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It’s August. That means it's the time of year when faculty are starting to think about syllabi for their courses. I’ve heard faculty talk about how it grows page upon page each year as they write more and more rules in order to cover – and perhaps control – all kinds of student behavior. And there are many cartoons, like this one, about how when students invariably ask questions, those answers are, of course, in the syllabus...

Another post on the syllabus came across my Twitter feed by Sara Fulmer, who writes about Preparing a Learning-Focused Syllabus.  This got me thinking, “What is the point of the syllabus?” As Mano Singham argues in his AACU piece Death to the Syllabus,there should be no more syllabi. Says Singham, “It is time to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class.” (emphasis mine)

I am required to have a syllabus for every course I teach, even though online or hybrid/blended courses don’t need the traditional syllabus because of the way that course guides and modules are set up if you adhere to best practices in online education and teaching. But I make one anyway, and link it on the content management system page for my courses. And there is language I am required to put on the syllabus, though I have heard of some faculty making that an appendix and putting it on their course management page, which is an interesting idea, to keep the syllabus about the course.

But as Singham notes, where in the syllabus is learning addressed? I have attempted to add learning goals to the syllabi for my classes. And Fulmer's point is about creating syllabi that are more learner-centered rather than teacher-focused. In other words, we can make syllabi more collective in spirit – about what is possible in the course – rather than generate a list of rules that indicate how a student can lose points for every possible misstep.

In my attempt to make my syllabi more about learning, I include a section about my learning goals for students in my course. After going over those on the first day, I  pause to have students fill out a card that notes what they would like to focus on for learning in the course. I (try to remember to) give out those cards again at the mid-point of the semester in order to have students note how they think they are doing on their goals, which gives me a chance to respond in kind to them about whether I agree with their assessment of their progress or not. I think this is a great chance for individual feedback to students about how they are doing in my class.

I was also struck by a column in Chronicle’s Vitae the other day written by David Gooblar, which advocates putting more images in a syllabus, almost making it read like a graphic novel. You can read that post here. I'm an art historian. I should find ways to "art-up" my syllabi, and may do just that this August.

Faculty: What do you think about your syllabus? Do you want to change it up, or is it a list and a contract that sounds more like legalize? Do you want to keep it that way? Do you feel at your institution you have to?

Students: what say you about the syllabus in a course? Do you read it? Why or why not?

 

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I get how expensive college is. I wince when we list the tuition and room and board at the private, liberal arts college where I teach. I wonder how anyone can pay it (and I know we discount, and I know there are scholarships; I still wince). So, I totally understand how parents must be stressed to the hilt about paying for this very important investment in their son or daughter’s future. And I know they want it to “pay off” in the form of a job after graduation. I get that.

But what I don’t get is that parents don’t want their child to major in anything that is not “practical.”

I received what I consider a heart-breaking query from an incoming student to McDaniel asking me what art class she could take because she “loves art” and can’t imagine her life without it, but her parents would never let her major in it.

It’s her life. And yet the parents will not let her choose her major.

That makes me so sad. It also makes me feel that much more gratitude (even though I already feel grateful) towards my parents for putting none of that pressure on me. My father always said I needed to follow my passion/love. Furthermore, he always encouraged me saying that you can always find a way to make a living if you love what you do. I will likely never make a million dollars because I chose to teach and I realize with my full-time, tenured job that I am very lucky and privileged. I love what I do and I found a way. All the way back when I was a first-year student in college and took my first art history course, I just couldn’t imagine my life without it.

But what if I had parents that said I could not major in Art? I would like to think that another path would still have led me to teaching. But what if it didn't?

I haven’t met the student referenced above in person, yet. We have just corresponded by email. But I think of all the studies that show people who major in liberal arts disciplines make more money over time than those who go into more “practical” fields.

From the Wall Street Journal (9/11/16): Good News Liberal-Arts Majors: Your Peers Probably Won’t Outearn You Forever

From Forbes (11/13/2015): Why critics are wrong about liberal arts degrees

And from Inside Higher Ed (1/22/14): Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term

And this also from Inside Higher Ed yesterday (7/26/17): College Degrees Lead to 'Good Jobs'

I don’t know if that will satisfy her parents. And I don’t know if she can make that argument to them. But her story does make me realize even more the pressure that students are under – from us as faculty, from parents and other family members, from peers. And I wonder if I should be doing something different in my classes.

