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So, You Don’t Want To Look Stupid?

This summer there was an article in Inside Higher Ed about an anthropological study about why faculty do not always want to embrace innovative teaching methods: they do not want to appear to look stupid in front of their students.

I can understand this. Of course I don’t want to look stupid in front of my students, either. I have posted on this blog before about being wrong and how to handle questions I don't know.

But I think there is a way to re-frame this. If something goes wrong in the classroom - if we do try something new - and it doesn't work out, can't we explain the failure as part of the risk of growing? That things don’t always go right? That, to me, is modeling what I want my students to do: Take Risks! Try that new course you know nothing about!

Last fall, I tried a completely new experiment by taking my introductory survey course and making it a blended class, half online and half face to face. I spent the first day of the class explaining why I was doing it: what I have learned from study of literature on technology and education, on student pressures to graduate on time, and my own experiences teaching in an online environment. They listened and were glad I tried something new. There was a point mid-semester where one part of the course was NOT going well and we had to have a conversation and a correction. They appreciated that, too. Did that make me look stupid? I don’t think so.

Shouldn’t we work to model those very traits that we want students to embrace?

I hear all the time that our students at my college aren’t “risk-takers.” They are not “gritty” enough. They need more “resilience.” We need to have them try new things. I posted about the grit and resilience factor about the college football players that I teach, mentor and watch on the field. They definitely take risks every day.

How often do we as faculty try new things and risk?

I take risks often because I also have discovered through talking to my students, having focus groups with them, and reading the scholarship of teaching and learning, that my students learn more through active learning. The minority of students, I find, learn from lecture-only note-taking. I’m not bashing that method; I am just not content to know that only about 8-10% of my class (if that) learns well that way. If I can get more people learning more consistently and deeply if I change my methods, then I am going to do that. Because it makes for better classrooms and learning. And that is my job: to teach students.

As a result, might I look stupid in front of my students? Maybe. But even if I do, I seem to earn more respect from them because when I explain why I am doing it, they know I’m changing things up for them.

But that makes me human, too. And since one of my goals in every class is to make my class a community, I will continue to take risks in front of my students, letting them know I am doing it, so when I tell them to do it, I can say: I’ve done it, too.

For faculty reading this, why not leave a comment, telling us about the last time you took a risk in the classroom. Or, if you're reticent to do so, why?


4 thoughts on “So, You Don’t Want To Look Stupid?

  1. Josh

    Great conversation! One thing I will note is that when I try new things, students often can be savage about those attempts in their course evals.

    I'm fine with that, but I know many are not....which probably goes back to the role these evals play in tenure evaluation (and more).

    1. Gretchen McKay

      I understand that. In working with faculty who are thinking about changing things in their classroom, they often overreach. I just gave a workshop to some faculty in Florida who were really eager to try some new innovative and more active strategies in the classroom. I was asking them to think through just a one class-period exercise and what one person came up with was really massive and no way it would work in one class period. I do think that sometimes if we explain the reasons we are doing the exercise, what skills it will develop in our students, they are more open to it. I'm very curious about your "savage" comments. I've tried a bunch of crazy stuff over the years, but most of the time they do fine and I am not disparaged in the evaluations. But certainly the risks there for adjunct and untenured faculty is there. Administration needs to step in to allow for innovation, or the safe route will always be taken. And, I might add: if you're tenured, what do you have to lose to try something new?

  2. Christy

    Good questions to ask oneself! I'm absolutely a proponent of creativity in the classroom and trying different pedagogical approaches, particularly if they are student-centered. The roadblocks that I experience have to do with being visiting faculty member. Although this comes with similar challenges to being an adjunct or tenure-track faculty member, it also comes with its own particular set of challenges. Not only am I getting to know a new institution and a new campus culture, I'm teaching a full load of new (or at best new-ish) courses, and am also on the job market full-time. In some ways those things can encourage me to try something new (perhaps trying something new will lead me to a memorable teaching anecdote, and perhaps teaching new-ish things means I'm not tethered to doing something a particular way just because I've done it before), but the risks and time-commitment can be higher with trying something new than with doing something tried-and-true. I'm definitely tempted to be more cautious when I know these course evaluations from this semester will (hopefully) be considered in a few months and will decide not just whether I get tenure but whether I have a job next year. The question I often have is where and how can I find new or inspiring pedagogical ideas that I can adopt or adapt within a limited timeframe. Often these days it means finding pedagogical conversations online or keeping an eye out for pedagogical workshops on campus.

    1. Gretchen McKay

      Bravo for thinking about it and for checking in on new ideas. I would say that in such a tenuous position, try one or two things, even if you do not do the entire course in this manner. And be up front with students about why you are doing it. I find that transparency helps enormously in terms of why I am changing things up and "moving their cheese." If you emphasize the skills they are learning through this new method of teaching, it will go far in terms of student appreciation for what you are trying to do, even if it doesn't work so well. And I do think that those of us who have reached the "golden promised land" of tenure have an obligation to be trying these types of things more often than adjunct faculty. And administrators should find ways to support new faculty in tenure track positions to try new things or higher education will never shift or change. I believe it has to do so if it is to survive.


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