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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?

Today I read this column by James Lang in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The title of his piece is "What Will Students Remember From Your Class in 20 Years?" Lang recounts how he had this discussion with faculty from different disciplines. Almost no one said anything about specific course content, and yet many of us teach that content as if content is the end of the world. "Oh, I can't not cover "x" work of art in the survey course!"

What do you want your students to remember?

I have already thought about this and this is what I want them to know. I want them to know:

  • How art historians think what they think and know what they know;
  • Why art historians have different ideas about works of art and that works of art can have multiple interpretations;
  • How to talk and write about works of art;
  • How to visually analyze works of art so that propaganda and commercialized ads don't lead us to decisions we don't think about first;
  • How to read a critical piece of writing that has a thesis and to determine if that argument is proved

That is just the start. I also want them to remember that they did things in my class. That they were involved. I do not want to them to ever remember me telling them everything. I want them to remember the debate they had about whether or not the Elgin marbles should go back to Greece, or if the Second Crusade should be aimed at Edessa or Damascus, and what the future of art should be in Paris in 1889.

I believe that these goals are all incentivized by active learning. If I tell them all the things, then they are likely not to remember it next year, let alone in 20 years.  James Lang is a proponent of making small changes to teaching that allows for more student reflection and activity. That doesn't mean that I sometimes don't have to just tell them things, but it does mean that wherever possible, they are going to be actively engaged in observing an Egyptian work of art, or designing a new type of church for Justinian, or debating the role of artists in fighting fascism.

I probably won't know if I make the mark in 20 years. But I am pretty confident I am laying the foundation firmly for them to do so.

1

How did I get from professor, teaching art history, to a consultant, speaking about supporting student athletes? This fall in particular I have been looking back over the steps that got me here. I'm trying to figure out what it is that links them together. And I think I know what it is: curiosity.

I wanted to engage the five football players that I had in my class in Roman Art in the fall of 2015 after I saw them play in a home game. I was curious and wanted to know: what made them tick? What would engage them in my course material in the classroom? I did research, asked questions, took a few risks in the classroom and followed up a year later with them to assess what they learned and what had "stuck." That led to a conference presentation and a published chapter in a book on active learning. All because I was curious.

In the fall of 2016, I went to an away game of the football team in Gettysburg. I had a few more students in my classes and I wanted to see them play after winning at home the week before. So I went. And the next Monday, I was invited to be the faculty mentor to the team. I had no idea what that would entail, but I was curious. So, I said yes. And I had an eager and willing Head Coach, who said he'd figure it out with me.

That was two years ago. I have figured out some of it. What I have figured out so far has led to a book proposal about how faculty and institutions can support student athletes better. Student athletes make up about 40% of our study body, so finding ways to engage them and support them only makes financial sense, if no other reason (like simply wanting to support them because they are our students) comes to mind. And it has led to workshops on supporting student athletes, like my conversations at the Maine Maritime Academy this past March (2018). And later this fall I will consult with Barton College in Wilson, NC, where they plan to add a football team next year.

Most of all, I'm remaining curious. I think that the true mark of intelligence is to realize what you do not know and to be brave enough to ask questions to learn. Right now my curiosity centers around how *exactly* a game plan for the opponent is constructed. I know as I write this on a Sunday morning that the coaches are watching tape. I know from asking players that they will watch and analyze film throughout the week. I know that the game this past Saturday will be analyzed for what went well (shut-out!) and what did not (penalties!).

I hope that the coaches, the players, and the parents (yes, I'm coming at you next!) are ready for my questions. As the students (and coaches) likely know, I ask a lot of questions. As I told the students at one of their summer camp meetings, your curiosity has to be bigger than your fear of looking dumb. And my desire to know outweighs that fear, even if it might be there. So I will keep on asking questions, and keep being curious. Because there is so much more to know!

 

Today I am thinking about jobs. Even though my job is to educate, I want my students, after they are educated, to be able to find good jobs. This article talks about 7 critical skills for jobs of the future and was published last summer. I'd like to focus on this one: Curiosity and Imagination, which is #7 on this list.

