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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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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?

 

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It seems that I only ever have time to post to this blog, that is supposed to be all about teaching, when I am finished with a semester. Once again, I am finished with a semester, and I find myself thinking over my immediate past experiences with my students.

What I am thinking about the most now, two days after graduating the Class of 2016 at McDaniel College, are all the students that I was most excited about seeing graduate. I won't post their names, but some of them (if they see this post) will know who they are. They are the students who did not get awards. They didn't write the best papers. They didn't have high GPAs; as a matter of fact in a few instances, I'm betting that they just squeaked by with a high enough GPA to graduate.

But these are the students that speak to me. They move me and inspire me. These are the students that I love to teach.

Right now I am pondering, why? Why is this the group that makes me want to be a better professor? Why is it not the top students? We have some stellar students who are very high-achieving. I had the privilege of teaching one of the students who won the top writing award at graduation and one of the students who won the award for the highest GPA is in my major, and we're very proud of her.

And yet. I kept thinking of my middle of the road students: my baseball players from my FYS.  The student in my class this semester whose friend died and who stepped up with her friends to make sure requirements were met so her departed friend would be awarded her degree, albeit posthumously.

I wonder if my focus on the middle is because the way we set up graduation and even education is so hierarchical. Of course I want to commend the very best students. But sometimes I worry that doing so gives the middle students a feeling of futility. I wonder if they feel that since they likely are never going to reach those lofty heights of a 4.0 GPA, they just disengage. Do our expectations of precision in citations (something that is probably anathema to admit but  drives me crazy as a scholar in the field), drive students to just give up? The top students master it, sure. But what about the vast majority of the others? Where are they?

All of this has led me to embrace active learning pedagogies in my classes. They debate, read, discuss, analyze, write, meet, present, and lead. I would love to hear from them through this post. Because I want to know:

Did this make you want to learn? Do you think you learned? More? The same? Did it "stick"?

What about my colleagues? What say you? Are the middle of the pack students worthy of some love? If so, in what form?

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In 2006 I attended my first Reacting to the Past annual Institute at Barnard College in New York City. I went with the worst attitude imaginable. And it was August and sweltering in New York. And I had to stay in a residence hall. Games for teaching sounded juvenile (oh, can you hear the whining?). I was as skeptical as they come.

But I was transfixed by the students who were there to help faculty members, who, like me, had not prepared an iota of material for the games we were to play in condensed form over the four-day conference. Those students made me realize that Reacting was a powerful pedagogy that could change my own students' learning in profound ways.

I took a leap of faith and first used Reacting to the Past in my First Year Seminar in the fall of 2007. I will admit it: it was hard. Reacting requires you to trust the students, and to put the material and the topics in their hands and see what they do with it.  But it was also the most transformative experience as a teacher I have ever had. I saw my students explore, engage, research, write and speak in ways I had not before.

Flash ahead to me a semester or two later, walking across campus one day. I realized that there was a game I could use in every art history class that I teach at my liberal arts college, with the exception of my nineteenth-century art class. And, as the saying goes about necessity being the mother of invention, my next thought was, "Well, I guess I will just have to write a game."

And so I did.

With the help of game designer extraordinaire, Nicolas W. Proctor, Professor of History at Simpson College and Editorial Board chair for the Reacting Consortium, and Michael A. Marlais, now-retired Endowed Professor of Art History from Colby College and a specialist in late nineteenth-century French art criticism, we went about crafting a game that I would use in my nineteenth-century art class. The result was Modernism versus Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89. I chose the dates of 1888-89 for a specific reason: I am bothered by the scholarly narrative that indicates that Van Gogh and Gauguin somehow had actual authoritative power in the art world at that time. Reality was starkly different.

The game includes artists from the Academy who follow a more traditional approach to what art should be about. Think Bouguereau, Meissonier.  The Impressionists are included, among them Monet, Renoir, and Degas as well as a few American artists including Cassatt and Whistler. The Avant-garde is there, too, with Van Gogh and Gauguin making their calls for the modern in art.  Several critics are in the game, and they function to help the artists who adhere to certain aesthetic considerations. To help students understand the beginnings of the commodification of art, I added two dealers who compete with each other for sales of art.

The game begins in the 1888 Salon, when the characters defend or decry the selection of Detaille's painting The Dream as the recipient of the Medal of Honor in the Salon. That day, and the subsequent days, students in character debate the current state of art (as indicated by the art in the 1888 Salon) and the future of art that they all have a hand in shaping. The last day of the game is a recreation of the 1889 World Exposition in Paris, for which the Eiffel Tower was built. All of the artists are required to "show art" that they hope will sell. However, only "secret buyers," who are recruited by me in a large crowd that I invite to the Exposition, can actually buy anything with a special "certificate of sale." The buyers must remain secret to try to achieve some sense of how art buying works: no one knows who in a large crowd might actually buy a painting. Students playing artists, critics, and dealers must try to steer all of the visitors to the art for which they advocate, in hopes of making a sale.

I first ran the game in 2009. In addition to Admissions staff and other administrators and faculty colleagues, I invited several individuals from our Communications and Marketing division to come to the 1889 World Exposition. That led to this story about the first run of the Art in Paris game. I still keep in touch with the "first Bouguereau," (seen in pictures that accompany this story with the bow tie and pink shirt). He was the most bohemian student I have ever had the privilege to teach and he still remembers the game after graduating . He was happy to play an artist against his "type;" he told me he felt he learned more by doing so.

Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89 has been used at well over thirty different institutions, including different countries. Others have written about their experiences with it on the Art History Teaching Resources site, such as this post by Keri Watson. The creation of this game has been one of the most satisfying scholarly projects of my career. The publication process for writing a Reacting game is extensive and includes two levels: play-tests at conferences and peer-review by those in the field and by those with game design experience. Art in Paris debuted at Reacting's annual Institute in 2010, and will be played again at this year's annual Institute as well (June 9-12, 2016).

A number of other art history games are being created in the wake of Art in Paris, by my colleagues Mary Beth Looney (The American Artists' Congress: 1935-1939), Marie Gasper-Helvat (1863 Salon des refusés and Guerrilla Girls in our Midst: 1984-1987), Paula Lazrus (Il Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiori: Florence, 1418), Carol Brash (Photography: Art, Science, Document?), as well as Rebecca Livingstone, Kelly McFall, and Abby Perkiss, who have together created Memory and Monument Building: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1980-1982.

For those who have not heard of Reacting to the Past, I urge you to go to a conference or the annual Institute. It will change the way you think about engaging students in the material.

And you might even have a lot of fun doing it.

 

I wrote a guest blog post for the Wiki Education Foundation. You can see read that post here. It describes the Wiki Edit Day assignment that I used with my Writing in the Disciplines class last semester. It was a great assignment and  hope you'll check out that post. The team at Wiki Edu are **great**!

It's been a year since I was actively engaged in building this website and thinking about the digital humanities. But there are several projects in the fire that have me back to this site and this subject.

A colleague and I have had a session at the 2016 College Art Association (CAA) meeting approved on Digital Humanities and Art History. We are building the panel and it looks to be a good one. I have a student doing some work on a Madonna and Child painting by Berlinghiero, which is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You can read about it here  and here it is:

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Berlingheiro, Madonna and Child, active in Lucca 1228, died 1236. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

I would also like to figure out how to get some twitter feeds on the blog, and will continue to research how to do that.

Hope the site is a bit better than it was.

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