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I ran across this story about teaching that was in the January edition of The Atlantic (written by Jessica Lahey, January 21, 2108) and is about the teaching life of one half of the Penn & Teller magic act. The full piece is here. In it, Teller talks about his experiences teaching Latin in his past, and explains how, in his estimation, teaching is performance art.

I could not agree more. I have not read anything recently that lit me up like this story about teaching. It is so much what I try to do in my classes. I rev myself up each day, work hard to connect with each individual student. I learn my students names as quickly as possible, and am always in the classroom early in order to greet them one by one as they file in, somewhat tired or a little grumpy.

The article quotes Teller as saying this, too: "What I have, however, is delight. I get excited about things. That is at the root of what you want out of a teacher; a delight in what the subject is, in the operation. That’s what affects students.”

This is my goal in every class. I always try to show them my delight. My delight is in the material, surely, but it is also delightful to get to share that material with them. I want them to find some delight as well. I want something to spark them, make them think about things in new ways. This is often a challenge in a class that is fundamentally about 'old stuff' - Roman art, medieval art. It's not that accessible or easily connectable to my audience, which is usually 18-22 year olds, and, increasingly, student athletes, especially football players. On my teaching evaluations I always get a comment, "She obviously loves art." I do; but what I love more is teaching art. I would not be loving it if I were not teaching.

There is no greater delight for me than when a student follows along the journey that I take us on for 90 minutes, two times a week. When a student gasps when he or she understands the concepts, or nods in a knowing way, or smiles after a few minutes of puzzlement, that is sheer delight. Connecting with my students - and delighting in their learning - is what makes everything worthwhile.

If you are a student reading this, what brings you delight? If you are a professor and reading this, how do you demonstrate or show your delight in the classroom?

3

This week I tried a couple of different things with the Medieval class of 30 students, 20 of whom are on the football team. I was told that "conditioning" practices started on Tuesday morning (my class meets Tuesday and Thursday mornings). So they were tired. I was told this in a spirit of, "it's not you, Dr. McKay; we had conditioning."

I appreciated this word of caution/warning/explanation. But how much should it matter to me if they were slouching/yawning/sleepy?

I will be honest. Right now, that type of behavior bothers me a lot. As those of you who have been reading my blog know, I take my teaching very seriously. Each moment I have with these young people I view as a gift and privilege. One of the icons of our campus, Professor of Religion Ira Zepp, now deceased but always remembered (you can read about his amazing life here), called his classroom with students a "sacred space." I have come to view it that way, too. I always try to have a full hour prior to meeting my students to think through what we will be covering, to be present and focused on their learning. I wrote a post a few weeks ago about wanting to be more mindful before entering the classroom, this sacred space.

So, what to make of sleepy students, who do not seem very engaged in the material? Is it me? Do I need to up my game? Do I need to do more than I thought I did to keep them energized? Or do I realize that despite all my best efforts, despite all my innovations and creativity, despite all my energy and enthusiasm (and I bring a lot of that), sometimes students will be drowsy. And that it is not all about me.

I will be honest: I find it really hard to accept that. I continue to think: What more could I have done? And I will continue to think about the fact that there could be a million things going on with them that I don't know, won't know, shouldn't know, and can't know that could affect their behavior in class. But I will still try to do my best to engage them all!

How do you deal with a class that drowses despite your energy and planning? Students, can you tell me why you drift off, even when there is something to do and plan and execute?

4

Last week I had my first class with the very large Medieval Art course, with thirty students. I know some who might come across this blog would scoff at my calling this a "very large" class, but at my small, liberal arts college, a class of 30 is the exception and not the rule. In fact, it is hard to find rooms that hold this many students. In fact, that may be a future post: figuring out the configuration of furniture to support student engagement in this classroom, one of the only ones for a large class and large-screen image projection.

