Managing publicness of our roles as an instructor is a challenge. While this admittedly varies by discipline, those of us in the social sciences may use our own perspectives and publicness as opportunities to encourage more meaningful and personalized engagement with the materials. My first year of teaching I sought to restrain and tamp down my personality, but let my charisma, curiosity, and knowledge in the topics (national security and international security) shine through. Yet this year is a completely different scenario. I teach the Arab-Israeli Dispute. This topic has deep personal meaning forged from visceral firsthand experiences complemented by an array of connections to research on the politics of architecture, space, and aesthetics. As a result, I’ve refocused a bit to ensure my personality feeds into the charisma, curiosity, excitement, and knowledge of the topic.
I feel by injecting more of my personality and a heavier fingerprint on the syllabus I have created a more engaging, yet more personalized learning environment for the students in which they feel comfortable expressing themselves in their own voice. While this is apparent in the syllabus – I’ve framed the readings as “provocations” or “pieces of a mosaic that they are to assemble”, and this follows through into the classroom (we have brief reflection exercises and group discussions) and assignments (each of which they are tasked with reflecting on materials and their own position with regards to assembling the mosaic).
Yet the most important facet of this course is to connect their own agency to the creation of history. The last section – of four – is titled: “Israel, Palestine, and You”. This section is dedicated to reflecting on the ways more recent history has shaped their perspectives as well as to shore up the idea that they are participants in the writing of history. In other words, the goal is to shatter the notion that history is an abstract topic, but one in which they not only are shaped by, but simultaneously, have the capacity to shape. I will do this by bringing in (or skyping in) an Israeli and a Palestinian toward the end of the semester.
The hope is the students recognize that they are participants in history, and due to this – the hope is – it fuels their curiosity and confidence to think and engage with topics beyond the classroom not necessarily to become advocates for a cause, but as confident and knowledgeable advocates for themselves and their views.
This very much places students at the center of the learning experience similar to the “experiential learning” advocated by the likes of Kuh. This experiential learning is similar to “research”, but I think the research is more oriented toward their own reflections. It’s a two-way process – the more they encounter those different pieces of the mosaic, the more space they are given to reflect on and wrestle with questions and in so doing, they increasingly feel more comfortable with their own perspectives. This experiential learning approach is modeled on a trip or powerful experience in that the more impactful learning occurs afterward when the trip-goer reflects on their experience.
While I like the idea of introducing public writing, the topic of the course could lead to an unwillingness to be as assertive or comfortable with their posts as one may prefer. One of the common threads for all of the students in the course is that many claimed “they wanted to learn more to feel comfortable discussing the Arab-Israeli situation.” I think giving them some space – unimpeded both by their colleagues, and to a degree, me – is necessary for them to wrestle with the personal and wider ethical or theoretical questions.
This does not mean I do not believe in collaborative learning. Quite the opposite, I simply take the stance that collaborative and deeply personal learning share parts in the learning process, but – like different research methods – are more appropriate for difference scenarios and topics at different times.
In a similar vein, I agree that learning and education can be amplified by the reliance on technological instruments, I think the risk is that those devices become distractions in the learning experience. I can relate this to a personal experience.
While I think it is great to have a blog to share research, thoughts, or experiences, I think handing a paper to a colleague for review or having a chat over coffee – much like what Tim Hitchcock claims – are equally effective for developing and sharing research. The fear is that writing a blog entry can serve as a distraction – both in terms of news sites or other looming deadlines. I find that more often than not I do my best work, when I disconnect from the digital architecture within which our lives are embedded. I am not advocating a luddite position, I just think enough self-reflection helped me realize the importance of space, time, and attention in being the best scholar, teacher, and overall person I can be.