Who do I try to be while I’m teaching? That’s the question. I took my broad categories from Sarah E. Deel’s article on finding her teaching voice and from Shelli Fowler’s authentic teaching self article. As I reflect on five semesters of TAing and then teaching as instructor of record, I try to be:
Authentic (Broadly) – I’m not an actor or a performer by personality. So, I decided early on that I would be myself in the classroom. Each class I plan to have topics to cover and to leave time for discussion. I try to relate to the students in a back and forth way when they ask/answer questions and I try my best to provide nuanced clarifications or supplemental information when students assert things that are, shall we say, not quite empirically sound. I teach in Political Science, so opinion is part of the game but I want opinions of all sorts to be well-informed and thought out. I tell jokes and sometimes they land, sometimes they don’t. Lame jokes are part of my out of the classroom personality so I try to bring that into my teaching. I also try to show when a particular topic/issue/theme is genuinely exciting or thought-provoking for me and, perhaps more importantly, I try to be encouraging when a student brings into a discussion something that makes a connection for them or that they find interesting and engaging.
Prepared – I never walk into class without a plan for what I want to cover for the day. I also try to prepare just the right amount of material for each day. I worry more about running out of material but I also don’t want to assign so much reading that we don’t have time to talk about most (ideally all) of the key ideas. I taught two days a week in the fall (75 minutes) and this semester I teach three days (50 minutes). It has been a learning experience adjusting and understanding how much I need to plan for different length sessions.
Organized – I order my notes typically in the order that the chapter or reading for the day covers the material. I try my best to take each concept or topic one by one and exhaust explanation and discussion of them before moving to the next concept. I taught Israeli history in the fall and so this worked somewhat more organically in that course as I taught the history chronologically while stopping to talk about important themes and events. History seems to lend itself to organization in this way.
Flexible – Even though I try to be prepared and organized I also try to remain open to shifting needs and interests in the classroom. If someone asks a question that prompts 20 minutes of discussion, and therefore we don’t get through all of my planned material, I don’t stress about it. Often the discuss is more interesting than it would have been for me to go through the material. Ideally the students will have done the reading (I live in the real world and I know some ((most?)) don’t) but they have it in any case. They can refer to it for content but the discussion is where hopefully a lot of the learning and critical engagement happens.
Approachable – One of the best parts of teaching is when students come to office hours to chat more about a class topic. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it’s really great to connect with the students about the course material, about ideas and issues raised in class and about their individual interests in the course and how it connects to their broader educational and intellectual growth. Because of all of this, I try to remain approachable. Unless I’m running to a meeting, I’m around to talk after class and I try to meet students for office hours (as much as possible) when their schedules allow.
These four aspects, authenticity, preparation, flexibility, and approachability, have (in)formed my teaching style so far, and it’s going well. Practice, as they say, makes perfect and I am approaching teaching as an on-going practice and learning process.
“This is my voice, there are many like it, but this one is mine.” –Shane Koyczan, “This is my Voice“
Allow me to complicate things for this week’s topic:
I have two voices. One of them is silent.
Yet, both are part of my authentic teaching voice.
The Non-Silent Voice
When I walk into a classroom on the first day, usually into a philosophy class, I give a brief bio about myself and then jump straight into one of the most important parts of that class: community building and context setting. By context setting I mean being honest and transparent about the often unsaid and left out things.
For the unsaid (but sometimes implied):
We as a class will be creating and making this classroom together
We are responsible and accountable to one another
My students are the core while I am a facilitator of their narrative and
exploration into the topic
I am more concerned with them learning to be honest with themselves about what they believe, and why, than with their actual views
I will invite them to engage in difficult conversations and to lean into the discomfort of challenging discussions, with the hope that they will eventually trust that the conversation will take us all to deeper levels of understanding both about the topic at hand and, more importantly, about ourselves as interlocutors
For the left out (and rarely implied):
We should be mindful of accessibility/We will remake the space as needed to make it more accessible
We will discuss things they never learned or were intentionally not taught in school (null curriculum)
They are welcome to be their authentic selves in the class; they don’t have to hide their beliefs or say what seems “mainstream”
I am more concerned that they leave with transferable skills than knowing the minute details of the philosophers we discuss
I am human, have opinions on these topics and I won’t reveal any of mine until the end of the course.
To this latter point, I tack on the truthful disclaimer that I will at times motivate and defend views I do think are false because they are the topic of the week and it is my responsibility as a facilitator to give them an accurate lay of the land to explore. That last part usually gets left out.
Next we do introductions. We take time, careful time, filling out note cards and an intake form that give background information that I want to know such as:
past history in philosophy
current beliefs (so I can flag the tensions that will pop up sections to section and so that they can reflect on what they believe at the end of the semester)
things they’re actually interested in so I can work in topics/recommend readings
“preferred” pronouns if they should have any
I also ask them to draw me a picture on the note card as well but I don’t tell them why until the end of the semester. Pictures and non-traditional methods of concept presentation/acquisition happen a lot in my sections. Finally, we go around the room and share one embarrassing thing that happened to us to establish lines of common, yet different, experiences (lots of people falling down stairs, I share falling down a hill into my first field hockey collegiate game) and we start talking about the reading.
In a normal class session we do processing to work through anything that folks aren’t quite sure about from the week’s readings, we do a peer led discussion where 2-3 students lead a discussion/activity on a given topic for their colleague, we unpack the activity, do another small group conversation, and end with a participation page where they can ask me questions/reflect on what they are thinking about. This is also where the introverts can participate in a more introvert friendly space.
So far everything I’ve named has been the (usually) audible, present voice I bring into the classroom. It is with this voice I try to nurture, not tolerate or merely accept or support, the voices, opinions and thoughts of the students I work with. It is with this voice I try to support them when they say they “just can’t get it” and challenge them to formulate the argument on behalf of their opposition when they get to haughty.
