Reflections on Publicness, Learning, and Teaching

Managing publicness of our roles as an instructor is a challenge. While this admittedly varies by discipline, those of us in the social sciences may use our own perspectives and publicness as opportunities to encourage more meaningful and personalized engagement with the materials. My first year of teaching I sought to restrain and tamp down my personality, but let my charisma, curiosity, and knowledge in the topics (national security and international security) shine through. Yet this year is a completely different scenario. I teach the Arab-Israeli Dispute. This topic has deep personal meaning forged from visceral firsthand experiences complemented by an array of connections to research on the politics of architecture, space, and aesthetics. As a result, I’ve refocused a bit to ensure my personality feeds into the charisma, curiosity, excitement, and knowledge of the topic.

I feel by injecting more of my personality and a heavier fingerprint on the syllabus I have created a more engaging, yet more personalized learning environment for the students in which they feel comfortable expressing themselves in their own voice. While this is apparent in the syllabus – I’ve framed the readings as “provocations” or “pieces of a mosaic that they are to assemble”, and this follows through into the classroom (we have brief reflection exercises and group discussions) and assignments (each of which they are tasked with reflecting on materials and their own position with regards to assembling the mosaic).

Yet the most important facet of this course is to connect their own agency to the creation of history. The last section – of four – is titled: “Israel, Palestine, and You”. This section is dedicated to reflecting on the ways more recent history has shaped their perspectives as well as to shore up the idea that they are participants in the writing of history. In other words, the goal is to shatter the notion that history is an abstract topic, but one in which they not only are shaped by, but simultaneously, have the capacity to shape. I will do this by bringing in (or skyping in) an Israeli and a Palestinian toward the end of the semester.

The hope is the students recognize that they are participants in history, and due to this – the hope is – it fuels their curiosity and confidence to think and engage with topics beyond the classroom not necessarily to become advocates for a cause, but as confident and knowledgeable advocates for themselves and their views.

This very much places students at the center of the learning experience similar to the “experiential learning” advocated by the likes of Kuh. This experiential learning is similar to “research”, but I think the research is more oriented toward their own reflections. It’s a two-way process – the more they encounter those different pieces of the mosaic, the more space they are given to reflect on and wrestle with questions and in so doing, they increasingly feel more comfortable with their own perspectives. This experiential learning approach is modeled on a trip or powerful experience in that the more impactful learning occurs afterward when the trip-goer reflects on their experience.

While I like the idea of introducing public writing, the topic of the course could lead to an unwillingness to be as assertive or comfortable with their posts as one may prefer. One of the common threads for all of the students in the course is that many claimed “they wanted to learn more to feel comfortable discussing the Arab-Israeli situation.” I think giving them some space – unimpeded both by their colleagues, and to a degree, me – is necessary for them to wrestle with the personal and wider ethical or theoretical questions.

This does not mean I do not believe in collaborative learning. Quite the opposite, I simply take the stance that collaborative and deeply personal learning share parts in the learning process, but – like different research methods – are more appropriate for difference scenarios and topics at different times.

In a similar vein, I agree that learning and education can be amplified by the reliance on technological instruments, I think the risk is that those devices become distractions in the learning experience. I can relate this to a personal experience.

While I think it is great to have a blog to share research, thoughts, or experiences, I think handing a paper to a colleague for review or having a chat over coffee – much like what Tim Hitchcock claims – are equally effective for developing and sharing research. The fear is that writing a blog entry can serve as a distraction – both in terms of news sites or other looming deadlines. I find that more often than not I do my best work, when I disconnect from the digital architecture within which our lives are embedded. I am not advocating a luddite position, I just think enough self-reflection helped me realize the importance of space, time, and attention in being the best scholar, teacher, and overall person I can be.

7 Replies to “Reflections on Publicness, Learning, and Teaching”

  1. I’m really with you on this. It’s good to know that I’m not alone. When you publicize writing, you tacitly endorse the content you create. That’s more okay for some disciplines than others: talking about a mathematical formula may not reveal much about the writer’s ethical orientation, but obviously a blog about the Arab/Israeli conflict might. Having unimpeded space to work on one’s thoughts is certainly essential to deep humanities scholarship.

