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My grades are in (though they are not due until tomorrow). We will graduate a new crop of McDaniel College students on Saturday. I always look forward to that day, but it is always bittersweet for me. This time of year is always bittersweet for me.

I work hard to create community with my classes. Connecting with each of my students is also a goal of mine, and one I most often reach. The most challenging class for me in that regard with the thirty-person Medieval Art course. But I managed to find a way to build a bridge to each student, and to make each of them feel important. If I had not, I’m not at all sure that they would have been so eager to have this picture of the class as a whole (thanks to Dr. Lyndsey Smith, who acted as a T.A. for this semester, for taking the picture):

The departure of students from The Hill, our nickname for our college campus, depresses me slightly every year. I don’t know how many other faculty feel this. It seems counter-intuitive to the trends I see on Twitter and elsewhere about “grades are in!” and “Let the summer begin!” Of course, I have projects and writing that I wish to do, but I seem to make progress on those as I am teaching my students, not in spite of them. I had a book published this spring semester by the University of North Carolina Press: Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89, a Reacting to the Past game that was co-authored by Michael Marlais and Nicolas Proctor. That book was not written in the summer(s).  I also had a chapter published in the following book on active learning: Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation and Creativity, Anastasia Misseyanni, Militiades D. Lytras, Paraskevi Papadopoulou, eds. Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018. My chapter was on my experience with the football players in the Fall of 2015: “Engaging the non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and others) in Roman Art” (187-209). Both of these projects were peer reviewed (the Reacting game extensively), and most of the final work was done in the fall semester. Thus, summers are not always the time that we have laid at our feet to do our work as scholars. Somehow, I always manage, even when I am in the midst of classes to teach, papers to grade, and students to mentor.

I am not advocating for not having a free summer. I am not saying that at all. I know I need some mental time to reestablish other routines, and just to have a rest from the relentless (self-imposed) pressure to create an engaging classroom experience every class period. But right now I feel sad.

So, really what I am seeking is advice. For those who find the departure of students to be alarming, distressing, or even depressing: what do you do? How do you transition to summer?

 

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 currently using a game set in 1148 at the War Council of Acre, at which knights, kings, and the church hierarchy gathered to decide if there should be a Second Crusade and if so, where it should be aimed. I have thirty students in this class, and twenty of them are on the football team at McDaniel College. Their engagement has been profound and at times frankly astounding. One such moment of their utter engagement is captured here in this photograph I took during the class debate about where the Crusade should be targeted:

In this picture, the student is an offensive lineman for the Green Terror. In the game, however, he is playing Patriarch Fulcher, the individual who found the True Cross in the first crusade, and is credited with having won back Jerusalem for the Latin Crusaders. In this image he is standing in front of a projected image of the different cities in the region. For two days, as he says here, they talked about how their war was just because the city of Edessa being taken by Zengi in 1144. But moments before I took this picture, King Louis suggested they attack Damascus instead. The Patriarch was confused, baffled and even outraged.

This was a moment when the class ceased to be at McDaniel in 2018 and was clearly in the city of Acre in 1148. They had left the building. They were experiencing flow. They were so in the moment that, as I talked to some of them afterwards, they forgot about practice. They forgot about their other classes. I am attempting to get a certain general education tag for my Reacting courses and asked them for some help answering questions. Some of their quotations can say better than I can how much they experience in a Reacting game:

"It's immersive. Because you have to put your all into your role. You have to dive in and see how you are going to argue these points of view for this person, how to back it up with research. You have to research in a way you may not typically do so, focus on your role vs personal feelings on the role."

"You can't just BS your way through it. You have to find enough material for your role in the game and be able to rebut anything anyone else throws at you. You need to understand their roles too and how they might come at you."

"When you get stuck into this game, you are here and you are your character. You call each other by your character role names, you are that person and their beliefs (not you and your own personal beliefs)."

"When you are arguing it is super easy to get caught up, and you forget 'oh i have to go to practice today'. Taking on the persona makes you argue better and focus on the game."

"When you go up to the podium, you have to convince yourself/faction and rest of room of what you are arguing. You have to embody the role and its unlike any other class activity. It gives you more skills as a student rather than just looking at a PowerPoint and taking notes. It helps you experience the class differently and take on roles you normally wouldn't."

Reacting is great for every student, but I would argue that for student athletes, these immersive role-playing games make them enjoy the class more than at other times in their education. They see research as a means to a win. They see a role as a chance to argue and help their team (or faction). But they also note that it is work. It takes time. They all laughed when I asked them if a Reacting game would count for the 15 hours required for this tag. They said that they had all put that much time in already and the game was not over.

Faculty: try Reacting to the Past. It is often said that athletes care more about their sport than their classes. But if they have a chance to win in a classroom as well as the playing field, you will see a different student performance entirely. The Annual Institute for Reacting to the Past games will be held this year at Barnard College from June 14-17 and I urge faculty to check it out.

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?