My teaching self tries to be both high in support and high in what is called “control” in Restorative Practices models but more accurately translates to “challenge”. I try to challenge all my students to improve even when they struggle and to reach out to one another as colleagues in a mutual labor of learning difficult concepts. They each receive feedback on their work and at the end of the semester they get an “improvement” based grade in addition to the university required letter grade since when I said I care about improvement, I meant it.
I try to foster a classroom environment where they are accountable to one another, not merely to me, and an environment where ultimately I would be irreverent. One in which unpopular opinions can be shared openly, honestly, and where we can have a philosophical discussion about the tensions among views without the need for facilitator oversight.
All of this (I hope) sounds pretty decent, right?
What then is the voice that is missing?
The Silent Voice
In the classroom an intentional style, and approach, I take given that it is philosophy is to tell my students almost nothing about my background. I tell them a little bit, like the main areas I work in so that they know I may give more feedback than normal if I know the literature; I flag that I’m a diversity trainer for the university (and that they may run into me outside of class); and give a bit of history (reslife, old majors) with the end note of “I know that unforeseen things will happen in your lives; just keep me in the loop when, and if, you need some sort of accessibility move to balance life’s challenges”. Like I said, high in support and challenge.
But what I don’t reveal is also of import when it comes to my authentic teaching self:
I don’t tell them that I’m a moral realist, intuitionist, and deontologist.
I don’t tell them that I’m a conditional vegetarian who thinks I should be a vegan.
I don’t tell them that I think killing is self-defense may not always be morally permissible (a very unpopular view).
I don’t tell them a myriad of other philosophical views that I, reasonably, think I am probably wrong about at the end of the day.
And outside of philosophical views, I intentionally don’t tell them I’m trans.
In philosophy we have a major problem with bias both in the discipline and about the discipline and, historically, this bias impacts facilitators and students.
On their end, if students know that I believe x they are more likely to focus on either a) catering to my beliefs or b) take any criticism of how they formulate an argument to be only due to the fact that I think a different view is more plausible. There is also a tendency to link identities with beliefs and that’s one of the reasons I don’t say anything; why I don’t “correct” for pronouns and have a mixture of “ma’am/she” and “sir/he” floating around the classroom (and email) everyday. The trans*/minoritized identity=liberal=this belief about x is too pernicious to avoid it any other way. That and the fear of being perceived as “forcing my views onto someone’s child” for merely existing is a conversation I’d rather avoid.
While for some folks reading this, it may not make sense to have to hide, obscure, or simply leave out identities, not everyone can do that. There isn’t usually a lot of risk when someone who is in a different gender relationship/partnership mentions that they have wife/husband, for example. There can be tangible risks if you’re in a same gender relationship, a poly relationship, unmarried with a child, queer, etc.
As I said, I wanted to complicate things this week and this is the complication. Depending on your identities, or more accurately the identities that people perceive of you, this “authentic” self sometimes has to be policed by the very person it is supposed to represent.
We can’t talk about our authentic teaching selves without naming the things that we must leave unsaid.
Bridging the Gap
With my audible voice I “use” this silent voice at the very end of the semester to do a consciousness raising activity in what I think constitutes a type of ethical manipulation. Specifically, I use my silence as a tool to get students to reflect on what implicit bias means for them and their communities. During this class we talk about implicit bias, they do iceburg activities with one another naming the identities and histories they assume about their partner, and then they guess things about me. I don’t answer their guesses just as I haven’t answered their guesses during the other weeks.
In leaving a space of intentional uncertainty, my students get to see that not everyone makes the same assumptions about me, and I leave them with the question of which guesses were right, which guesses were wrong, and an invitation to consider what it would have meant if I walked into a space where folks were making multiple, conflicting assumptions. I end by asking them to take with them the question of what assumptions folks make about them and how those assumptions continue to shape their paths in the years to come.
My silent voice ultimately is not the one I speak with, not the one that shows up to facilitate philosophical conversations with students thrice a week beyond being present in absence.
In being silent, and silenced, this part of my authentic self gets used to at least raise consciousness and make a philosophical point that is memorable, transferable, and, just sometimes, world shattering.
It may be silent, but it shapes my approach to teaching as much as if not more than my non-silent voice.
When we speak about our teaching voices, the kinds of facilitators we are or are working on becoming in the classroom and lab, our approaches, techniques, strengths, oddities, I don’t think we can leave out the fact that some of us, if not all of us, must have dual voices.
Not all of us can be our authentic selves in every classroom without monitoring the plurality of voices that we have; each authentic, real, and felt in a different way.
Instead of a regular blog post this week, I decided to work on something new: a video where I both learn to use software enabling said video creation and convey some of my impressions from this week’s readings* and video resources. Speaking of the resources for this week, here’s a screen shot from the New Learners of the 21st Century where I paused at the most perfect moment, if “perfect moment” is defined as the opportunity to make a meme of James Gee:
If you ask any educator to define their teaching style, you’re bound to receive a plethora of responses. It’s likely they will categorize their style as “traditional” or “contemporary”, and then proceed define it by the practices employed to engage students. There will be mention of in-person lectures, virtual classrooms, interactive modules or labs, and much, much more. The one commonality among all the elaborate explanations is that they will conclude the the exact same claim- that this particular method is the BEST. But for whom is it the best: the educator or the student? Would all students in a class agree with the educator’s teaching method?
The answer is no, they likely would not.
Just as there are a multitude of teaching methods, many learning styles have also been recognized. I did a little research, and found there are at least seven learning styles (visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, solitary) that comprise an individual’s learning profile. An individual’s preferred styles guide the way they learn, internally represent experiences, and how information is recalled. It seems logical to assume that no single teaching style can successfully or effectively engage every student to learn. So if there isn’t a “blanket” method, how is one educator expected to effectively engage a whole classroom!?
