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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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