After our first class meeting, I wanted to touch base with one of the football players I am mentoring. I know him pretty well. He was in my class in fall of 2016 when I first met him. He's a starter on the team, and I've met his parents. I wanted to talk to him about his grades last semester, which were not stellar. He shared with me that he knows his grades aren't good, he does know he has got to buckle down, but he also lamented that nearly all of his classes require him to take tests. And then he bombs them. And then it's over - on to new material.

This morning I reached the final chapter in Cathy N. Davidson's The New Education, a book I *highly* recommend. This was the paragraph that made me think of the student above and his frustrations:

"High-stakes end-of-semester summative, standardized testing is broken, and so we must design challenges that help students to build on what they know and learn from what they don't, growing stronger from each test instead of feeling defeated by an exam score that cannot capture growth or change."

He said, "I wish classes had grading opportunities like you do. " I have started to eschew exams and tests. In their place I have critical analysis papers, visual analysis writing assignments, creative assignments where they must apply information to a new context, role-playing game speeches and reflections, blog posts. And in all of it, art is at the center of the inquiries, as well as contextual historical information that is at the heart of my discipline of art history.

I urge everyone who cares one whit about higher education, or are in it, to read Cathy N. Davidson's book. We need a new higher education system to help our students to prepare for lives in a  ever more complicated world.

And if you still give exams, what do you think of a student who is demoralized with poor performance and yet can't seem to master it? Should they just be "out"? Tough love? I can't quite embrace a philosophy that at the core is about gate keeping - keep the barbarians from storming the city. What "city" are we trying to protect? Why would we want to keep some students out?

I am truly puzzled by professors who want to show students the door. That is just not my way.

 

4

Like perhaps many of us, I struggle to stay in the moment. I have been working on that for the past six months, trying to spend a few moments each day meditating. It helps to center me. At first I was concerned that it would not really help, that all these thoughts that I really do need to remember would come and then go and then I would forget them all again, raising my level of anxiety, which, I am pretty sure, is the opposite of meditation. That actually has not happened.

Today I am thinking about meditation and mindfulness in teaching. I am always careful about time in my classes but I worry that constantly checking the time to make sure we're moving along actually keeps me from being in the moment with my students. And I want to make sure that I really listen to them.

I try to do that, of course, but my classes are also about going on a journey. I want to take them where I want them to go and not just tell them the facts/opinions. I invite them along and eventually we all, collectively, come to an answer/interpretation. To do that well, I must be thinking ahead at all times: “What’s the next step?” Is this the opposite of mindfulness, of being in the present moment, if I am constantly thinking of what comes next?

Thus, as embark this week on a new semester, I am thinking of how to keep moving us collectively forward as a class, but how also to stay more mindful in the process and in the moment as the class session progresses.

I believe that this is likely to be very challenging, but I plan to come to class with the intention of being mindful of what is happening. I need to remind myself to keep looking at each student, really take in his or her attitude, body language, listen to his or her comments, all while keeping the conversation and class moving.

I also plan to chronicle for this semester the experiences of my Medieval art course. This is the first time I will have a class of 30 students, 20 of whom are on the football team. I will be writing weekly about the challenges and the exciting discoveries of teaching this large a number of students, who I am lovingly referring to as my Medieval Mongol Horde. I meet them for the first time tomorrow morning. Follow along!

And in the meantime, do any of you practice mindfulness in the classroom in order to really spend time focusing on your students, while at the same time moving the class forward in terms of learning? If you do, leave some tips in comments below.

I have been wanting to write a post about OERs or Open Educational Resources for some time. This post will have a lot of links, because others have articulated better that which I have been wanting to say.

Today a post written by Cheryl Smith and Laurie Hurson on the Art History Teaching Resources blog came across my feed. In their post, they offer an overview of the issue of OERs and give the link to TeachOER.org, which is a guide to Open Educational Resources across the web. The TeachOER offers a wide range of disciplines access to sources that faculty can think about using in their classrooms.