I heard on a podcast this morning that yes, parents want their children to be safe and secure. And that includes making sure that they can support themselves. But people, these young people are the ones that must live their lives. And they deserve to be happy. And only the individual can decide what will make him or her happy. Parents cannot decide what will bring happiness.

I am wondering if you have encountered such comments from students and how you answer them. And if you are as student reading this, what is your experience like? How do you decide on a major?

Teaching as a creative act

Today’s post is a bit different. I am writing this summer each day about some aspect of my activities in the classroom. In so doing, one thing I have recognized is that my teaching is a creative enterprise. Thinking up new activities and innovative ways to get students to engage with my classroom material, which happens to be art history, is a creative pursuit. I declared that my teaching is my creative “Thing” after finding and listening to episodes of The Creativity Habit podcast by Daphne Cohn.

Today I was listening to the episode with Glenis Redmond, who is a poet. Glenis declared herself to poetry and noted that she lives her poetry with 100% of her experience.

This made me wonder: do I declare myself 100% to my teaching? Do I always come to the classroom with every piece of my being focused on my students? Or do I sometimes hold back in my classes? I know that most of the time I fret about what I have planned will really work out. Is this just part of the creative enterprise? Is this what every artist does? I know that questioning/wondering/fretting makes me a better teacher. But is it also holding back from being fully present in my classroom?

One of my intentions for the new academic year (it’s summer, and, yes, I am already thinking of the fall term and making plans!) is to be more fully present in my classroom. To go in 100% ready all the time.

I guess I’m recommitting to that experience for myself and for my students. After 20 years of teaching, I suppose I will always wonder if my activity for the day will flop, or if I will fail to once again get that one kid in the back of the room to tell me what s/he’s thinking. But maybe noticing that student in the back of the room is being fully present. How many times when I simply lectured did I not notice if someone wasn’t paying attention? With a classroom that demands attention from every student, I see which ones need a bit more attention from me to draw out. And I can usually do it by asking the student a question about life beyond my classroom – showing that I am interested in him or her.

Teaching is my Creative Thing and I embrace it and will go forth into the new academic year ready to try new things, reflect on them, and engage my students.

Do you teachers out there think about creativity and teaching? How about you students? Have you seen creativity in your college classrooms? Tell us all about them in the comments.

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Today’s post is about mentorship and advising. And what, if anything, is the difference between them. If you  know me well, I don't need to tell you, but for those who do not, I am the academic mentor to the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team. I love my role with this Division Three team. Beyond attending home games to cheer on the team (and tweeting like a nut during away games that I watch on livestream), my role includes meeting with students for a variety of reasons, all academic in nature. In some cases, I help students who are in academic difficulty. We talk about study skills and what is troubling them in certain classes. I offer them suggestions on how to approach professors for help, which they are often very nervous to do.

I have also found that many of them are bewildered by the financial systems and offices at our college, and so I often find myself navigating those offices to find out basic information for them, and find out to whom I should send them for answers if I don’t know them myself. I often advocate for them on issues that seem unfair, as I did when we found out that there was a policy at the college to put a “hold” on making them unable to register for classes because of overdue bills. When I found out the amount of stress and anxiety this was causing students who were already struggling academically, I requested that this be a discussion topic at a faculty meeting and the policy was changed for the next academic semester.

I thought today about my role as the mentor to the team and how I advise students. As an academic advisor, I often help students figure out courses of study. We sometimes also talk about career choices, though there is often not a lot of time for that, and students are not often not sure about what they want to do, anyway, and so we end up talking about courses for the future, as well.

So, what is the difference between mentoring and advising? (and then there is even "cognitive coaching" see this piece by José Antontio Bowen, but that's for another day).

Because I sense that there is a difference.

When I think about the students I have advised and mentored, in general I would say that that I know more about those who I am mentoring. I share more about myself, and my own struggles, compared to those who are my academic advisees. That is not to say I do not have strong relationships with my advisees. I do.

But the nature of the relationship is different. My football team players confide in me about things that they might not want their academic advisors to know about. They don’t want the professors who are teaching them (who are also often their advisors) to know how they struggle, or why they do. They feel that their difficulties could be perceived by their academic advisors, or professors, as a sign that they do not really belong in college. Thus, they are reluctant to talk to their advisors for fear that their predicament will reinforce the incorrect perceptions that they should not be in college anyway.

From my perspective, as a mentor, I am more like a coach who finds ways to support a player to do his or her job better. But my field is academic. But I still feel like what I do as a mentor is different than what I do as an advisor.

