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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?

 

A few weeks ago, before the start of the fall semester, the head coach of the Green Terror Football team asked me to speak to the entire group. As the faculty mentor, I was happy to do it. I love my role, and after I spoke to the team, hopefully giving them some tips about how to focus on classes and developing a goal for after college, I stayed for their team meeting.

It was very eye-opening.

From attending that meeting, it is clear that they have to memorize a ton of stuff. I went to the defense meeting after the team split up. They were going over a bunch of packages and formations for the defense, with letters that represented the positions. They all had a notebook (though I did notice a box of pens, just in case, in the room) to write things down, and were doing so. They were in rapt attention, too.

This told me a lot. First, they can do a lot more than they think they can. They have to memorize a ton of stuff for all of these schemes and plays. This means that they can do more in their classes than they think they can.

Second, their coaches believe in them, so I think they think, “Yes, I can do football.” But it is clearly not easy. I wanted to ask a ton of questions about stuff I did not understand, but of course I did not. The defense coach was saying, “Do not go out there and just be a bull in a china shop: do your job!” They have to do that, to work as a team. But his belief in them as players – as students – was clear to me and I’m sure to them. How often do we show that we believe in all of our students, as students? I have a future post planned about caring - not coddling - students and how that helps them to learn.

Third, while some students were asking questions to ensure they understood everything, it was clear that some didn’t ask anything – even when they needed the answers for the upcoming game. I think they fear looking dumb. But who among us doesn't also feel that way?

This made me glad that I said what I said in the team meeting: Be curious about your classes. Find a way to stay engaged. They have a responsibility to themselves to try harder and to give their attention to all of their classes.

We, as faculty, can do things to help these players, too. Just like their coaches, we can show we genuinely care about their learning. We can change things up, get them involved, and not have them sit for an hour to 90 minutes mostly listening. They only had about 30 minutes of lecture/listening before the coaches changed things up.

And I am also learning other things. That meeting was nearly six weeks ago (the term is flying by!) and the team has had two hard losses since then. I wrote about one of them a few weeks ago, which you can read here. This week, it was another hard loss, this time by one point! In overtime! That was hard.

But they got back up. They are - right now - focused on the next opponent. I realized while talking to a few of them over this past weekend that I have held on to mistakes and tend to beat myself up about them for a long time. They don't do that. They can't do that.

They characterize resilience and grit.

I hope I am teaching them as much as they are teaching me.

How do you respond when you make a mistake?

I made a big mistake this summer. It was a rather embarrassing one, but I am sharing it in order to demonstrate to all, especially students, that we all mess up. What matters most is how we respond to our screw ups.

I wrote up an article for submission to a journal. I went out on a limb and wrote a piece that was to be in APA style, which I don’t ever use. Art historians use the Chicago Manual of Style for all submissions; I hadn’t ever used APA style. I had references, but didn’t add a reference list. For those of you who know APA style (better than me!), you know that is a big no-no. The editor of the journal sent my piece back to me, saying, “there is no list of references on this, please add one.”

Now, this might not seem like a big deal to some of you, but I can assure you, aside from being really dumb, it was also very embarrassing. It demonstrated that I really didn’t know what I was doing (which I didn’t!). And I hate looking like I don't know what I am doing.

I thought about just not sending it back or fixing it. Because I was embarrassed. But then I thought, well, I have the piece written, and it's good. And I do have references, I just need to add that list in the right way. So, I sat down and I did it. And this week I was told it will be published.

What matters is how I reacted to the knowledge that I messed up.

This is true for you students, too. How you react when something doesn’t go well, or when the football team you play for loses a game, or you don’t get the grade you had hoped on a test or a paper, matters. As I posted last week, there is a lot of buzz right now around resilience and grit. I have developed resilience from years of critical reviews from my peers. I have learned to suck it up, make changes that seem appropriate, and send it back in.

I am seeing that with the football players that I mentor, too. They get back up after getting knocked down. And this week, after a tough loss last week, they won. They got back up. Learned from their mistakes. That is resilience. And grit.

So students: do not give up. Try again. Talk to your professors. Admit when you are confused. Because your reaction matters.

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For those who do not know, I have the distinct privilege of being the faculty mentor to McDaniel College's Green Terror Football Team. In addition to that role, I am also privileged to teach these young men, many of whom sign up for my classes. This past Saturday I watched them fight a dogged battle against a conference foe. And come up a wee bit short. Like three points short. But short is short. I get that.

So this post is for them.

I have watched football all my life. I understand (most of) the rules and the plays. But I have never really understood football until now. And I am only starting to understand it: what it takes to get up play after play after you have been banged around. Or what it takes to play with your whole heart and come up short, and yet get on the bus, go back to campus, and get ready for the next opponent the next week. And I freely admit that I still have a lot to learn.

As I watched the team yesterday, I was thinking about how there is a theme running through higher education circles currently about instilling more grit and resilience in college students. Some feel that this generation's students are too weak and anxious; they need to toughen up!

Well, there are 125 or so young men on a college football team in Westminster, Maryland who are pretty danged tough. They show grit and resilience every Saturday afternoon. They showed it in abundance this past Saturday, in a tough, hard loss. But they never gave up until the very last second. Every single one of them was attuned to what was happening. They were a group of gritty and resilient souls.

I am the luckiest professor in the conference to be this close to these champions, these student athletes who show so much grit and resilience on the field and in their lives. Because as the mentor, I get to hear about the struggles they have in their lives, too. In their classrooms. At home. With finances. And how they overcome them. I am privileged and blessed (yes, I'm using that word) to get to help them.

For those administrators and faculty out there in higher education who want to cultivate more grit and resilience among their student body: look to your student athletes.

Because if they are anything like the Green Terror Football team, they've got grit and resilience in spades.

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