If Teaching is a Human Act, I Need a Sea Change

I have always seen myself as a compromiser, as a person who can bring together different perspectives and create harmonious outcomes from seeming chaos. However, as I reflected on this approach following the readings by Freire, I feel this is less virtuous and more of fence-sitting neutrality. I have always seen my use of diplomacy and deference as a strength, that this was the best path forward through incremental growth and change. In the classroom, I try to create consensus, and try to respect both sides of an argument regardless of my personal beliefs. But Freire makes the point that neutrality is not only dangerous, but incompatible with effective teaching. He writes, “What is my neutrality, if not a comfortable and perhaps hypocritical way of avoiding any choice or even hiding my fear of denouncing injustice. To wash my hands in the face of oppression.” The notion of being openly political as an educator is terrifying. I think I have always felt that there was something inherent in the role of the teacher to be above the fray, to avoid the struggle and contentious bits or to avoid them for the sake of peace-keeping. I guess I had never thought about the ethical implications of that in a serious way until now. What if by not taking a stance, I am inhibiting learning rather than encouraging it?

Moreover, how does my neutrality appear from the perspective of the student? If you asked me last week about how I felt about neutral versus political perspectives from a teacher, I would have said that have always appreciated neutrality. As a naturally curious person, the neutrality of my teachers and professors past seemed to leave fertile ground for me to plant my own roots without their influence. But having reflected now on Freire’s treatise on teaching as a human act, I wonder if that belief of mine was founded on some false reality. Because to be honest, I know where all of my favorite and most effective professors fell on contentious issues. While I did not feel pressure to accept their worldview (and thus could plant my roots without fear of doing so as an ‘automaton’), I nevertheless was conscious of their beliefs and can still recognize them today. If I were to surmise one of Freire’s main points, it is that you do not need to hide your personal politics, but that a good teacher will nevertheless reckon with how they might affect how their students perceive them. So perhaps rather than be neutral (as I had previously perceived), these teachers were merely being open-minded and democratic, allowing me to make up my own mind as they themselves had done (and as lifelong learners continue to do). The respect that they showed may then manifest itself in a safe learning environment, where I know I would not be discriminated against a student. It seems, therefore, that the fertile ground where I planted my roots of comprehension and discovery was the product of my teacher’s political humanity, not neutrality in the absence of it.

Yesterday the world celebrated Armistice Day, marking the end of The Great War. It seems appropriate then, that I also reflect on freedom and how it must be balanced with authority. Freedom does have its limits, but as an educator I must find a way to ethically integrate those limits without creating a sense of loss. Freire writes “freedom becomes mature in confrontations with other freedoms.” To me, this means that real freedom has to be impinged in some ways, but that the individual has authority in how those decisions are made. That is why “consequences are what make decision making a responsible process.” It is not possible to have freedom without authority or vice versa.

As I continue to grapple with Freire’s philosophy as teaching as both a human act and one of love, I know I will struggle. Change for me has always been a gradual thing, partly owing to my stubbornness, but I have also believed that slow and steady was the best way to make lasting progress. It is not an exaggeration to say that issues of neutrality vs. politics and authority vs. freedom hit me as totally radical, but I also find it hard to argue with Freire’s points. So as much as I’d love to take measured approach, I believe what I need to do as an aspiring pedagogue is a sea change – to radically change my approach for my own benefit and for the food of my students.

Collaborative Post!

This blog post is a collaboration between myself and Emily Burns, Jonilda Bahja, Logan Perry, and HokieInstructor. 

In a post from Hybrid Pedagogy, author Sean Michael Morris writes that “just as the pedagogue will enter a room and rearrange the tables and chairs to suit his purpose, so too will the digital pedagogue happily hack [traditional learning spaces], opening it to the wider web, or using it as a portal to a more expanded learning environment.” We wanted to write a team blog post about some of the tools we’d use from the ‘wider web’ to create a more modern learning space, as well as some pros and cons of each. 


