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Last year, I came up with what I thought was a fun and eventful “finale” for my nineteenth-century art history course. But when I was talking to a student in the class right prior to the start of the final exam/finale period, she uttered words that made me pause: “Presentations are the worst!”

I gulped. I asked her, plaintively, as we were about to go into the finale class period, I had no time to make a course correction, and they were, in fact, going to be presenting. I asked her, probably rather plaintively, “Why?! Why are they the worst?” She noted that everyone is bored, people read off the page, and no one really cares about what is being presented.

I realized at that moment that I hadn’t asked my students about what would be a good finale experience for the class. My plan had been that each student would engage the rest of the class in a visual analysis of a work of art, and that each student explained his or her Reacting Game character’s future, which is what often happens in the debriefing part of a Reacting to the Past game. The students had a good experience in the Art in Paris game in this, the 2017 run. But this “finale” was anything but.

For those who have moved away from final exams, how often do we ask students for their input on final experiences? I have moved away from final exams because I think that they play to only a small sub-set of students who do well on memorization and leave behind many students who do not do well with such recall of information. Plus, it’s a shallow area of learning – memorization and recall. I am working for deeper understanding than knowing the dates and titles and artists of paintings and being able to spit back at me and the stress of composing an essay under time pressure to demonstrate understanding.

I have moved to "finale experiences," which count less than overall grades related to class participation (which always include active learning), written critical analysis papers, visual analysis papers, speeches from Reacting games, museum papers and other interpretive work. In thinking about "finales" for my classes I am considering this:

  1. Let them choose a group or pairing and work with students with whom they feel comfortable. I will tell them that they will need a group on the last day of class so there is time for them to get paired/grouped up and I can facilitate if anyone can’t find a group or a partner.
  2. Give them a painting when they come to the finale to lead a class discussion about – we do this in class during the semester, but I am thinking I will give them a painting that is from the future – past 1889 when the class ends.
  3. They will get the painting when they arrive in class, but they will have time in the period to research it and plan what they will ask the class.
  4. I will circulate around the class and help them. And I will have to choose images carefully for such a finale project.

But this will do two things. First, it will have them use the skills that they were developing in the class and will build confidence in their abilities to talk about works of art to a setting of students and work in teams. And second, it hopefully won’t be “the worst” because they will be talking with and to each other.

What do you all do for finale experiences in a class rather than a final exam?

I am currently using a game set in 1148 at the War Council of Acre, at which knights, kings, and the church hierarchy gathered to decide if there should be a Second Crusade and if so, where it should be aimed. I have thirty students in this class, and twenty of them are on the football team at McDaniel College. Their engagement has been profound and at times frankly astounding. One such moment of their utter engagement is captured here in this photograph I took during the class debate about where the Crusade should be targeted:

In this picture, the student is an offensive lineman for the Green Terror. In the game, however, he is playing Patriarch Fulcher, the individual who found the True Cross in the first crusade, and is credited with having won back Jerusalem for the Latin Crusaders. In this image he is standing in front of a projected image of the different cities in the region. For two days, as he says here, they talked about how their war was just because the city of Edessa being taken by Zengi in 1144. But moments before I took this picture, King Louis suggested they attack Damascus instead. The Patriarch was confused, baffled and even outraged.

This was a moment when the class ceased to be at McDaniel in 2018 and was clearly in the city of Acre in 1148. They had left the building. They were experiencing flow. They were so in the moment that, as I talked to some of them afterwards, they forgot about practice. They forgot about their other classes. I am attempting to get a certain general education tag for my Reacting courses and asked them for some help answering questions. Some of their quotations can say better than I can how much they experience in a Reacting game:

"It's immersive. Because you have to put your all into your role. You have to dive in and see how you are going to argue these points of view for this person, how to back it up with research. You have to research in a way you may not typically do so, focus on your role vs personal feelings on the role."

"You can't just BS your way through it. You have to find enough material for your role in the game and be able to rebut anything anyone else throws at you. You need to understand their roles too and how they might come at you."

