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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.

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 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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