Pro: This is a free* software that we might normally associate with younger learners, like in elementary education. It allows for fun exercises and competition-based activities (think trivia, scavenger hunts) that really get the students excited about the material or lesson. It works just as well for college students, but it might require some introduction by the instructor. You can choose how to name your ‘character’, so it can theoretically be anonymous. It also has some really great features. Because this is widely used and there are paid accounts, there is a really robust community of users (and it has an App) and there is support for technical issues. ALSO THERE IS MUSIC! Case Study: One of us attended a two day conference called Braille Boot Camp. After each “mini” presentation, we answered questions on Kahoot! Although I attended this conference in 2016, I still remember how much fun I had trying to win! My colleague won the entire competition. His prize was a cool 3-D printed heart with printed pieces that fit inside the heart. 

Con: As a tool originally designed for younger learners, it can feel silly or childish in higher education. So it might require some introduction to clear the air and let the students know that being silly can be a good thing! *There is also a maximum of 50 people on the free account, so you may want to look into institutional access.  

Poll Everywhere

Pro: I have been using this every semester before we talk about political opinions and polarization. No one wants to raise their hand and tell a class of strangers they are a Republican or a Democrat. Using anonymous polling let’s us get real without lower personal risks. Being able to have a dozen questions pre-loaded and using things like multiple choice, word clouds, and free association is also a huge benefit that can be used from semester to semester.

Con: I tried to use Poll Everywhere once for an online course, but I could not figure out how to post my questions. After I created an account, Poll Everywhere sends me emails that clutter my email box. I ended up having students self-reflect for five minutes and then share their thoughts in groups.


Mentimeter is an interactive online tool that helps you prepare fun and interactive presentations, polls, and quizzes. You can use mentimeter during all the process of teaching to present information to students in a fun and interesting way, engage them with the content and ask them questions and visualize the responses in real time, and follow up with them on sharing. Mentimeter is used by 80 million people around the world. 

Pro: Allows you to gather feedback from the entire class in realtime and gauge the mood about particular topics. There is also no limit on how many people can participate. This is extremely helpful in big classrooms because you get the results of the poll live and visualized. Students get excited and consider it part of a game and they engage with it and use technological devices to participate and advance their learning. To create questions 

Con: Because students are allowed to post anything they’d like, it can be difficult to keep unwanted or inappropriate responses off the screen.  

Google Docs

Pro: This tool is student-directed. You get to step back and the students get to build the content. Students can collaborate in real time during class when using this tool. I have been using this to encourage students to create a joint-notebook that builds off of key terms I assign them and questions that certain students are tasked with adding. It is important to remind students that the settings should be turned on “editable” for anyone who has the link so all students can use it.

Con: Sometimes the student content is not…er, correct. Also, if you have students use Google Docs within a writing group, students will need to give direction on how to give feedback appropriately.  


So these are just some suggestions based on our personal experiences. If you have your own experiences with these tools or other ones you think should be on our radar, please comment below!

Dear Future Self: Beware (and Prepare) for Problem-Based Learning.

For today’s blog post, I wanted to talk about teaching through problem-based learning (PBL). Much of what I have read has emphasized that teaching in a PBL setting can be difficult, and is a skill that takes time to master. As a current PhD student with little in my teaching portfolio, it seemed like a bridge too far to write a post on how I would adopt a PBL strategy for a fictitious course that I might teach in the future. So, rather than doing that, my goal here is to just reflect on the approach and identify strengths and limitations of PBL. I hope that I will remember this post in 5-10 years, when I am in a place to implement this novel approach to teaching.

Problem-based learning is well described in this article from Stanford University. The authors write that in a course using the PBL approach, there is a focus on group-oriented work attempting to solve complex problems. Learning outcomes are to develop content knowledge comparable to a lecture-based course, but also other skills like problem-solving, reasoning, communication, and self-assessment skills. PBL’s can vary in course structure and format, and in the actual problems that are at the core of this approach. In the Stanford article, the authors discuss at length “ill-structured problems,” which they define as open-ended problems that have multiple solutions and require students to think critically to solve them.

The first piece of advice I will give my future self is to avoid these open-ended and evolving ill-structured problems and to replace them with tried and tested case studies. As outlined in this article from the University of Illinois’ Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, the ‘case method’ is a subset of PBL and uses participatory and discussion-based learning that focuses on critical thinking and communication in a group setting. While problem-based learning in general may be quite open-ended (and importantly, may require constant attention and modification by the instructor), using existing case studies that have been tried and tested provides a means of engaging students in the approach without having to reinvent the wheel. For example, The University of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching provides a number of excellent examples (link here).

