of this process, which goes along with my above point about power dynamics, may be to allow students to see the “human” side of their instructor. I had an unexpectedly emotional moment like this a few weeks ago, when I took Christian’s advice and brought up the recent police shootings to my students. I started out by saying that I was available if anyone wanted to talk about what had happened, and I ended up making the point that a lot of what we talk about with conditioning is used when prejudice and discrimination occurs and students should think about what we’ve discussed when they watch the news. It was interesting to see my students’ faces as I talked about this topic, which has never impacted me directly but does bring up an emotional response because of my commitment to social justice. I could tell that they were really listening to me in a way that they hadn’t before, even as I transitioned somewhat awkwardly into my lecture. After class, a student even asked me if my research was about racial violence, and remarked that I seemed to know and care a lot about the topic. This was unexpected and touching. I’ve talked about the judicious use of self-disclosure before, and I think a little of it goes a long way.

The more I think about it, it seems like critical pedagogy–especially when combined with both deep and broad knowledge of the subject matter–is essential for distinguishing ineffective from effective teachers. I hope that I can continue to grow in my effectiveness by using what Freire wrote so passionately about.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy, Diversity

A Tale of Two Mentors

I am excited that we get to talk about mentorship this week. I have had experiences with many different mentors, and there were definitely some differences in the quality of our mentor-mentee match and what I learned from each person. I value the opportunities I have to mentor my students and to help them forge connections with others in the field as they look toward graduate school, internships, and jobs.

Two mentors specifically come to mind in thinking about what Alex wrote about selecting a good mentor and dealing with a toxic mentor. I am going to be intentionally vague about who I am speaking in an effort to respect both mentors.

I’ll start with the person who was perhaps not the best choice for me. This person would probably fall into Alex’s categories of “the avoider” and “the dumper.” This person practiced a pretty hands-off mentoring style, and at times I felt like other priorities and projects were more important than mentoring me. For a mentee with more experience and fewer distractions and stressors, this mentorship style might have worked, but looking back, I needed a more hands-on approach with more guidance and oversight to be able to perform at my best at that time in my life. When I was self-aware enough to ask for more guidance, I typically found that this person had a full schedule, and the person was often unprepared and frazzled when we finally did find time to meet. I sometimes felt like I had been thrown into the deep end of the pool, and this came back to bite me when my mentor realized some of the mistakes I had made. Thankfully, this person was well connected in the field and could introduce me to other mentors who provided more feedback and opportunities to help me grow, all of whom I still collaborate with and learn from.

One of the people I met through my mismatch with this mentor was someone who turned out to be a wonderful mentor. To use Alex’s example, this person was kind of like Yoda in a few ways. The person was well respected and well connected, and this allowed me to spread my network even further and meet new collaborators. Unlike my first mentor, though, this person did not pass along the responsibility of mentorship to other people. This person gave me an active role in projects and allowed me to take on challenges with appropriate supervision and guidance. Even though it was probably more of a draw on this person’s time than a collaborative benefit, this mentor devoted thought and energy to projects that I spearheaded. This mentor wasn’t afraid to call me out when I wasn’t performing at my peak ability, and I was receptive to this feedback because of our relationship, which was built on mutual respect. I remember one instance in particular in which my emotions and stress overwhelmed me and I was tempted to give up on a project, and this person gently challenged me, reminding me that I could solve the problem if I just kept working on it, and allowed me to come back and try again when I calmed down.

I can take what I have learned from these two very different mentors and apply it when I am thinking about what kind of mentor I’d like to be to my own students. Firstly, I want to develop a relationship based on mutual respect in which I can freely challenge students and feel confident that they will trust my intentions and not get offended or feel like I am trying to talk down to them. To me, learning to be receptive to constructive criticism and guidance is key for developing as a professional, and it is not easy or comfortable for people to get better at doing this. Secondly, I want to take time to help my students get opportunities or forge connections, even if it takes away from something else I am doing or doesn’t directly benefit me. For example, if a student in my class was interested in research, I could help connect them with someone in the department who studies their topic of interest. I could also meet with students in office hours if they wanted to talk about graduate school options or get my advice on writing essays or taking the GRE. I think it is really important to remember that just because you only play a small role in a student’s life, you can still make a big impact, especially if the person who primarily supervises their work does not serve as the ideal mentor for that student. Your willingness to work with them could make a bigger difference than you think.



Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy

Connecting the Dots

When I was thinking about what to write this week, I was struck by how much the other topics we have covered in GRAD 5114 relate to the idea of intrinsic motivation as described by Dan Pink. I guess you could say I started connecting the dots a little–


No, no, not like that! More like this:


Yes, that’s better.

Dan Pink discusses how people tend to respond more to intrinsic motivators, like the love of learning or natural interest in a topic, than extrinsic motivators, like money or a perfect grade. Specifically, this occurs when people are faced with a cognitive task rather than a mechanical one. Unfortunately, students have been conditioned to prioritize getting (note: not necessarily earning) a high grade over actually learning something from a class, because it is grades that factor in most directly to graduate school applications, scholarships, and job placements. There are certain questions I hate that I can always count on students to ask: will this be on the test? Did I miss anything important (read: worth points on the test)? Can you make a study guide for us?

So, how can we foster the resurgence of intrinsic motivation? Some of the readings for this week would recommend getting rid of grades completely, and I’m not sure how I (or my students) would feel about that. A lot of what we have learned in this course so far, though, would be helpful to consider. The use of connected and digital learning enables us to make course content directly relevant to problems faced by our students while pulling in a technological component that could allow them to connect with information and scholars from around the world. This approach implies that we need to reflect mindfully on our teaching and move away from the “sage on the stage” model, and also that we need to foster inclusive and learner-centered pedagogical practices in order to make our courses maximally relevant to many different kinds of people and to help students feel comfortable engaging in and helping to direct the class. Of course, these changes won’t be perceived as genuine unless they come from an instructor taking an authentic teaching stance and learning how to balance being professional and directive with being true to their own style in the classroom.

I would say that connecting the dots is really important for helping my students see intrinsic value in my courses, too. With psychology, this is pretty easy to accomplish, as it relates to many commonly experienced phenomena even if a student isn’t ultimately pursuing a career in the field. Even in other fields, though, I think it can be helpful to ask your students why they’re taking your course or why they chose to major in your field. Have them write about it and share with others. Spend a little extra time to find a clip or example; even if it relates only tangentially, it might make students laugh and get them engaged in what you’re talking about (of course, if you find a particularly clever device, they could also see the value in using it to study for the exam…). For example, this week I am creating a lecture about extinction of conditioned behavior, and I put in some images and jokes that relate to dinosaurs. This is clearly not what I mean by extinction in this context, but it will make them laugh and might help them prepare for their weekly quiz on the topic. As another example, I once took a statistics class I wasn’t particularly excited about, one that was comprised of many different majors, including engineering. My teacher used the example of the O-ring failure from the Challenger disaster to illustrate the importance of precision in measurement. This specific example was very relevant to the engineering students in the room, and I could appreciate the example because of the psychological implications of the shuttle crash. It was an interesting way to “humanize” the topic and help us understand why she chose to cover it.

I guess my point is that it doesn’t take a lot to help your students find intrinsic value in what you are teaching. You don’t have to radically alter your teaching style or completely re-design your course. Students will respond to even small, genuine attempts to make the class more relatable for them.


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy

Night of the Heinous Subtweet: #Millennials and Stereotype Threat

Colleagues, there is a dangerous threat roaming our campus as we speak. They are sitting in our classrooms, standing in line at our restaurants, and hanging out in our movie theaters. Each time we attend a VT football game, we are putting ourselves at their mercy. But we must be brave and call out this threat by name. They are… the youths.