What do you think? And students I would LOVE to hear from you! What do you think of mentor versus the advisor? Is it the same thing, or are there differences? Does it matter to you what they are called?

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Today I found out my grandmother passed away.

It has made me think about the recent spate of articles about the “deaths of grandmothers” that are perhaps meant to be satirical, but to my reading are full of spite. http://www.chronicle.com/article/To-My-Student-on-the-Death-/240353

When I found out my grandmother died, one of the first things I did after talking to my father, for it was his mother, and my sister, was  to contact one of my students by text.

That might seem odd. As a matter of fact, I wondered why I was even thinking of doing it. But I did.

Because his grandmother has brain cancer.

And this was found after she beat breast cancer.

He had to miss classes with me because she has had many surgeries and treatments. When I gave him my news, I also asked about her. He tells me she is still holding on and doing well. In addition to telling me about how his "grandmom" is doing, he responded immediately with a heartfelt text saying he would be there if I needed to talk.

My grandmother was 97 years old. She has been in a nursing home for several years, and her dementia has meant that we had been losing parts of her already.

Still, the ultimate final, ultimate loss is hard. I have found it to be so today.

Unlike some faculty, like the one that wrote the piece above, who seem to think that they are gate-keepers (to what?) and will make sure that only the righteous are afforded sympathy or empathy, I am thankful to this student for just saying a few short words to me in a text. I’m grateful and when I see him this fall, I will tell him so.

I hope I never get so jaded or callous as to think that my students lie at the loss of anyone close to them. Nor would I ever go to the lengths the article – whether tongue-in-cheek or no – seems to espouse.

We all have loss. And helping each other through it, professor for student, or sometimes, student for professor, is the kind of teaching in which I want to be involved.

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I am a crazy person because the summer is in full swing, yesterday was the first full day of summer, and I’m missing my students. I miss the interaction with them. I read something recently about good classes take students on a journey. I hadn’t ever thought of my classes that way, but they are. I try to get them to follow the breadcrumbs that I lay out for them until they see the interpretation I want to them to know. And then we talk about others. But the journey to that idea is really fun.

I am already thinking about the first day of class. I get so nervous. I am already nervous (!) thinking about it. I know that many say to not go over the syllabus, to have a quiz on it, but I still feel like it’s a good idea to go over it. Because my syllabi state the goals I have for the students. I want them to know what prioritize in terms of their learning. I got some push-back about that from the tenure/promotion committee that these were not in alignment with assessment protocols of student learning.

Tough crap.

When I lay out the goals for students, they ARE learning outcomes; they are just not written in the jargon-laced assessment language that as a leader in our reaccreditation work know all too well. But when the students read them like that, they see what I prioritize.

Then I ask them to write on a notecard what THEY want to work on. What are their goals for the class? I collect them and (if I remember and have not had the health-plagued semester like I did this past spring) I hand them out at mid-term for a self-assessment of how they are doing. Then I can write how I think they are doing on those goals as well.

It gives students a chance to self-reflect, which has been shown to be a very important part of blended and online learning. It helps students identify how they are learning, not just what they are learning. I think we need to do that more in face-to-face classes. Because students learn from their reflections; studies demonstrate this.

So, I wait for the first day of class. If after 20 years of teaching I still get nervous, I guess that feeling will never stop.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

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I was interviewed yesterday by Inside Higher Ed about my role in the Council of Independent College's online humanities consortium for this article that appeared today on Inside Higher Ed. Here is the link to the story:

https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/06/21/cic-consortium-offers-way-small-colleges-develop-online-courses

I absolutely loved working on this project and it taught me so much about teaching. I will be offering the Byzantine art course, Ways of Seeing Byzantium, in the spring semester of 2018 as part of the on-going consortium.

I am also intrigued and talking with the organization College Consortium (https://www.collegeconsortium.org/ ) and hope that they can help "co-host" my course for more enrollment, and perhaps help me enroll students in the future.

What are your thoughts on online teaching and learning?

 

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[huge_it_share]I'm always trying to change up the ending of a class, taking a cue from my friend and colleague to Tony Crider who wrote in The Chronicle in 2015 about "Epic Finales" rather than "Final Exams." This semester in my nineteenth-century art class I had a "Finale:" after using my Reacting Game, Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89, which I co-wrote with Nicolas W. Proctor and Michael A. Marlais, I decided that each student should give a presentation about the future of their game character and discuss a painting from the future (post 1889) .