Personally, I think educators will be able to engage more students with a hybrid style I like to call “Choose Your Own [Learning] Adventure”. The inspiration for this style comes from a game-book series I read during my youth titled Choose Your Own Adventure. Each adventure-based story was written in second-person, allowing the reader to assume control of decisions that impact the plot’s outcome. I believe that learning should be presented in a similar manner. Instead of the educator dictating a singular learning path, they should provide a variety of options and allow the student to dictate their own learning adventure. Educators can do this by providing materials/experiences geared towards engaging each of the seven learning styles. By doing so, students can select control their learning experience and dictate the own unique learning path.
Now, do I believe the “Choose Your Own [Learning] Adventure” method will result in the success of every student? Absolutely not. Similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, not all learning paths lead to a “happy ending”. There is always risk involved when one assumes responsibility for their own outcomes. The path to learning is riddled with unforeseen pitfalls and booby traps that can fell many an adventurer. Still, I think such a method is an intriguing alternative that may provide [student] adventurers with the opportunity to actively engage in the learning experience. However, there will always exist a select group of adventurers who prefer to have a “guide” outline their path for them.
I have always been a huge fan of games since I was younger. Whether it was a card game, a board game, a video game, a role-playing game, miniature gaming, or even live-action roleplaying, I was doing it. Even as a 40 year old graduate student, I still meet with friends once a week for a gaming night. It is something I always felt connected to and helped me form connections with others. The genre of games doesn’t matter either. It can be fantasy, science-fiction, or historically based. One of my all-time favorites that I experienced early on in school is historical wargaming. I remember playing a game of Axis and Allies during my lunch breaks with some classmates while we learned about World War II history. The game took almost the entire school year to complete. During my undergraduate, I worked at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, LA. The educational department at the museum used wargaming to help teach history to school groups that would visit the museum year-round. The following comes from their website:
Wargaming has been around for a very long time. The game of chess is a simple form of wargame, first devised in India long ago. Risk and Battleship are other simple wargames. In historical wargaming, participants work with either historical battles, or historical armies in hypothetical situations. In modern wargaming, a battle typically has two applications. In its first (professional military) use, military forces attempt to model hypothetical battles that might, but have not yet, occurred. Often known as simulations, wargames of this type help real military commanders understand potential problems before actual men and material are deployed. In the second (civilian hobby) form of wargaming, real or hypothetical battles from the past are recreated. Participants discover what could have, or did, occur — and why. Participants learn what could have been done differently to change outcomes. Learning from the past can help prevent mistakes in the present. They also have fun, and build friendships, while learning! The National WWII Museum focuses on board or miniatures games, rather than electronic wargames. We do this for several reasons listed below.
Development of social skills.
Board and miniature wargame players sit across from each other. They see each other and directly interact. Large games involving teams promotes team building, management skills and resource management in a cooperative environment. In recreating difficult military situations, players vicariously gain glory in victory, or suffer dismal defeat in the social setting of the group. As they do so, they develop real human friendships. Game friendships, formed through sharing the hobby, can last a lifetime. Unless playing with someone in the next chair through a shared network, electronic games only provide a limited comradeship through disembodied voices, though possibly from across the globe.
Development of critical and strategic thinking.
In most board and miniatures games, as in life, players must generate a workable strategic plan to be successful. Games encourage consideration of future challenges, and the best responses, before those challenges occur. In many electronic games, advance planning may not be feasible, as game challenges may remain unknown — and the mission may only involve a body count.
Game scales and probability can be misrepresented in electronic games. Board and miniatures games generally let you know — in advance — the probability of various occurrences in the wargame and put the probability in your hand in the form of dice. Math skills are reinforced by the player’s personal game calculations. This makes the board or miniatures wargame a better historical educational tool. In electronic gaming, computers handle all calculations and probability is located in the device’s random number generator. The player has no idea how easy or hard a function is, unless they reboot to play multiple sessions.
Electronic first-person shooter games often immerse the player in an exciting, ongoing environment, but single person e-games often provide little understanding of the risks involved beyond the player’s role. The role of leadership can be misconstrued. However, it is true that electronic first-person shooter games more accurately portray the often horrific violence of war. This is abstracted in board and miniatures games, but those do a better job of educating players as to the larger scope of battle. This debate has informed The National WWII Museum’s educational wargame choices; as an institution, we hope to introduce youth to a critical time in world history. We also recognize the desire to involve parents in gaming.
All wargames sacrifice realism for playability, the question is how much — and whether it is acknowledged by the game developers. If a gameplay situation seems questionable in light of reality, it probably is. Learn more and come to your own determination about the accuracy of that game and the reality of that battle.
Development of creativity.
In miniature games, hobbyists often research the military units they are using, and often try to replicate the paint scheme of the real military unit. They must also analyze (and, in miniature games, build) the map, the roads, hills and other historical terrain fought over. Books, magazines, multimedia and interviews are all used in the discovery process. This process requires patience and creativity — and makes for a better learning experience. It also provides a more complete, and thus more interesting, panoramic overview of the battlefield. Electronic games are constrained by the scenarios and responses programmed into them, thus they generally offer low replay value. Board and miniatures games played against human opponents allow for the creative flexibility of the human mind.
In March 2016, I was in Atlanta, GA for the International Studies Association Conference. I was there to present and to listen to others present research in my field. My mentor and I had just finished lunch when he told me that he had a meeting to get to. I responded that I would see him at the next session we were both planning on going to when he told me that he wanted me to accompany him to his meeting. At that moment, I had no clue that my life as an instructor and the way I taught world politics was about to change.
