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5

Last week I had my first class with the very large Medieval Art course, with thirty students. I know some who might come across this blog would scoff at my calling this a "very large" class, but at my small, liberal arts college, a class of 30 is the exception and not the rule. In fact, it is hard to find rooms that hold this many students. In fact, that may be a future post: figuring out the configuration of furniture to support student engagement in this classroom, one of the only ones for a large class and large-screen image projection.

After our first class meeting, I wanted to touch base with one of the football players I am mentoring. I know him pretty well. He was in my class in fall of 2016 when I first met him. He's a starter on the team, and I've met his parents. I wanted to talk to him about his grades last semester, which were not stellar. He shared with me that he knows his grades aren't good, he does know he has got to buckle down, but he also lamented that nearly all of his classes require him to take tests. And then he bombs them. And then it's over - on to new material.

This morning I reached the final chapter in Cathy N. Davidson's The New Education, a book I *highly* recommend. This was the paragraph that made me think of the student above and his frustrations:

"High-stakes end-of-semester summative, standardized testing is broken, and so we must design challenges that help students to build on what they know and learn from what they don't, growing stronger from each test instead of feeling defeated by an exam score that cannot capture growth or change."

He said, "I wish classes had grading opportunities like you do. " I have started to eschew exams and tests. In their place I have critical analysis papers, visual analysis writing assignments, creative assignments where they must apply information to a new context, role-playing game speeches and reflections, blog posts. And in all of it, art is at the center of the inquiries, as well as contextual historical information that is at the heart of my discipline of art history.

I urge everyone who cares one whit about higher education, or are in it, to read Cathy N. Davidson's book. We need a new higher education system to help our students to prepare for lives in a  ever more complicated world.

And if you still give exams, what do you think of a student who is demoralized with poor performance and yet can't seem to master it? Should they just be "out"? Tough love? I can't quite embrace a philosophy that at the core is about gate keeping - keep the barbarians from storming the city. What "city" are we trying to protect? Why would we want to keep some students out?

I am truly puzzled by professors who want to show students the door. That is just not my way.

 

4

Like perhaps many of us, I struggle to stay in the moment. I have been working on that for the past six months, trying to spend a few moments each day meditating. It helps to center me. At first I was concerned that it would not really help, that all these thoughts that I really do need to remember would come and then go and then I would forget them all again, raising my level of anxiety, which, I am pretty sure, is the opposite of meditation. That actually has not happened.

Today I am thinking about meditation and mindfulness in teaching. I am always careful about time in my classes but I worry that constantly checking the time to make sure we're moving along actually keeps me from being in the moment with my students. And I want to make sure that I really listen to them.

I try to do that, of course, but my classes are also about going on a journey. I want to take them where I want them to go and not just tell them the facts/opinions. I invite them along and eventually we all, collectively, come to an answer/interpretation. To do that well, I must be thinking ahead at all times: “What’s the next step?” Is this the opposite of mindfulness, of being in the present moment, if I am constantly thinking of what comes next?

Thus, as embark this week on a new semester, I am thinking of how to keep moving us collectively forward as a class, but how also to stay more mindful in the process and in the moment as the class session progresses.

I believe that this is likely to be very challenging, but I plan to come to class with the intention of being mindful of what is happening. I need to remind myself to keep looking at each student, really take in his or her attitude, body language, listen to his or her comments, all while keeping the conversation and class moving.

I also plan to chronicle for this semester the experiences of my Medieval art course. This is the first time I will have a class of 30 students, 20 of whom are on the football team. I will be writing weekly about the challenges and the exciting discoveries of teaching this large a number of students, who I am lovingly referring to as my Medieval Mongol Horde. I meet them for the first time tomorrow morning. Follow along!

And in the meantime, do any of you practice mindfulness in the classroom in order to really spend time focusing on your students, while at the same time moving the class forward in terms of learning? If you do, leave some tips in comments below.

I have been wanting to write a post about OERs or Open Educational Resources for some time. This post will have a lot of links, because others have articulated better that which I have been wanting to say.

Today a post written by Cheryl Smith and Laurie Hurson on the Art History Teaching Resources blog came across my feed. In their post, they offer an overview of the issue of OERs and give the link to TeachOER.org, which is a guide to Open Educational Resources across the web. The TeachOER offers a wide range of disciplines access to sources that faculty can think about using in their classrooms.

This made me remember a piece I read in Inside Higher Ed by Robin DeRosa, which you can read here, about public higher education, and I would argue, private institutions should think about this, too. More and more studies are showing that the cost of textbooks - among other issues - can be a barrier to students' success in college. Sara Goldrick-Rab's book Paying the Price, which I have already written about here, notes that hidden costs such as course fees and the cost of books can lead to students giving up, dropping out, and not finishing a degree, even after they have started that journey, taking out loans to do so.