This made me remember a piece I read in Inside Higher Ed by Robin DeRosa, which you can read here, about public higher education, and I would argue, private institutions should think about this, too. More and more studies are showing that the cost of textbooks - among other issues - can be a barrier to students' success in college. Sara Goldrick-Rab's book Paying the Price, which I have already written about here, notes that hidden costs such as course fees and the cost of books can lead to students giving up, dropping out, and not finishing a degree, even after they have started that journey, taking out loans to do so.

I would urge every faculty member to look at these resources. If you are a faculty member who thinks about and talks about social justice or believes that education can lift those among us with limited means to a better and more prosperous life, then think about what message you might be saying by ordering a textbook that costs over $100. I have tried to not have textbooks at all and use OER and scanned PDFs of scholarly articles when possible. I never assign an introductory art history textbook, either, but make use of videos and written material from smarthistory's work. Take a look through TeachOER.org. You might find a wealth of information that you can incorporate into your classes, with no costs to your students. They will appreciate it, even if they never say so!

I was talking to a colleague of mine, Josh Ambrose, who is the Executive Director of the Center for Experience and Opportunity at my institution (McDaniel College), about teaching. I run ideas past him often about classes and projects that I am thinking through, and I am always thinking through something or other. Because of our schedules, our conversations are sometimes over FB messenger. In one such exchange, Josh said this:

“For me, what I love about your courses, is that it has students *doing* things. That's what I keep coming back to in my classes. Whether your students [are] editing Wikipedia, or fully engaged in running their own games, or my students [are] launching a magazine, or doing a blog from the jungle, etc., I think you're very good at giving your students ownership and I’m more and more convinced that showing them their agency, their ability to do, to be adults/scholars, is so important after a life of public education that is geared towards tests.”

I was grateful for his reflection because I think that we owe it to our students to create content that is for an audience beyond “The Professor.” As we send students out into this technology-drenched world, their ability to communicate is so important. Creating content by writing blogs and either editing or adding new Wikipedia entries changes the dynamic of why they are learning and why they are researching and writing.

Another truly important and critical skill is going to be the ability to genuinely connect with people through writing and speaking.

I think students need to realize that they need to get out there. They need to do more than snapchat their friends or whatever the latest app is. Of course, we all want to chat with our friends, keep connected, and use apps for that. But students also need to think about how they will be in the world. How will they really communicate fully with the world? What do they want to say? What is their unique contribution to the world that they need to cultivate and develop?

This is not what I was trained to do, in terms of my graduate school life in art history. And I still love art history, and art history is the catalyst by which I try to also teach these greater skills. I want students to find their place in the world, to find that unique gift that they have, that no one else has.

By employing assignments that require creation, curation, and research, students can begin to think about the mark they wish to make in the world. I need to do this more, as I have only had pockets of these types of assignments from time to time but I need to start finding ways to have students think bigger. Their futures depend on it.

To that end, this coming spring semester in my Art of the Medieval World course, I plan to have students blog, each week, based on a prompt I will give them. This will get them writing and hopefully, since the blogs will be open to those in the class, read each other's thoughts. Three students per class will also talk about what they wrote at the start of the week. I'm hoping that this will get some conversations going.

If you are a faculty member, what do you do to make students think about their place in the world?

4

Since the start of this new year I have been caught in a wave of interconnected issues that have pulled social systems and problems into my little corner of academia. I have been observing, watching, and listening to my students for some time now, realizing that familial, cultural, and societal pressures can often interfere with their learning. But this week a lot of it all came to a head. And it is making me think, and it is making me wonder if my role as an educator is shifting. Should it shift?

I helped four students this past week who were academically dismissed because of their GPA and credits earned. It's a formulation. The people who made the decision were following the guidelines. And that is why there is an appeal process: the student and I can provide context for the reasons that the GPAs dip. And the reasons are all over the map.