Today I want to tell you about a few of my students and their successes. These are the moments that bring me a ton of joy and make me feel that I am fulfilling my purpose. I have titled this post “Student Triumphs” because I do feel like in these cases, these students really did overcome a lot of different types of hurt and difficulty. I am not using their real names, because I do not have their permission to use them. So, I’ll describe the situations and my role in each. Also, I am writing this post because we are entering the time of year when professors start writing posts about dying grandparents and other "excuses" that they feel students offer for not doing their work. There is a general tendency for writings about how students seem to get on professors' collective nerves, and I want to counter that narrative with a few stories.

One student had severe dyslexia. The members of our Student Academic Support Services Office told me that he really had trouble reading. He was in my First Year Seminar, and in that class I use all Reacting to the Past games, which I have written about before. I quickly got PDFs of all the readings he would have to do because that accommodation was due to him. We played three games that semester and the first was the Athens game. It was rough for this student. Reading Plato’s Republic was a struggle and speaking at the podium was also difficult for him. But when he got up to give his speech during the third game, he did a really good job. No, he was not brilliant in the sense that I could have recorded it for all future students to see. But for him? It was marvelous. He included humor. He responded when people asked a question. A few times he even wryly answered them with a smirk and quick retort. I nearly cried that day in class. That was his triumph. And I am glad I had a hand in it.

Another student wasn’t in my class, but I do feel like he has had a triumph. He’s one of the football players I am mentoring. He was generally irritated at our campus and faculty, not feeling that anyone other than the coaches had any true interest in him as a student on the campus. As a minority student, he felt that most professors didn’t care about him much, or believed that he had much to offer. I remember letting him sit in my office – and just talk. I think he was there for about an hour and a half. A few other students came in (also football players, as it turned out, who had questions about the next day’s class). I watched him watch that exchange, while he was also looking at his phone. But I could see him taking in the interaction with these two other football student-athletes, another minority and one not. That interaction was characterized by some humor, but also a kick in the pants that the two of them get on the assignment because we had a short Reacting-style game the next day. I have been working with him for over a year. And this semester? At the mid-term e had all Bs in his classes. I am not saying I had a direct hand in that outcome, but that is a triumph for him, and I cheer him for that just as much as I do when he's on the field and playing his sport.

There is a student who is very, very shy. She told me that she lives to read books and her goal is to be a copywriter after graduation (and PS she got a job doing exactly that!). She’s was a wonderful student, but often was quiet in class. She wrote on one of her reflections that her favorite parts of my classes were the Reacting game. She said that the games made her get out of her shell. This reflection of hers made me look back on the class and her role in our Reacting game. I recalled how she was not loud (it’s not in her nature), but she was forceful in focusing attention to the issues about which her character cared in the game. To win, she had to bring those issues up. She did. And for her, that is a major triumph, too.

I am so grateful to my students that they come along on the journey with me and have these successes. They make me feel triumphant, too.

As a student, do you have a triumph? Faculty, do you have a story to share in which a student made progress or had a victory of sorts?

This post is a follow up to the one I published last week about planning an in-class assessment of what students had learned so far this semester. We are about at the half-way mark, so it seemed to be a good time to do it.

I had six total topics, and six groups of four students. They had to come up with a question based on one of the topics the course has covered so far.

Hiccup #1. Some of their questions were really mundane or way too specific. So, I had to help them develop more nuanced questions about the material to allow answers to dig more deeply into examples.

Then I gave two of the six questions, randomly, to each group. Of course some of them said, "Can we answer our own question?" Um. No. They had to come up with a presentation for their question, and two groups answered/presented per question.

Hiccup #2. Some made Powerpoint presentations and we had email and a Blackboard meltdown last week so I was scrambling a bit to project the PPTs in the class. But we managed. But it was a lot to manage.

Each group that had developed the question had to assess which group answered better and why. I think this was the best part, and one that I came up with on the fly. If they are going to be responsible for their own learning, then they have to be responsible for assessing who answers better. I'd like to try something else on this in the future. Those who answered the best will get an extra point (or something) in the Reacting to the Past game we play later in the semester. By and large, I agreed with their assessment of which groups answered better. I was keeping notes.

Then, each student had to answer individually the remaining three questions and turn them in the next class. I just reviewed them and there were some great answers, and some not great answers. Some confusion, and some real understanding.

I had hoped that they would all answer everything correctly and it would show me that my commitment to active learning was giving even better results than traditional lecture-only based instruction. I can't go that far. However, I do think they are learning at least as much when I used to teach this course more traditionally. And I gave this assessment as a surprise. In the future I may try to find ways to circle back to what they are learning more often - not just with the last five minutes "What did you learn today?" reflections, but something to connect concepts more holistically. Because some of them were not doing that.

What are other ways that you can assess the learning in an active classroom without relying on traditional memorization exams? How can you "get at" the overall learning that is taking place over the course of the semester, and not just class-by-class assessment? And how can we see if and how they are managing to make sense of the course as a whole?

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.

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!

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