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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.

I ran across this story about teaching that was in the January edition of The Atlantic (written by Jessica Lahey, January 21, 2108) and is about the teaching life of one half of the Penn & Teller magic act. The full piece is here. In it, Teller talks about his experiences teaching Latin in his past, and explains how, in his estimation, teaching is performance art.

I could not agree more. I have not read anything recently that lit me up like this story about teaching. It is so much what I try to do in my classes. I rev myself up each day, work hard to connect with each individual student. I learn my students names as quickly as possible, and am always in the classroom early in order to greet them one by one as they file in, somewhat tired or a little grumpy.

The article quotes Teller as saying this, too: "What I have, however, is delight. I get excited about things. That is at the root of what you want out of a teacher; a delight in what the subject is, in the operation. That’s what affects students.”

This is my goal in every class. I always try to show them my delight. My delight is in the material, surely, but it is also delightful to get to share that material with them. I want them to find some delight as well. I want something to spark them, make them think about things in new ways. This is often a challenge in a class that is fundamentally about 'old stuff' - Roman art, medieval art. It's not that accessible or easily connectable to my audience, which is usually 18-22 year olds, and, increasingly, student athletes, especially football players. On my teaching evaluations I always get a comment, "She obviously loves art." I do; but what I love more is teaching art. I would not be loving it if I were not teaching.

There is no greater delight for me than when a student follows along the journey that I take us on for 90 minutes, two times a week. When a student gasps when he or she understands the concepts, or nods in a knowing way, or smiles after a few minutes of puzzlement, that is sheer delight. Connecting with my students - and delighting in their learning - is what makes everything worthwhile.

If you are a student reading this, what brings you delight? If you are a professor and reading this, how do you demonstrate or show your delight in the classroom?

I was talking to a colleague of mine, Josh Ambrose, who is the Executive Director of the Center for Experience and Opportunity at my institution (McDaniel College), about teaching. I run ideas past him often about classes and projects that I am thinking through, and I am always thinking through something or other. Because of our schedules, our conversations are sometimes over FB messenger. In one such exchange, Josh said this:

“For me, what I love about your courses, is that it has students *doing* things. That's what I keep coming back to in my classes. Whether your students [are] editing Wikipedia, or fully engaged in running their own games, or my students [are] launching a magazine, or doing a blog from the jungle, etc., I think you're very good at giving your students ownership and I’m more and more convinced that showing them their agency, their ability to do, to be adults/scholars, is so important after a life of public education that is geared towards tests.”

I was grateful for his reflection because I think that we owe it to our students to create content that is for an audience beyond “The Professor.” As we send students out into this technology-drenched world, their ability to communicate is so important. Creating content by writing blogs and either editing or adding new Wikipedia entries changes the dynamic of why they are learning and why they are researching and writing.

Another truly important and critical skill is going to be the ability to genuinely connect with people through writing and speaking.

I think students need to realize that they need to get out there. They need to do more than snapchat their friends or whatever the latest app is. Of course, we all want to chat with our friends, keep connected, and use apps for that. But students also need to think about how they will be in the world. How will they really communicate fully with the world? What do they want to say? What is their unique contribution to the world that they need to cultivate and develop?

This is not what I was trained to do, in terms of my graduate school life in art history. And I still love art history, and art history is the catalyst by which I try to also teach these greater skills. I want students to find their place in the world, to find that unique gift that they have, that no one else has.

By employing assignments that require creation, curation, and research, students can begin to think about the mark they wish to make in the world. I need to do this more, as I have only had pockets of these types of assignments from time to time but I need to start finding ways to have students think bigger. Their futures depend on it.

To that end, this coming spring semester in my Art of the Medieval World course, I plan to have students blog, each week, based on a prompt I will give them. This will get them writing and hopefully, since the blogs will be open to those in the class, read each other's thoughts. Three students per class will also talk about what they wrote at the start of the week. I'm hoping that this will get some conversations going.

If you are a faculty member, what do you do to make students think about their place in the world?

As many of you know, I use Reacting to the Past games in some form in most of my classes. In my First Year Seminar, I use three of these highly immersive role-playing games. In that 1000-level class for first year students, they write at least 21 pages of work, all of it researched with proper citations. They also must learn to speak effectively and persuasively - nearly every class period. And they have a lot of fun doing it.

