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On Friday I had a chance to speak at my college to some administrators and spouses of our trustees about my role with the football team and my teaching with active learning. I brought along one of the "Original Football Romans," senior Sociology major Drew Scott, and a senior business major Andre Henry, Jr., who I only met last year, but who took my class last spring (2017).

The three of us were discussing my classes, my teaching, and my role with the team. In so doing, I recounted a post I wrote here for the team after their loss at Franklin & Marshall College. In my recollection of the loss, I remembered that after the game, standing with the players as they tried to absorb their loss, I had said something like, "good game, though" or something equally lame. One of the coaches said to me, "No good game when you lose like that," or something to that effect.

I was mortified for saying something so stupid.

For professors, it is very hard to admit when we are wrong. At least it is for me. I don't mind saying "I don't know," but I really hate it when I say something stupid. No one would have expected me to know what to say after a loss like that. But I still felt badly that I said something so lame.

At our presentation, when I recounted that story in front of Drew and Andre, they both looked at me and said, "But, Dr. McKay: it's OK to be wrong." [This was something that came out of the focus group of my first group of football players in Roman art in the fall of 2015. I wrote about that exercise and my saying that awhile ago here on this blog and you can read it again here.]

They reminded me of my own words, thus schooling me and helping remind me that I am continuing to grow with them as a person, professor, and mentor.

My presentation with these two star athletes and good, solid, liberal arts students reminded me that if it's OK for them to be wrong, then it is OK for me to be wrong, too. As this post hopefully conveys to all, I continue to learn from the players and coaches in my role with the McDaniel College Green Terror football team.

And I am ever grateful for the opportunity.

I have been listening to a lot of podcasts about creativity, expression, success, and entrepreneurship. It seems that nearly all of them have talked about some aspect of "authenticity" as an ingredient to success. I have been thinking a lot about that, and think that it's true. I think to be successful - truly successful - at any endeavor you have be authentic in how you go about it, engage with others, and express yourself.

I want to come across as authentic in the classroom. I want students to know that I care about them as individuals and as distinct learners. I want them to see this is not an “act,” though I have read studies that suggest that teachers can learn these traits. But for me, coming across to students as authentic is critically important.

I think that I am fairly authentic with my students. I listen to them when we are in class (part of a mindfulness practice in teaching I have been trying to cultivate and will post on in the future). For now, here are some of the things I do inside and outside of the classroom to help demonstrate my authentic self:

  1. I talk to students before class to find out how they are doing in other classes and what their interests are.
  2. I show my true feelings about what I am teaching. I tend to love all the subjects that I teach (though I will admit "Roman Concrete Day" is a bit of a challenge), and so coming across with enthusiasm and interest - sometimes even wonderment - gets across the ideas I'm proposing. Perhaps that is also showing vulnerability in showing that I really care about my material.
  3. I follow their sports teams through emails we are sent and if they are mentioned I send a congratulatory email or Tweet or FB post. This has never been more real to me than when I took on academic mentorship of the football team. There are a lot of them to keep track of!
  4. I follow theater/performances and comment if they are in a production or presenting somewhere.

A recent study has demonstrated more on this topic and that being authentic in the classroom is perceived by students and can facilitate their learning. You can read the abstract to that that study here. Here is an excerpt of that study:

"This study sought to generate a more robust understanding of teacher     (in)authenticity. In other contexts, authenticity is regarded as a display of true self and has been positively linked to beneficial psychological (e.g., increased self-esteem) and social outcomes (e.g., higher relational satisfaction)...Results indicated that authentic teaching is perceived when teachers are viewed as approachable, passionate, attentive, capable, and knowledgeable. Alternatively inauthentic teaching is observed when teachers are perceived as unapproachable, lacking passion, inattentive, incapable, and disrespectful. Notably, these behaviors are often demonstrated through distinct actions taken by teachers that are often examined within the larger instructional communication literature (e.g., self-disclosure). Practically, these results allude to the notion that (in)authentic teaching can have a meaningful impact on students."