I have written a whole post about curiosity and its importance for developing keen minds. It’s part of the liberal arts spirit. It is when students ask questions about topics that I had not considered or when they ask about things I do not know. I LOVE IT when that happens. That did happen at the end of the Roman Art class in spring 2017. In one particular class near to the end of the semester, they were asking me all kinds of questions and I didn’t know the answers. Finally, I said, “you all have those phones. Let’s get ‘em out and look it up!” They did and we talked about the sources they were reading from. It was a good exercise in assessing and analyzing information as well as a way for them to use technology, and it satisfied their curiosity on the spot. And it was kind of fun, too.

I think that most of my active learning situations have some aspect of imagination and creativity built into them. They role-play as advisors to an emperor, or they must think like architects to design a building that reflects theological ideas, or they try to sell art at the 1889 World Exposition in Paris to buyers who are not clearly identified at the culmination of my Art in Paris Reacting to the Past game.

I think the final part of the article on the 7 critical skills sums up well my approach  in the classroom and by advocating for active learning:

“There is a stark contrast between these seven survival skills of the future and the focus of education today. Instead of teaching students to answer questions, we should teach them to ask them. Instead of preparing them for college, we should prepare them for life. Beyond creating better employees, we must aim to create better leaders and innovators.  Doing so will not only radically transform the future of education and the workforce, it will also transform the world we live in.”

I simply love it when my students are curious enough to ask questions. I would love to find a way for that to happen more. The Roman Art class in the spring of 2017 indicates that they will tend to do that if they have had a whole semester of active learning in which they are engaged in the material in different ways. And I'm still thinking and planning!

 

I try to employ active learning in every one of my classes. This past spring semester in my Medieval Art history class that I've blogged about before, we played both a short Reacting game on the use of icons in the church and a longer game on the Second Crusade, I used several case studies in which they had to solve an art historical problem, conducted several in-class writing assignments in addition to out-of-class papers, and students wrote a weekly blog post.

However, at one point in the semester, when we were reviewing material that I thought they had learned, they could not remember details. It was so disheartening. I worry nearly all the time about what they are learning. Many of my colleagues would probably say I obsess over it. One weekend during the past semester, during a Twitter exchange, I noted that I worry they are having a "grand time," but that I wonder if they are learning anything.

Cathy N. Davidson was talking about assessment, and how our assessment right now is giving us information on the twentieth-century products we are producing through our educational system. I agree so much with her and want to tell everyone to read her book, The New Education. It is inspiring and so important. During the twitter exchange she noted to me:

"As long as I go to the meta level and then they can (I use Think-Pair-Share a lot for this) I feel sure they are learning. Focusing on what you want think they need to learn on a meta level is great."

She also sent me a link to her blog post from June 18, 2015, entitled "Why Start with Pedagogy? 4 Good Reasons, 4 Good Solutions."

This has me pondering. Yes, I can "Think-Pair-Share" my way through each class, but how do I know any of that is sticking after the class? The students may have learned the material during the 90-minute class period, but what about a few weeks later? Do they still remember it?

I'm considering more "in-class assessment instruments" for the fall semester (but would like to call it something else...not quiz...not exam). I do not want it to be high-stakes and stressful, but I also feel an obligation to them to ensure that their education is leading them to know new things and remember them. This past spring when I was feeling this way I put them in groups and had them prepare questions that then two groups answered, and the group who created the question decided who answered better. So, some competition in there, as well as ownership. That worked fairly well, though I was making up a lot of it as I went. I might try to do something like that again, but with a bit more pre-planning.

Readers: if you employ active learning, how do you ensure learning is taking place? How can you tell? By what means do you check to see if learning manifests?

Students: how would you like to prove that you have learned? I hear all the time how you hate tests - so what are some alternatives so we can know if you're learning?

[I am trying really hard not to use the words assessment, metrics, rubrics...or any of the buzzwords for teaching and learning right now - and it's hard!!]

2

My grades are in (though they are not due until tomorrow). We will graduate a new crop of McDaniel College students on Saturday. I always look forward to that day, but it is always bittersweet for me. This time of year is always bittersweet for me.