Some strengths that I recognize with PBL’s (again from the University of Illinois article) are that the approach promotes “contextual learning and long-term retention.” I love to spin a good yarn and the use of stories and high-level engagement can create a scenario where deep learning is achieved. I have experienced that sort of learning mostly through field experiences, and I am really excited by the opportunity to provide that level of experience in the classroom. Doing so would eliminate the hurdles of getting folx into the field, and I think would help increase engagement and achievement of students. The other benefit that resonated with me was that PBLs provide students with the opportunity to “walk around the problem” and to see varied perspectives. I really value inter- and multidisciplinarity, and giving students the opportunity to learn from their peer’s diverse viewpoints is quite appealing.

A major challenge that I see with case-based approaches is that finding appropriate means to assess successful learning can be difficult. For instance, a multiple-choice test is not able to assess the critical thinking that is perhaps the primary learning outcome from these approaches. And to write (and grade) thoughtful exams is a serious commitment. Another concern was raised as I read an article, Grappling with Real-World Problems, which discussed PBLs at a public charter school in Washington DC. The authors discussed how first grade students were exposed to PBL by roaming school fields to look at spiders. The goal was to work as a group to try and reduce people’s fear of spiders by leveraging their own experiences with them. Though the learning outcomes may be profound for these students, trying to wrangle 20 or more 6-year-olds can be nearly impossible (my spouse was an elementary educator for 8 years and can vouch). Regardless of the level (K-12, undergraduate, graduate education) at which PBLs are applied, this approach will require additional levels of supervision, and a single mentor, teacher, or moderator is unlikely to be enough. My last piece of advice to future Sam is to go in eyes wide open, and to recognize the level of faculty or TA support needed for these approaches to succeed. To go it alone seems like an ill-structured problem itself, and is likely to let down both the instructor and their students.

Inclusive Pedagogy feat. Offensive Language

I wanted to start this post by addressing a video I just saw: ‘How microaggressions are like mosquito bites‘. Too often, I find that discussions of ‘sensitive topics’ (or insert your other favorite euphemism) happen in this uncomfortable sort of somber monotone. As if the very nature of these topics somehow necessitates a level of caution, so we don’t step on anyone’s toes. What I loved about this video is that it said a big f*** you (don’t follow the link if you are offended by potty-mouths) to that notion of caution, and tackled the concept of microaggressions using the language of pissed off and frustrated Millennials. It also managed to capture the idea of microaggressions, with a half dozen or so examples, in less than 2 minutes. And the use of humor made it all the more memorable.

While I found this video to be extremely effective, I recognize that my positive feelings towards it would not be shared by everyone. And that idea brings us to today’s topic, inclusive pedagogy. The Teaching Commons at Georgetown University defines inclusive pedagogy as the creation of a space that works for all students. So while the microaggression video worked for me as an educational tool, it’s unlikely to work for everyone. Recognizing that we all learn and grow in different ways is an important distinction, especially as it relates to inclusivity in the classroom.

The Georgetown article discusses some evidence that marginalized students feel excluded from our education system. An important point made was that “techniques that help improve the academic performance of students in marginalized groups tend to benefit other students, too.” I should also note that one of the citations for this claim comes from one of VT’s very own [Haak et al. 2011]. This quote reminded me of a recent conversation I had with one of my faculty mentors. They were discussing diversity in higher education and made the point that there is often a false choice between hiring diverse candidates and excellent candidates for research positions. As if increasing diversity comes at a cost of quality… The Georgetown article provides a line of evidence to counter this all-too-prevalent belief, that in fact the recognition and value of diversity can increase excellence.

Perhaps at the core of inclusive pedagogy is what the article calls a growth mindset – “the belief that a student’s abilities, interests, and capacities can change.” I think inclusive pedagogy, like all authentic efforts to increase inclusivity, is itself an optimistic concept. If we can focus on teaching our students as individuals, and recognize that their uniqueness requires a level care and thoughtfulness, I think we can achieve a fuller and richer educational experience for everybody.

