Who Am I in the Classroom?

Who do I try to be while I’m teaching? That’s the question. I took my broad categories from Sarah E. Deel’s article on finding her teaching voice and from Shelli Fowler’s authentic teaching self article. As I reflect on five semesters of TAing and then teaching as instructor of record, I try to be:

Authentic (Broadly) – I’m not an actor or a performer by personality. So, I decided early on that I would be myself in the classroom. Each class I plan to have topics to cover and to leave time for discussion. I try to relate to the students in a back and forth way when they ask/answer questions and I try my best to provide nuanced clarifications or supplemental information when students assert things that are, shall we say, not quite empirically sound. I teach in Political Science, so opinion is part of the game but I want opinions of all sorts to be well-informed and thought out. I tell jokes and sometimes they land, sometimes they don’t. Lame jokes are part of my out of the classroom personality so I try to bring that into my teaching. I also try to show when a particular topic/issue/theme is genuinely exciting or thought-provoking for me and, perhaps more importantly, I try to be encouraging when a student brings into a discussion something that makes a connection for them or that they find interesting and engaging.

Prepared – I never walk into class without a plan for what I want to cover for the day. I also try to prepare just the right amount of material for each day. I worry more about running out of material but I also don’t want to assign so much reading that we don’t have time to talk about most (ideally all) of the key ideas. I taught two days a week in the fall (75 minutes) and this semester I teach three days (50 minutes). It has been a learning experience adjusting and understanding how much I need to plan for different length sessions.

Organized – I order my notes typically in the order that the chapter or reading for the day covers the material. I try my best to take each concept or topic one by one and exhaust explanation and discussion of them before moving to the next concept. I taught Israeli history in the fall and so this worked somewhat more organically in that course as I taught the history chronologically while stopping to talk about important themes and events. History seems to lend itself to organization in this way.

Flexible – Even though I try to be prepared and organized I also try to remain open to shifting needs and interests in the classroom. If someone asks a question that prompts 20 minutes of discussion, and therefore we don’t get through all of my planned material, I don’t stress about it. Often the discuss is more interesting than it would have been for me to go through the material. Ideally the students will have done the reading (I live in the real world and I know some ((most?)) don’t) but they have it in any case. They can refer to it for content but the discussion is where hopefully a lot of the learning and critical engagement happens.

Approachable – One of the best parts of teaching is when students come to office hours to chat more about a class topic. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it’s really great to connect with the students about the course material, about ideas and issues raised in class and about their individual interests in the course and how it connects to their broader educational and intellectual growth. Because of all of this, I try to remain approachable. Unless I’m running to a meeting, I’m around to talk after class and I try to meet students for office hours (as much as possible) when their schedules allow.

These four aspects, authenticity, preparation, flexibility, and approachability, have (in)formed my teaching style so far, and it’s going well. Practice, as they say, makes perfect and I am approaching teaching as an on-going practice and learning process.

Experts Declare: Gaming is Good!

I am now working on my third degree and I have taken classes at no less than 9 colleges and universities between my first semester as an undergraduate in 2004 and spring semester 2017. Most of the courses were components of working toward a degree but many were also for fun (French 101 at Monroe Community College and Colloquial Egyptian Arabic at the University of Chicago, for example).

In that time I have had exactly two large lecture hall style courses. The first was Introduction to Sociology at Ithaca College in fall 2004 and the second was International Public and NGO Management at Syracuse University in fall 2009. The majority of undergraduate courses I took were pre-digital lectures (no PowerPoint, professors speaking from notes or extemporaneously) and my Master’s and Ph.D. level course work has been mostly discussion based seminars.

My focus has been decidedly social science and humanities and so I allow that my experience is likely quite different than the, perhaps, more rote focused lectures in engineering or physics. Yet, I have to say, I love lectures. I learn very well from sitting and listening to someone with a good grasp on a topic explicating it for an hour. I realize many people do not learn well this way and I certainly wouldn’t advocate this as the sole method of instruction (or in all fields).

But, the lectures I have been fortunate to attend (even the two large lecture halls) have also been reflective and interactive. Instructors didn’t simply read off faded notes. Questions were encouraged and posed to the class. So, in my (again particular, situated) experience lectures can have the benefits that Robert Talbert describes. They can be great for giving context and for telling stories. Good lecturers are in many ways performers. They present material in interesting and entertaining ways and that facilitates, at least for me, learning.

As I noted, I am acutely aware of the plurality of learning styles, needs, and preferences and that not everyone learns best this way (or enjoys sitting through a lecture). In light of this, I’m very much in favor of finding what works and, per Mark C. Carnes, incorporating games (of all sorts) into education. I’ve always liked video games and chafed at the idea that they can’t be art or that they are waste of time, etc. I and others I know learned a lot of history in middle school from playing through campaigns in Age of Empires in which Saladin’s forces face off against European crusaders. And who can forgot learning the valuable lesson of only shooting as much buffalo meat as you can carry from marathon sessions of Oregon Trail in elementary school. The below video even says the game was created to teach history!

I was also a Dungeons and Dragons player in my salad days and I learned, for example, what a halberd and a glaive were that way. Not only that, but such games teach problem solving skills: Do I negotiate with or stab this goblin? D&D (as those of us in the know call it) involves a lot of math and literacy skills as well. I learned that rolling a 1 on a 10-sided die is the same probability of rolling a 1 or 2 on a 20-sided.

