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I have been teaching for over twenty years and higher education is under tremendous pressure and my college is experiencing this as well. I just started reading Jeffrey Selingo's book There is Life After College. I am doing this to try to understand the role of higher education in America now. It's very different than it was even a decade ago, and Selingo offers some context for that.

I have done a lot of reading because I want to provide the best education and experience for any student who comes across my doorway, either the doorway of my office or my classroom. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed at the different issues I must focus on. When I have a student  in my office, or when they come to my class, I am thinking of any number of things, like:

  • "It is my responsibility to teach this student and to be sure my course helps her on her way to graduation."
  • "I need to make sure this student understands and can communicate the skills he has learned in my class in any interview situation so that he can get the job."
  • "I need to retain this student because her continued attendance at my institution is important."
  • "I want to be sure that I engage these students so that they continue to want to learn and finish their degree."
  • "I want to be sure that this student doesn't end up a statistic of the millions who have some college, but no degree and student debt."

At times all of these thoughts can overwhelm and paralyze. And nearly all of those sentences should have an exclamation point after them, because each one seems pressing and necessary and URGENT. Sometimes I think I should just teach and NOT think about all of this. But is that really the extent of my job? Just teaching art history? I don't think so. I do think that my role at a small, liberal arts college is not just to teach. It's to help guide.

And yet, the more I read about our changing economy the more stressed I become for our students. The stakes are high. More and more it seems that the value that we place on individuals is really all about money. We do not hear about movies over the weekend that were good in a creative sense, just which ones made the most money at the box office. Everything is a value exchange.

I teach art history. How do I translate that so that my students can benefit from the skills that my discipline offers, while still helping them be successful in their eventual careers? How do I do that when art history is usually the degree that is maligned, as in a 2014 speech by then-President Obama (which you can read here). Or when it's mentioned in a podcast as a major that even students police among themselves: "Why are you majoring in Art History?!" according to William Deresiewicz in a recent episode of the Unmistakable Creative podcast (you can read about/listen to it here).

My institution is wrestling with the big question of the role of our college in society, what we teach and our mission. We are a private, liberal arts college and I know we help students. I know we're important. Yet, so much is changing around us. I believe strongly in the core of the liberal arts and want my students to be successful. Ultimately that is why I am mentoring students that happen to be on the football team, because I see such potential in them, and yet also a reticence among some of them to be disciplined enough in academics to have it help them launch a career.

I'd love to hear from my former students about how their experiences launched them - or did not. What would you do differently? What do you wish your alma mater did differently?

And today, I'll decide how best to teach tomorrow, and I'll also be planning mentoring meetings this week with students. That work must carry on.

This Saturday the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team had their home opener. In the rain. In the pouring rain. As in I don't think it stopped raining for one play. I admit that I took shelter, thanks to my colleagues, in our Skybox. One of my colleagues was kind enough to give me a guest pass; I think she felt sorry for me, seeing me shivering in my wet clothes.

It was also the first loss of the season. As the mentor to the team, I talk with the students, get to know them, help them craft dreams and goals, teach them in classes. I love doing all of that. But it also makes it much harder when they lose. And even worse to see them get hurt. There were at least three injuries that I saw this past Saturday and each was like a gut punch. I don't know how parents do it.

But once again I was reminded as I sat in the luxury of the dry warmth of the box seat (I feel like such a wuss) and watched them: they love the game so much. They play with SUCH heart. They simply never give up. Even in the relentless rain and a sputtering offense, the defense came up big, again and again. One of the players I have gotten to know very well over two years in my role on the team had a huge sack and made the highlight real of "Play of the Day," which you can see in a link here.  Look at that speed!

They make me a bigger fan every time I watch them. And not that I want them to do it, but I think it is when they lose that I gain even more respect for them. One of my thoughts as I watch them all standing on the sidelines is that they are so devoted to each other. When I think about the strife and conflict in our society right now, a lot of it over race, and then see a team that is very diverse link arms together at the start of every game, work together to achieve a goal, and not give up on each other ever, well, it just makes me think that maybe there is hope for the world after all.

I'll be back at out there next Saturday, win or lose, sun or rain. They've got one fan in their corner always.

Officially, we have been back one week at McDaniel College, where I am Professor of Art History and Faculty Mentor to the Green Terror Football Team. The first week is always pretty chaotic, and this one was the same!

