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7

For all the work I have done with football players for the past year and a half, you would think that I would know better than to underestimate them. My post this past September, when they suffered their first loss of the season, emphasized their grit and resilience. Over the years, and as I have often posted on this blog, I've had a number of players in my classes and I have seen what they can do there, too.

But on Thursday, in my medieval art class, in which twenty players on the McDaniel College Green Terror football team are enrolled, my faith wavered. We were starting a short, two-day Reacting game, in which the students must decide about the role of images in the Byzantine church. It is my Byzantine Iconoclasm game that I have successfully used in the past. But on Thursday, I was not sure. Part of the reason was that I received two emails from different players on Wednesday night asking, "Are we starting that game/debate tomorrow?" Not reassuring.

When we got to class, I gave everyone about 15 minutes to get ready in their groups (Reacting games are made up of factions, or teams, and indeterminates who are not sure what they think about the issues and ask a lot of questions. You can read more about Reacting to the Past here). After that 15 minutes, I called everyone back to the classroom (some use the hallway for meetings). I took my place at the back of the room, because the students run the show in a Reacting class. The football player I cast as the Patriarch Nikephoros rose, walked to the podium, and welcomed everyone to the council and opened debate.

Without hesitation, students came to the podium to make speeches. There were lots of questions. And two football players, shown here, went at it, debating each other very seriously. It was a fantastic moment as a professor. I took the picture below to send to their Coach to show them his players in action.

I do not forget that I have 10 other students not on the team, a few of whom are in this picture, too. And they were ready and spoke that day, too. The mix of students is great and I have been very mindful of being sure to mix the class up at all times.

I will admit that it is really easy to think that the football players will not read, prepare, or get ready for class. I am working with a few students who are struggling in some of their classes. Yet they do care very much about their education and their studies. A colleague of mine ran a focus group with eight players and the findings will form the beginning of a new study of mine to find ways to support these students more effectively.

Reacting works with football players. Reacting to the Past works with many students. But with football players, it's something else. The competition, the debating - somehow it fires them up. At the end of the class on Thursday, several players said to me, "I am going to have a speech on Tuesday! Just wait!" They don't usually say things like that about a class that is five days away.

We play another Reacting game about the Crusades later this semester. I will try not to underestimate them again.

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?

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.

 

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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