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We are entering "exam week," which means the day to day teaching of the semester is over. It's always a bittersweet time of the year for me. Sure, I am happy to have some time to myself again, but I will miss the give and take and interaction with my students. Today I find myself reflecting on the semester.

My Medieval art course, which I called lovingly my "Medieval Mongol Horde" (MMH), stretched me in new ways as a professor. I had never had a class of 30 students before, and even the arrangement of the room was a challenge. I know many professors teach classes much larger than this, but for me, this was new. Even just five more people from our course cap of 25 seemed like a lot of people. Even figuring out the furniture for the different class activities  was a challenge!

Some of the students from the MMH have also sent me reflections on their experience in the course, as I am readying for a keynote presentation at the Engaging Pedagogy Conference at Texas Lutheran University next week. I was asking them for an experience in the course that stood out to them.

Two of the key responses have something in common: sharing ideas and being heard. When I asked them what they remembered, or what stood out from the semester, one mentioned their weekly blog posts. This was surprising, as I figured that weekly writing on a prompt from me would be boring. But I responded to every single prompt (which was difficult, but important), and it got them writing every week in addition to papers and other more high-stakes writing that was for a grade. When I asked this student what he liked about the blog, he noted "You got to see what everyone else thinks and kind of compare."

Another of the MMH noted his favorite activity was a really hard chapter that I had them read and then a three-page critical analysis paper that they had write at the start of the semester. I was truly surprised by this answer. But the key here was what he said about the way the assignment was handled: "we discussed it as a class and what each of us thought." This was their first foray into art historical scholarship and the chapter I assigned is difficult. But we spent time in class talking about it, and students were able, after writing their papers, to argue about the thesis of the chapter.
The commonality in these two comments highlight to me the importance of listening as a professor. As professors we do so much of the talking. We need to do that because we are masters of the information of our disciplines and we have to impart that. It's our job. But our students are longing to be heard and to say what it is they are thinking. We need to build platforms for that, though. Just asking questions, as any professor knows, doesn't always lead to an amazing discussion where all the students engage.
Thank you for a great Semester to the Medieval Mongol Horde, pictured here:

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?

3

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

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.

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