I had a water leak in my office which soaked my carpet and ruined a bunch of papers on my desk. They are testing for mold and for air quality. One of my friends is on leave this semester and she is graciously letting me use her office in the meantime. I met with several returning students in my temporary office. I met my two introductory art history classes (although I was so flummoxed by the wet in my office that I forgot to actually introduce myself to the class!). I am also teaching a Writing course about writing for art and art history, and I met them and gave them a diagnostic test which I have been assessing this weekend.

And...the football team had their first win against Catholic University on Saturday. I was not able to travel to DC (a bit far from my house in PA), and thus "watched" on the livestream. I put "watch" in quotation marks because the video was awful and there was no sound! So, it was difficult to see what was happening. However, one of my students, John Chamberlin, one of the "original football Romans," had a huge game of 111 rushing yards. He thankfully wears green cleats so that I could see. This story about the game recaps many of the excellent plays and stats from Saturday's season opener. The home opener is Saturday at 1 PM against Moravian! Hope many faculty can come out and support the team.

This is a shorter than usual post, as it is Labor Day here in the US. I am blending some work and relaxation today before I am back in the classroom tomorrow. I am thinking today of how grateful I am to have work and to be able to complete a job that is satisfying but also challenging. I listened to a great podcast about work on Innovation Hub, which is a really good podcast with interesting interviews. You can check out that show here. Happy Labor Day to those of you in the US.

It's been a busy few weeks, getting ready for the fall term to begin, so I have been a bit lax in getting my regular Monday posts out. I'm "faking" it a bit today, in that I am linking to another story, rather than writing a full post, on an article about my mentoring of the football team that ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education this past week. Here is the story link.

This story hit three days before we held the first-ever McDaniel College Green Terror Football Alumni Networking Event. Our college's Office of Experience and Opportunity has been offering alumni networking events for departments for several years. One day, I thought, these programs are great - but what if we did this just for football players with all former football players coming back to talk about how football helped them, but also how the liberal arts education that they got here also helped them. I suggested the idea to the CEO. It was deemed a good idea. And last night, 140 or so current players met nearly 30 alumni of McDaniel College, who also played football.

And I think some magic happened.

Students who attended can better explain what happened than I could:

"Thank you for taking the time to put that idea together, you have no idea of the potential futures you could’ve shaped by bringing all these people together."

"I'd like to give a HUGE shout out to Gretchen McKay and the CEO Office for organizing the first ever McDaniel Football Alumni Networking social. We all appreciate the countless hours of hard work you put into our program!"

Here are some pictures from the event. I would do just about anything to help these students and to ensure their success. I expect a lot from each of them, but I hope they know I will give just as much back to them in return.

Aaron Slaughter addresses current players of the McDaniel College football team.
Current McDaniel football players listening - and asking questions - of alums of the team and college

 

Among the issues I hear from both students and faculty across institutions, including my own, is a statement faculty often make to student athletes who take their classes: “You are not here to play football” (or fill in whatever sport). Faculty say it when players have to miss their class for sports games. Students say they hear it from faculty often. But the truth is, to say they are “not here to play [insert sport here]” is not fully true.

Coaches play an important role in recruiting every incoming class. I knew that intellectually, but I really did not understand how the coaches play an integral role in the recruitment of an incoming class. Until I began to mentor the football team and took a front row seat to the academic cycle of the team and a coach’s life, I did not realize how vital they are to the admissions enterprise. For a college like mine, which is dependent on tuition revenue, student recruitment is key. While we have lots of outreach and marketing, it is often through a coach that a student first learns about an institution and has his or her “first touch.” Coaches want talent for their teams, and they spend a lot of time in high schools recruiting top students. Thus, many times the student’s first interaction with a college institution is through the coach.

In a focus group a few months ago, football players at my institution from a range of years and ethnicity, were asked about why they are at college. They all emphasized that they wanted to get an education. That was the first answer to the question, “Why are you here/Why did you come to college?” Yes, they were first recruited to play their sport by the coaching staff. But they understand what is at stake. They emphasized that they very much love their sport, and to play, but they also want an education.

