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On Friday I had a chance to speak at my college to some administrators and spouses of our trustees about my role with the football team and my teaching with active learning. I brought along one of the "Original Football Romans," senior Sociology major Drew Scott, and a senior business major Andre Henry, Jr., who I only met last year, but who took my class last spring (2017).

The three of us were discussing my classes, my teaching, and my role with the team. In so doing, I recounted a post I wrote here for the team after their loss at Franklin & Marshall College. In my recollection of the loss, I remembered that after the game, standing with the players as they tried to absorb their loss, I had said something like, "good game, though" or something equally lame. One of the coaches said to me, "No good game when you lose like that," or something to that effect.

I was mortified for saying something so stupid.

For professors, it is very hard to admit when we are wrong. At least it is for me. I don't mind saying "I don't know," but I really hate it when I say something stupid. No one would have expected me to know what to say after a loss like that. But I still felt badly that I said something so lame.

At our presentation, when I recounted that story in front of Drew and Andre, they both looked at me and said, "But, Dr. McKay: it's OK to be wrong." [This was something that came out of the focus group of my first group of football players in Roman art in the fall of 2015. I wrote about that exercise and my saying that awhile ago here on this blog and you can read it again here.]

They reminded me of my own words, thus schooling me and helping remind me that I am continuing to grow with them as a person, professor, and mentor.

My presentation with these two star athletes and good, solid, liberal arts students reminded me that if it's OK for them to be wrong, then it is OK for me to be wrong, too. As this post hopefully conveys to all, I continue to learn from the players and coaches in my role with the McDaniel College Green Terror football team.

And I am ever grateful for the opportunity.

I have been listening to a lot of podcasts about creativity, expression, success, and entrepreneurship. It seems that nearly all of them have talked about some aspect of "authenticity" as an ingredient to success. I have been thinking a lot about that, and think that it's true. I think to be successful - truly successful - at any endeavor you have be authentic in how you go about it, engage with others, and express yourself.

I want to come across as authentic in the classroom. I want students to know that I care about them as individuals and as distinct learners. I want them to see this is not an “act,” though I have read studies that suggest that teachers can learn these traits. But for me, coming across to students as authentic is critically important.

I think that I am fairly authentic with my students. I listen to them when we are in class (part of a mindfulness practice in teaching I have been trying to cultivate and will post on in the future). For now, here are some of the things I do inside and outside of the classroom to help demonstrate my authentic self:

  1. I talk to students before class to find out how they are doing in other classes and what their interests are.
  2. I show my true feelings about what I am teaching. I tend to love all the subjects that I teach (though I will admit "Roman Concrete Day" is a bit of a challenge), and so coming across with enthusiasm and interest - sometimes even wonderment - gets across the ideas I'm proposing. Perhaps that is also showing vulnerability in showing that I really care about my material.
  3. I follow their sports teams through emails we are sent and if they are mentioned I send a congratulatory email or Tweet or FB post. This has never been more real to me than when I took on academic mentorship of the football team. There are a lot of them to keep track of!
  4. I follow theater/performances and comment if they are in a production or presenting somewhere.

A recent study has demonstrated more on this topic and that being authentic in the classroom is perceived by students and can facilitate their learning. You can read the abstract to that that study here. Here is an excerpt of that study:

"This study sought to generate a more robust understanding of teacher     (in)authenticity. In other contexts, authenticity is regarded as a display of true self and has been positively linked to beneficial psychological (e.g., increased self-esteem) and social outcomes (e.g., higher relational satisfaction)...Results indicated that authentic teaching is perceived when teachers are viewed as approachable, passionate, attentive, capable, and knowledgeable. Alternatively inauthentic teaching is observed when teachers are perceived as unapproachable, lacking passion, inattentive, incapable, and disrespectful. Notably, these behaviors are often demonstrated through distinct actions taken by teachers that are often examined within the larger instructional communication literature (e.g., self-disclosure). Practically, these results allude to the notion that (in)authentic teaching can have a meaningful impact on students."