I work hard to create community with my classes. Connecting with each of my students is also a goal of mine, and one I most often reach. The most challenging class for me in that regard with the thirty-person Medieval Art course. But I managed to find a way to build a bridge to each student, and to make each of them feel important. If I had not, I’m not at all sure that they would have been so eager to have this picture of the class as a whole (thanks to Dr. Lyndsey Smith, who acted as a T.A. for this semester, for taking the picture):

The departure of students from The Hill, our nickname for our college campus, depresses me slightly every year. I don’t know how many other faculty feel this. It seems counter-intuitive to the trends I see on Twitter and elsewhere about “grades are in!” and “Let the summer begin!” Of course, I have projects and writing that I wish to do, but I seem to make progress on those as I am teaching my students, not in spite of them. I had a book published this spring semester by the University of North Carolina Press: Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89, a Reacting to the Past game that was co-authored by Michael Marlais and Nicolas Proctor. That book was not written in the summer(s).  I also had a chapter published in the following book on active learning: Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation and Creativity, Anastasia Misseyanni, Militiades D. Lytras, Paraskevi Papadopoulou, eds. Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018. My chapter was on my experience with the football players in the Fall of 2015: “Engaging the non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and others) in Roman Art” (187-209). Both of these projects were peer reviewed (the Reacting game extensively), and most of the final work was done in the fall semester. Thus, summers are not always the time that we have laid at our feet to do our work as scholars. Somehow, I always manage, even when I am in the midst of classes to teach, papers to grade, and students to mentor.

I am not advocating for not having a free summer. I am not saying that at all. I know I need some mental time to reestablish other routines, and just to have a rest from the relentless (self-imposed) pressure to create an engaging classroom experience every class period. But right now I feel sad.

So, really what I am seeking is advice. For those who find the departure of students to be alarming, distressing, or even depressing: what do you do? How do you transition to summer?

 

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

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

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

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

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

I am currently using a game set in 1148 at the War Council of Acre, at which knights, kings, and the church hierarchy gathered to decide if there should be a Second Crusade and if so, where it should be aimed. I have thirty students in this class, and twenty of them are on the football team at McDaniel College. Their engagement has been profound and at times frankly astounding. One such moment of their utter engagement is captured here in this photograph I took during the class debate about where the Crusade should be targeted:

In this picture, the student is an offensive lineman for the Green Terror. In the game, however, he is playing Patriarch Fulcher, the individual who found the True Cross in the first crusade, and is credited with having won back Jerusalem for the Latin Crusaders. In this image he is standing in front of a projected image of the different cities in the region. For two days, as he says here, they talked about how their war was just because the city of Edessa being taken by Zengi in 1144. But moments before I took this picture, King Louis suggested they attack Damascus instead. The Patriarch was confused, baffled and even outraged.

This was a moment when the class ceased to be at McDaniel in 2018 and was clearly in the city of Acre in 1148. They had left the building. They were experiencing flow. They were so in the moment that, as I talked to some of them afterwards, they forgot about practice. They forgot about their other classes. I am attempting to get a certain general education tag for my Reacting courses and asked them for some help answering questions. Some of their quotations can say better than I can how much they experience in a Reacting game:

"It's immersive. Because you have to put your all into your role. You have to dive in and see how you are going to argue these points of view for this person, how to back it up with research. You have to research in a way you may not typically do so, focus on your role vs personal feelings on the role."

"You can't just BS your way through it. You have to find enough material for your role in the game and be able to rebut anything anyone else throws at you. You need to understand their roles too and how they might come at you."

"When you get stuck into this game, you are here and you are your character. You call each other by your character role names, you are that person and their beliefs (not you and your own personal beliefs)."

"When you are arguing it is super easy to get caught up, and you forget 'oh i have to go to practice today'. Taking on the persona makes you argue better and focus on the game."

"When you go up to the podium, you have to convince yourself/faction and rest of room of what you are arguing. You have to embody the role and its unlike any other class activity. It gives you more skills as a student rather than just looking at a PowerPoint and taking notes. It helps you experience the class differently and take on roles you normally wouldn't."

Reacting is great for every student, but I would argue that for student athletes, these immersive role-playing games make them enjoy the class more than at other times in their education. They see research as a means to a win. They see a role as a chance to argue and help their team (or faction). But they also note that it is work. It takes time. They all laughed when I asked them if a Reacting game would count for the 15 hours required for this tag. They said that they had all put that much time in already and the game was not over.

Faculty: try Reacting to the Past. It is often said that athletes care more about their sport than their classes. But if they have a chance to win in a classroom as well as the playing field, you will see a different student performance entirely. The Annual Institute for Reacting to the Past games will be held this year at Barnard College from June 14-17 and I urge faculty to check it out.

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