And yet here it is, the end of the semester, and I sit with doubts: Did they learn? And did they even though they clearly also enjoyed the course?

I know that they are learning because there are many assessments that show that Reacting classes are exceptional ways to get students to have more empathy for others, to read and write critically, to learn oral communication skills, to research proficiently and to learn how to cite correctly. And there is a new volume of essays in the book Playing to Learn, edited by C. Edward Watson and Thomas Chase Hagood, that features essays from several instructors about how they have used this innovative pedagogy in their classes. I hope to read it over the upcoming break between semesters. And I have assessments for the other innovative activities I assign in my classes.

For instance, coming out in 2018 is my chapter entitled "Engaging the non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and others) in Roman Art," which is chapter 8 in Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation, and Creativity. In this chapter I discuss the innovative strategies of active learning that I employed for the duration of the fall semester of 2015 in my Roman art course. And I've continued to chronicle my active learning exercises employed in classes here on my blog, at invited workshops on the topic, and been asked to deliver the keynote address on the topic of active learning at Texas Lutheran University's Engaging Pedagogy Conference this coming May (2018).

And yet, it is the end of each semester, and once again I have these troublesome thoughts: Did they learn? Was it rigorous? Did they work hard enough?

The learning took place. I have assessments that show that. So to me it's a bit sad that fun in the classroom is so circumspect and that some faculty (raises hand!) feel sheepish at the concept that fun and learning can coexist. I hope there can be a way that we can collectively move beyond this. Students deserve to enjoy their classes and learn at the same time.

Is that notion really so novel? A shame that it seems to be.

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This summer there was an article in Inside Higher Ed about an anthropological study about why faculty do not always want to embrace innovative teaching methods: they do not want to appear to look stupid in front of their students.

I can understand this. Of course I don’t want to look stupid in front of my students, either. I have posted on this blog before about being wrong and how to handle questions I don't know.

But I think there is a way to re-frame this. If something goes wrong in the classroom - if we do try something new - and it doesn't work out, can't we explain the failure as part of the risk of growing? That things don’t always go right? That, to me, is modeling what I want my students to do: Take Risks! Try that new course you know nothing about!

Last fall, I tried a completely new experiment by taking my introductory survey course and making it a blended class, half online and half face to face. I spent the first day of the class explaining why I was doing it: what I have learned from study of literature on technology and education, on student pressures to graduate on time, and my own experiences teaching in an online environment. They listened and were glad I tried something new. There was a point mid-semester where one part of the course was NOT going well and we had to have a conversation and a correction. They appreciated that, too. Did that make me look stupid? I don’t think so.

Shouldn’t we work to model those very traits that we want students to embrace?

I hear all the time that our students at my college aren’t “risk-takers.” They are not “gritty” enough. They need more “resilience.” We need to have them try new things. I posted about the grit and resilience factor about the college football players that I teach, mentor and watch on the field. They definitely take risks every day.

How often do we as faculty try new things and risk?

I take risks often because I also have discovered through talking to my students, having focus groups with them, and reading the scholarship of teaching and learning, that my students learn more through active learning. The minority of students, I find, learn from lecture-only note-taking. I’m not bashing that method; I am just not content to know that only about 8-10% of my class (if that) learns well that way. If I can get more people learning more consistently and deeply if I change my methods, then I am going to do that. Because it makes for better classrooms and learning. And that is my job: to teach students.

As a result, might I look stupid in front of my students? Maybe. But even if I do, I seem to earn more respect from them because when I explain why I am doing it, they know I’m changing things up for them.

But that makes me human, too. And since one of my goals in every class is to make my class a community, I will continue to take risks in front of my students, letting them know I am doing it, so when I tell them to do it, I can say: I’ve done it, too.

For faculty reading this, why not leave a comment, telling us about the last time you took a risk in the classroom. Or, if you're reticent to do so, why?

 

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.

Today’s post is about curiosity. It’s a word I’ve been thinking about a lot as it keeps coming up in books and podcasts.

First, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about curiosity in her book Big Magic. I read that book awhile ago, but I keep coming back to her explanation that curiosity is more important to follow than “passion.” Curiosity is questioning. It can be a niggling to know more about something, or a real search for a Big Answer to a Big Question. I am curious about so many things, something I think I inherited from my Also-An-Aquarius Dad (thanks, Dad!).