    A related tricky issue is that blog posts, even if they’re assigned with the option of anonymity, can usually be traced back to the writer. Not all scholars — at any age, in any stage of research — necessarily want to be publicly associated with the writing they must do in response to a homework prompt. If you’re writing about a controversial topic or a subject that you want to specialize in for your career, this could be very problematic indeed. Just some food for thought.

    1. Agreed, I think space for self-reflection is integral to learning (a room of one’s own). I really think framing readings as provocations lends itself to the kind of reflection to connect their own lived experience or perspective to the views encountered in the readings. I’m just reluctant to put students in positions in which they run the risk of filtering their perspective or thoughts, at least to a significant degree. My preferred process is to get them to write down a response to a question (or to write a test question) on the readings to prompt reflection as a warm up, then use that in a “think-pair-share” process. I think by writing it down on their own they may feel a bit more comfortable sharing with a partner or perhaps the rest of the class. It’s still early in the semester, and I view my class very much as a social science experiment, so I’ll continue to try different techniques.

  2. You bring up a few good points Robert. I understand the skepticism expressed. However, when you described the experiential part of the class the energy I felt reading it was fantastic…and then as the blog continued I kind of felt lost…this is good – both because you know how something as innovative as what you are doing in your class works and you also have healthy skepticism about something new. I encourage you to keep an open mind and try to figure out how this can work without necessarily being a distraction. It is known that some students do express themselves better in written words. How joyous to be able to read those ideas…to facilitate a process through which they may feel more excited about class just because they get to share their thoughts?! Just some things to think about…

    1. The entry was very much a reflection without much structure, so getting lost is completely understandable! I very much view the classroom and our class as an exploration in which skepticism is part and parcel. It’s a core tenet of political science and (should be more in history) – the disciplines in which I’m trained/teaching. I don’t mean to undercut the validity or value of the materials, it’s about convincing me, and helping me make that connection. This is not to say that I would never employ these tactics, but I haven’t made that connection yet. I #trusttheprocess, though, so we’ll see. In the same vein, I think the need to convince students of the value of the materials, themes, and wider ideas holds true in our classrooms. My goal is to help them make connections between those wider themes and their own views.

  3. I also really loved the parts of this that engaged the experiential learning you’ve enabled in the class you’re teaching. “I want to take that class,” was my first response. And that was before I got to the part about having an Israeli and Palestinian skype in for a conversation. I’ve also wrestled with the challenges of working in the open in a class I’m teaching this semester. My starting position is that things should be open unless there’s a good reason for them not to be. As in the case of your course, the course I’m teaching this semester on Contemporary Russia deals with materials, topics, and individuals that are divisive and controversial. We need to be able to test out ideas and make mistakes without compromising someone’s security clearance down the road. So much of the interaction that would normally be somewhat open, is now confined to our class.
    And as for blogging being a distraction, I think we need to choose the right tool or medium for the job. In the case of this class, posting your thoughts, (which are interesting and relevant to lots of people,) on your blog has given me the opportunity to learn more about your teaching and your insights than I would have otherwise. And I’m grateful for that!

    1. Thanks, my class is very much modeled on the kind of course I would like to take, then I tailor aspects of the course – or at least that’s how I managed last year – to the aspirations and/or interests of the students. My entire teaching approach is about exploration, but also honing in on those different aspects that seem to resonate with the students or that prompt that reflection. I think as the semester progresses I may feel more open to encouraging a bit more openness and exchange. Actually we have a public debate (although I assign the positions (with the input of the students)) on the implications of the 1967 War, so perhaps they’ll feel more comfortable and primed for sharing after. I’ll cross my fingers.

    2. This comment is in reference to A. Nelson’s thoughts written above, but it has more to do with where I’m at with my process than anything else.

      I’ve seen far too many colleagues and close friends swayed against their values in consideration of future “security clearance” interests. Once we invite that type of thinking into our academic lives, it tends to spread — metastasize, if you will — into other parts of our lives. How easy is it to begin seeing right and wrong in terms of what works? Who among us can say we possess the level of grounding required to stand up straight when speaking truth to power after we have twisted our ankles dashing to toe the line?

      After considering these thoughts for a bit, I was reminded of the effect of state power on the academy exemplified by the Nonconformists Act of 1665 ( ) that ironically created a stimulus of rural (5 miles out) “dissenting” educational institutes in Stuart England.

      What does a traditional academy offer us in trade as academics if the price of membership is the better part of our conscience?

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