Monday, November 5, 2012

Quo vadis?

One of my favorite observations about education was made by the cultural historian and media studies scholar (and UT Austin grad) Siva Vaidhyanthan.  He notes, "real education happens only by failing, changing, challenging, and adjusting.  All of those gerunds apply to teachers as well as students.  No person is an "educator", because education is not something that one person does to another.  Education is an imprecise process, a dance, and a collaborative experience."   I love this quote in part because Dr. Vaidhyanthan knows what a gerund is; but also because it captures what I think is the essence of what I want to be doing when I interact with my students.  At the same time, it describes an experience that strikes my students as entirely foreign.  They expect me to educate them, and for many of them, they want this process to be as painless as possible.  Many of them don't want to take part in a collaboration, and they definitely don't want to be made uncomfortable by being challenged or asked to adjust.  In class on Wednesday, the last day that I required attendance, I put this quotation up and spoke about it a bit.  I explained that their learning depended on their willingness to engage.  I described the different kinds of learning tools that I had made available to them--a textbook, recorded lectures, practice questions, a discussion board, office hours, and in class exercises--and then told them it was up to them to decide how they wanted to use these tools to engage with the course content.

On Friday, about 25% of the class showed up.  Fridays have been optional all semester and attendance has generally run at about 175-200 students, depending on what else is going on.  Yesterday, about 100 students were in the room.  I hope that this was a reflection of the fact that it is the start of a new unit rather than a new normal.  I also realize that, yet again, I'd need to make some adjustments to what we were doing in class, to make it clear what the benefit of being in the room was.  I will post some extra practice questions, but in class will be almost exclusively peer interaction.  As I walked back to my office after, in essence, delivering a lecture on content that they should have already watched, I realized that I was still working on the assumption that most of them were unprepared and unable/unwilling to discuss the material.

What also strikes me, though, is the extent to which I feel like I am in a tug-o-war with my students.  The course design is such that it works on the assumption that many of them can participate in a class discussion.  Yet they have figured out that if they simply refuse to prepare--and that if enough of them do this--it clogs up the gears and leaves me in a kind of no-man's land where I am stuck back in some kind of imperfect lecture mode.  I am unhappy and feel like I am just saying things that I've already said (on tape) elsewhere.  It looks to some of the students like they aren't learning anything new or really doing application work (and they aren't entirely wrong about this).  Most of all, I feel like I, too, am lapsing back into what is the more familiar and comfortable mode of large enrollment class teaching: the lecture.  Sure, these lectures are more interactive.  But, really, they are lectures and not discussions.

This weekend, as I prepped class for Monday and Wednesday, I made a concerted effort to change things up.  We will start with a few i>clicker questions that let them test their mastery of material covered in the previous class.  These questions are purely for their own purposes (and to give us a record of who was in the room) and they will be instructed to use them to highlight areas that need additional review.  Otherwise, everything is focused on group discussion and is asking them to think about material they should have learned, asking them to turn it over, examine it, retrieve it, and otherwise work with it.  THIS is what will be most beneficial to their learning and THIS is what makes it worth showing up to the classroom at a specific time.  I am going to be ruthless about not lecturing, about not using class time to simply repeat factual material that is covered in the lectures or textbook.

Teaching really is a dance.  This semester has taught me, as well, that it requires constant adjustments but also mindfulness.  I have to watch what I am doing, and examine my reasons for doing it.  I realized that a big source of my own frustration was that, in effect, I was enabling their lack of preparation by lapsing into lecture mode instead of standing firm and working extra hard to think about interesting ways for them to apply their learning.  I've also realized that I need to work harder on the in-class portion of the class, to make it interesting and clearly focused on application rather than regurgitation.  That way, the clear message is sent that, at least when it comes to the structure of the class, I will not hold their hands no matter how much they kick and scream and refuse to prepare.  I will be better prepared for the resistance in the spring, but also better prepared to stand firm and know that I am well-armed with engaging in-class activities.  Of course, this also means that a big part of the time between semester will be devoted to thinking carefully about how to re-work the in class part of the course.

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