Teaching for the 21st Century

I could very much relate to Sonia Henry’s piece about medical students and empathy. I too experience a sort of loss of empathy at times with the work that I engage with as a graduate student. Given my field of study is Sociology (with specific attention paid towards race and health disparities) the type of readings I work through are theoretically interesting and engaging, yet empirically depressing because of the ongoing discrimination minority persons face in American society. I take a quantitative approach to my research which means that I tend towards dealing with a lot of datasets, regressions analysis and path models. Often times I find myself forgetting that the empirical “cases” i deal with are people’s lives. They are their experiences and their truth.  I wonder how we as researchers, in the social sciences specifically, can maintain a sense of empathy while doing the work that at times can normalize disenfranchisement. I wonder how we maintain a sense of passion and excitement without forgetting about the very real lives we are reporting on.

Attention and Multi-Tasking

Speaking of attention and multi-tasking, this was by far the most difficult blog for me to write given my short attention span and my incessant clicking on other tabs!

Technology certainly changes our mental habits, our cognitive behaviors and the ways in which we manage intellectual work. I tend towards leaning on the side that would suggest that humans and technology are best when working together and that technology is more of a help than a hinderance.

I must however agree that, “Today’s multitasking tools really do make it harder than before to stay focused during long acts of reading and contemplation. They require a high level of “mindfulness”-paying attention to your own attention” (Thompson, p. 14). Given this, I do find myself printing out academic papers and checking out books from the library more so than reading on my computer. Technology makes is so great that one must develop a skill of focusing on focusing that I have not yet and likely never will achieve. On the other hand, technology helps me to multitask in a manner that I would not be able to if I did not have access to the internet and a laptop. I can be on a phone conference while responding to emails, looking up a reference mentioned on the phone conference and simultaneously drop my mother a “good morning” text through iMessage for iMac without skipping a beat. I can also read some difficult academic theorist like Parson’s, do a quick internet search to translate what on God’s green earth he is talking about, jump back to the original text and check out an online book review to make sure my comprehension of the text is on point. I mean really, it’s GREAT!


Critical Pedagogy

The department of sociology tends to attract diverse groups of students from varying backgrounds, especially in the 1000 and 2000 level courses. This is likely because all disciplines are required to fulfill a social science unit. Interaction with students from different disciplines opens  an excellent opportunity to introduce them to racial, gendered, socioeconomic etc. inequalities in their varying career paths and in the social world in general.

Part of teaching students about, for example, race and racial inequalities, is in helping them to conceptualize race as a social structure – a systematic ordering system with empirical effects, locating racialized power dynamics and recognizing the role their own intersectional privileges play in their individual and group trajectories. This can be a difficult task as 18 and 19 year old often students come into the classroom without an open mind, largely reflecting the socio-political views of their parents and not yet having scratched the surface of disenfranchisement. The necessary conversations surrounding power and privilege can create a sort of resistance (to the material presented) on behalf of the students instead of intended engagement.

I enjoyed Fowler’s approach to teaching power dynamics – through Bourdieu’s notion of “cultural capitalism.”  This offers students a starting point; a reference to critically arrive at conclusions that are less interpersonal. It also gives students the tools to think through difficult concepts in an intellectual and thoughtful manner. Such an approach has the ability to be both critical and self-critiquing.

Even with Fowler in mind, I cringe at having to teach about power dynamics in the classroom. I am a black woman. My visible racial classification has a noticeable impact on how students receive social fact. I have been undermined numerous times as a TA with students suggesting that statements I make and supplemental material offered are a reflection of “my feelings” as a “black woman.” Given that I work hard to present empirical facts, teaching such a topic can be frustrating and draining at best.

I wonder any ideas regarding how to engage in critical teaching, especially for new professors who are from minority groups (including women, international persons, disabled persons etc.)?


Inclusive Pedagogy

While I do think diversity is important, I also find it to be a bit of  a buzz word. Maybe we should consider thinking less about diversity and more about equal access to tools of upward mobility that would offer minority persons the ability to accelerate at the same rate as non-minorities in education, careers, family life, health, wellness etc.

In many ways the idea and implementation of diversity suggests that business teams, for example, need one token individual of each minority group to meet the standard in order to hit their “diversity mark.” Yes, “diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations” (Phillips 2014). But does investing reportedly millions of marketing dollars into the idea of diversity have as great an output as focused attention paid to the structural barriers that create roadblocks for diverse individuals in their career trajectories? If – for example – having women in leadership positions results in increased innovation and increased revenue, then it seems more women should be encouraged to take on leadership roles and offered the same tools as men to navigate corporate spaces and be successful in their careers. This means encouraging young girls to explore areas of math and science, engineering and construction, entrepreneurship and leadership. This also might mean creating clear pathways from young womanhood to adulthood (funded programs specifically for women) that would suggest the corporate space is as convenient for a woman as it is for a man (e.g. paid maternity leave, extended maternity leave in general). This might also look like assistance to help low-income mothers realize their potential in traditionally male spaces.

Week 4 – Assessment

A little louder for the people in the back… “ASSESSMENTS ARE OVERRATED!”

Assessments are central to how the education systems determines a students progress (or lack thereof). Assessments  also play a role in stifling a students ability to engage in intellectual work – the creative work that is done outside of the classroom but is informed by the in-class formal academic experience. As Lombardi suggest, “The type of assessment students know will be coming determines when they “tune in” to a lecture and when they “tune out.” Evidence from student diaries indicates that students spend less than 10 percent of their time on non-assessed academic work”. Thus, what is important is only characterized by what is graded.

While I do wholly agree with the resistance to assessments and grading, I wonder if some alternate system is truly achievable. How are we to truly measure students in a manner that is objective? Some suggest that teachers should write about a students progress and gaps in learning instead of offering grades. Realistically how many institutions of higher education are truly going to read write-ups? How does a professor truly know if a student is learning?

I think investing in alternative assessments are more productive – giving students the option to write a paper, complete involved projects, engage in applied work, or do some other extracurricular non-traditional assessment. In this way, students can apply what they know to something they are good at or interested in.

On a personal note, I was admitted to grad school NOT because of my grades, but because of the applied work that I had done outside of academia. I was able to take what I learned from class and leverage it in internships that reflected my true capabilities. It was through internships that I found confidence in discussing my discipline and its application to the real world.

Needless to suggest, assessments were not a true picture of my potential or my ability to do intellectual work. They were a picture of my inability to do monotonous memorization and reverberation learning. Once I figured this out about myself, I was able to approach my academic studies with a spirit of enjoyment; that what was important was actually NOT in the classroom. That the classroom just gave me the tools I needed to be successful in non-graded work. Being reaffirmed in intellectual capability is important for students – and BAD grades certainly do not get the job done in the Department of Encouragement and Affirmation.

Anti-Teaching / Mindful Learning

I find this concept of Anti-teaching quite intriguing and especially interesting to detangle as Ken Robinson did in his TedxTalk How to Escape Education’s Death Valley. Robinson mentioned the epidemic of ADHD. While I do very much believe in the behavioral disorder and think it is necessary to treat, he made an excellent point in terms of children’s attention span. That, logically, if you give someone a task to do for an extended period of time, they are likely to get fidgety. This offers insight into how we discuss traditional teaching practices and how we might effectively alter our methods.

One of the more important points that was necessary to think about in this weeks readings is being cautious of teaching AT students and learning how to teach with significance. As Langer suggest, the myths of traditional learning (i.e. delayed gratification, right and wrong answers, paying attention = focusing on one thing at a time) actually undermine true learning. Reimagining the ways in which we teach can be valuable in terms of getting students authentically engaged. When students are taught AT, they understand the educator/professor relationship as one-way. When the learning relationship between educator and professor are dynamic and applicable to the students lives, perhaps the central questions will be less about grades and assignment timelines and more about asking critical questions that are thought provoking and have depth.

I have TA’d a course using Welch’s method of altering the learning environment. We were teaching a course on Feminism. Instead of the standard lecture style, we had the students structure their chairs in a circle where they could see and speak to each other. This was important as it is more valuable for us, as the educators to guide the discussion, and let the students fill in the blanks – bouncing ideas off of each of other, gaining first-hand insight into intersectional approaches to feminism. I found that students were more comfortable speaking up and speaking to each other. They did not feel as though there was a structured relationship between educator and student – but that in some way they were all, at different point in the discussion, educators as well as students. Instead of we, the educators challenging the students, the students challenged each other to think more critically. Our discussions were less structured yet more interactive and therefore significant to the students.

The Feminism course I TA’d was a class of approximately 30. I wonder about suggestions for altering the environment of lecture size (50+) courses.

Week 2 – Networked Learning

“What starts as a blog, ends as an academic output, and an output with a ready-made audience, eager to cite it” (Hitchcock 2014)

While I find great worth in academic publication, I also find it inaccessible; lacking in social impact and problematic in terms of who the work is being written for. In the social sciences, especially, much of our work is done for purposes of impact, informing emerging public policy or redirecting the course of social relationships. While there is a level of assumed integrity associated with publishing in academic journals, I must wonder if the work of the discipline is better served in a space that is open to public dialogue and discussion. If the output of social science work stays within the “academy,” especially given the tools to reach larger audiences, it would seem selfish to argue only amongst intellectual colleagues in regards to the use or misuse of some theoretical application or interpretation of a text. Instead,  it seems the work of social science disciplines would be better served if the discussion was just that – a discussion – a reciprocal dialogue between academics and the larger society. This works to both inform academic research and offer a space in which social facts can be given qualitative context.

Like Hitchcock, I find twitter and blogging excellent mediums for this type of work. However, unless one is utilizing two separate handles, twitter runs the risk of conflating the individual and the academic. I do to an extent agree with Hitchcock (2014) that anything placed on Twitter should be treated with the same seriousness as an academic review or questions following a public lecture. But, does this not defeat the value of Twitter? Can it not be treated as a space, even for the academic, to evolve intellectually and allow their own moral compass to inform their opinions and reflections of public policy while also disseminating information? Isn’t this the value that blogging and Twitter create that academic journals – especially those highlighting empirical evidence – turn a cold shoulder to? This is difficult as Twitter can become a snapshot of both one’s character and one’s academic work. While academia oftentimes encourages one to take themselves out of the work, spaces such as Facebook and Twitter would encourage one to be apart of the work (i.e. be actively engaged in the conversation). This is especially given that grassroots social movements and policy implications are happening on social media. Instant reporting is happening on social media. Thus, the work of social science fields are being played out in real time.

One of the larger challenges is finding ways in which to get students excited and involved in the discipline via social media. That though you are an academic, you are also an individual with thoughts and informed opinions that might be deemed inappropriate for the classroom but expected and even celebrated on forms such as Twitter and Facebook. How do educators manage the student/professor relationship in a professional manner while making efforts to meet the students “where they are at?”

Hitchcock, T. (2014) http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/07/28/twitter-and-blogs-academic-public-sphere/