This study is very interesting to me. If you are a professor, how do you foster “being authentic” in the classroom? Students: do you have authentic teachers? Do they help you learn?

Yesterday I was invited to run a workshop on active learning to a group of faculty, librarians, and technologists in Sarasota, Florida. It was a great experience and I enjoyed my time there immensely. During the workshop, I shared the following exercise as an example of how I would approach teaching this gorgeous painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres (b. 1780- d. 1867) in my nineteenth-century art class. I have not yet used this assignment, but I explained how I break down a topic into an active learning experience for students.

First, it is important to identify your learning goals. WHY are you teaching whatever it is you are teaching? What, specifically, do you want students to know about it? Thinking about what I want them to get out of the presentation of whatever topic is "up" for the day changes my focus from delivering facts about the image (which I could do in a lecture) and helps me think about how I could possibly get them to the answer by doing something. For this painting, I want students to come away the following: How the senses of Sight, Hearing, Touch [and maybe even Scent? or Taste?] are expressed in the image. In addition, I want them to understand the importance of this painting and Ingres as a painter to later artists.

To meet the first objective, I would put students into groups or pairs (depending on the size of the class) and have them look, analyze and view the painting, thinking about how Ingres activates the five senses with specific visual cues in the painting. I would give them time to talk about them, and write them down. Then we would discuss as a class.

In terms of the senses, Sight is clearly being activated because, it is a painting. But so is the sense of Touch. The textures are exquisite, from the fabric of the drapery hanging on the left, to the softness apparently on the sheets, to the flesh of the Bather as she sits with her back to us. But there is also Hearing in this painting; there is a small fountain and bath between her leg and the curtain. If you look closely, you see that the fountain is trickling with water. You can nearly hear it. The rest of the painting is so quiet, you can imagine the sound of that trickle of water.  You could make a case for Scent in this painting as well, as the exotic almost wafts literally from the painting itself. The only sense that is not overtly evident is Taste, although one could make a case for taking a sip of the water, or, if the sensuality of this painting is not overt enough, kissing this bather.

I would then move to this comparison to talk about my other goal for this image, which is Ingres’ importance and influence in the art world. I would ask each student to write about this comparison (below): Man Ray’s photograph Le Violin d’Ingres from 1924 and Ingres' Bather. Man Ray's photograph is clearly an homage to the great painter. Each student would write individually at first on the comparison.

After five minutes or so of comparison writing, I would have them share their ideas with a partner or in a group. We would then discuss as a class, with every pair or group member adding to the conversation. Conversations are always richer after giving students a chance to think first, then share with a couple of other students, and then share with the class as a whole. I would also collect their writings as a chance to see how well they are improving as writers or just a check to see where they are as writers (this is not graded).

I would hope that students would see the obvious reference to the Ingres painting in the photograph. I don't want to give the titles of the painting or the photograph prior to the exercise, only because titles can nudge students into interpretive decisions, and I want those interpretations to always be based on visual analysis. But it's not only the title that alludes to Ingres directly, other elements do as well: the turban, the position of the woman with her back to the viewer, as well as, perhaps, the objectification of the woman into an actual violin “to be played” by the artist – or, perhaps, by the viewer - especially since the woman in the photograph, Kiki, Man Ray’s favorite model, is shown with no arms. It is also said that Ingres was a passionate violin player as well as painter, and the phrase "Violin d’Ingres” has become an idiom in French that means “hobby.” This last I would have to tell them. But after looking for the five senses, and then further looking and writing in the comparison, that idea is much more likely to stick with the students than if it was yet another element in a lecture on the topic.

This is how I would structure this class. I have found that shifting from "lecture topic" to "learning goals" helps free me from thinking that I must provide the answer and evidence and facts.

What questions might you ask of the next topic you are teaching and how might you reframe the activities in the class to get the students more involved in the learning?