In any case, text-based and creative role playing games like this, and the more explicitly educational versions Carnes writes about can be great educational tools. I would have loved to take one of his classes. We did a lot of role-playing/simulations in my international relations Master’s program, in fact the program’s capstone project is a cohort-wide (~100 students) two day simulation of UN climate change negotiations and it was a great experience. There can be no doubt that, as sociolingiust James Paul Gee (2003) argues, (video) games can teach us in various ways.

Finally, I’m aware I started my post-secondary education right at the cusp of the digital education age in a sense (my first semester of college we actually filled out paper course request forms!) and so my experience straddling that line may be different than the “digital natives” of a half or full generation behind me. Yet, I want to be careful not to, excuse the gruesome metaphor, throw the baby out with the bath water. We should take seriously the idea not only of a shift from “a teacher-oriented system featuring lectures delivered to passive audiences” to a “learner-centered process in which students become more actively involved in their own education” but an incorporation of both types of learning and teaching. There are those, such as me, for whom the former works well and is an enjoyable way to learn. I can’t be the only one? Can I?


References

Gee, James Paul. 2003. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Second Edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Grades, Non-Monetary Motivations, and the A Shaped Elephant in the Room

It may come as no surprise that many of the critiques I made last week of Michael Wesch hold for Dan Pink as well. I found his animated video on the existence of non-monetary motivations for work engaging until he made the slightly ludicrous claim that a tech firm allowing its employees autonomy and “self-directed” work ONE DAY PER YEAR was “almost radical.”

Now, I don’t want to beat a dead horse – so I will try not to. I want to make two brief points on this before moving on to the less irksome work of Alfie Kohn.

First, it takes a deeply ideological perspective to be surprised (he calls the science freaky!) that humans are motivated in their work by things other than monetary reward. “Homo Economicus,” profit-maximizers, and other utilitarian conceptions of human behavior are ideological constructions of economists not neutral representations of objective reality. Well-known anarchist Peter Kropotkin made the argument in his classic work “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” more than 100 years ago that cooperation and reciprocity characterize human social life as much if not more than purely self-interested competition and maximization.

Second, the idea that there are alternative structures for workplaces that place more emphasis on autonomy, mastery, and purpose and less emphasis on strict hierarchy and ranked performance IS NOT NEW! There is nothing novel about this idea. Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, and countless other anarchist and socialist writers and practitioners have been advocating for this for more than 150 years (not to mention those pesky Luddites). The history of unionism more generally is full of skilled workers resisting efforts by capitalist owners to strip their work of autonomy mastery, and purpose (see: Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles by David Montgomery). Furthermore, the way Pink describes corporations putting these ideas into practice, with the goal of instrumentalizing their employees’ creativity and desire for more control to generate more profits, is problematic to say the least.

I just so happen to have written a post on this very topic for the great SPIA blog: RE: Reflections and Explorations. The post “Cooperative Organizations: Toward an On-Going Practice of Democracy” briefly explores what VT’s own Joyce Rothschild has called “collectivist-democratic” organizations. Such organizations come, in my opinion, the closest to the anarchist ideal of truly worker self-directed enterprises in which those who do the work own and control the business. Some even, shock and horror, pay all of their employees the same wage!

Heterodox economist Richard D. Wolff has written numerous books on the topic and runs an organization that helps businesses transition into worker self-directed enterprises. There are more than 200 in the US alone and thousands around the world. The largest and most famous organization of this kind is the Mondragon Corporation in Spain, founded in 1956, employing 74,000 people, and earning around $13bn per year. It’s not perfect, but it’s the “freaky” result of 60 years of attempts to build more autonomous and democratic workplaces.

All of this is to say: cite your sources Dan Pink! Do your research!

Okay, I did beat that dead horse – I couldn’t help myself.

Moving from hierarchy in the workplace (which is both the outcome of grades received in schooling and a continuation of the impulse to sort people by perceived ability, proficiency, etc.) to grades in the academic environment, I was struck by one aspect in Alfie Kohn’s article “The Case Against Grades.”

Kohn quotes English teacher Jim Drier on his transition to a no-grades classroom. Drier said “I think my relationships with students are better” after removing grades. I think about the interpersonal aspect of grading a lot as an instructor. I have felt that the first few weeks of the semester are a grace period in which students can form opinions of me as an instructor and interpersonally in a somewhat natural way. Once the first graded assignment gets back to them though, I always worry it will have damaged rapport I have built with students who didn’t perform well.

I am inclined to think that there is some drop off in effort by students who get discouraged by a poor grade early in the semester and that they may be less willing to come to me for help as a result, particularly if we don’t have a pre-existing relationship. I do think it would be easier to maintain a positive student-teacher relationship if I didn’t have to decide which students are excellent and which are only adequate (and then essentially tell them this).

Asserting my authority in this way through grades is currently a necessity but I certainly do not enjoy it. Kohn discusses various iterations of qualitative feedback and I have tried this as a strategy. On written assignments I try to give substantive comments (both positive and negative) to help the student grow and understand that it’s not “personal.” But, since I also must give a letter grade, I worry, as Kohn points out, that students may ignore the comments and go right to the grade (I myself have been known to do this).

I am persuaded by Kohn’s argument, particularly in the social sciences where I teach, that we should be prepared to “jettison” grades in favor of alternatives. As a grad student, I’ll keep tinkering around the edges looking for those alternatives.