P.S. I feel like I always end these blog posts on an optimistic note and recognize my own loftiness and perhaps false sense of positivity. Maybe it’s because things are a mess at present [COVID et al. 2020], or maybe because I’m watching West Wing (a show which exists solely in a false reality when compared to the modern political climate). Either way, I’d appreciate any counter-points you might have to offer!


My Authentic Teaching Self

As I read Finding My Teaching Voice by Sarah E. Deel, I was stuck by a couple of similarities between she and I within the first few paragraphs. First, her first teaching responsibility was for three sections of an introductory biology course – I am currently a TA for three sections that are about the same size. She then went on to explain her experiences with teaching. Coming from a small, liberal arts college where teaching was emphasized, she came to appreciate the craft of teaching that she experienced there. Like Sarah, I went to a small teaching focused school, and like her, I gained a high level of respect for the teachers and mentors that I experienced as an undergraduate.

However, as the author continued to write her post, I realized that our paths were far from the same. She explains, “In truth, who I am is rather earnest, intense, and detail-oriented, with just a faint hint of dry humor that goes unacknowledged by my students.” As she wrote about her lack of humor and the value she placed in details, I realized that she and I seem like very different people. Though I started reading her post with growing excitement thinking that we shared a common path, I gradually started to wonder whether Sarah and her post had any useful nuggets of insight at all. But just as that pessimism crept in, she explained that success in teaching comes from leaning in to your authentic self.

“I hadn’t considered that certain qualities described me (like my earnestness or attention to detail) could be a legitimate part of my teaching voice. Moreover, I could not construct my teaching voice from other people’s qualities, no matter how much I admired them.” What I realized is that while Sarah and I were not the same person at all, I could still admire her and her approach to teaching. Sure, the strategies that we will use to be successful will likely differ starkly – but when our approach is guided by caring about students and sharing our passions with our students, the opportunity for successful pedagogy will present itself.

And while Deel’s post made me feel good about my prospects of finding my true teaching self, it also gave me a moment of pause. I very much appreciated the ‘popular’ teachers throughout my education so far, and I would be kidding myself if I said I did not desire to be well-liked. But I’ll need to keep reminding myself that being effective needs to always come first, and that being respected will lay a better foundation that just entertaining my classes!

Telling My Story

I was assigned some readings on ‘connected learning’ for class the other day, and I am happy to report that they were not only worthwhile reads, but also short and to the point. This post is focused on one of these readings, a blog post by Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex. He sums his stance up well when he writes that, “if there is a ‘crisis’ in the humanities, it lies in how we have our public debates, rather than in their content.”

He goes on to liken the use of Twitter and blogs by academics with those “embarrassingly enthusiastic drunken conversations” that we have (or should I say *used to have* – thanks COVID) with our peers. Rather than detracting from our research output or the sphere of our academic influence, they highlight our passion for that which we devote so many of our waking hours.

Not only that, but by crafting public tweets and blogs (perhaps a different verb applies to the drunken chit-chats), we are also improving our ability to communicate with broader audiences. While not a prolific Twitter user, it is nevertheless obvious that my content has seen a dramatic improvement since I started in 2017. Check it out @silknets if you don’t believe me!

I am an ecologist, and I’m currently working on a PhD. I’m interested mostly in streams and the critters that live in them. I often struggle with how to present my work as meaningful, especially to folks outside of my discipline and those that serve the public, or to professionals that serve more obvious needs of our modern society. As an example, I once had a conversation with a close friend, telling him that I was studying movement patterns of the Eastern box turtle. His response was that he had the same job – in his backyard when he was six. Before I had the chance to explain why the study mattered, he had turned it into a joke. At least it was a good one.

I recognize that the work I do has value, but because it isn’t easy to convey that in a 30-second elevator pitch, I often just downplay what I do and try and change the conversation. But as I write this, thinking about Hitchcock’s ‘crisis’ of academics and our isolated debates, I realize that that I can do more to control my own narrative. This blog post is hopefully the first of many. My hope is to use my voice – to tell my story – from my perspective. I don’t want to change the content of my story, I think it’s a good one anyways. But to tell it to an audience outside the silo of the academy.