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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?

 

I have been listening to a lot of podcasts about creativity, expression, success, and entrepreneurship. It seems that nearly all of them have talked about some aspect of "authenticity" as an ingredient to success. I have been thinking a lot about that, and think that it's true. I think to be successful - truly successful - at any endeavor you have be authentic in how you go about it, engage with others, and express yourself.

I want to come across as authentic in the classroom. I want students to know that I care about them as individuals and as distinct learners. I want them to see this is not an “act,” though I have read studies that suggest that teachers can learn these traits. But for me, coming across to students as authentic is critically important.

I think that I am fairly authentic with my students. I listen to them when we are in class (part of a mindfulness practice in teaching I have been trying to cultivate and will post on in the future). For now, here are some of the things I do inside and outside of the classroom to help demonstrate my authentic self:

  1. I talk to students before class to find out how they are doing in other classes and what their interests are.
  2. I show my true feelings about what I am teaching. I tend to love all the subjects that I teach (though I will admit "Roman Concrete Day" is a bit of a challenge), and so coming across with enthusiasm and interest - sometimes even wonderment - gets across the ideas I'm proposing. Perhaps that is also showing vulnerability in showing that I really care about my material.
  3. I follow their sports teams through emails we are sent and if they are mentioned I send a congratulatory email or Tweet or FB post. This has never been more real to me than when I took on academic mentorship of the football team. There are a lot of them to keep track of!
  4. I follow theater/performances and comment if they are in a production or presenting somewhere.

A recent study has demonstrated more on this topic and that being authentic in the classroom is perceived by students and can facilitate their learning. You can read the abstract to that that study here. Here is an excerpt of that study:

"This study sought to generate a more robust understanding of teacher     (in)authenticity. In other contexts, authenticity is regarded as a display of true self and has been positively linked to beneficial psychological (e.g., increased self-esteem) and social outcomes (e.g., higher relational satisfaction)...Results indicated that authentic teaching is perceived when teachers are viewed as approachable, passionate, attentive, capable, and knowledgeable. Alternatively inauthentic teaching is observed when teachers are perceived as unapproachable, lacking passion, inattentive, incapable, and disrespectful. Notably, these behaviors are often demonstrated through distinct actions taken by teachers that are often examined within the larger instructional communication literature (e.g., self-disclosure). Practically, these results allude to the notion that (in)authentic teaching can have a meaningful impact on students."

This study is very interesting to me. If you are a professor, how do you foster “being authentic” in the classroom? Students: do you have authentic teachers? Do they help you learn?

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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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It’s August. That means it's the time of year when faculty are starting to think about syllabi for their courses. I’ve heard faculty talk about how it grows page upon page each year as they write more and more rules in order to cover – and perhaps control – all kinds of student behavior. And there are many cartoons, like this one, about how when students invariably ask questions, those answers are, of course, in the syllabus...

Another post on the syllabus came across my Twitter feed by Sara Fulmer, who writes about Preparing a Learning-Focused Syllabus.  This got me thinking, “What is the point of the syllabus?” As Mano Singham argues in his AACU piece Death to the Syllabus,there should be no more syllabi. Says Singham, “It is time to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class.” (emphasis mine)

I am required to have a syllabus for every course I teach, even though online or hybrid/blended courses don’t need the traditional syllabus because of the way that course guides and modules are set up if you adhere to best practices in online education and teaching. But I make one anyway, and link it on the content management system page for my courses. And there is language I am required to put on the syllabus, though I have heard of some faculty making that an appendix and putting it on their course management page, which is an interesting idea, to keep the syllabus about the course.

But as Singham notes, where in the syllabus is learning addressed? I have attempted to add learning goals to the syllabi for my classes. And Fulmer's point is about creating syllabi that are more learner-centered rather than teacher-focused. In other words, we can make syllabi more collective in spirit – about what is possible in the course – rather than generate a list of rules that indicate how a student can lose points for every possible misstep.

In my attempt to make my syllabi more about learning, I include a section about my learning goals for students in my course. After going over those on the first day, I  pause to have students fill out a card that notes what they would like to focus on for learning in the course. I (try to remember to) give out those cards again at the mid-point of the semester in order to have students note how they think they are doing on their goals, which gives me a chance to respond in kind to them about whether I agree with their assessment of their progress or not. I think this is a great chance for individual feedback to students about how they are doing in my class.

