Teaching as controlled improvisation

Of the readings for this week, I connected most with Shelli Fowler’s “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills.” As I think about her handout I really appreciated her statement that “Teaching is not all about the teacher.” I’ve said it so many times, but academics tend to have serious egos. It just seems to attract that type. I don’t mean that all academics have egos, just that it seems to be an environment that breeds that mentality. When you’re constantly pitted against each other to prove the value of your research, it’s not really surprising. For that reason, I think academics find it challenging to connect with students and meet them at their level. The first thing I do while teaching is tell the students about myself and my journey to get to that classroom and my PhD program. I explain to them that I struggled through undergrad. I did my best to stay focused and connected, but I knew that in a class of 200+ I could skip class because no one was paying attention. Today, I make it my mission to make no student feel anonymous because I know that is the first way to lose the connection. I always start the semester by explaining to them all that I don’t have all of the answers, but I will work with them to help them find the answers to their questions.

In that regard I will often call on the class to help teach one other. What makes sense to me and the way I explain something will work for me, but not necessarily to every one of my students. When I teach I aim to learn from my students how to teach. I don’t expect to walk into my classroom and have everything I say stick the first time. I really appreciated the line that you need to “be flexible and adapt your plan as you “read” the dynamic.” Not every exercise I have tried has been successful. This is where improvisation is key. Do. Not. Panic. Just go with it. Have a discussion with the students. Ask them what worked and what they are struggling with. I really believe that maintaining honest and open conversation throughout my teaching has allowed for reflection and evolution of my teaching style. I’m certain I will (and have) fail at teaching one thing or another in the future, but I look forward to the failure, because that just means there is still so much room to grow.

Not another Bruno grammy

I’m writing this while watching the Grammy’s, waiting for Beyoncé to appear on the stage, but my hopes are dwindling with ten minutes left. ?

I wanted to build off of last weeks post, where I talked about specific classes that engaged me most in my educational experience, and shift to educators that I’ve seen that engaged well with students. Specifically, I’m thinking of a professor I TA’d for while working on my masters in paleontology at UT Austin. The professor was, and still is, pretty eccentric in the most endearing way. He’s very sarcastic and is known to cut someone off and ask them to start over if they use, uh, um or really any other meaningless filler word while speaking. This professor taught a course in the spring called, Age of Mammals. Most of the students taking the course were non-majors and the professor aimed to make the material accessible and about the students. He always started the first lecture by sitting on a table in front of a 300 student lecture auditorium asking why the students were there. He wanted to know what they wanted out of the class and would write the syllabus with the students, based on why they chose to enroll in the course. He did his best not to sit in front of the class and lecture, and would always end class by asking, ‘Does anyone have any queries, quandaries, qualms, or concerns?’ Like I said, he’s eccentric.

One of this professors big rules in class was no electronics. No cell phones. No laptops. Nothing. As TA’s we were supposed to sit in the back and go up to any student who was on their phone and ask them to please wait until after class. The main reason this professor was so adamant about no electronics was that he felt it wasn’t fair to any student sitting around the perpetrator, because, he knows mammals are attracted to color and movement and this would distract anyone within eyeshot of the student on their electronic device.

This naturally got me thinking about how I would handle electronics in my classroom down the road. For that reason, I loved reading the NPR article Amy found to include in this weeks reading. I really appreciate Allia Griffin’s take on it, where she thinks they are a distraction, but mainly because they cut off social interaction amongst students. This says a lot about how students are not only learning from the person up front who is being paid to speak, but also from the experiences and backgrounds of their peers. I also appreciated Jesse Stommel’s approach to the matter and that technology in the classroom can be a conversation. I think having an adult conversation about it with the students is necessary and likely pretty effective. I really believe that if students connect with the professor, they won’t want to be distracting themselves and others, because they respect the professor and the learning environment.

Ultimately, I don’t quite know my final stance of technology in the classroom, but I love the idea of engaging students with collaborative documents or anonymous polls. I think there is something to be said for a happy medium and I think that develops naturally from class to class depending on the group of students. It’d be great to hear how others have, or have not, included technology in their teaching. Oh, and if anyone knows what the difference is between record of the year, song of the year, and album of the year, lemme know.

PS. I apologize I did not follow the prompt…

Connections*. That’s what I got from Dr. Michael Wesch’s TED Talk. The reason he was successful in working with students and helping them learn is that he took the time to make connections with his students. I wholly admire his technique and ability to get to know his students to help make them more engaged in class. I too have struggled with the notion that students are taught to just see the end goal of a grade. I’ve told people before that when (if…?) I get a job as a professor at a university I don’t want to give out grades; I don’t want to keep track of points. All I want to know is that the students are learning to process information and ask questions based on that.

I am a PhD student in geosciences and in my experience, I’ve found this technique is often easier to apply in humanities courses that tend to be more discussion based than STEM courses which are much more lecture based. My question is, do they have to be? Why do we feel we have to teach STEM by lecture? Why can’t we have a discussion? Why can’t we get the students involved?

I’ve had two courses that have shaped my view on pedagogy, or at least what I understand of pedagogy (I’m sure that will change over the course of the semester). The two classes that engaged me the most were not in my discipline at all, ‘History of African American Music’ and ‘Invertebrate Biology.’ History of African American Music was fascinating to me because it made the connection between how society and history had so closely driven the style of music produced at the time. They married so well together and it made me listen to music in a whole different way. I sometimes listen to music being produced today and wonder how it will sound in thirty to forty years when it’s being taught in classrooms. It’s hard to see history as it is being made, but it is so interesting to reflect upon and discuss. Even now, four years after I took that course, I still have lingering questions and it sparked my interest in how I can make my subject more interesting and accessible to students outside of STEM fields.

The other course, Invertebrate Biology, was the first experience I had with nontraditional grading and teaching style. This course was taught by a very charismatic Russian biologist who graded our weekly labs based on the drawings we made of the organism we were studying that week. He also tested our lecture material by oral exam. We had a list of potential prompts, went into his office where he randomly chose one prompt, and we had twenty minutes to prepare. The actual exam was a conversation. While we had one question prompting that conversation, he wanted to know more. He wanted to test the bounds of our understanding on the subject matter. He didn’t want us to feel stupid, he simply wanted to assess what connections we had been able to make based on what we had discussed in class. Now that I think about it, this is similar to a graduate student’s preliminary exam, where you are asked questions to test your knowledge and forced to make connections with everything you have learned. This to me is the skill that is most important in learning how to learn and how to think critically, it’s all about making connections.

I guess that sort of brings me full circle with where I started this rant, connections. Long story short, I’m looking forward to a semester of being forced to think about new ways to connect with students and engage them in STEM.

  1. *I apologize I did not follow the prompt and did not talk about networks, but I did do the readings. This will probably be the theme of me blogging for the semester.