My mentor and I met the CEO and co-founder of an online simulation called Statecraft. In the world of Statecraft students take the reins of power, becoming presidents, kings, military dictators, Secretaries of State and Defense, intelligence chiefs, and political advisers (among other roles). They are free to use their country’s diplomatic, economic, and military resources to build or to destroy, to work for the betterment of all countries or to focus on maximizing their own country’s wealth, power, and quality of life.
Statecraft has been designed to replicate core dynamics of world politics, so students will face the same challenges, opportunities, and tradeoffs that real world leaders confront every day. In so doing they will gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of world politics and gain insight into a host of critical concepts, theories, and real world cases.
I was excited to begin using Statecraft in my Introduction to World Politics course. I saw the potential for using the simulation to teach concepts in the course. It would either reinforce material that was already taught or allow me to foresee future concepts that needed to be taught sooner rather than later because of what was occurring in the simulation. The simulation is fully automated so the instructor does not need to spend much time preparing for the simulation. The instructor is also asked not to be directly involved in the simulation but to be merely an observer.
I knew ahead of time that the Summer I semester was only 6 weeks long and the simulation usually takes 7-10 turns to work well. If I were to do 7-10 turns, that meant that the turn periods would have to be short (3-4 days) instead of the typical week per turn model. The other foreseeable issues were: 1) getting the students to stick with a timetable for the simulation that required a quick turnaround, 2) getting the students to submit memos regarding their actions in the simulation on time due to the quick turnaround, and 3) getting the students to read the Statecraft student manual, take the Statecraft manual quizzes, and take the Foreign Policy Attitude Test (this sorts the students into their respective countries) before the simulation went “live.” I was also concerned about the final paper I would assign my students that said,
“Suppose that as a political scientist you were interested in explaining precisely why things unfolded the way they did in your Statecraft world (wars, international agreements, alliances, etc.). How much importance would you attach to each of the factors of geography, starting resources, individual leaders’ personalities and beliefs, foreign policy beliefs, domestic faction demands, the United nations and other international governmental organizations, regime types and attributes, the structure of the international system, norma, and any other factors as causal forces driving these events? Explain why. Conclude by discussing whether or not these factors’ importance in Statecraft accurately reflects their real world importance, and why.”
I first used the simulation in an online version of the course during the 2016 Summer I semester. There were no attacks by one country to another. Although, there was a “United States” like country that threatened to attack other countries if they did not destroy the terrorists within their borders. Overall, the actions in the simulation resulted in peace amongst the countries by the end of the simulation. The students enjoyed the simulation and their biggest complaint was that they wanted more time to play the simulation. There was also some criticism by students that I was not “hands-on” within the simulation and that I referred them to the manual too often instead of outright answering their questions about the simulation. My response, in my head and not to my students, is that I cannot hold their hand in life and in this simulation. They have to make all of the decisions in the simulation and deal with the repercussions of those decisions just like any leader in the actual world. A majority of the students only viewed Statecraft as a game and did not see the learning that was embedded within it. I also think these same students thought that a summer online course would not be as rigorous as one taught in the fall and spring.
I used the simulation again during the 2016 Fall semester. This time, the students had similar yet different reactions. During the Thanksgiving break, one of the countries, Nukehavistan, (that had decided to be a pacifist country when they set up their country attributes) attacked Westeros without provocation. When other students asked why Nukehavistan did this, their leader stated that he played computer games similar to Statecraft and that he was a master of said games and that he was pretty much bored and knew that this would help him “win” the game. Again, some students only saw this as a game and did not see the inherent learning within Statecraft. The attack angered the rest of the countries in the simulation and by the last turn of the semester, nuclear weapons had been launched against Nukehavistan by Nettopolis. All of the students that saw the benefit of using the simulation stated that it made my class one of their favorite classes that semester and during their entire time at Virginia Tech up to that point. I will teach the Introduction to World Politics course again during the 2017 Summer I semester and I plan to use Statecraft again. I am just trying to see how I can make my students’ online experience better, so I am open to any suggestions.
During the last turn of the Fall 2016 simulation, Nettopolis deployed nuclear weapons against Nukehavistan.
“Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning” (Kohn, A. 2011)
After reading this quote I immediately remembered my previous teaching experience in Kuwait. My assessments were structured in a way that an argument is presented, and students would answer based on their background knowledge that reflect on the learning outcomes of the curriculum. I faced two problems. Firstly, was the difficulty in developing a unified marking scheme that will be fair for any answer, and because there was simply no right answer, anything they wrote was just a matter of perception. Secondly, students that did not receive satisfactory marks rushed to me, expecting a justified explanation as to why I marked them down. I felt that my students are only concerned about their grades, and forget their interest in what they were learning. If I had the option to give them all full marks I would have, but unfortunately I was trapped in a set of rules by the institution that allowed me to be selective as to where to distribute my As. In other words, the students with better answers than others received an A. At the end of each semester every instructor had to submit their class’s grade distribution that follow those rules:
Not having more than 20% A’s
Not having less than 20% A’s
Not having more than 20% F’s
Not having less than 20% F’s
If any of those rules has not been met, the instructor had to go through a justification process. They believed that it’s either the instructor is too easy with the students, or too hard, and that one of the instructors’ responsibilities is to achieve a well distributed graded class. I believe that if this system is avoided in all institutions at a global scale, there will be much less pressure on both the student and the instructor. Students will also have the freedom to learn what interests them, instructors will have the freedom to teach from their heart, and both will enjoy the teaching and learning process.
The educational systems need to lower the burden on students because the systemized grading systems are de-motivating students to learn. Vanderbilt University (2017) lists 8 strategies for motivating students, and the top 2 techniques that I would highly recommend are:
Placing minor emphasis on testing and grading
Giving students as much control over their own education as possible
Those recommendations will set a platform for our students to be able to express and share their ideas comfortably which will have a positive impact on their future.
Kohn, A. 2011. The Case Against Grades. http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/
It may come as no surprise that many of the critiques I made last week of Michael Wesch hold for Dan Pink as well. I found his animated video on the existence of non-monetary motivations for work engaging until he made the slightly ludicrous claim that a tech firm allowing its employees autonomy and “self-directed” work ONE DAY PER YEAR was “almost radical.”
Now, I don’t want to beat a dead horse – so I will try not to. I want to make two brief points on this before moving on to the less irksome work of Alfie Kohn.
First, it takes a deeply ideological perspective to be surprised (he calls the science freaky!) that humans are motivated in their work by things other than monetary reward. “Homo Economicus,” profit-maximizers, and other utilitarian conceptions of human behavior are ideological constructions of economists not neutral representations of objective reality. Well-known anarchist Peter Kropotkin made the argument in his classic work “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” more than 100 years ago that cooperation and reciprocity characterize human social life as much if not more than purely self-interested competition and maximization.
Second, the idea that there are alternative structures for workplaces that place more emphasis on autonomy, mastery, and purpose and less emphasis on strict hierarchy and ranked performance IS NOT NEW! There is nothing novel about this idea. Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, and countless other anarchist and socialist writers and practitioners have been advocating for this for more than 150 years (not to mention those pesky Luddites). The history of unionism more generally is full of skilled workers resisting efforts by capitalist owners to strip their work of autonomy mastery, and purpose (see: Workers’ Control in America:Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles by David Montgomery). Furthermore, the way Pink describes corporations putting these ideas into practice, with the goal of instrumentalizing their employees’ creativity and desire for more control to generate more profits, is problematic to say the least.
Heterodox economist Richard D. Wolff has written numerous books on the topic and runs an organization that helps businesses transition into worker self-directed enterprises. There are more than 200 in the US alone and thousands around the world. The largest and most famous organization of this kind is the Mondragon Corporation in Spain, founded in 1956, employing 74,000 people, and earning around $13bn per year. It’s not perfect, but it’s the “freaky” result of 60 years of attempts to build more autonomous and democratic workplaces.
All of this is to say: cite your sources Dan Pink! Do your research!
Okay, I did beat that dead horse – I couldn’t help myself.
Moving from hierarchy in the workplace (which is both the outcome of grades received in schooling and a continuation of the impulse to sort people by perceived ability, proficiency, etc.) to grades in the academic environment, I was struck by one aspect in Alfie Kohn’s article “The Case Against Grades.”
Kohn quotes English teacher Jim Drier on his transition to a no-grades classroom. Drier said “I think my relationships with students are better” after removing grades. I think about the interpersonal aspect of grading a lot as an instructor. I have felt that the first few weeks of the semester are a grace period in which students can form opinions of me as an instructor and interpersonally in a somewhat natural way. Once the first graded assignment gets back to them though, I always worry it will have damaged rapport I have built with students who didn’t perform well.
I am inclined to think that there is some drop off in effort by students who get discouraged by a poor grade early in the semester and that they may be less willing to come to me for help as a result, particularly if we don’t have a pre-existing relationship. I do think it would be easier to maintain a positive student-teacher relationship if I didn’t have to decide which students are excellent and which are only adequate (and then essentially tell them this).
Asserting my authority in this way through grades is currently a necessity but I certainly do not enjoy it. Kohn discusses various iterations of qualitative feedback and I have tried this as a strategy. On written assignments I try to give substantive comments (both positive and negative) to help the student grow and understand that it’s not “personal.” But, since I also must give a letter grade, I worry, as Kohn points out, that students may ignore the comments and go right to the grade (I myself have been known to do this).
I am persuaded by Kohn’s argument, particularly in the social sciences where I teach, that we should be prepared to “jettison” grades in favor of alternatives. As a grad student, I’ll keep tinkering around the edges looking for those alternatives.
If you’d have told me ten years ago that I would be pursuing a PhD, I’d have laughed in your face. I hated school. I graduated high school a semester early to get away from it and went to college immediately as part of a bargain with my parents. I was a “B” student and graduated with an Advanced Regents diploma – meaning that I passed all of the standardized New York state exams. I was a great test-taker but I never did my homework so I was branded lazy by the faculty and my parents. My graduating class size was around 700 students and it was pretty easy to fly under the radar while maintaining good standing with the hall monitors as I’d routinely fetch soft pretzels from the cafeteria for my physics teacher during our labs. I was graduating early and always contributed during the lecture sessions so he didn’t care if I roamed around aimlessly in the halls or visited other teachers on their breaks.
My interests in politics, culture, and philosophy were extra-curricular activities. Wikipedia was up and running by the time I was in junior high and the events following 9/11, including the passage of the Patriot Act, spurred my interest in political theory as I tried to make sense of the world I’d inherited. I’d spend hours surfing through their pages instead of doing my homework. Why bother writing my labs for whatever science class I was taking if I aced the test every time? To me it was meaningless repetition that ultimately wasted my time. Being under the spotlight because I wasn’t turning in my homework was uncomfortable initially. However, with time I assumed my “lazy” identity at school , took the tongue lashings at home and continued my after school activities later supplementing my Wiki sessions with Travel, and Discovery Channel binges – Bourdain was my favorite.
Around the age of 15 I started taking martial arts classes. Ninjutsu and Jujutsu would become my life until I left for college at 18. I was at the dojo every day that I could be. It was a very small branch of very large school spread across Long Island. We had 2,500 students in total but the Port Jefferson branch of which I was a part had four to six adult students attending regularly. I was my sensei’s favorite practice dummy and I advanced quickly because I received so much individual attention. My love of teaching started there and volunteered to help teach the kids classes as sempai. At 16 I was selected along with six other students to train with our grandmaster in Japan for two weeks in August. Our training sessions in Saitama were twice a day for an hour and half each session with a thirty minute bike ride along the rice paddies each way in the Japanese summer heat.
SUNY Brockport was my girlfriend’s choice. She was a year older than me and left Long Island in my senior year of high school. Neither of my parents had gone to college in the US so I didn’t get the college talk or really any guidance concerning what university would be the right fit. Following Julia to upstate New York seemed like an attractive option so I graduated from high school early and enrolled at Brockport in January of 2006. We broke up that March and she exmatriculated two weeks later. I can’t claim that I was the whole reason she left. She’d had a hard time finding her way through the college bureaucracy after being rejected by the dance program. Her brother, Simon, was brilliant but as smart as she was, Julia felt she wasn’t cut out for school and our break up was the final nail in the coffin for SUNY Brockport. I stayed but I didn’t have any close friends because I’d come a semester late and mainly hung out with Julia for the first few months.
Living for the weekend can make the weeks feel very long. Luckily, at a snowy commuter college, the weekend starts on Wednesday. I started going to any party I could find just to socialize and quickly fell into my old high school habits of never doing homework. I was still crushing tests in my introductory courses and didn’t see much point in attending classes. My grades were decent enough my first semester but I was placed on academic probation by my second semester for never attending class. Philosophy and political theory were the only classes I’d show up for. The general education classes didn’t challenge me and I was tutoring (unofficially, of course) some peers in my 3000 level communications course on rhetoric without reading the assignments or attending class. Pounding whiskey, talking politics and playing video games became more attractive options than adhering to someone else’s standards. I could write a B+ essay in under two hours and go research something that I was more interested in or focus on something physical. I had joined the rugby team by that time and rugby soon became my social outlet. It was short lived though because I was kicked out of Brockport after my third semester. I appealed the decision as I had dealt with some nightmare roommates, one of which involved a Title IX violation that the college tried to sweep under the rug and the other involved a roommate who went off her rage and bipolar medication. Funding from home was revoked after three semesters of poor grades anyway and I returned to Long Island to enroll at Suffolk Community College. My parents were not going to fund my educational fuck-ups anymore so I had to take out loans and start working.
I didn’t attend my classes at Suffolk either. My funding was revoked after my first semester as the federal government deemed me too much of a risk to loan money. Suffolk was still affordable even without federal loans and I was able to hide my failure from my parents by getting a credit card with HSBC before the financial crisis. I financed my second semester at community college by working for a local winery at $7.15 an hour which paid the credit card bill and for some books. I continued to hide my grades from my parents even though they were improving. The whole ordeal had convinced me that grades couldn’t measure anything but whether a student is living up to some norm – whether they could regurgitate some “fact” they had been told or whether they regularly maintained a pulse at a specific location at a specific time. Two professors at Suffolk slapped the taste out of my mouth.
My English composition professor graded to the student. I earned a D+ on my first essay. My pride was hurt and I stormed to his desk at my first chance. He calmly explained that he knew I wasn’t putting in any effort and showed me how I could do better. Posner knew that I was coasting and he gave me something to aim for in myself and not in the classroom. Grades suddenly transformed into a reward for self-discipline and not a punishment for not meeting expectations. Competition with myself was more exciting than competing against others. I still remember his lessons…or is it “remember his lessons still?”
One of the most daunting questions anyone can ask a college student is “What are you going to do after school?” Some student have it easier than others and seem to have a map given to them by their majors. Philosophy majors do not. I took two classes with Bill Fink who was adjuncting at Suffolk. His classes were chaos. We never had assigned readings, I never saw him read from a lesson plan but I loved the debates and the topics. Ethics, politics, society, the good life, the Socratic quest for knowledge, these were topics I could get into and I wanted to attend class. There were no “right” answers just better arguments and Bill challenged us to be better every session. I was studying to be a personal trainer my second semester but one day, I woke up. The thought hit me in Bill’s class and I sat straight up in my chair. I wanted to do what he was doing. I wanted to be a philosophy professor.
My pride was still hurt. Brockport had thrown me out not because I wasn’t living up to their academic standards but because they thought I was a bad student. I was determined to prove them wrong and enrolled there again in January. Going to anywhere in the Rochester area during winter is a mistake. I quickly took advantage of Brockport’s study abroad program and left for Scotland in the Fall of 2009. No one cared if you attended class at Stirling University but if you showed up to Peter Sullivan’s seminar on Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, you had better not be dead weight. I had to develop good study habits to pass the exams and I finished second in my class. Stirling had a grading scale that consisted of 21 different gradations as opposed to the 13 at most American colleges. What would have been considered “A” work at any American institution was broken into five subdivisions: 1A-1F. The guy who was top of the class earned a 1F. I earned the grade lower – 2B. Brockport translated this mark as “B.”
I was fighting against the tide. I had been reinstated at Brockport with credits from my first year and a half there. That got me closer to graduation but none of the good grades I had earned at Suffolk would travel to Brockport stating institutional differences even though Suffolk was considered a SUNY school. I couldn’t believe that my grades from Stirling translated back from a society that holds different notions of academic achievement (students can receive 40 points out of 100 and pass a class) but a college within the same state system was suspect in their grading scheme. When I matriculated again, Brockport started me at a 2.0 GPA by cobbling together classes that fulfilled the most general education requirements rather than the best grades. I would try to dig myself out of this hole for the next three years never falling below a 3.8 each semester. I calculated the numbers and realized that I would never make cum laude and this fact became anti-motivational as I realized that the institutional chips were stacked against me. Philosophy, as a discipline, is highly competitive and loves pedigree. I was coming from a small college that no one had heard of with letters from faculty the majority of whom weren’t publishing and my grades looked terrible.
Winter in western New York can be very depressing. A lot of snow, a lot of cold, a lot of dark, no mountains and a school of under 7,000 students can produce a malarial feeling. When you have worked hard for four years after having the wind taken out of your sails more than a few times and you’re not receiving any graduate school acceptances after pouring resources into a perfect coffee shop major, it can make you downright maudlin. And I was. My first acceptance didn’t come until late April after the deadline for acceptances and rejections. I didn’t hear from Virginia Tech until early May due to some administrative SNAFU. Virginia Tech offered one of the best terminal MA degrees in the country and I was blown away by the news. I didn’t care if they couldn’t offer me funding because I didn’t fit their model of a “good student” I was going to get to do what I thought I loved. I came South hoping to use my two years to jump into a top twenty PhD program in philosophy.
I graduated from Virginia Tech with two MA degrees with three years worth of coursework over four years of enrollment. I had to leave school twice because of serious medical issues. It was the second time I left when it dawned on me that the reasons I had loved philosophy and pursued it were nowhere to be found in the rarefied atmosphere of serious analytic philosophy. I had fallen flat on my face again. Years in school were spent pursuing a career dead end. My love for the debates had died and the spark lit at Suffolk had been extinguished by an institution far larger than me or any one school. I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent learning philosophy nor any of the time or money spent pursuing it. It equipped me with something larger than knowledge, larger than a career path or any one skill set. Philosophy helped me understand learning as process and equipped me with a universal skills applicable to any field of study. The jump from a corner stone of the humanities to the social sciences was more of a wide step as I settled into the interdisciplinary waters of the School of Public and International Affairs again with no clear plan for what to do in “the real world.” It wasn’t until my second semester in my Master’s of Public and International Affairs that I got my taste of teaching at the university level. Edward Weisband, in Political Science, placed a tremendous amount of trust in me when he took me on as a TA and left me teach fifty of his students during weekly recitations. I was hooked.
A mentor of mine, Joe Pitt, told me that enlightenment starts from a place of confusion. I took this as teaching advice and regularly asked my students to help un-confuse me. This technique worked for Weisband’s recitations as we moved through text after text looking for clarity rather than just the right answers. I keep this trick in my back pocket as I now begin every one of my classes with “who’s confused by the reading?” Lucky for me I am teaching American politics this semester so I can ask simply “who’s confused,” and I know we’ll get the conversation going.
I just had an “Aha!” moment. Often, when I read about the problems of modern education, I find myself thinking that to solve some of them, we just need to allow students to learn about the nature of science. It turns out that science can be considered a form of mindful thinking. In “The Power of Mindful Learning” Langer compares the habit of mindful thinking to the habit of thinking like a scientist.
“A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.”
Doing science requires this type of thinking. The body of human knowledge has been written collectively over time. While scientists build on existing knowledge, they understand that existing knowledge is not written in stone. It is always open to change. Generally, changes in ideas are small, but occasionally, there is a huge change in the way we model the universe. Scientists understand this and accept that there are no absolute truths in science. Indeed, the ability to change existing models as new data are created is one of the great strengths of science as a way of knowing.
Science is a process by which knowledge is developed. Sadly, this important point is often lost in science classes. It gets buried in seas of facts and procedures that establish themselves in student’s heads as sets of absolute truths and as science. One way for students to understand the nature of science is for them to engage in the process–to conduct real experiments, those for which no answer is known. However, this is difficult to manage well as a teacher and, as a result, rarely occurs. Another way to help students understand the nature of science is for them to spend time discussing (and perhaps arguing about) it in class and to see how this process
Zhao Chuang; courtesy of Peking Natural Science Organization
Yes. Some dinosaurs appear to have had feathers!
has operated to create historic paradigm shifts. I used the second technique in my first year high school physics classes. When I explained the nature of science to my students—no absolute truths, data-based model creation, science as one way to explain the universe—they reacted with resistance and disbelief. I was asking my students to recategorize science from what they believed to be a body of facts into a model that best fits the existing data and which is open to change. Doing this requires a high level of abstraction. Many students are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of knowledge. Some choose not to think this way. As the teacher, I made sure that I gave my students activities in which they returned to and interacted with the idea throughout the year.
I disagree with Wesch when he argues that:
“The best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that learners are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives.”
I think that the best learning occurs in classrooms and on computers and in large groups and alone and in loud conversations and silently. Just as only sitting in a lecture is unlikely to engage all students or to encourage them to think deeply, neither is simply setting all students free to pursue their passions. People are all different and students begin class with widely varying sets of beliefs and bodies of knowledge. Good teachers learn to meet their students where they are and figure out what activities their students can do to learn more. They help students fit what they are learning into the larger body of knowledge. They help students understand how to approach their questions. They often answer questions with questions, but not always. They occasionally become the sage on the stage, but not often. They help their students challenge their existing belief systems and, sometimes, to change them. They also expect to continue to have their own “aha” moments alongside their students. (Listen to this episode of “This American Life” for a reminder of how amusing your own moments can be. It refers to unicorns. And it is one of my favorites.)
As I stated earlier, humans have built systems of knowledge and ways of thinking about the world collectively over time. Science is one of these systems and it is incredibly powerful. It allows us to predict the future and to make informed decisions. Learning to think like a scientist takes practice which is helped by the guidance of a good teacher. Understanding that thinking like a scientist is just one way of understanding the world also requires practice—probably more than simply thinking like a scientist. Effective teachers create opportunities to practice these ways of thinking and provide feedback and corrections to students as they incorporate new knowledge into old. Students learn when they are doing, but to learn how to think like a scientist or a philosopher or a musician or a Stormtrooper that doing should be guided by a skilled teacher.
In conclusion, when you are teaching, don’t be a dinosaur (lecture only) and don’t be a unicorn (a mythical creature that provides no guidance). Just be a dinosaur with feathers. And be ready to shed them if necessary.
*The views in this post are those of a retired physics teacher and do not necessarily reflect those of the scientific community as a whole. Feel free to disagree!