I was also struck by a column in Chronicle’s Vitae the other day written by David Gooblar, which advocates putting more images in a syllabus, almost making it read like a graphic novel. You can read that post here. I'm an art historian. I should find ways to "art-up" my syllabi, and may do just that this August.

Faculty: What do you think about your syllabus? Do you want to change it up, or is it a list and a contract that sounds more like legalize? Do you want to keep it that way? Do you feel at your institution you have to?

Students: what say you about the syllabus in a course? Do you read it? Why or why not?

 

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.

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Today’s post is about mentorship and advising. And what, if anything, is the difference between them. If you  know me well, I don't need to tell you, but for those who do not, I am the academic mentor to the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team. I love my role with this Division Three team. Beyond attending home games to cheer on the team (and tweeting like a nut during away games that I watch on livestream), my role includes meeting with students for a variety of reasons, all academic in nature. In some cases, I help students who are in academic difficulty. We talk about study skills and what is troubling them in certain classes. I offer them suggestions on how to approach professors for help, which they are often very nervous to do.

I have also found that many of them are bewildered by the financial systems and offices at our college, and so I often find myself navigating those offices to find out basic information for them, and find out to whom I should send them for answers if I don’t know them myself. I often advocate for them on issues that seem unfair, as I did when we found out that there was a policy at the college to put a “hold” on making them unable to register for classes because of overdue bills. When I found out the amount of stress and anxiety this was causing students who were already struggling academically, I requested that this be a discussion topic at a faculty meeting and the policy was changed for the next academic semester.

I thought today about my role as the mentor to the team and how I advise students. As an academic advisor, I often help students figure out courses of study. We sometimes also talk about career choices, though there is often not a lot of time for that, and students are not often not sure about what they want to do, anyway, and so we end up talking about courses for the future, as well.

So, what is the difference between mentoring and advising? (and then there is even "cognitive coaching" see this piece by José Antontio Bowen, but that's for another day).

Because I sense that there is a difference.

When I think about the students I have advised and mentored, in general I would say that that I know more about those who I am mentoring. I share more about myself, and my own struggles, compared to those who are my academic advisees. That is not to say I do not have strong relationships with my advisees. I do.

But the nature of the relationship is different. My football team players confide in me about things that they might not want their academic advisors to know about. They don’t want the professors who are teaching them (who are also often their advisors) to know how they struggle, or why they do. They feel that their difficulties could be perceived by their academic advisors, or professors, as a sign that they do not really belong in college. Thus, they are reluctant to talk to their advisors for fear that their predicament will reinforce the incorrect perceptions that they should not be in college anyway.

From my perspective, as a mentor, I am more like a coach who finds ways to support a player to do his or her job better. But my field is academic. But I still feel like what I do as a mentor is different than what I do as an advisor.

What do you think? And students I would LOVE to hear from you! What do you think of mentor versus the advisor? Is it the same thing, or are there differences? Does it matter to you what they are called?

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Today I found out my grandmother passed away.

It has made me think about the recent spate of articles about the “deaths of grandmothers” that are perhaps meant to be satirical, but to my reading are full of spite. http://www.chronicle.com/article/To-My-Student-on-the-Death-/240353

When I found out my grandmother died, one of the first things I did after talking to my father, for it was his mother, and my sister, was  to contact one of my students by text.

That might seem odd. As a matter of fact, I wondered why I was even thinking of doing it. But I did.

Because his grandmother has brain cancer.

And this was found after she beat breast cancer.

He had to miss classes with me because she has had many surgeries and treatments. When I gave him my news, I also asked about her. He tells me she is still holding on and doing well. In addition to telling me about how his "grandmom" is doing, he responded immediately with a heartfelt text saying he would be there if I needed to talk.

My grandmother was 97 years old. She has been in a nursing home for several years, and her dementia has meant that we had been losing parts of her already.

Still, the ultimate final, ultimate loss is hard. I have found it to be so today.

Unlike some faculty, like the one that wrote the piece above, who seem to think that they are gate-keepers (to what?) and will make sure that only the righteous are afforded sympathy or empathy, I am thankful to this student for just saying a few short words to me in a text. I’m grateful and when I see him this fall, I will tell him so.

I hope I never get so jaded or callous as to think that my students lie at the loss of anyone close to them. Nor would I ever go to the lengths the article – whether tongue-in-cheek or no – seems to espouse.

We all have loss. And helping each other through it, professor for student, or sometimes, student for professor, is the kind of teaching in which I want to be involved.

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[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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