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We are entering "exam week," which means the day to day teaching of the semester is over. It's always a bittersweet time of the year for me. Sure, I am happy to have some time to myself again, but I will miss the give and take and interaction with my students. Today I find myself reflecting on the semester.

My Medieval art course, which I called lovingly my "Medieval Mongol Horde" (MMH), stretched me in new ways as a professor. I had never had a class of 30 students before, and even the arrangement of the room was a challenge. I know many professors teach classes much larger than this, but for me, this was new. Even just five more people from our course cap of 25 seemed like a lot of people. Even figuring out the furniture for the different class activities  was a challenge!

Some of the students from the MMH have also sent me reflections on their experience in the course, as I am readying for a keynote presentation at the Engaging Pedagogy Conference at Texas Lutheran University next week. I was asking them for an experience in the course that stood out to them.

Two of the key responses have something in common: sharing ideas and being heard. When I asked them what they remembered, or what stood out from the semester, one mentioned their weekly blog posts. This was surprising, as I figured that weekly writing on a prompt from me would be boring. But I responded to every single prompt (which was difficult, but important), and it got them writing every week in addition to papers and other more high-stakes writing that was for a grade. When I asked this student what he liked about the blog, he noted "You got to see what everyone else thinks and kind of compare."

Another of the MMH noted his favorite activity was a really hard chapter that I had them read and then a three-page critical analysis paper that they had write at the start of the semester. I was truly surprised by this answer. But the key here was what he said about the way the assignment was handled: "we discussed it as a class and what each of us thought." This was their first foray into art historical scholarship and the chapter I assigned is difficult. But we spent time in class talking about it, and students were able, after writing their papers, to argue about the thesis of the chapter.
The commonality in these two comments highlight to me the importance of listening as a professor. As professors we do so much of the talking. We need to do that because we are masters of the information of our disciplines and we have to impart that. It's our job. But our students are longing to be heard and to say what it is they are thinking. We need to build platforms for that, though. Just asking questions, as any professor knows, doesn't always lead to an amazing discussion where all the students engage.
Thank you for a great Semester to the Medieval Mongol Horde, pictured here:

I am still thinking a lot about the article this past summer (July 10, 2017) Inside Higher Ed article about how faculty do not want to seem “stupid” in front of their students and that this, in part, might keep them from engaging in innovative teaching methods. Of course, there are many reasons why there might be reticence to change or shift teaching styles, as many commented on the original article, and postulated on Twitter and Facebook as people shared the story.

But I was thinking back to my Roman Art class, last year, in the spring semester of 2017. Near to the end of the semester, after we had established a good connection as a class due to all the collaborative and engaging work I had the students do in class day to day, the students starting asking me a bunch of questions to which I did not know answers. And they were coming at me several at a time. At first I felt that feeling of fear: “I don’t know the answers to these questions!” But then, in a moment of mindfulness, I paused.

Then, I said to them, "Hey - I don't know these answers, but you all have your phones - start looking this stuff up!" They all eagerly brought out their phones and started to look stuff up. This led to a great extemporaneous conversation about their questions/interests. Some of the topics they were asking about were way beyond the goals/topics I had set for that class, or even the course itself. And yeah, I had to admit a lot of stuff I didn't know but **so what**.

I will take some looking dopey (and I don't think they thought that anyway) for student interest/engagement any day.

I realize I am tenured. I realize I am a full professor. But I was doing these things before my full promotion anyway. I do realize the privileged position I have now with this role.

But I still say that it’s worth taking risks. And I will say that this is not just on faculty. Administrators, I’m also talking to you: support the faculty. If you want your students taught well, you must find ways to build scaffolding and support for innovation on your campuses. Here is an idea: let every untenured on on the tenure-track faculty member have a class they can “take out” of the evaluation pile every semester IF they propose to teach in a new way. Take the pressure off. We are in this together for the education of students.

What do you do when students ask you a question and you don’t know the answer? Students, what do you think when a professor admits that he or she doesn’t know the answer?


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?

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.