"Playing football" was not among the answers. Not one single student answered the question “Why are you here/Why did you come to college?” with “to play football” as their first answer. While football may be the reason they looked at this particular college, and while the sport may offer them opportunities through alumni connections, each of these students had their eyes on a larger prize: a college education and a pathway to a job and career. A follow up question about where they might be in five years, students answered by saying “I want to be a spokesman for a company” or “have a steady income.” Other students answered, “having independence financially,” and “finding a career and maybe starting a family.”

Thus, by their own answers, football was not the primary reason that they were in school, and yet, as the book I am currently writing will hopefully demonstrate, playing football is an important identity marker for them, and it is often their ticket to college. Without the team in high school, a coach’s interest, they may not have found a path to college as easily as they did through their sport.

Faculty, perhaps we should be a bit more reflective and interested in our students' sports identity and be more willing to help them make the most out of their four years, in the classroom and on the field.

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the Texas Lutheran Engaging Pedagogy Conference as their keynote speaker. Details of the conference can be viewed here. I am very thankful to their organizer, Dr. Chris Bollinger, and their Provost, Dr. Debbi Cottrell, for inviting me down and giving me this opportunity.

My talk centered around active learning in my art history classes.  There were a few tweets with images during my talk, including this one:

I have already written about this idea of creating classes where it is "OK to be wrong." You can read about it in this blog post from this past fall. This is an important concept that I am still thinking about with my teaching. If everything is about high stakes tests, and then we say we want our students to take risks, how can we achieve that when making a mistake on a test has such huge consequences today? Even something as basic as funding for schools is dependent on test scores. When such thinking is ingrained in students, it's hard for them to think creatively and problem-solve. Creating an environment where it is OK to be wrong becomes very important, otherwise, we do not teach students that failure is often what leads to the greatest discoveries and creative solutions.

While at the conference, I also had the audience participate in some active learning themselves, which you can see in this "tweet" from Dr. Steven Vrooman who helped me with tech and took the video.

It was great to be in a room with so much energy and enthusiastic professors. If you'd like me to speak at your event contact me at gkreahlingmckay@yahoo.com or leave a message!

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.

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For those of you who haven't read this blog before, I am the faculty mentor to the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team. I am a tenured Professor of Art History, and have been in my role with the team for about a year and a half. During the season I attend practices and games, and when I am not able to get to an away game I watch on live-stream and to the likely amusement of the players, tweet during all four quarters of the game. But most of my work is helping students become more successfully academically. This can include helping them with time management, study skills, securing a tutor, or even sometimes helping them connect with various resources at the institution.

I have learned a lot through this academic mentor role. By being willing to listen to them before attempting to "fix everything," I have learned a lot about what higher education does well for students, and where it falls short. Thus, I have decided to write a book about what these football players are teaching me and can teach other institutions. I have a vague outline of the book in mind, but the working title is: Understanding and Supporting the Student Athlete: A Guide for Institutions of Higher Education from a Faculty Mentor of a Division Three Football Team. I realize that is quite the mouthful, and it may change as the book takes shape. However, I'm very passionate about this topic and was just on the campus of the Maine Maritime Academy, holding conversations with coaches, staff, and faculty about supporting student athletes.

Among the issues I hear from both students and faculty across institutions, including my own, is a statement faculty often make: "You are not here to play football" (or fill in whatever sport). Faculty say it when players have to miss their class for sports games. Students say they hear it from faculty often. But really: to say they are "not here to play X sport" is not fully true.

Unbeknownst to most faculty (or at least this one) is the role coaches play in recruiting every incoming class. For a college like mine, which is dependent on tuition revenue to pay the bills and make an annual budget, student recruitment is key. Oftentimes a student is only made aware of the institution because of a coach's approach. Thus, if that student then enrolls in the institution, and they play the sport, to say that the student is not there to play the sport is disingenuous. They are there to play their sport, but also to get an education.

In a focus group a few months ago, football players at my institution from a range of years and ethnicity, were asked about why they are at college. They all emphasized that they wanted to get an education. That was the first answer to "why are you here" that the whole cohort gave. Yes, they were first recruited to play their sport by the coaching staff. But they understand what is at stake. In a future post I will write about the the importance of sports as an identity marker, an issue that is particularly true for minority and/or first-generation students. I am still researching that particular idea.

But faculty reading this post: if you have student athletes in your classes, know this: they want to play their sport. They were most likely recruited for your institution by a coach to play their sport. But they are very much interested in their education and want to do well and succeed. They just need a little understanding and support.