Depression. Family health issues that required the student to commute home and balance school priorities. Undiagnosed ADHD. Being in the wrong major. Twice. And those are just some of the reasons.

I am happy that all four of these students asked for my help, and let me help them. Because through that process I am learning a lot. I had to find out a little about their plans to pay for college. That led me to read, yesterday, in one sitting, Sara Goldrick-Rab's Paying the Price, published by the University of Chicago Press.  This book chronicles the story of several students that were tracked in the Wisconsin system of public higher education. I teach at a private school. Nevertheless, it was a gripping read, and it was sad to see how many students did not make it to a degree.

This was the same time that I saw tweets from the same author about the idea of putting a statement on syllabi about scarcity, to let students know there is help. The statement that Goldrick-Rab tweets about is this:

"Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess."

Part of me can't believe that this would be necessary. And yet I see it with my students. Students tell me that they can't afford the book for a class that is over $300. Or the code for online homework that is nearly $200. I don't know how many, but we do have students on our campus who are homeless. Students struggle to pay their tuition bills, often knowing that they can't register with their colleagues because of a bursar hold, and having to hope that the classes that they need will still be open when they finally scrape up enough money to get through another semester.

Some of my colleagues scoff, and say that these students "find the money for beer." But I am not so sure that these students are doing this. They have too much riding on the line. They are have at least one part-time job. They are trying to make headway with their GPAs and grades. They are trying to find a way to do an internship that will still allow them to stay at their part-time job that they need have in order to pay the bills.

With all of this staring me in the face, I can't turn a blind eye to it. My role as an educator needs to shift. But what do I do? How does that role shift?

I open this up to discussion, especially among my faculty colleagues. What do you feel your role is when you see inequities or needs among your students? Do you do anything? If so, what? Do you feel like it is none of your business?

Students - what do you need - or not need - from faculty when you face difficult social or personal situations? Maybe you want us to back off?

I hope to start a conversation about all of this in the comments.

1

As those of you have followed my blog are aware, I am the faculty mentor to the McDaniel College Green Terror football team (a NCAA Division 3 team). I started this role in October of 2016, so I have had just over a year of learning about this culture and my place in it. And I am still learning. In particular, there is a lot I have to understand about how to connect with young men of this age group.

I am now turning to my between-semester projects, and one of them is to begin to determine what it is like to be a young man in today's college environment, when you are also a member of a football team. From what I can tell, it's a lot to navigate. While there is no way I can personally relate to this, I am a scholar. And scholars research. We seek out information. Thus, today, in my first free moments after grades were submitted yesterday (!), I am already back at it, researching. And this is what I have found so far:

I will be reading The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre. It was recommended to me by a colleague to help me understand the developmental pathways that got boys to where they are as college men, as well as to help understand why we see them failing in some of their courses. I'm eager to get started on this work.

In addition, I spent some time surfing the web, and found Keith Edwards, a sociologist and professor at Stony Brook University, who has been researching men and masculinity and has been a consultant for the past fifteen years. His website includes a brief video, which is a Ted-style talk about the issue that you can see here.  One of the things he said that really spoke to me was this:

"What we need to do is give them permission to stop being the men they think they have to be and permission to start being who they really are, their authentic selves." (emphasis mine)

I really want to help them do this. I am so impressed with many of the young men I have met and worked with thus far in my role as mentor to the team.

But there is also a lot of personal struggle, hurt, and difficulties that they face. And it is hard for them to show, share, and/or discuss their emotions. But they have them. And honestly? Right now I do not feel very well-equipped to really know what to say or what to do.

But I again remind myself that have been there before. I have started from near zero before, and then learned. I know that I can begin to understand these issues if I employ the same tenacity I used to become an expert in art history, teaching online, and using active learning techniques.

Do you have any sources or suggestions of what I could read to help understand and support young men in their college lives? Please leave a comment below!