This study is very interesting to me. If you are a professor, how do you foster “being authentic” in the classroom? Students: do you have authentic teachers? Do they help you learn?

Yesterday I was invited to run a workshop on active learning to a group of faculty, librarians, and technologists in Sarasota, Florida. It was a great experience and I enjoyed my time there immensely. During the workshop, I shared the following exercise as an example of how I would approach teaching this gorgeous painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres (b. 1780- d. 1867) in my nineteenth-century art class. I have not yet used this assignment, but I explained how I break down a topic into an active learning experience for students.

First, it is important to identify your learning goals. WHY are you teaching whatever it is you are teaching? What, specifically, do you want students to know about it? Thinking about what I want them to get out of the presentation of whatever topic is "up" for the day changes my focus from delivering facts about the image (which I could do in a lecture) and helps me think about how I could possibly get them to the answer by doing something. For this painting, I want students to come away the following: How the senses of Sight, Hearing, Touch [and maybe even Scent? or Taste?] are expressed in the image. In addition, I want them to understand the importance of this painting and Ingres as a painter to later artists.

To meet the first objective, I would put students into groups or pairs (depending on the size of the class) and have them look, analyze and view the painting, thinking about how Ingres activates the five senses with specific visual cues in the painting. I would give them time to talk about them, and write them down. Then we would discuss as a class.

In terms of the senses, Sight is clearly being activated because, it is a painting. But so is the sense of Touch. The textures are exquisite, from the fabric of the drapery hanging on the left, to the softness apparently on the sheets, to the flesh of the Bather as she sits with her back to us. But there is also Hearing in this painting; there is a small fountain and bath between her leg and the curtain. If you look closely, you see that the fountain is trickling with water. You can nearly hear it. The rest of the painting is so quiet, you can imagine the sound of that trickle of water.  You could make a case for Scent in this painting as well, as the exotic almost wafts literally from the painting itself. The only sense that is not overtly evident is Taste, although one could make a case for taking a sip of the water, or, if the sensuality of this painting is not overt enough, kissing this bather.

I would then move to this comparison to talk about my other goal for this image, which is Ingres’ importance and influence in the art world. I would ask each student to write about this comparison (below): Man Ray’s photograph Le Violin d’Ingres from 1924 and Ingres' Bather. Man Ray's photograph is clearly an homage to the great painter. Each student would write individually at first on the comparison.

After five minutes or so of comparison writing, I would have them share their ideas with a partner or in a group. We would then discuss as a class, with every pair or group member adding to the conversation. Conversations are always richer after giving students a chance to think first, then share with a couple of other students, and then share with the class as a whole. I would also collect their writings as a chance to see how well they are improving as writers or just a check to see where they are as writers (this is not graded).

I would hope that students would see the obvious reference to the Ingres painting in the photograph. I don't want to give the titles of the painting or the photograph prior to the exercise, only because titles can nudge students into interpretive decisions, and I want those interpretations to always be based on visual analysis. But it's not only the title that alludes to Ingres directly, other elements do as well: the turban, the position of the woman with her back to the viewer, as well as, perhaps, the objectification of the woman into an actual violin “to be played” by the artist – or, perhaps, by the viewer - especially since the woman in the photograph, Kiki, Man Ray’s favorite model, is shown with no arms. It is also said that Ingres was a passionate violin player as well as painter, and the phrase "Violin d’Ingres” has become an idiom in French that means “hobby.” This last I would have to tell them. But after looking for the five senses, and then further looking and writing in the comparison, that idea is much more likely to stick with the students than if it was yet another element in a lecture on the topic.

This is how I would structure this class. I have found that shifting from "lecture topic" to "learning goals" helps free me from thinking that I must provide the answer and evidence and facts.

What questions might you ask of the next topic you are teaching and how might you reframe the activities in the class to get the students more involved in the learning?