"When you get stuck into this game, you are here and you are your character. You call each other by your character role names, you are that person and their beliefs (not you and your own personal beliefs)."

"When you are arguing it is super easy to get caught up, and you forget 'oh i have to go to practice today'. Taking on the persona makes you argue better and focus on the game."

"When you go up to the podium, you have to convince yourself/faction and rest of room of what you are arguing. You have to embody the role and its unlike any other class activity. It gives you more skills as a student rather than just looking at a PowerPoint and taking notes. It helps you experience the class differently and take on roles you normally wouldn't."

Reacting is great for every student, but I would argue that for student athletes, these immersive role-playing games make them enjoy the class more than at other times in their education. They see research as a means to a win. They see a role as a chance to argue and help their team (or faction). But they also note that it is work. It takes time. They all laughed when I asked them if a Reacting game would count for the 15 hours required for this tag. They said that they had all put that much time in already and the game was not over.

Faculty: try Reacting to the Past. It is often said that athletes care more about their sport than their classes. But if they have a chance to win in a classroom as well as the playing field, you will see a different student performance entirely. The Annual Institute for Reacting to the Past games will be held this year at Barnard College from June 14-17 and I urge faculty to check it out.

I am still thinking a lot about the article this past summer (July 10, 2017) Inside Higher Ed article about how faculty do not want to seem “stupid” in front of their students and that this, in part, might keep them from engaging in innovative teaching methods. Of course, there are many reasons why there might be reticence to change or shift teaching styles, as many commented on the original article, and postulated on Twitter and Facebook as people shared the story.

But I was thinking back to my Roman Art class, last year, in the spring semester of 2017. Near to the end of the semester, after we had established a good connection as a class due to all the collaborative and engaging work I had the students do in class day to day, the students starting asking me a bunch of questions to which I did not know answers. And they were coming at me several at a time. At first I felt that feeling of fear: “I don’t know the answers to these questions!” But then, in a moment of mindfulness, I paused.

Then, I said to them, "Hey - I don't know these answers, but you all have your phones - start looking this stuff up!" They all eagerly brought out their phones and started to look stuff up. This led to a great extemporaneous conversation about their questions/interests. Some of the topics they were asking about were way beyond the goals/topics I had set for that class, or even the course itself. And yeah, I had to admit a lot of stuff I didn't know but **so what**.

I will take some looking dopey (and I don't think they thought that anyway) for student interest/engagement any day.

I realize I am tenured. I realize I am a full professor. But I was doing these things before my full promotion anyway. I do realize the privileged position I have now with this role.

But I still say that it’s worth taking risks. And I will say that this is not just on faculty. Administrators, I’m also talking to you: support the faculty. If you want your students taught well, you must find ways to build scaffolding and support for innovation on your campuses. Here is an idea: let every untenured on on the tenure-track faculty member have a class they can “take out” of the evaluation pile every semester IF they propose to teach in a new way. Take the pressure off. We are in this together for the education of students.

What do you do when students ask you a question and you don’t know the answer? Students, what do you think when a professor admits that he or she doesn’t know the answer?

My role with the Green Terror Football Team at McDaniel College is one of the highlights of my career. I have learned so much from the entire team: all the players, the coaching staff,  parents, and other fans. The entire enterprise has been thrilling to learn about and to witness first-hand. I love working with every single player on the team.

Today I want to highlight the students of color on the team. This is in no way means that I have not learned from other players; I have a chapter published on the class with the "Football Romans" (fall 2015) and they totally changed my life! But one day head Coach of the McDaniel College Green Terror Football team, Mike Daileytold me that we are the most diverse team in the NCAA Division 3 Centennial Conference. After that conversation, I did some research, looking at the rosters of the opponents. He is, of course, right. When I consider the students that I have had the privilege to mentor, there are many minority students who have come to my office.

I don't know what it must be like to be a person of color at a predominately white institution. From what they have confided in me, it is sometimes difficult. I can appreciate from their descriptions the difficulties they encounter. I value each and every one of them for their bravery and for their tenacity and for their strength.