 

As many of you know, I use Reacting to the Past games in some form in most of my classes. In my First Year Seminar, I use three of these highly immersive role-playing games. In that 1000-level class for first year students, they write at least 21 pages of work, all of it researched with proper citations. They also must learn to speak effectively and persuasively - nearly every class period. And they have a lot of fun doing it.

And yet here it is, the end of the semester, and I sit with doubts: Did they learn? And did they even though they clearly also enjoyed the course?

I know that they are learning because there are many assessments that show that Reacting classes are exceptional ways to get students to have more empathy for others, to read and write critically, to learn oral communication skills, to research proficiently and to learn how to cite correctly. And there is a new volume of essays in the book Playing to Learn, edited by C. Edward Watson and Thomas Chase Hagood, that features essays from several instructors about how they have used this innovative pedagogy in their classes. I hope to read it over the upcoming break between semesters. And I have assessments for the other innovative activities I assign in my classes.

For instance, coming out in 2018 is my chapter entitled "Engaging the non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and others) in Roman Art," which is chapter 8 in Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation, and Creativity. In this chapter I discuss the innovative strategies of active learning that I employed for the duration of the fall semester of 2015 in my Roman art course. And I've continued to chronicle my active learning exercises employed in classes here on my blog, at invited workshops on the topic, and been asked to deliver the keynote address on the topic of active learning at Texas Lutheran University's Engaging Pedagogy Conference this coming May (2018).

And yet, it is the end of each semester, and once again I have these troublesome thoughts: Did they learn? Was it rigorous? Did they work hard enough?

The learning took place. I have assessments that show that. So to me it's a bit sad that fun in the classroom is so circumspect and that some faculty (raises hand!) feel sheepish at the concept that fun and learning can coexist. I hope there can be a way that we can collectively move beyond this. Students deserve to enjoy their classes and learn at the same time.

Is that notion really so novel? A shame that it seems to be.

As I look over this past year, I have had a full-on education as the faculty mentor of the McDaniel College football team. I now have seen first-hand a full year of the playing of the season, the recruiting of the team, and summer camp. I have met some of the new recruits, and have gotten to know some of the coaches a bit better. It's been a long process, but one that has been very interesting. And because I am curious and love learning new things, it's been very exciting.

And while there is always more to learn, I have learned a lot. Here is a list of some of those things:

  • These students move around constantly at practice. Sitting still in a 90-minute lecture must be brutal. Enter active learning, for at least part of every one of my classes.
  • Higher ed systems are sometimes murky and unclear to students. Many students on the team are first-generation, a trend that will only continue. They are not sure what questions to ask, let alone who to ask. Sometimes our offices can act, perhaps unintentionally, that if students have to ask, maybe they should not be here.
  • Money can be a real issue and they are not thinking long-term of how the degree will help them after college. Goal-setting and motivation for post-college plans are really important.
  • Mentoring is not advising. I can help students navigate their course requirements as an advisor, but mentoring requires a different tack. To mentor a student is to see the whole student. I see them as football players as well as academic students. They share with me their struggles in their lives and their goals and dreams. Faculty need to know that there is a difference between these two roles, and both are very important to student success.

What I have witnessed makes me more committed than ever to supporting the student athletes in my classes. I will get the chance with twenty (count 'em up, I did!) players in my Art of the Medieval World class coming this spring. I will need to be on my game for them, and those of you who read this blog regularly know that I will be. It will be a challenge, but I am determined to meet it!

I hope to be sharing some of the techniques for supporting student athletes as a consultant in the coming months. I am going to be doing further study about what these players need in their lives as students to be successful on the field, in the classroom, and in life. I want to be as much of a part of that success as possible, and I want our institution to support them in as many ways as possible.

If you are student athlete, what additional help would you like to see from your institution?

Photo credit: Morgan Scott

Shown L to R: Drew Scott, 55; Bamasa Bailor, 1; Vince Gorgone, 54

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