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"It's OK to be wrong." This is one of my favorite comments from a focus group I ran about a class I taught on Roman art in 2016. The students were remembering that I said this about a work of art that they were presenting to the class. The image was this one, of a poultry seller from Ostia:

In the focus group that was conducted a year after the class had been taught and concluded, two students remembered this image and my instructions about the day's activities. I had sorted students into groups and then let them choose the image that they would look at, analyze, and then present to the class. I wanted them to get the class involved in their discussions, so I encouraged them to come up with a hypothesis to suggest a possible meaning.

Apparently, after giving those directions, I also said, “And it’s OK to be wrong.” This was what stuck with these two students – a year later.

They said that they were struck by it because they had no idea what was going on in this image. One of them said to the other, “Good because there is no way we are getting this one right.” They did not tell me this during the time of the class, but did so afterwards, when they were asked to participate in this focus group.

This led to a greater discussion about the need to have assignments and activities in classes that are low stakes. Students learn from getting things wrong, but very often those “wrongs” are on high-stakes exams and tests that then hurt their overall grades. I can also see that this leads to high levels of anxiety about tests. By letting students struggle when the stakes are low, they begin to see that not having the right answer is not always the chief and most important result.

In this case, I recall that during their presentation and discussion of the image with their peers, they did not get it right. They were not sure what they were looking at, since the image is more abstracted, with certain elements exaggerated from the perspective of naturalism.

But they remembered this image a year later. If it had been on a test and they had to memorize it, only to have it leave their memory banks, I doubt they would have remembered this image. But because they engaged with it, thought about it, and ultimately, stood up and talked about it, they did remember it.

And in that regard, they did get it right.

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.

In the first part of the introduction to western art, we talk about the move to farming from hunting/gathering. To have students really understand how difficult it was to move to farming, I use a case study/role-playing scenario that I have adapted from Paula Lazrus’ Reacting to the Past game, Hunter Gatherers in Transition. Because this is a content-heavy introductory course, it is difficult to use an entire Reacting game. [I have written about Reacting to the Past games in the past and more on the Reacting to the Past as a pedagogy can be read here.]

For this case-study, students are placed in groups and each group is given their specific scenario that describes their current circumstances and situation. The scenario is different for each group, though they are divided into three types: those who are still hunter-gatherers, those who are in transition to farming, and those who have adopted farming practices wholly.

After they read their scenarios, they choose cards from a deck that have “events” listed on them. In this deck of cards are events such as floods, that destroy all the seed inventory, or illnesses that wipe out a large portion of the population. Or other events happen like lessening access to animals for those that are still hunting. The choosing of the cards is random and they read the card event to the entire class. They then have time to figure out what they will do to respond, if they are even able to respond. To help them figure out their response, each group is also given at the start of this class a set of “tools,” printed on cards. They can use those tools (which can range from animals to stone tools or other objects) to solve their current predicament. They have about 10 minutes to come up with a solution, and then choose another event card and repeat the process.

One goal of this entire exercise is to have students understand the difficulties in the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. In the past I had always taught rather casually that this transition went smoothly and have even – wrongly – suggested in past classes that it was somehow inevitable. Reading and using Lazrus’ game has taught me differently. And students who participate in this role-play/case-study have a chance to really experience the difficulties of the transition as they make their way through the deck of cards.

The context of the movement of people versus the stationary establishment of farming communities becomes clearer through this exercise than a lecture from me about the differences.

How might you adapt such a case-study/role-play model to a class in your discipline?

This past week I was confounded by a number of student athletes lamenting to me personally and/or on social media about how much they "hated school." It made me so sad.

But it also got me thinking.

It got me thinking about an address I heard José Antonio Bowen, President of Goucher College, give a few years ago about how weird it is that we, as professors, love school. Not much of the regular population does. That was confirmed for me by the echoes of "I hate school" I kept hearing our first week back. And I *do* like school. I have been here my whole life!