I couldn’t help returning to our discussion from two weeks ago when thinking about my blog post for this week. Our conversation about the modern generation of students was peppered with stereotypes: millennials might be outreach-oriented, digitally savvy and politically correct, or they might be self-absorbed, out of touch with reality and overly sensitive. Someone brought up the excellent point that many people in GRAD 5114 would also be included in the millennium generation. For a long time, I made excuses as to why I belonged in a separate category; I could remember dial-up and Wall Street-sized cell phones, I still played outside a lot as a child, I learned cursive in elementary school. But now, perhaps because of all the unfortunate accusations being lobbed at the younger generation in the current political season, I’ve taken a defensive pride in the label.

Is it possible that our millennial students succumb to stereotype threat? For example, if students are bombarded with the message that they are lazy and entitled, could this negatively affect their school performance? Could it be that students who constantly hear that they are obsessed with social media sometimes have difficulty working on their in-person social skills? Might teachers be inadvertently hampering their progress by not acknowledging and fighting back against these stereotypes in the classroom? Furthermore–and this is a sinister prospect–might some members of the older generation be using these stereotypes to prevent the next generation from overtaking their roles?

So, how could teachers work to combat millennial stereotype threat in their courses? Claude Steele provides some good guidelines that are worth repeating here. One approach is to use positive feedback to motivate students, particularly when you make it possible for them to recognize and praise their own accomplishments. Although you run the risk of feeding into the oft-cited phenomenon of youth entitlement, you could also help these students notice when their hard work has produced quality results. Another approach is to take an incremental perspective and emphasize that students can achieve better performance in your class with increased effort. Be willing to work with students using language they can understand, and set yourself up as being approachable from the get-go so that they feel comfortable disclosing their struggles; this will remove some of the unnecessary professorial “mystique” (and possible generation gap; not everyone in our course would say they are a millennial) and help them see that you are willing to guide them as they work to meet your challenges. Finally, it can be helpful to characterize diversity as a classroom enhancement rather than a hindrance. Show your students that inclusion of their perspectives is a valued part of class discussion, and be willing to modify your strategies to make the subject more accessible for them. Reading a few Tweets won’t kill you, and it might spark their inspiration. Don’t be that teacher who refuses to “keep up with the times” out of laziness or spite.

But, you know… don’t be Bree Van de Kamp, either.



Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy, Diversity

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

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

The Case for Mr. Robot: Using Connected Learning to Combat Social Anxiety in the Classroom

Every semester I struggle with students who are terrified of speaking up in class. So, when I think about connected learning, I think about “Mr. Robot.” More specifically, I am reminded of the titular character, who plays a confident hacker behind the guise of his online alias but is unable to muster even basic social skills when faced with a real person. The Internet offers him enough anonymity that he can say what’s really on his mind.



Now, I’m not directly advocating that my students try to overthrow the government. But I am happy to be able to offer them a digital stepping stone as they learn to speak up and speak out in the traditional classroom. Maybe my shy students are really good at using social media and the Internet; maybe they even have a blog, tucked away behind a creative alias. It makes sense to use those media to help students learn how to speak the language of my discipline and apply class concepts to topics and issues that are already of interest to them. (For example, not only was I able to type up this blog post while catching up on last week’s episode of the show in question, but I now have a great, current example to use when lecturing on social anxiety in class.) They are easily able to access resources to bolster their arguments, increasing their confidence. They can find support from and common ground with others, potentially taking learning to locales far from Blacksburg (Scott Rosenberg said it well: “blogging is a conversation”). Best of all, they have opportunities to practice social interaction in a way that feels “safe.” It might be easier to Tweet an article link or share a relevant GIF than to stand up in class, Dead Poets-style, and ask the world to critique your thoughts and opinions.

I’m well over my word limit, and now I turn to you in the comments.

How could we use connected learning in creative, exciting ways to engage students who “hang back” in class?


Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy

Intro post for Contemporary Pedagogy

This post is a placeholder for my first post in the category, “Contemporary Pedagogy.”

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Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy