Skip to content

4

This is a post about Joy. The year was long and hard, but as I look back on it, there were many moments of joy. In my reflections since the semester's end, I realized that many of my most joyous moments involved my students. So, this post is my post of Joy.

The picture that sparked this post was this one below: a student sent me a picture in front of a painting we studied over the past semester. And he sent it while he is still in Paris (below, Ben Igo in front of Raft of the Medusa by the French Romantic artists Géricault).

Another current moment of Joy was seeing a text from student with whom you are currently working over the summer. It's joyous to see his excitement - and maybe even joy? - for the opportunity:

Then there is the Joy of graduation, which is the culmination of changing students' lives and helping them to achieve their dreams. It is always my most cherished day of the year. This year it was especially full of Joy. It was the first group of students graduating who I was privileged enough to help as the mentor to the football team.

John Chamberlin (with me, Left) finally mastered human physiology and his hatred of tests to get his degree. And Trevon Haynes (below, with me Right) finally beat FRENCH to earn his degree and go on to graduate school in graphic design. Félicitations, Trevon!

Then here is TUCC!!! Former center, Mike Martucci will be missed. He struggled having changed majors and yet he made it! He took my class in 2017, too, which was a joy. And seeing his senior Sociology poster was also an honor, and that picture is here, too (below Left).

And then there is the Joy of Angelo Payne. I am proud of all of them, but Angelo is super special to me. I saw his mother when I entered the gym where we hold the graduation exercises. She grabbed my hands and joyously cried, "He made it!" And I know I helped, and that is a huge joy. He presented undergraduate research at a conference this semester also, which is just amazing. He has big dreams and I know he can achieve them.There are frustrations as a professor. Students often don't read. They do not come to class prepared. They take your classes "only" for the requirement. But you know what? It's true that they might take your class "just" for the requirement, but they also might end up in the Louvre, snapping a picture to send to you. They might become better writers and end up presenting at a conference, even if it's not your field. They might go on to coach other players, or they'll go on to learn more.

But my truest hope for them is that they will go on to a life full of Joy. They brought Joy to my life and my sincerest hope is they experience Joy many times over in theirs.

I've not been writing much on the blog and to my subscribers, I apologize. It's been a long, agonizing year, with an "academic program prioritization" process that led to my major being cut from our college. I will continue to teach, albeit not to art history majors. Now we've made it to the end of the Difficult Year and I'm resetting the blog and my priorities in my position at the college.

Today's post is about setting assessments that don't match learning objectives. I did that for my "finale" for my nineteenth-century art class this past May. I did not want a memorization exam. Although such exams remain the bedrock of much of higher education assessments, especially for art history, I don't find that it tells me much about how much students have learned from my classes, particularly the nineteenth-century art class. In that course, I emphasize that I want them to learn visual analysis: to look and to observe and by doing so, to come up with a thesis of potential meaning just from the formal elements in the painting. For instance, in  Courbet's painting The Stonebreakers (seen below) the meaning of the painting can be gleaned from visual analysis.When we examine this painting in class, I ask the students to tell me what they see. They answer with such observations such as: their backs are to us, so they do not seem like individuals; one seems young and the other older; they have frayed work clothes; they are doing hard labor of breaking up stones; they seem in a closed-in space where the only light is in the upper right corner, and out of reach.

All of that is correct. And what that leads to is a thesis for the painting that is this: the men are trapped, in a sense, in labor that will continue. The younger man will continue working until he, too, is like the older man, unable to carry heavy rocks, and instead will kneel to chip them into smaller rubble. The cycle will continue, for there is no "escape" spatially in the painting for these men. There is no social mobility, no "changing careers" or "moving up."

That is all learned by visual analysis, and trusting that observations can lead to these kinds of potential meanings. Of course, art history is more than just this, and we talk about how one would solidify such an interpretation:  by researching to find out more about when roads were built, who built them, what was working culture like around 1850 in France, etc. But you can get started with interpretive analysis from just looking.

For the "finale" of the class, I decided to make a "Jeopardy!" type of game. There are lots of free templates on the web that will allow you to make a game of whatever topic you desire. We played, and I was dismayed. They did not remember titles of paintings, or some of the dates, or some of the names of painters.

But then we got to "Final Jeopardy." Each "team" was given a painting and they had to tell me everything they remembered about it, using visual analysis. I gave each team a chance to talk about the painting and then we had their answers.

They remembered so much. When the assessment matched the learning objectives - it seemed like magic.  Of course, it was not magic; in class after class after class I  structured our time to give them chances to build their visual acuity and trust that they could - and would - learn what the paintings were seeking to tell them just by looking, carefully, at what was placed before them.