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"It's OK to be wrong." This is one of my favorite comments from a focus group I ran about a class I taught on Roman art in 2016. The students were remembering that I said this about a work of art that they were presenting to the class. The image was this one, of a poultry seller from Ostia:

In the focus group that was conducted a year after the class had been taught and concluded, two students remembered this image and my instructions about the day's activities. I had sorted students into groups and then let them choose the image that they would look at, analyze, and then present to the class. I wanted them to get the class involved in their discussions, so I encouraged them to come up with a hypothesis to suggest a possible meaning.

Apparently, after giving those directions, I also said, “And it’s OK to be wrong.” This was what stuck with these two students – a year later.

They said that they were struck by it because they had no idea what was going on in this image. One of them said to the other, “Good because there is no way we are getting this one right.” They did not tell me this during the time of the class, but did so afterwards, when they were asked to participate in this focus group.

This led to a greater discussion about the need to have assignments and activities in classes that are low stakes. Students learn from getting things wrong, but very often those “wrongs” are on high-stakes exams and tests that then hurt their overall grades. I can also see that this leads to high levels of anxiety about tests. By letting students struggle when the stakes are low, they begin to see that not having the right answer is not always the chief and most important result.

In this case, I recall that during their presentation and discussion of the image with their peers, they did not get it right. They were not sure what they were looking at, since the image is more abstracted, with certain elements exaggerated from the perspective of naturalism.

But they remembered this image a year later. If it had been on a test and they had to memorize it, only to have it leave their memory banks, I doubt they would have remembered this image. But because they engaged with it, thought about it, and ultimately, stood up and talked about it, they did remember it.

And in that regard, they did get it right.

A few weeks ago, before the start of the fall semester, the head coach of the Green Terror Football team asked me to speak to the entire group. As the faculty mentor, I was happy to do it. I love my role, and after I spoke to the team, hopefully giving them some tips about how to focus on classes and developing a goal for after college, I stayed for their team meeting.

It was very eye-opening.

From attending that meeting, it is clear that they have to memorize a ton of stuff. I went to the defense meeting after the team split up. They were going over a bunch of packages and formations for the defense, with letters that represented the positions. They all had a notebook (though I did notice a box of pens, just in case, in the room) to write things down, and were doing so. They were in rapt attention, too.

This told me a lot. First, they can do a lot more than they think they can. They have to memorize a ton of stuff for all of these schemes and plays. This means that they can do more in their classes than they think they can.

Second, their coaches believe in them, so I think they think, “Yes, I can do football.” But it is clearly not easy. I wanted to ask a ton of questions about stuff I did not understand, but of course I did not. The defense coach was saying, “Do not go out there and just be a bull in a china shop: do your job!” They have to do that, to work as a team. But his belief in them as players – as students – was clear to me and I’m sure to them. How often do we show that we believe in all of our students, as students? I have a future post planned about caring - not coddling - students and how that helps them to learn.

Third, while some students were asking questions to ensure they understood everything, it was clear that some didn’t ask anything – even when they needed the answers for the upcoming game. I think they fear looking dumb. But who among us doesn't also feel that way?

This made me glad that I said what I said in the team meeting: Be curious about your classes. Find a way to stay engaged. They have a responsibility to themselves to try harder and to give their attention to all of their classes.

We, as faculty, can do things to help these players, too. Just like their coaches, we can show we genuinely care about their learning. We can change things up, get them involved, and not have them sit for an hour to 90 minutes mostly listening. They only had about 30 minutes of lecture/listening before the coaches changed things up.

And I am also learning other things. That meeting was nearly six weeks ago (the term is flying by!) and the team has had two hard losses since then. I wrote about one of them a few weeks ago, which you can read here. This week, it was another hard loss, this time by one point! In overtime! That was hard.

But they got back up. They are - right now - focused on the next opponent. I realized while talking to a few of them over this past weekend that I have held on to mistakes and tend to beat myself up about them for a long time. They don't do that. They can't do that.

They characterize resilience and grit.

I hope I am teaching them as much as they are teaching me.

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