One of the students was late to class. He did not send the painting he was going to present for inclusion in the PowerPoint. He hadn't prepared enough and had his own presentation, which I said he could load on the classroom computer. And one of his slides was full of text. But that was not the worst of it.

The worst was the fact that the entire class did not take him seriously. There was laughter the entire time he spoke. No one was paying attention. It seemed a big joke.

I was angry, despondent, and wondered what to do. Later that night, I received a message from this student, asking if his presentation was "bad." I told him I would be in my office the next day in the afternoon if he wanted to speak about it.

He came to my office. It was nearly 24 hours later. I was still unsure what to do. Did he just blow off the presentation? Did he not care?

I asked outright if he had blown off the assignment. He admitted that he had not prepared enough.  I also asked if he meant to make it a stand-up comedy routine, getting laughs from his classmates in order to deflect from the fact that he wasn't prepared.

And that is where it got interesting.

As we talked, it was clear that this student, a transfer student from a majority minority student environment, was finding it a bit difficult to navigate our mostly white campus. Humor had become one of his coping mechanisms. But he assured me that while he does include humor at times, he did not intend for the entire class to continue to laugh for the entirety of his presentation.

Then and there I decided to ask him to give the presentation again. To me alone. To make him learn what he did wrong and to be sure he learned from his mistake.

He was surprised, but he agreed. We went into an open classroom and he started. I pointed out that his back was to me. He wasn't engaging me. He was fidgeting. He needed to project his voice. He has a very deep voice, and often tries to mute it to fit in. But I told him for a presentation, he should let it fly and command the room. He did.

He then told me he was grateful for these tips because he had to give a presentation the next day in a class that is in his major as the final (finale?) for that course. I told him to think about what I said: don't fidget; face the audience; no text loading on a slide!

I checked in with him the next day, after I knew the final for his course had ended.

"How did it go today?", I asked.

He said the professor commended him on his presentation and wants him to return to her classroom next semester, to give the presentation again and to help other students think through the assignment, which was the creation of a video.

I could have stayed mad. I could have vented on social media. I'd like to think that instead, I taught this student a bit about how to present in a formal situation. Could it be that a transfer sophomore in college really had never been taught formal presentation skills?

I don't know.

But I kept thinking: isn't that what we're here for? Am I only supposed to teach art history? Isn't a small, liberal arts school, like the one where I currently teach, a place where we lift up students even when they fall down and, some could even say, screw up?

He did screw up. And he didn't get a great grade for the presentation.

But he learned how to do one. Better than he did for my class. And somehow I think - isn't that the point?

"Finale" to Spring semester 2017, indeed.

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I don't quite know how to explain what I am seeing in my classes with male students, particularly football players, when I employ a type of game in a class.

I am teaching my introductory art history survey course in a hybrid manner. The students access the content of the course online; they watch videos that are ably created and narrated by two art historians which can be found on smarthistory.org. The students then comment in discussion boards about what they read. The are also required to write papers and carry on reflections on their learning in journals in Blackboard. When we do meet F2F in the classroom, rather than lecturing or quizzing them, I have an active learning scenario planned.

We just finished the module on Greek art, and the active learning technique I employed in the F2F portion of our class was a debate/game mechanism on whether or not the Elgin/Parthenon marbles should be returned to Greece. I gave out roles via email. I had one day F2F in class where students mingled in character at a "party" at the Acropolis Museum. Then we had the debate.

The students that I expected to do well, did. But six of my male student-athletes in the class, who quite frankly have been fairly lackluster so far this semester, really stood out. Their speeches and their comments and questions hit it out of the park. Five of them happened to be football players. If you have been following my blog, you will know that this is becoming something of a theme.

What is it about changing the dynamic of the class that brings about those students who ordinarily fade as much as they can into the background (often, literally, sitting in the back of the room) suddenly rise up and are the stars of the class? I saw it again with this class activity.

I also had a colleague of mine run a focus group with the five football players from my fall 2015 semester of Roman art in order to start to gathering some data about what is happening in my classes, not just with Reacting, but with the other forms of active learning that I employ. I hope to post that information sometime soon.

But this short game in the introductory class provides another piece of evidence that changing it up, what I call "activizing" the classroom, can bring new students to the fore, and have them actively participate in class. They find their voices and they find their power for learning. If we can find a way to shake it up, I find students, some of whom, I would not expect to do so, will rise to the challenge.

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