I will admit to not being an assessment guru. My assessments often miss the mark in terms of what I have been teaching them. But this time the starkness between "trivia"-like answers versus visual analysis of entire paintings helped me see that it is so important to line up assessment that will focus on what you were seeking to have them learn. I really do want to know what they have learned. It's just so often that the assessments I have been told to use don't do that.

Do you teach and have an assessment that works well? How does it match the learning objectives you have for your course?

Students: how would you like to demonstrate what you've learned in a class? An exam? Something else? I would be curious to know!

As a faculty member, is there such a thing as caring for your students too much?

It does increase your workload. Just today - one day - I had a student who told me he forgot to print out his paper last week, could he still turn it in? Another had sent it to me but forgot to hand it in out of his backpack. Another just had back surgery and has been out and missed the start of our Reacting game. Another has had serious issues with her anti-depression medication and has gotten behind in class. Another one today was in the hospital with issues related to a kidney stone.

Then there is the student who has missed a total of nine classes and the last three. I don't have the energy to chase after him. I noted another one with just about as many absences who got up and left the class to go to the bathroom about half way through the 90-minute course period. I don't think he came back. But I had 23 or so other students to try to engage and mobilize for learning.

It's the end of the term. We still have two and a half more weeks of teaching to go before the finals/finale period [I abhor the notion of a class having a "final" so I use the term "finale" which my friend Tony Crider has written about before].

I continue to try to think up engaging material for my students, while at the same time covering my material and trying to gauge that they are learning. And I still want to help them all. But sometimes I get overwhelmed, too. There are so many needs and so many issues and so many difficulties.

I realize I could stand up at the front of the class, not say hello to my students, and lecture to them. Let them learn or not - who cares!?!?  And yet, I care. I care about the student who needed to get to her doctor to have her medication changed. I care about the student who has missed 9 classes. I care about the student with the back surgery and the one who was in the hospital today trying to find out what was wrong.  It's more emotional work to care [which is sometimes undervalued and under-recognized in higher education]. It's more work, period, to care.

Yet I do believe that caring about students helps them learn. And my business is teaching. And learning.

 

4

When you don't give up on a student, he or she can do great things. A student on the football team I met in 2016 was struggling in many ways, and I was fortunate that he trusted me enough to tell me about his issues. I refused to give up on him, despite what sometimes seemed even to me really big odds stacked against him ranging from the financial to the academic.

My advocacy helped him benefit from an anonymous donor who paid his outstanding bill so that he could register for classes the next term and stay on track to graduate, which he will this May. I do not know who did that, but I will always be grateful. Because this young man got another chance.

And a few weeks ago, he presented a paper at the The Mid-Atlantic Region of the American Academy of Religion and The Mid-Atlantic Region of Society of Biblical Literature. It was an undergraduate research panel and his paper dealt with evangelical views and how they led to mass incarceration policies.

I asked him, on the eve of traveling to New Jersey where the conference was held, if he ever thought he would be doing this. He laughingly replied something like "no way, Dr. McKay."

Yet this is what happens when you do not give up on a student. This is what happens when they love what they study. Doors open for them. When they believe that you believe in them, they try things they never would have done. I can't take all the credit for this, as my dedicated colleague in his major of Religious Studies is the one who truly inspired this student to go farther, do more, and write a paper worthy of a research panel at a conference in the field.

How do we put value on that? At a time when the humanities are bashed and programs cut because they do not have enough majors to justify their existences, one may ask: what's the value? Yes, numbers matter, and colleges with finite resources can't teach it all.

I sure would like those who make these financial decisions to talk to this student about the value of his experience. Because I am willing to bet that it is something he will never forget, and it's something that will lead to more opportunities. In fact, I would say this experience has further changed his life.

And isn't that what the humanities in their best iteration are meant to do?

There has been a litany lately of stories, commentaries, and op-eds that basically sound the refrain that professors have a lack of trust in students. There has been a report of a professor at Howard University, who has a stated policy on his syllabi that if there is a family death/funeral on an exam day, too bad. Another story reopened the debate about laptops being used for taking notes (there had been other studies saying that hand-writing notes in class is better) and then the usual refrain about whether or not laptops should be banned. These are extreme stories, but they have at their core the same message: students are not to be trusted.

The core message is also: we as faculty know better than you.

But do we? Do we really know what students are doing when they are not in our classes? All that "outside the classroom reality" does impact them when they are with us for our 3 hours (or so) a week. Do we really know the familial, financial, and personal stresses they are balancing? Could we try to be a little more generous about why they are on the phones or why they miss class?