“He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand.” The Dispossesed by Ursula Le Guin (1978, p. 127)
Let us start with a story:
The new Jewish bride is making her first big dinner for her husband and tries her hand at her mother’s brisket recipe, cutting off the ends of the roast the way her mother always did. Hubby thinks the meat is delicious, but says, “Why do you cut off the ends — that’s the best part!” She answers, “That’s the way my mother always made it.”
The next week, they go to the old bubbie’s house, and she prepares the famous brisket recipe, again cutting off the ends. The young bride is sure she must be missing some vital information, so she askes her grandma why she cut off the ends. Grandma says, “Dahlink, that’s the only way it will fit in the pan!” 
While this tale, noted by some as a “Tale of the Bungling Bride” trope  and stereotype, has religious connotations (the bride, and it’s always a bride or a woman, is usually said to be Jewish) I want to use it in a way that, perhaps, it wasn’t intended to be used. Rather than use it to have a conversation about how to make roasts or the plausible implications of the parable on religious traditions and practices, I want to use it as a frame for a discussion on education.
When I think about my discipline, philosophy, there is a fairly set way that large lectures tend to go. One person, usually a white dude, stands at the front of the room and talks at you about what Plato, Socrates, or Aristotle said for an hour or so. You go home and do something “fun” since reading philosophy is probably not fun and you’re only in the class for a distribution requirement. Then, when it is time for the exam, you write a few essays paraphrasing and miming back whatever it is the instructor said. Unless you continue on in philosophy after that initial class, and even then perhaps only if you specialize in ancient, it is unlikely that you will remember the views all that well. And yet the “talking at” mode continues to be a default for lectures, at least, within the discipline when “dealing” with large groups of seemingly lethargic college students.
It should be little surprise that what I’ve said above is, more or less, taken directly from my past students. In large lecture they are bored. At home they would rather read the sparknotes version of Aristotle’s hylomorphism than trek through page after page (after page) of dry, dense prose. On the exams they want to know what they “need to know” and nothing more and, once they’ve spat it out once, to not have to keep on knowing it.
Within philosophy (and other disciplines of course) I think it is important to have a discussion about how we teach. Within my discipline, the current mode is even how philosophers we read say not to teach it. The Socratic Method is contra the banking method of education that Ellen Langer, Ken Robinson, and Mike Wesch seem to be gesturing at in their respective pieces. And yet, that is the method we continue to use at times. To bring this back to the initial parable, where did we learn that this is the way to do it? More importantly, why do we believe that this is how is has to be done? What would it take for us to imagine, and then create, or maybe to create and then imagine, a myriad of different ways of teaching? While, as with most things, I think that the answers to these questions will be ones that must be collectively discovered, rediscovered, made, and unmade, I have a few initial musings that may be a starting point.
In his TEDTalk, Robinson notes that there are three central traits to humans: we are diverse, curious, and creative beings. Our current model of teaching and instruction seems to be doing a pretty good job at minimizing those elements and forcing students into a shape that works with the system as opposed to reworking and redesigning (or maybe totally scrapping…) the system to put it into the obediential service of the varieties of shapes, sizes, and styles that would be present in our students if it weren’t metaphorically (almost) beaten out of them in K-12 education. To move out of the metaphorical Death Valley of Education, I think that Langer is gesturing at important elements for beginning to tweak the system.
Langer’s construction of mindfulness , in particular, along with notions of frame shift/the “priming” affect would, for philosophy, be helpful in changing the paradigm.  As I read Langer, mindfulness constitutes the continuous labor of creating and deconstructing, making and unmaking thoughts, ideas, and persons; a great deal of openness and receptivity; and understanding that there are other perspectives (and I would personally add being open to the possibility that you won’t understand why people with the other perspectives believe what they believe).
When I ask my students to have philosophical discussions one of the tools (or rather games) I have them try out is to pair up with someone who shares the same view about x as they do and then work together to create and motivate an argument against x. For many of my students this is not something they’ve had to do before. In fact, many of them will write that they found the activity very frustrating and it made their heads hurt in their participation page for the day. But usually they start to “get” how arguments and conversations in philosophy are intended to work (i.e., pretty openly) after the activity and they start being much more charitable with views they disagree with. This incorporates the three elements that Langer proposes (somewhat) and while difficult for many of my students it makes doing philosophy “fun” for that day at least (even if it’s also frustrating). It ultimately seems to make them more mindful of how they “do” philosophy.
Their mindfulness extends, sometimes, to the words that they use when they present their ideas. Very often philosophy students will start the semester by using universal statements such as “all x are…” or that “the view for this is y”. Slowly, and sometimes not until the last week, their language can open up and they start to linguistically represent the multiplicity of views even as they argue and motivate the view, or views, they think are correct. And when they meet pushback (it’s a philosophy class; there’s always pushback) they are less likely to default to ad hominems or other so called “fallacies”. Much like Wesch’s child, they show elements of resiliency in response to challenges to their oftentimes deeply held convictions. Much of what I have written here is of course anecdotical. However, it’s interesting to see how some of the smaller things that folks such as Langer intimate can have an impact on students who have been imbedded in an otherwise dry and dusty system.
As I began, I would like to end. Another old parable is that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. Maybe the new adage could be: don’t try to lead a horse to water in the first place but, rather, support them and let them lead themselves to the water and choose where to drink. You might have to ask the horse to be curious about what water tastes like, whether different waters taste different, etc. but that’s a separate matter.
That said, try to make sure there aren’t any small birds about or they may try to grab a snack on the way to the water. It turns out the meat eating Horses of Diomedes may have been based on fact insofar as Horses aren’t always herbivores.
 “The Pan Was Too Small” by Alan E. Mays in FOAFTale News. June 1996 (pp. 15-16).
 See pp. 191-192 in Curses! Broiled Again! (1990) by Jan Harold Brunvand.
 The Power of Mindful Learning (1997) by Ellen Langer.