I would urge every faculty member to look at these resources. If you are a faculty member who thinks about and talks about social justice or believes that education can lift those among us with limited means to a better and more prosperous life, then think about what message you might be saying by ordering a textbook that costs over $100. I have tried to not have textbooks at all and use OER and scanned PDFs of scholarly articles when possible. I never assign an introductory art history textbook, either, but make use of videos and written material from smarthistory's work. Take a look through TeachOER.org. You might find a wealth of information that you can incorporate into your classes, with no costs to your students. They will appreciate it, even if they never say so!

I was talking to a colleague of mine, Josh Ambrose, who is the Executive Director of the Center for Experience and Opportunity at my institution (McDaniel College), about teaching. I run ideas past him often about classes and projects that I am thinking through, and I am always thinking through something or other. Because of our schedules, our conversations are sometimes over FB messenger. In one such exchange, Josh said this:

“For me, what I love about your courses, is that it has students *doing* things. That's what I keep coming back to in my classes. Whether your students [are] editing Wikipedia, or fully engaged in running their own games, or my students [are] launching a magazine, or doing a blog from the jungle, etc., I think you're very good at giving your students ownership and I’m more and more convinced that showing them their agency, their ability to do, to be adults/scholars, is so important after a life of public education that is geared towards tests.”

I was grateful for his reflection because I think that we owe it to our students to create content that is for an audience beyond “The Professor.” As we send students out into this technology-drenched world, their ability to communicate is so important. Creating content by writing blogs and either editing or adding new Wikipedia entries changes the dynamic of why they are learning and why they are researching and writing.

Another truly important and critical skill is going to be the ability to genuinely connect with people through writing and speaking.

I think students need to realize that they need to get out there. They need to do more than snapchat their friends or whatever the latest app is. Of course, we all want to chat with our friends, keep connected, and use apps for that. But students also need to think about how they will be in the world. How will they really communicate fully with the world? What do they want to say? What is their unique contribution to the world that they need to cultivate and develop?

This is not what I was trained to do, in terms of my graduate school life in art history. And I still love art history, and art history is the catalyst by which I try to also teach these greater skills. I want students to find their place in the world, to find that unique gift that they have, that no one else has.

By employing assignments that require creation, curation, and research, students can begin to think about the mark they wish to make in the world. I need to do this more, as I have only had pockets of these types of assignments from time to time but I need to start finding ways to have students think bigger. Their futures depend on it.

To that end, this coming spring semester in my Art of the Medieval World course, I plan to have students blog, each week, based on a prompt I will give them. This will get them writing and hopefully, since the blogs will be open to those in the class, read each other's thoughts. Three students per class will also talk about what they wrote at the start of the week. I'm hoping that this will get some conversations going.

If you are a faculty member, what do you do to make students think about their place in the world?

4

Since the start of this new year I have been caught in a wave of interconnected issues that have pulled social systems and problems into my little corner of academia. I have been observing, watching, and listening to my students for some time now, realizing that familial, cultural, and societal pressures can often interfere with their learning. But this week a lot of it all came to a head. And it is making me think, and it is making me wonder if my role as an educator is shifting. Should it shift?

I helped four students this past week who were academically dismissed because of their GPA and credits earned. It's a formulation. The people who made the decision were following the guidelines. And that is why there is an appeal process: the student and I can provide context for the reasons that the GPAs dip. And the reasons are all over the map.

Depression. Family health issues that required the student to commute home and balance school priorities. Undiagnosed ADHD. Being in the wrong major. Twice. And those are just some of the reasons.

I am happy that all four of these students asked for my help, and let me help them. Because through that process I am learning a lot. I had to find out a little about their plans to pay for college. That led me to read, yesterday, in one sitting, Sara Goldrick-Rab's Paying the Price, published by the University of Chicago Press.  This book chronicles the story of several students that were tracked in the Wisconsin system of public higher education. I teach at a private school. Nevertheless, it was a gripping read, and it was sad to see how many students did not make it to a degree.

This was the same time that I saw tweets from the same author about the idea of putting a statement on syllabi about scarcity, to let students know there is help. The statement that Goldrick-Rab tweets about is this:

"Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess."

Part of me can't believe that this would be necessary. And yet I see it with my students. Students tell me that they can't afford the book for a class that is over $300. Or the code for online homework that is nearly $200. I don't know how many, but we do have students on our campus who are homeless. Students struggle to pay their tuition bills, often knowing that they can't register with their colleagues because of a bursar hold, and having to hope that the classes that they need will still be open when they finally scrape up enough money to get through another semester.

Some of my colleagues scoff, and say that these students "find the money for beer." But I am not so sure that these students are doing this. They have too much riding on the line. They are have at least one part-time job. They are trying to make headway with their GPAs and grades. They are trying to find a way to do an internship that will still allow them to stay at their part-time job that they need have in order to pay the bills.

With all of this staring me in the face, I can't turn a blind eye to it. My role as an educator needs to shift. But what do I do? How does that role shift?

I open this up to discussion, especially among my faculty colleagues. What do you feel your role is when you see inequities or needs among your students? Do you do anything? If so, what? Do you feel like it is none of your business?

Students - what do you need - or not need - from faculty when you face difficult social or personal situations? Maybe you want us to back off?

I hope to start a conversation about all of this in the comments.

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