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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?

5

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!

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.

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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This might be shorter post than usual (and it is not as nuanced as many who have written on this topic), as I am still recovering from an illness. But I was inspired to write today after this weekend another riff against laptops in the classroom was circulating on social media after Susan Dynarski posted this op ed in The New York Times.

If you look at the image above ^ you will **gasp** see actual laptops in the classroom. You will also see students not looking at me, but at the laptop and each other, as they engage in an activity meant to get them looking and conversing and analyzing and interpreting in my art history class from last spring. This particular day they were asked to analyze Etruscan tombs - only the images in  Powerpoint - on their laptops and offer commentary to the whole class after some time to view their images. It was a great class that could not have been done if I banned laptops from the classroom.

The face-to-face time we get with students is precious. It should be valued and used as effectively as possible. I believe that using your entire time in the classroom to lecture at students is squandering that precious time.  I do not believe that with the technology that we now have available that this precious time should ONLY be used to tell students things.

That is NOT to say that all lecturing is bad. It is not.  I have always believed that SOME lecturing is ok, if also balanced with efforts to enhance the living, vibrant, face-to-face learning situations, that precious time when we have students with us in the same space that we occupy. I do not believe in "ban all lectures!" nor do I believe in "ban all technology!" What I do believe is engaging students. It is our responsibility to do so as educators. I know that is a dangerous, even contentious statement. I don't understand how it could be. We are educators. We educate. Students learn best when they are engaged in the material.

So, shouldn't we work, in all ways, to educate ourselves in how to best engage our students? There are so many options. Flipped class? Hybrid class? Discussion prompts? Twitter or other online questioning tools? Spend time experimenting and finding ways to engage your students. If you're honest with them about a new experiment you are trying, they will most likely work with you.

But don't blame them if they open up a laptop because you are doing nothing but reciting material that they could get elsewhere. Be honest: don't you do that yourself in meetings in which someone is professing to you about something or other?

A reminder that I give workshops and speak about active learning and this blog posts is all about active learning in higher education settings.

I have wanted to write a piece for McDaniel College Green Terror Football team coaches for awhile. Now that the season is over, I think it’s a good time to do so.

I am amazed at how hard all of them work: the head coach, the position coaches, the assistant coaches. I don’t fully understand the hierarchy there, but I do know they all work super hard to get the best out of the students on the field, while they simultaneously emphasize the need to keep to the books and graduate.

Our record this year was 3-7, which was the record as last season. But don’t let that record fool you: they are not the same team.

They are much more poised and focused. They play very much more as a unit than I saw in any game in the 2016 season. Their Twitter hashtag, #AsOne, is felt and expressed by all. The refrain I heard at training camp: “Do Your Job!” was taken to heart by the players and they did that for the most part.

There were some key injuries. But there always are.

Yet, the Coaches kept getting them back into it, keeping student/players’ eyes both on the next game as well as reminding them about classes. It’s a really tough balancing act, and one I would have no idea how to achieve.

That is why when some of my colleagues and friends jokingly call me “Coach McKay,” I wince.

Because I am not a coach. I do not know the first thing about coaching. I am still smarting over the loss at Franklin and Marshall, and that was Week 3!! I am still learning the mentoring gig; coach I am not.

Now the Coaches go onto the next phase of their operation: recruiting. The amount of time and commitment this part of their job requires is immense, which hardly anyone understands, particularly faculty. Last year, I contacted the Coach after the last game of the season, naively thinking that he would have all the time in the world now that the season was over. How wrong I was! He and the other coaches will now be on the road until the winter break. In January, they host busloads of potential student/players on campus, many of whom they saw in high school games every Friday night of the regular season. They then have a bit of a lull before March and “spring ball” starts. Then prepare for camp to start in August! It took me awhile, but now I get the drill.

So, this post is for the Green Terror Coaches. Their support of me has been wonderful and I want to send the same to them.  Go get us some great players, and thank you for all you do! I will be holding down the fort, meeting with the guys to make sure they finish the semester strong.

From a grateful faculty mentor, thank you, coaches, for all that you do!

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This summer there was an article in Inside Higher Ed about an anthropological study about why faculty do not always want to embrace innovative teaching methods: they do not want to appear to look stupid in front of their students.

I can understand this. Of course I don’t want to look stupid in front of my students, either. I have posted on this blog before about being wrong and how to handle questions I don't know.

But I think there is a way to re-frame this. If something goes wrong in the classroom - if we do try something new - and it doesn't work out, can't we explain the failure as part of the risk of growing? That things don’t always go right? That, to me, is modeling what I want my students to do: Take Risks! Try that new course you know nothing about!

Last fall, I tried a completely new experiment by taking my introductory survey course and making it a blended class, half online and half face to face. I spent the first day of the class explaining why I was doing it: what I have learned from study of literature on technology and education, on student pressures to graduate on time, and my own experiences teaching in an online environment. They listened and were glad I tried something new. There was a point mid-semester where one part of the course was NOT going well and we had to have a conversation and a correction. They appreciated that, too. Did that make me look stupid? I don’t think so.

Shouldn’t we work to model those very traits that we want students to embrace?

I hear all the time that our students at my college aren’t “risk-takers.” They are not “gritty” enough. They need more “resilience.” We need to have them try new things. I posted about the grit and resilience factor about the college football players that I teach, mentor and watch on the field. They definitely take risks every day.

How often do we as faculty try new things and risk?

I take risks often because I also have discovered through talking to my students, having focus groups with them, and reading the scholarship of teaching and learning, that my students learn more through active learning. The minority of students, I find, learn from lecture-only note-taking. I’m not bashing that method; I am just not content to know that only about 8-10% of my class (if that) learns well that way. If I can get more people learning more consistently and deeply if I change my methods, then I am going to do that. Because it makes for better classrooms and learning. And that is my job: to teach students.

As a result, might I look stupid in front of my students? Maybe. But even if I do, I seem to earn more respect from them because when I explain why I am doing it, they know I’m changing things up for them.

But that makes me human, too. And since one of my goals in every class is to make my class a community, I will continue to take risks in front of my students, letting them know I am doing it, so when I tell them to do it, I can say: I’ve done it, too.

For faculty reading this, why not leave a comment, telling us about the last time you took a risk in the classroom. Or, if you're reticent to do so, why?

 

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