Today I’d like to write about a specific activity in hopes that it might encourage other faculty members to think about how to present material to students that get them actively engaged in the topic, rather than passively listening to a lecture. This is not to say that lecturing is bad; only that there are other ways to present material to engage students and keep them at the edge of their seat.

In my Roman Art and Architecture class, we must cover the Tetrarchy, which was a “Rule of Four,” instituted by the Emperor Diocletian when the Empire was divided in half and two rulers were chosen to rule both halves.  Diocletian built a palace in modern-day Croatia, Split, and it reflected the idea of the Tetrarchy’s rule by four.

Instead of showing the palace and telling them about it, I introduce the idea of the Tetrarchy as a political system, and we talk about how equality and similarity were two important concepts that had to be embraced in order for the rule by four to work. This all comes from a wonderful book Art Forms and Civic Life in the Late Roman Empire by L’Orange that I still remember – and use – from my graduate school days. But I have adapted that book and the ideas engendered in it for my current students and active engagement.

After this brief introduction, the students are sorted into groups. They are given a sheet that describes the Tetrarchy briefly and then they are given this charge:

You are architects for the Emperor Diocletian who desires a new palace to be built that will express the ideas of the Tetrarchy. You must design a plan for a palace, sketch it out onto a large piece of paper, and present your plan to the emperor (the class), explaining how your plan represents the ideas of the Tetrarchy.

It is interesting to me that each time I use this assignment, which I have run about three times since I developed it, the plans are very different. I suppose it should not be surprising, since the students are different and all bring their own notions and ideas to the table when they meet over this in-class assignment. It is not meant to be a research assignment, but rather one in which they are applying information to demonstrate to me that they are grappling with or understanding the concepts. Sometimes the plans don’t adhere to the concepts at all – and we talk about that when the plans are presented at the end of the class period. But often some come close to the idea of equality and similarity in the palace itself, a photo of which is here:

During their final exam period in which the students are asked in part to reflect on their experience and learning in the course, I ask them this question: “I tried to offer you a multitude of learning activities this semester. Which one or ones do you think helped you learn the most? Why? Please explain.” Two students chose this day’s activity as the one that helped them the most after I used it this past spring 2017 semester. My guess is they’ll likely remember it a lot longer, too.

What class you could turn over to students to figure out, rather than just telling them the answer?

I have wanted to write a piece for McDaniel College Green Terror Football team coaches for awhile. Now that the season is over, I think it’s a good time to do so.

I am amazed at how hard all of them work: the head coach, the position coaches, the assistant coaches. I don’t fully understand the hierarchy there, but I do know they all work super hard to get the best out of the students on the field, while they simultaneously emphasize the need to keep to the books and graduate.

Our record this year was 3-7, which was the record as last season. But don’t let that record fool you: they are not the same team.

They are much more poised and focused. They play very much more as a unit than I saw in any game in the 2016 season. Their Twitter hashtag, #AsOne, is felt and expressed by all. The refrain I heard at training camp: “Do Your Job!” was taken to heart by the players and they did that for the most part.

There were some key injuries. But there always are.

Yet, the Coaches kept getting them back into it, keeping student/players’ eyes both on the next game as well as reminding them about classes. It’s a really tough balancing act, and one I would have no idea how to achieve.

That is why when some of my colleagues and friends jokingly call me “Coach McKay,” I wince.

Because I am not a coach. I do not know the first thing about coaching. I am still smarting over the loss at Franklin and Marshall, and that was Week 3!! I am still learning the mentoring gig; coach I am not.

Now the Coaches go onto the next phase of their operation: recruiting. The amount of time and commitment this part of their job requires is immense, which hardly anyone understands, particularly faculty. Last year, I contacted the Coach after the last game of the season, naively thinking that he would have all the time in the world now that the season was over. How wrong I was! He and the other coaches will now be on the road until the winter break. In January, they host busloads of potential student/players on campus, many of whom they saw in high school games every Friday night of the regular season. They then have a bit of a lull before March and “spring ball” starts. Then prepare for camp to start in August! It took me awhile, but now I get the drill.

So, this post is for the Green Terror Coaches. Their support of me has been wonderful and I want to send the same to them.  Go get us some great players, and thank you for all you do! I will be holding down the fort, meeting with the guys to make sure they finish the semester strong.

From a grateful faculty mentor, thank you, coaches, for all that you do!

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