And it also got me thinking about a book I read last summer: Susan Blum's book I Love Learning; I Hate School, published by Cornell University Press. In her book, she outlines that the myriad of services, financial and Registrar, are bewildering to students. I can't do much about that. But she also notes that students are bored in class.

I know we could (and some do!) say, "Well TOUGH. It's their job to be in school and they better find a way to get interested." Or, we could yammer on about "this generation..." as if really there were better students before. Mark Carnes, in his book Minds on Fire, published by Harvard University Press, notes several passages from the eighteenth and nineteenth century in which professors lament the same things I hear from my colleagues today about students not probing more deeply, not reading enough, not thinking enough. On and on.

I can't do anything about the systems that are in place that are bewildering, esoteric, and not user-friendly to our population of college students. But I can make my classes more interesting and more engaging.

This blog is devoted to helping faculty think about ways to create more active and engaging classrooms and ones that still ask students to learn content. But in the activities I have developed, they also work with different people, solve problems, communicate ideas - all skills that employers say that they want newly hired employees to be able to do - without sacrificing content of the discipline of art history.

Intrigued? Sign up on the right to not miss future posts!

The focus of this blog is on different aspects of teaching in higher education. My main desire is to help faculty to have classes in which students are more engaged in the material. Most of my colleagues talk about how they want their students to be more engaged, to ask more questions in class, to go deeper into the material, to care about their learning.

Today I hope to open a conversation. Thus, to my faculty colleagues I ask: What do you want? What are you wanting to see in your classrooms that you are not seeing? What are your challenges and frustrations? How might you want to see your classroom in the future? Please leave a comment here on the blog.

And students who follow this blog (thank you!), what would YOU like faculty to know about what would engage you in a class?

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It’s August. That means it's the time of year when faculty are starting to think about syllabi for their courses. I’ve heard faculty talk about how it grows page upon page each year as they write more and more rules in order to cover – and perhaps control – all kinds of student behavior. And there are many cartoons, like this one, about how when students invariably ask questions, those answers are, of course, in the syllabus...

Another post on the syllabus came across my Twitter feed by Sara Fulmer, who writes about Preparing a Learning-Focused Syllabus.  This got me thinking, “What is the point of the syllabus?” As Mano Singham argues in his AACU piece Death to the Syllabus,there should be no more syllabi. Says Singham, “It is time to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class.” (emphasis mine)

I am required to have a syllabus for every course I teach, even though online or hybrid/blended courses don’t need the traditional syllabus because of the way that course guides and modules are set up if you adhere to best practices in online education and teaching. But I make one anyway, and link it on the content management system page for my courses. And there is language I am required to put on the syllabus, though I have heard of some faculty making that an appendix and putting it on their course management page, which is an interesting idea, to keep the syllabus about the course.

But as Singham notes, where in the syllabus is learning addressed? I have attempted to add learning goals to the syllabi for my classes. And Fulmer's point is about creating syllabi that are more learner-centered rather than teacher-focused. In other words, we can make syllabi more collective in spirit – about what is possible in the course – rather than generate a list of rules that indicate how a student can lose points for every possible misstep.

In my attempt to make my syllabi more about learning, I include a section about my learning goals for students in my course. After going over those on the first day, I  pause to have students fill out a card that notes what they would like to focus on for learning in the course. I (try to remember to) give out those cards again at the mid-point of the semester in order to have students note how they think they are doing on their goals, which gives me a chance to respond in kind to them about whether I agree with their assessment of their progress or not. I think this is a great chance for individual feedback to students about how they are doing in my class.

I was also struck by a column in Chronicle’s Vitae the other day written by David Gooblar, which advocates putting more images in a syllabus, almost making it read like a graphic novel. You can read that post here. I'm an art historian. I should find ways to "art-up" my syllabi, and may do just that this August.

Faculty: What do you think about your syllabus? Do you want to change it up, or is it a list and a contract that sounds more like legalize? Do you want to keep it that way? Do you feel at your institution you have to?

Students: what say you about the syllabus in a course? Do you read it? Why or why not?

 

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.

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