“Authentic” Teaching Voice

Many in academia speak of an “authentic” teaching voice. I put authentic in quotes because a little Michel Foucault is sitting on my shoulder telling me to critique all word choices ever.

I would not choose the term because authenticity means that there is some essential truth about oneself that has yet to be revealed, when really we are always growing and changing. Instead, I prefer the phrase “relateable” teaching voice.

Relateable might not be exactly what those mean when they say authentic, but this is something I value in my teaching voice. Channeling bell hooks, I find my voice in my attempts to engage in conversation with students rather than by lecturing to them.

I don’t always succeed in teaching this way because I feel that strict lecturing is an easy fallback—you can plan ahead and you know exactly what to expect. However, so far, I have found that engaging in conversation with students as a form of class discussion keeps the classroom energetic.

Another case against grades

Alfie Kohn wrote that grades have the effect of “diminish[ing] students’ interest in whatever they’re learning,” “creat[ing] a preference for the easiest possible task, and “tend[ing] to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.”

This has certainly been the experience for me throughout undergrad and graduate school. One thing that I think intensifies the effect of grades is the multitude of responsibilities that students have. I had a professor in undergrad who used to sympathize with how busy we are with our jobs to pay for school, our extra-cirriculars, or our unpaid internships, not to mention the book(s) a week we are expected to read. This professor would say, “I understand, sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul.” This was usually in acknowledgement that he knows that we cannot always do all of the reading, and then he would offer tips on how we might read strategically in the future.

Unfortunately, I have found it difficult to be engaged with my education, at least the way I want to, over the past almost decade. I feel that grades, and the overall managerial, profit-driven, turn in higher ed, has forced me to have a more cost-benefit analysis approach to my education. For example, my thought process during the semester might be: ‘the weekly reading reflections are not graded for quality, only for completion. I’ll rob Peter by putting those on the back burner so that I can pay Paul, work towards a great final paper (worth a whole bunch of my grade).’ If this is the strategy I choose, which I often feel forced to, what is lost are the new ideas, or the critique of my current ideas, that would have come from a more genuine engagement with those weekly readings and reflections. But, if I choose to prioritize my weekly readings and reflections, I jeopardize my final paper, and ultimately my final grade.

I think this experience reflects the disconnect between theory and practice, education policy and our experience learning. Grading, and assessment more broadly, in the United States is symptomatic, I think, of this disconnect. If this divide is not reconciled, it seems to me that the current direction of higher ed is actually undermining what we as a society claim to value; educating the public.

 

Simulation and Technology for Active Learning

Advancing technology creates new opportunities for learning—new points of view, new mediums for inquiry, and new modes of expression. Technology is advancing in a way that it is increasingly immersive. I think that this can be a bridge for experiential learning to adapt to advancing technology.

Experiential learning, I think, is a form of simulation. High-ropes courses, for example, are built to facilitate the learning of problem-solving skills, emotional coping skills, and team-building. The completion of the course simulates challenges one may face in other scenarios in life, and facilitates learning and growth by allowing one to develop skills for coping with those situations in a safer environment.

Simulation can be used in many other ways for learning. After talking with one of my colleagues, Ezgi, I was inspired to develop a lesson plan centered on simulation to facilitate learning on research ethics.

Normally this is a dry conversation, in my opinion: “don’t plagiarize, get IRB approval, etc.” Additionally, I think that going over many of the academic policies related to research ethics does not really teach students about research ethics. In other words, there seems to be little room for reflection why we value what we value, and what our research ethics ought to be.

For my simulation on research ethics I divided my class into three groups. Group 1: The Stardew Valley Farmers (this is actually from a video game I like ?), Group 2: Researchers from Volcano Labs, Group 3: Student Researchers from Virginia Tech

Groups 2 and 3 were assigned to research Group 1. The students from Groups 2 and 3 had to report the methods they wanted to use to research Group 1, what information they wanted to gather, and how they planned to use the information. Group 1 was then given the opportunity to respond to both groups, as well as decide whether they consent to Groups 2 and/or 3 conducting research.

Importantly, this same lesson can be conducted online in Canvas with the feature that allows students to work in groups and submit collaborative essays. Instructors can track who contributed content, as well as the progression of the edits to the content.

The simulation is meant to facilitate students’ critical thinking on the relationship between the researchers and the researched—something that is often undermined in research and writing text books even.

By considering the interests of the Stardew Valley Farmers, whose farming techniques had sustained their communities’ economy for decades, as well as how it may feel to be in the position of the researched, the students could reflect more on the bigger picture behind the ethics of research, rather than just the rules that refer to those ethics.

Permanent, yet ephemeral: conversing on social media platforms

Tim Hitchcock blogged about the changing platform of public discourse, and the academic’s role, in his post titled, “Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion underpinning it.”Over the past few decades, discourse between academics and the public has transformed away from print newspapers, monographs, and journal articles, toward online interaction. Hitchcock thinks academics need to lean into this transformation, rather than fight against it—the world is changing and communication will be difficult if academics do not acknowledge the need to adapt. I agree with this point, but I want to respond to Hitchcock’s blog post because I think the advice that academics adapt to changing modes of communication is not such a simple task as moving from paper to the the keyboard.

One difference between traditional modes of communication and electronic modes of communication is the permanence of information. While journal articles and monographs, for example, retain permanence through publication, intellectual conversations that happen in person are not archived the same way. Journal articles and monographs are planned, drafted, revised, and then published—conversations happen in the moment. We have all likely heard the advice, “be careful what you post online, you can never take it back.” In other words, even if you delete a comment you posted on Facebook, the Facebook servers still have a record of your comment. Or another possibility, someone could have screenshot your comment and reposted it. Even if the reposter deletes their post, someone else may have already reposted their post.

My concern is that, if intellectual conversations that used to be in the moment and unarchived, are suddenly archivable and understood to be permanent, individuals may be less likely to engage in conversation as freely as they might in person. I worry this will happen, because they may feel that, since they have the time to sit behind their computer and makes changes before ‘speaking,’ they will feel pressure to speak perfectly. Some people, I think will take on this challenge. Good for them. But I think others may feel overwhelmed by this task, feeling they will be permanently represented by something they said at one point in time, tethering their online identity to one moment of their life. What if they change their mind?

On the flip side, conversations can be manipulated so that they are visually ephemeral. For example, some people have likely had the experience of engaging in a long conversation on Reddit or Facebook, or another online social platform, and later found that another participant in the conversation deleted their contribution to the conversation. If an individual feels that their contribution to the conversation was not appreciated or reflected accurately, or they were attacked, they can delete their contributions. Of course, it is never really deleted—Facebook or Reddit still has the data, and remember, someone could have reposted it before it was deleted. However, deleting one’s contribution to the conversation still works to conceal what they said from many other users of the social media platform.

I think that the same can be said for blogging. While blogging is not typically thought of as a social media platform, it technically is one if blogs are a place for intellectual conversations to take place. While the conversation may not happen in the same format or pace as those that happen on Facebook or Twitter, blogs can be manicured in the same way that social media conversations can.

I certainly do not think blogging should be written off given the concerns I have expressed over online conversations. However, as humans grow and adapt to our changing world, it is important that we acknowledge the changes that result from the advancements in communication—such as speed, access, and complexity; we should critique the ways our communication is stifled by these advancements, just as we should lean into and celebrate them.

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