I am not saying that I am always understanding. I had a frank talk with my classes this past week about how distracted I get when a student is checking his or her phone in class. I am trying to connect with every student in every class (which may or may not be a ridiculous goal, but I hold to it anyway), and when a student is on his or her phone, I get pulled "off my game." My students seemed to understand that. I tweeted last weekend about how I view my students as collaborators in the classroom, that we are learning together. A student from one of my classes saw that tweet and "liked" it.

But to be truly co-collaborators with our students, we have to trust them. I know that sometimes they do not read for class. They procrastinate. I try to set up my classes so that they want to read article or at least see why I am asking them to do it. I want them to want to start the paper earlier. True, not every student will, all the time. But I am willing to trust them to do the right thing most of the time. If they sometimes "get me," so be it. In fact, it is they who are missing an opportunity.

At the end of the day, I make the decision to trust my students and if they are not doing what they should be in class - and to my mind that means coming to class, being attentive, engaging with me and others and the material - then I talk with them. Because in partnerships, both sides try to meet each other in the middle. Since as the professor I have more of the power in the relationship, I feel it's my duty to take the first step and demonstrate my trust of them in the classroom.

Students, I am very interested in hearing from you: how do faculty demonstrate trust to you, and if they do, does that affect they way that you learn?

Week one of our spring 2019 semester is in the can. I'm not going to talk about the internet outage, the snow day, the delays, and the fact that I got sick and needed antibiotics all in the first week of class (ok, well maybe I'll just mention it). What I do want to talk about is a mental shift that I realized happened this week after I met all three of my classes.

It was suddenly less about the content and all about the students.

Now I have faces, not just names, actual people, in my classes. It's not just a roster. It's not just about the number of butts in the seats; I spent so much time fretting in December and early January about having only 12 in one of the classes. Now it's full. I spent tons of hours this past January building my hybrid class both in terms of content online, activities in the classroom, and navigation of the site itself. For my face to face classes I similarly thought deeply about new ways to include more visual analysis. After reading How Humans Learn by Josh Eyler, and expanding on an assessment of understanding international cultures,  I thought about how to extend an assignment about learning disciplinary perspectives. All of that is still there. It's in the syllabus, in my course notes for the semester, and I will be planning everything out a few days before that particular class will actually happen.

But now that all of that seems secondary. Because now I have the people. The students are now telling me in discussion boards about how this is the last class that they got to choose before graduation, and they wanted it to be with me. Another said that he regretted not taking art history so far over his four years, and after talking to students who had taken my classes previously, did not want to miss out in his last semester of college. Some need the classes for the completion of their minor, or it's a requirement for the major. There are a dizzying array of reasons why students are taking my three classes (History of Western Art II, Roman Art, Romanticism and Impressionism for those keeping score). And they are what matters now. The enrollment, the course planning, the content (which I love; these are three of my favorite classes to teach of all time), and the exercises are all secondary to those individuals who trust me enough to allow me to teach them, guide them, and educate them. I barely know all their names yet (working on it) but their faces - and stories - are all in my mind as we complete week 1.

This week the party really starts. And I can't wait.

1

This past week I spoke at the annual NCAA Convention in Orlando, Florida. I was one of the speakers on a panel about engaging faculty with athletic programs and represented the NCAA's Division III. If you had told me five years ago that I would be speaking at the NCAA convention, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. And yet:

Dr. Gretchen McKay at the 2019 NCAA Convention, Orlando, FL.

The room was packed and there was really good energy in the room. I spoke about how I got here, and those who have followed this blog know about my "original football Romans" who took my class in the fall of 2015 and started me on this path. I decided that I would engage them in my course, which led me to want to know more about what they did as student athletes. Soon I was attending away games, which led to an invitation to become the faculty mentor to the team.

Who knew then where it would lead?

This post is for anyone who is on a path and can't quite see where it might lead. Keep going. I had no idea that I would eventually end up speaking to a room of about 500 people. And frankly, I am just getting started. I have more research to do on what student athletes do on the field and how that could be better translated into the classroom for their studies. I am planning to write a book that better explains the realities of the Division III student athlete. I hope to do some of the research for that book with student athletes this summer.

Today marks the start of the 2019 Spring semester for my school. I will teach my best. I will get to know my students. I will challenge myself to engage all students. I will go to "spring ball" football practices. And who knows what else may come up?

Because the truth is, you really never know where interests might take you. But if you remain authentically curious, take risks, and remain courageous enough to step onto an unknown path, you may end up in a place you never thought you would.