I have learned so much from these students, and I am very, very grateful. I hope that I have become a better professor. I think that by listening to them and their perspective, I have. For instance, I realized that not offering a course in African-American Art, since I am an art historian, is biased and shows my own ignorance. So, I asked one of the players to do some background reading with and for me so that I can offer that class in the coming years. He jumped at the chance, and I've learned a lot from his work and his enthusiasm on the project.

I have also learned that while our backgrounds are different, and our cultural interests may differ, we are, ultimately, very similar. We have families, who are sometimes sources of strength and also sources of conflict. We struggle, sometimes with studies, sometimes with finances, and sometimes with others. It is true that football is a unifying force. Our entire culture could learn lessons from this team that works together #AsOne (one of their Twitter hashtags). I am very much amazed at their sense of brotherliness and family. They truly do work #AsOne.

This weekend I watched episode 3/season 6 of Call the Midwife recently (and I totally get the irony of a post for football players and the reference to a show about midwives). The ending of that episode spoke to me and the ways in which we can bridge differences to make a better world. I think it says things better than I can, so I will quote it here:

"We are all traveling through one another's countries. But it is no matter if we meet as strangers, for we can join forces, and learn to love. And where there is friendship and affection, there is the place we can all call home."

I am very grateful for the students that have passed through McDaniel, starting as strangers, and then, in some cases, becoming friends, as we join forces to make it through the various hurdles - educational, financial, emotional - on the journey through college. Thanks to each of you - minority and majority student - for teaching me so much and for trusting me to help you through.

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For those of you who haven't read this blog before, I am the faculty mentor to the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team. I am a tenured Professor of Art History, and have been in my role with the team for about a year and a half. During the season I attend practices and games, and when I am not able to get to an away game I watch on live-stream and to the likely amusement of the players, tweet during all four quarters of the game. But most of my work is helping students become more successfully academically. This can include helping them with time management, study skills, securing a tutor, or even sometimes helping them connect with various resources at the institution.

I have learned a lot through this academic mentor role. By being willing to listen to them before attempting to "fix everything," I have learned a lot about what higher education does well for students, and where it falls short. Thus, I have decided to write a book about what these football players are teaching me and can teach other institutions. I have a vague outline of the book in mind, but the working title is: Understanding and Supporting the Student Athlete: A Guide for Institutions of Higher Education from a Faculty Mentor of a Division Three Football Team. I realize that is quite the mouthful, and it may change as the book takes shape. However, I'm very passionate about this topic and was just on the campus of the Maine Maritime Academy, holding conversations with coaches, staff, and faculty about supporting student athletes.

Among the issues I hear from both students and faculty across institutions, including my own, is a statement faculty often make: "You are not here to play football" (or fill in whatever sport). Faculty say it when players have to miss their class for sports games. Students say they hear it from faculty often. But really: to say they are "not here to play X sport" is not fully true.

Unbeknownst to most faculty (or at least this one) is the role coaches play in recruiting every incoming class. For a college like mine, which is dependent on tuition revenue to pay the bills and make an annual budget, student recruitment is key. Oftentimes a student is only made aware of the institution because of a coach's approach. Thus, if that student then enrolls in the institution, and they play the sport, to say that the student is not there to play the sport is disingenuous. They are there to play their sport, but also to get an education.

In a focus group a few months ago, football players at my institution from a range of years and ethnicity, were asked about why they are at college. They all emphasized that they wanted to get an education. That was the first answer to "why are you here" that the whole cohort gave. Yes, they were first recruited to play their sport by the coaching staff. But they understand what is at stake. In a future post I will write about the the importance of sports as an identity marker, an issue that is particularly true for minority and/or first-generation students. I am still researching that particular idea.

But faculty reading this post: if you have student athletes in your classes, know this: they want to play their sport. They were most likely recruited for your institution by a coach to play their sport. But they are very much interested in their education and want to do well and succeed. They just need a little understanding and support.

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