Right now, I am curious about two interrelated things: how student athletes learn best, and more specifically what it is about the combination of Reacting to the Past role-playing games and D3 football players that gets so much engagement in the classroom. I use Reacting games, as I’ve posted here many times, but I’ve noticed increasing engagement over the past two years from the football players that take my classes (many of them enroll because I am the academic mentor to the D3 McDaniel College football team – go Green Terror!). And because so many of them enroll (fourteen players were in my 24-person Roman art and architecture class), I get a front-row seat to observe what inspires them, moves them to do more and better work academically, and gets them excited in the classroom. And it has led me to want to research more deeply to find out what is going on, rather than simply watching it and taking anecdotal notes. So, that is where curiosity is leading me right now.

I am also thinking about curiosity from the student side.

When students sign up for an elective course, there must be some element of interest there, some amount of curiosity about the topic to make them choose that course over another that fulfills the same general education requirement. Even if the course is a required course for the major, and the students “must” take it, their choice of that major was likely sparked by some element of curiosity about that discipline or the career to which they hope it will lead.

This leads me to the question for faculty: how can you keep that curiosity going?

I really believe that keeping students actively engaged in the classroom can keep that initial curiosity alive, or rekindle it in the case of a required class in a major. I firmly believe that we must allow students to actively engage in the material of the major, or the course, or the topic, for them to really feel an affinity with the subject and learn it deeply and well. Of course, they might not be able to do everything an accomplished art historian, biologist, sociologist, or poet does when taking such a class. Some of them may never have the zeal to stay with that discipline, let alone profession. Truly: how many of our college students are really going to major and go on for an advanced degree in our disciplines? How many should?

Continuing on for an advanced degree should not be the main or only metric of success for all students. When they signed up for a class, there was something, some amount of curiosity, that led them to that course or that major. How can we keep it going?

I would argue that it’s engagement that will keep the curiosity going, that kindle of interest burning. This reminds me of my blog post from November of 2015  in which I pondered, “What is a faculty member’s role in student engagement?” That post garnered a lot of comments, some of them from students themselves who were in my Roman Art and Architecture class in the fall of 2015.

I am still committed to reaching every student, because I believe that finding a way to keep that curiosity kindled is the way to keep students engaged and ultimately learn skills and content to be successful in the world, regardless of major. That is what general education requirements are all about at a liberal arts college.

In my teaching, blog and workshops, I am committed to helping others to find ways to engage students to continue to keep the curiosity alive and help them succeed in their chosen classes and majors.

How do you keep students' curiosity kindled as a faculty member in the classroom?

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The first days back to campus are upon us all. I was on campus a few times this summer with different meetings and projects with which I am involved that required my presence. But of course, the students were not there.

When I look back on the summer related to work, the best days were when some of the students I was helping to appeal their financial aid suspensions were on campus. I met one mother, too. Those were the best days because I really do miss the students in the summer. I noticed on Twitter and Facebook in late July and early August that there were more posts from students about missing campus, wanting to get back into the groove, and the football players were itching for camp that started August 12.

I have a new crop of first year students who will be in my First Year Seminar this fall and we will be playing three Reacting to the Past role-playing games. First up is the Athens Game, about what to do in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War. Then the students will play Bishops who are tasked with coming up with a creed that everyone can sign in the Council of Nicaea game. And our final one is The Second Crusade Game that is still in development.

I know these games will be great and I will be excited to meet these new students and help them start their college adventure.

My other class will be the introduction to Western Art part one, which I will be teaching in a blended manner. First contact with the material will be through art history videos that are housed at Kahn Academy.

After viewing the videos there are discussion boards in which students must participate and they must also reflect on their learning in private learning journals. The idea is that when we meet face to face as a class, we engage in activities that can’t be easily replicated online. Conveying information online is a good way to transmit knowledge. But in class is where I want them to engage with art, ideas and each other. On the days that we meet in person, students will be engaging in case studies, debates, and Reacting-style games.

My newest activity for this course will be student curation of a digital exhibit of works of in one module that will include one “real” work of art that groups will be assigned from our college's small collection. I am excited to try this assignment, that will be a new addition to my bag of tricks this semester.

What are you excited to be doing in your classes this fall?

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