Like addressing a crowd at the NCAA convention.

Faculty Engagement Session, NCAA Convention, 2019

What kind of expectations should a professor have of her students? Of herself?

I am wrestling with both questions right now. I want my classes to always be engaging. I work very hard to find ways to not sacrifice content, but to have students more engaged in the material. I worry all the time about students "not getting it," and as I have posted previously, I am continually trying to think of ways to assess student learning not just for one class period, but how material is retained. And I'm not at all convinced that traditional exams lead to deeper learning or the retaining of information. I am a firm believer that that type of learning works for some students - mostly those who are already good students who master the material quickly and know how to take notes. Many of those go on to then perpetuate the same type of teaching method. But my experiences with engaged pedagogies like Reacting to the Past,case studies, debates and other forms of active learning have shown me how much more students can do if we give them a chance.

But that then "ups" my expectations for every class period. I want and expect deep engagement in every class period.  I don't want to lower those expectations. It would be much easier for me to lecture my way through 90 minutes than to sit and ponder how I could break up the time with something that the students do. And yet, I like to try to find new ways to approach the classroom and topics all the time.

Right now I am planning a hybrid class as well as two other classes that will meet face to face this coming semester which begins in one week. I'm trying to anticipate engagement with the material as well as finding out new information about the works of art I will teach.  I'm also trying some new game elements in the second half of the introductory survey course. I don't want to kill myself, but I want my classes to be the best that they can be.

Fellow faculty, how do you balance high expectations and making sure you do not blitz yourself completely?

2

I will be taking a bit of time away from work this week and part of next, but I wanted to leave a post today that will wish everyone a happy holiday season.

This is a time when many people look back on their year and take measure of where they are now. They also make goals for their new year. I'll be doing some of that later this week. When I look back over this past year, I'm proud of what I have accomplished by just keeping at it, connecting with people, and trying things based on research and what I feel is right.

I am sure that I will be doing more of that in 2019. Just yesterday, though, I heard a niggling voice say, "But what if you don't know how to do that? What makes you think you really know what you need to know about supporting student athletes"?" (Student athlete support is the basis of my next big project.)

And my response was: That's true. I don't know everything. But I know why I am doing this: to make sure that students who play a sport are fully supported and understood. And I might not understand every nuance of that, either, but I feel compelled to enlighten others on these student athletes' commitment to their sport and how we can better teach them, support them, and challenge them to the finish line of their college degree.

So, no. I might not know what I need to know right now. But I am committed to finding out. I will figure it out. But it takes commitment, resilience, and knowing your "why." And I know why I am working on this project.

Happy Holidays and see you in 2019!

This has been a week of reflection. As one of my colleagues put it, working in higher education creates a constant cycle of whiplash: the semesters begin and then are over. You run with your hair on fire, especially in the last couple of weeks, only to turn around to nothing. Well, your own projects, of course, that you pick up where you left off, usually when it was another season altogether. But the sudden end always takes me by surprise, even having been through this cycle so many times.

Why do we do what we do?

This question followed me over the past two weeks, which were frenetic in both intensity and pace. For several reasons. First, there are major changes coming to our institution, one that I love and one that I try to make better every single day I am on campus, and even when I am off. It's an uncertain time, but I've been thinking a lot about why I do what I do, personally. But I am also thinking: why does our college do what it does as we consider changing programs.

To me, my answer to the question is the students. And learning. And more recently, mentoring. Helping. My focus has changed a lot in the time that I have been teaching, which is nearly 20 years. I like to think that I was always focused on students, but I do so now in a different way. I focus more on engaging them with active learning (which I have written about often here; see list of topics at right). More often now, I listen to them. In doing so I sometimes find their questions difficult. And often, I can't answer them.

Take my visit with a student last week. I still can't stop thinking about it. His question stopped me in my tracks, because I had no answer for him. I could not help him. Not anymore.

Because his question was, "What will make me happy, Doc?" He explained that he always thought it would be business and making money; those would be the keys to his happiness. But now, he was not so sure. All I could say to him was what I know for sure: he will figure it out, because he's bright, reflective, and perceptive. He's turning some of that perception on to himself, which means, that he will figure it out. He will figure out why he does what he does.

So, yes, I know why I do what I do. Yet, the bittersweetness of it hit me like that end of semester tsunami always does: three students that I helped out of several pickles over the past two years or so are successfully done. They'll gradate in May. They are off to find their way in the world. I know my college has given them the foundation to do great things and be successful.

And my wish for them is that they figure out why they do what they do.

css.php