I suppose that I am not unusual in having a fear of failure. It seems to be pretty inherent to the human condition. At times in my life, that fear has been so strong that it has paralyzed my actions. I wouldn’t take on certain projects or jobs because I thought that I might fail. This was unfortunate, thinking back to the opportunities I missed.
I found that a fear of failure is incredibly difficult to maintain when teaching. Every single day that I am in the classroom I am in front of students. Doing my best to engage them and develop concepts that can help them understand the world around them. If I am not brave that is a difficult environment to go into.
I know for a fact that I have a failed a number of times in the classroom this semester. I attempted a group project which despite my best efforts simply didn’t work out. I think the students were bored and didn’t learn much out of it. But by showing them and honestly acknowledging to them that I make mistakes, that I fail at things, I think it has created an environment where they feel more comfortable taking a chance in the class. Like my Grandpa used to say “You got to risk it, if you want the biscuit”
My mother is an artist. She told me a long time ago that she paints because that is what she finds joy in doing. She has never made a lot of fame or fortune through painting. Nor are you likely to see any of her work hanging at a fancy museum anytime soon, but she does it anyways. I think she has given me a great example when it comes to choosing a profession. Teaching is unlikely to ever make me the kind of money that I could make in other professions, and it is unlikely I will be known throughout the world for my scholarship. I am pursuing this career anyways because it is what brings me joy.
Not only do I get so much out of working with students, and writing and learning myself, but I think that I can give a lot more to the students if I do so with joy in my heart. Whenever I have taught a lesson about something that really interest me, I find that my students become more interested in the subject. This is unlikely because our interest match up so precisely, I think it is much more likely caused by them responding to my attitude and energy. So I will endeavor to do whatever it is I am doing with joy.
In political science there are often controversial concepts and topics which need to be addressed. It is almost unavoidable. The teachers who avoid controversy at all cost soon gain a reputation for bland or un-engaging classes. There are also some teachers who try to create controversy just for the sake of entertainment and I find those classes to be lacking benefits also. There is no magic formula. Each teacher must make his or her own decision about the types of balance they need in their classes. And each group of students has different dynamics and maturity levels, and therefore need different structure in the classroom.
I have grappled with the right balance throughout the semester. Often I feel like I risk sacrificing student engagement if I handle controversial subjects poorly.
I have come to believe that what is most important however is creating an environent where students are courteous, open, and thoughtful. I have tried to create this environment a number of different ways throughout the semester. I think that in the end if I am successful any kind of idea can be discussed in a safe environment.
I began my career in political science when professors didn’t use powerpoints. Nor did they blog, or know what social media was. My professors lectured almost exclusively. Usually from notes on a yellow legal pad which look like it had been serving its purpose for years. Supplementary materials were exclusively books, not videos or other media.
I am not trying to teach in the environment that I studied in. Technology is so important to the average student in my class, that only the most experienced and competent professor could hope to hold their attention for 50 minutes just by talking. And just for the record I am not the most competent or experienced professor.
This leaves me with little choice but to accept the benefits and drawbacks of technology in the classroom which has become such a hallmark of the university.
I discovered in my defeat, in my surrender to this trend that there was actually a lot to be gained from utilizing technology. I supplement lecture with videos, blogs, or other things. I communicate to my students through a host of methods and have found it very effective. In the end some times you have to give a little to get a lot.
This week for the first time I had a student approach me about some personal issues that were affecting her ability to continue in the class. These are not the typical “my dog ate my homework” excuses that I am fairly accustomed to, instead, she came to me and shared some legitimate crisis that she was having in her life and wanted to know if I could help her.
Even though I am 31 years old, my intitial response was to try to send her to one of the “adults”. There must be some person who deals with this type of thing and is older and wiser than me. But she didn’t go to an “adult”, she came to me. And regardless of my age, I felt very immature when faced with this situation. I simply hadn’t had a lot of experience in this department.
I tried to hide my self-doubt and let her know that she could be open with me, and I would do what I could for her. She seemed relieved that I was judging her or worried about the quiz she had missed.
In the end I couldn’t do much for her except listen and refer her to some other services that the university offers. Since then I have seen her back in class and make a point of asking her how she’s doing. It turned out well, but it made me realize the sobering responsibility all teachers have towards their students.
One thing that I think should change is trend towards fewer but larger universities. There has been a trend since at least the massification of higher education after the Korean War to make institutions more efficient by making fewer of them and making them larger. There are obviously some important parts to this. Of course universities would save money by moving as many people as possible onto as few campus’ as possible. Services could be used by multiple people greatly increasing the efficiency of a university system. For instance landscaping or lawn care would be cheaper if they didn’t have to move from place to place and could just focus on one yard.
The question then becomes are colleges losing anything when they gain efficiency in this manor. I think very obviously they are. Classes become larger, students become less of an individual and more of a statistic, and professors are stretched thinner and thinner as they try to serve all of these students.
Especially in the humanities I think that students do much better when they get more individual attention, something that is impossible under the current mega-schools.
As another semester winds down I have found myself reflecting on many aspects discussed in contemporary pedagogy this semester! I know I have walked away with more questions than answers, but they are all questions I am excited to embrace in my future career.
I want to share a few final questions I have begun further contemplating..
How do we escape an emphasis on grades?
Should we completely forgo grades or strike a balance?
If not grades, what will metrics of accomplishment look like at a university setting?
Should attendance be mandatory?
What are effective strategies for evolving your classroom?
What is the future of departmental integration?
How do you effectively persuade your colleagues and department to embrace contemporary classrooms?
Please feel free to share your thoughts or questions you too are wondering about the future of university education!