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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?


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?

[huge_it_share]I'm always trying to change up the ending of a class, taking a cue from my friend and colleague to Tony Crider who wrote in The Chronicle in 2015 about "Epic Finales" rather than "Final Exams." This semester in my nineteenth-century art class I had a "Finale:" after using my Reacting Game, Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89, which I co-wrote with Nicolas W. Proctor and Michael A. Marlais, I decided that each student should give a presentation about the future of their game character and discuss a painting from the future (post 1889) .

One of the students was late to class. He did not send the painting he was going to present for inclusion in the PowerPoint. He hadn't prepared enough and had his own presentation, which I said he could load on the classroom computer. And one of his slides was full of text. But that was not the worst of it.

The worst was the fact that the entire class did not take him seriously. There was laughter the entire time he spoke. No one was paying attention. It seemed a big joke.

I was angry, despondent, and wondered what to do. Later that night, I received a message from this student, asking if his presentation was "bad." I told him I would be in my office the next day in the afternoon if he wanted to speak about it.

He came to my office. It was nearly 24 hours later. I was still unsure what to do. Did he just blow off the presentation? Did he not care?

I asked outright if he had blown off the assignment. He admitted that he had not prepared enough.  I also asked if he meant to make it a stand-up comedy routine, getting laughs from his classmates in order to deflect from the fact that he wasn't prepared.

And that is where it got interesting.

As we talked, it was clear that this student, a transfer student from a majority minority student environment, was finding it a bit difficult to navigate our mostly white campus. Humor had become one of his coping mechanisms. But he assured me that while he does include humor at times, he did not intend for the entire class to continue to laugh for the entirety of his presentation.

Then and there I decided to ask him to give the presentation again. To me alone. To make him learn what he did wrong and to be sure he learned from his mistake.

He was surprised, but he agreed. We went into an open classroom and he started. I pointed out that his back was to me. He wasn't engaging me. He was fidgeting. He needed to project his voice. He has a very deep voice, and often tries to mute it to fit in. But I told him for a presentation, he should let it fly and command the room. He did.

He then told me he was grateful for these tips because he had to give a presentation the next day in a class that is in his major as the final (finale?) for that course. I told him to think about what I said: don't fidget; face the audience; no text loading on a slide!

I checked in with him the next day, after I knew the final for his course had ended.

"How did it go today?", I asked.

He said the professor commended him on his presentation and wants him to return to her classroom next semester, to give the presentation again and to help other students think through the assignment, which was the creation of a video.

I could have stayed mad. I could have vented on social media. I'd like to think that instead, I taught this student a bit about how to present in a formal situation. Could it be that a transfer sophomore in college really had never been taught formal presentation skills?

I don't know.

But I kept thinking: isn't that what we're here for? Am I only supposed to teach art history? Isn't a small, liberal arts school, like the one where I currently teach, a place where we lift up students even when they fall down and, some could even say, screw up?

He did screw up. And he didn't get a great grade for the presentation.

But he learned how to do one. Better than he did for my class. And somehow I think - isn't that the point?

"Finale" to Spring semester 2017, indeed.

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In September I will be delivering a plenary address at the American College of Greece in Athens about active learning and gamification in higher education. I'm immersing myself in as much on this topic as possible and would love to hear others' thoughts on the issue.

I have been "gaming" since 2007, when I first started using the pedagogy Reacting to the Past. Just about anyone who knows me also knows that I am committed to the Reacting pedagogy. Reacting consists of highly immersive role-playing games, set in a historical period. Each student has his or her own role that comes with a  character sheet with victory objectives, strategy, and key ideas. Students must read primary texts from the time period (for instance Plato's Republic for Athens game set in 403 BCE and Rosseau's Social Contract for the French Revolution game) and use references from those works in speeches to persuade people to their side of the issues in order to WIN. And students really do want to win; their competitive natures come out. Because reading and writing can help you to win, students realize that doing "work" can lead to something worthwhile - and even fun.

This is what the gamification movement seems to promise, but it appears to be mostly tied to the realm of video games. Reacting seems to be on the fringe or the edge of this movement, because it's not a video game. Although Reacting games can be played online, and have been used that way successfully by some of my colleagues, the pedagogy essentially is a face-to-face active learning technique and is one of my favorite options when I incorporate the flipped classroom paradigm.

I need to learn more about gamification in other arenas beyond Reacting. From what I have learned so far, it seems to me that students will see right through the idea of "levels" and "badges." I am concerned that adding those particular elements as part of a course won't really make it any more "fun." I was watching a video of Gabe Zichermann talking about gamification (October 26, 2010), and the speaker had this image up:

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He was suggesting that the bottom words are not associated very much with fun - but the words above in color are associated more often with fun. It seems that the move towards gamification in higher education is an effort to make school more fun.

This gets to the heart of what I think about day in and day out: I teach because I want my students to learn. But I also want my classes to be engaging places where students are active. I wish I had more evidence to back this up (does anyone out there have such studies?), but I do think that students who are engaged in classes also learn more. I think the flipped classroom has allowed my students to be more engaged, and yes, have more fun. I know that I have a lot of fun right alongside them when they are involved in the class. And I am learning from them, too.

I know I need to do more research, reading and study to better understand this arena of gamification in higher education. I am hoping that some wise sages out there can point me in some directions about what to read, and tell me whether or not the levels and badges really lead to deeper learning. Maybe I am just cynical, but if I were to call "learning about the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial" a "Quest" I would get some eye-rolls. And this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by (October 29, 2015) seems to suggest that we should not give in to where students are. But I wonder, is the alternative to leave them behind if they don't ever learn like they are "supposed" to?

I am planning to incorporate some "leveled" quizzes and will incorporate the idea of adaptive release in my hybrid class History of Western Art this coming fall semester. Students will have a randomly selected set of images that are fairly easy to identify for art history survey in each module. After that, a second quiz will include more difficult images. Is that gamification? Somehow I think the Reacting games, case studies and peer review sessions that I am planning for the face-to-face portions of that class are going to make more of an impact, but I am set to give it a try.

Readers: what else should I read and learn about as I work through this new area of teaching?