Finding One’s Place

I shall start by stating that I felt inspired by Sarah E. Deel’s narrative of her vulnerability in the classroom. My nerves have gotten better over time, but starting each class session still has its occasional challenges. Once I get rolling, I feel like it is impossible to stop…

I empathize with her because her passion is so deep, despite the lingering concerns of feeling unprepared and unaware of one’s teaching image. My empathy does not suggest that I share her same experiences; I love the classroom. I feel at home when I am teaching. Yet I share her revelations from the trial and errors of teaching: one must speak from the voice they know best – their own.

Authentic teaching, I believe, feels natural to me at this stage. I do not prescribe jokes; those opportunities arise and I do my best to seize them in order to garner a few laughs. I hesitate to be entirely “fair” with every student. My course is fair, my assignments are fair, and my grading is (hopefully) fair. My treatment of students is, however, equitable, not equal. They need and want different things. Many of my anxieties come from a fear of failing them in some way. Stifling my desire/ability to help and teach them with the limitation of equal treatment is not a sacrifice that I feel prepared to make.

I appreciate Deel’s comments mostly because she makes herself vulnerable. For me, this is at the core of authentic teaching. I use to believe that one should keep personal and professional stories outside of the classroom. I now know that there are amazing times and places for them. I see myself as an intellectual authority in the classroom, but I do not see myself as a social one. Admitting our faults, our fears, our failures, our interests, and so forth offer our students a unique opportunity to see the kinds of people teaching them. It encourages them to be more vulnerable about what they need. They often feel safer taking academic risks in the classroom. They are no longer afraid of seeking help or collaboration from the “perfect image” of what is actually a nervous human being at the front of the classrooms.

To reiterate, vulnerability and authenticity go hand in hand. Those beautiful teaching moments we may see in a movie or short story are no longer forced and planned with disappointing fireworks; they come to us, in the most inopportune moments, and strike at the hearts of both students and educators (I personally am seeing more of these weekly). Those random jokes now do a more wondrous job of easing the tension in the classroom because they are more organic, visible, and unforeseen. Most importantly, trust begins to form and sustain again – a feature that we as educators are so desperately trying to recapture again. Deel cares about her students and does not want to fail them. The best thing, in my eyes, for her to do is to let her true voice do the talking and show those students exactly those two things.

Is This On The Test?

Grades have become a nagging pest and a pesky thorn in my side. They seek to measure learning, as if that was a quantifiable entity to begin with. Most professors can tell you that they have A-students who clearly understand the material better than some of their other A-students. They may even have C-students who understand it better than some of their A-students. This would be concerning if we actually cared about their retention or critical evaluation of said material. These kids/adults want to excel; who can fault them for that? They want to prove their worth, outperform and/or outwork their peers, and demonstrate that they are smart enough to hang with the rest of their peers. Their effort doesn’t concern me (always, at least). Their ability doesn’t worry me. Their focus does.

I teach several students who beg for the buzz words and nuggets of “truth” that they expect to find on the quiz. I found that writing them down on the board often, repeating it multiple times, and hinting at its exam inclusion does nothing for their understanding. They know how to latch on to the key words when they pop up, but have zero idea how to use it. They want to get the question right; I don’t blame them. I do not want to grade them, but I must. We are both in a dynamic that neither of us want to be in. I would much rather reward those A and C-students who can really engage with the class. I can to some extent via small compliments and reassurance, but not in anyway substantial. I have leaned towards including assignments that evaluate their ability to engage with what they learn, not just repeat it. This helps, but is generally met with uproar from those who have gotten used to the “standard” way of doing things. That is enough of my anecdotal experience…

The point is that grades are a long outdated sorting tool. They tell us who places where and not who knows what/how/why. I find it pretty disturbing to see occupations that have more constructive feedback in their performance reviews than our classrooms have in their course assessments. A letter or number by itself is arbitrary – even if we could pattern the quality of learning to these metrics, one cannot successfully interpret them. What have I or anyone learned from looking at an “A” or score? Maybe just that we were good enough to pass with a little bit of room for comfort. Hooray; we survived another course. Once that journey is finished, it does not surprise me when the information hasn’t found its way outside of the classroom walls.

Facts & Reliability

Despite her poor use of examples and transitional reasoning, Langer’s concerns about “mindful” and “mindless” learning are appropriate to consider as new educational initiatives are introduced and implemented. Some sort of academic freedom is sorely needed in the classroom, though we must be diligent about straying too far away from the benefits of repetition and skill building in certain circumstances.

Part of the issue, as I observe it, is the deification and liturgical worship of the almighty “facts” which never seem to waver or experience any form of change, blessed as they may be to many. The perspective of “how we have always done things” seems to fit within these patterns of chanting and praying, regardless of how arbitrary such a fit may seem in foundation. Methodologies and approaches are not “facts.” Yet, we treat them as so, thus causing any students who are unable to adopt said ways or commit them to memory are “left behind”.

A perspective which may increase freedom of exploration in the classroom (though I am in now way calling this a “fix”) is a transition from “law” to “reliability”. Teaching our students that there are prominent reliable methods of doing certain things and walking them through the benefits and skills of said methods is not an abomination to contemporary pedagogy. Noting that these methods are “reliable” yet not absolute while encouraging them to explore divergent methods and information in a constructive way is a powerful first step in righting the ship in a way which doesn’t leave students drowning or wading in the water behind us.

Whose Imagination Is This?

Among the descriptions of various engagement tools such as games, social media, and other digital methods, we may be yet still be losing sight of a problem in education dating back well before these options could even be mentally conceived: what are these tools supposed to be accomplishing and why is it important for students to use them?

As instructors, we can communicate amongst ourselves quite easily – this game is meant to establish collaborative learning initiatives or this design simulation will help our students attach visuals to the information – but have we ever communicated these ideas to our students? At what point do we as instructors take the 30 seconds to a minute to ask our classes, what do you expect to get out of playing this game? Why do you think these activities are valuable? Do you enjoy using digital tools more/less than written or oral methods of teaching?

Inspiring and engaging students of the 21st century digital population is paramount, I agree. Students do not have the same bond with physical novels and pen-and-paper writing that those before them did. In short, the classroom should indeed meet the digital literacy of its new students. However, we cannot simply swap these methods out and expect different results. The approach is still the same, and reiterates the definition of insanity if we persist without further reasoning.

If we as educators swap out those methods that we propose or expect to be more imaginative, without the transparency to and feedback from our students, we are merely imposing our imaginations and passions in new more creative ways than the impositions that preceded us. We do know that today’s students enjoy gaming, and we may find them to be a more appropriate form of communicating information. Yet, we should not be the ones to decide if drawing or programmed design is “the” way in which to inspire imagination and interest in our students. They are intelligent enough to tell us themselves. Simply asking them why this design game may be more helpful or fun is a tactic that allows them to explore different methods with an understanding of why they matter and why some may be more effective than others.

This, I believe, empowers students to think about what they enjoy just as much as what they are skilled at. Knowing why programming and design services their interests differently than drawing or writing is a key step that we must not miss. Understanding the objectives and skills latent in the gaming process informs students of how they may want to use the technology in the future. In short, imposing our imaginations or projecting student interests is flawed and repeats our past failures. Swapping out learning tools is also not an effective enough strategy on its own. Investing the energy to discuss and ask why technology is useful as we are integrating these tools is more essential.