Teaching

I recently had the pleasure of reading the prologue to Sarah E. Deel’s work, “Finding My Teaching Voice.” In it Deel describes her own challenges in rectifying her personal preconceptions on teaching while learning how to effectively guide a university chemistry class. Notably, Deel had to come to terms that she did not possess and could not fake the base personality attributes of the popular teachers. This piece raises interesting points on the virtues and limitations of sincerity, the selection of success metrics in one’s engagement with students, and the ability of one to take that which is valuable within themselves while also realizing the degree to which the remainder may prove limiting.

Within a challenging situation, it’s often easy to reflexively retreat upon prior concepts of self, to say “this is not me, these guys don’t get me, maybe I shouldn’t be here.” This thinking may occur just as easily within a teacher as a student. We’re all vulnerable to the imposters’ complex and while unmentioned, it seems quite prominent within this work. Whether you pick the Batman or the Count of Montecristo, it’s valuable to have an internal rags to riches/  triumph in adversity/ revenge by success personal story of inspiration. One is not an imposter in such a scenario, one is a hacker more like, hacking their way through the challenges of education from the outside with a laser focus on their true goal. Where Deel discussed her new approaches as an extension of her prior self, built onto the framework she knew well, it may be valuable to work with students in such implementable terms. By mastering a small skill in science, one may acquire greater confidence to try others. When one finds themselves possessed of diverse, science related skills, the student who just wasn’t one of those science guys might suddenly recognize the scientist within. This finding may be greatly assisted by an educators directing their attention towards those positive attributes within one which grow through diligence.

Another trend I note in Deel’s writing is the manifestation of shoulds in response to a stressful situation. Herein i define shoulds as simple unqualified beliefs about the way things are or are meant to be. Perhaps a teacher should always be commanding and have a booming voice? Likewise, perhaps a teacher should be a relatable goofball with a heart of gold? There’s only but so much room for Pattons and Patch Adams before we all tire of their antics, and within the piece Deel quickly recognized the inefficiencies of relating to students homogeneously as a cardboard cut out. Her best path to ensuring the students’ success was again relinquishing that which did not work and working to append on more positive traits, moving forwards as her aspirational self rather than her comfortable self.

All in all, this piece provided a solid description of adaptation in the face of challenge.

Curiosity Arcs

A recent reading of Garnder Campbell’s Post, “Curiosity as a Learning Outcome” drove me to consider the arcs and  anecdotes by which I’ve observed curiosity in my own personal life. Within the post, Campbell cites 10 generalized, psychological metrics of curiosity as emblematic of the very virtues higher learning seeks to imbue upon students. An interesting extension of this would be to note the extent to which knowledge and curiosity reinforce each other, such that certain knowledge becomes a prerequisite of useful inquiry. At the surface level, we may see the fruitlessness of low effort curiosity, the 2AM infomercial inventor type. XKCD sums it up well here, whereby some people might spend their entire life thinking the one thing standing between themselves and a fabulous fate was one little nugget of inspiration, that one idea for the pet rock, that fortunate twist a friend managed to nab by sheer luck alone, discounting any sense of the journey required to reach it. Within my undergraduate studies in Chemistry, I found it interesting to see how the first year and a half was all multicolored fires, liquid nitrogen, and churning reactions. After the whiz bang theatrics, we settled into 2.5 years of analyzing very low concentrations of sundry compounds in deionized water. It was far less exciting than the years preceding it, but that space beyond the attentions of armchair inventors is where the real work and money were. I see this as a solid anology to higher education in that if one truly wishes to innovate within their field, they must possess such intense curiosity that they can work the long hours for that 5% improvement that changes their mind. That’s not to say there’s no low hanging fruit in the world, just in the 1990s we as a species figured out how to save thousands of lives a year using two clay pots and a bit of sand.

Coming from a different perspective, my experience in search and rescue shows the risks of fatigued curiosity. There is a very well known phenomena within mass disaster response that injuries and accidents happen after the second day. When first thrust into a novel and dangerous situation, our alertness is peaked, and by extension our curiosity. We scan our environment with wide and suspicious eyes, and we note everything that appears out of place. As time passes we grow comfortable, we stop asking questions, and well fall into a routine, forgetting full well that nothing about our current situation may be routine. Further, there is the question of finding subjects. As with danger, curiosity about the environment for clues and signs will often wane with time and experience.

Newly trained volunteer searchers will call stop for every out of place soda can, beer bottle, and candy wrapper. There appears to be no acre of land on this green earth lacking each of those in abundance. With time one becomes more inured to clues and more motivated to cover distance and finish tasks. During such missions it’s not uncommon to pass an old shed, a pile of debris, or even an odd patch of terrain that’s a little ways outside of the task area yet draws the mind. The stories of search subjects are often concluded before the search begins regardless of our actions, but this may be unknown to the world at large for days if not weeks, sometimes years. Given the weeks of media reminders, unsatisfied curiosity may lead way to nagging doubts or potent regrets. Therefore, whenever anyone asks “is it worth searching that?” the answer is always “yes if you will sleep better, we can wait.”

Summing these up, perhaps there’s a strategy within for crafting a potent and useful curiosity within education. It’s important to arouse curiosity with the shiny colors and whizbang theatrics, yet one must also carefully manage the following the drudgery of finesse until the excitement of the frontier. Likewise, in time within any field curiosity may wane and leave one vulnerable. A periodic sidestep into the adjacent fields may prove an exciting deterrent to complacency well worth the opportunity cost of the transition.

Curiosity as a Learning Outcome…Seriously?

I was thinking about Gradner Cambell’s viewpoint on how increased curiosity must be an important outcome of learning. I totally agree with him that skill mastery and especially successful recall of information are by no means (and have never been in my view) proper measurements nor outcomes of learning. I also share the same (pessimistic maybe!) view about our today’s neoliberal education system which under the name of efficiency is distancing itself from effective meaningful learning!

What I found crude in Cambell’s piece is when he argues that curiosity as an outcome of learning is possible if we invest in our increasing digital environment. To me it really does not sounds coherent with his previous claims. While technology can increase the quantity of interactions, it does not necessarily enhance the quality of those! Many of the statements he mentions as epitomes of increased curiosity among students, are merely achievable in the real-world with intentional (inter)actions. For example, the last phrase saying “I am the kind of person who embraces unfamiliar people, events, and places”, is somehow more achievable in a classroom rather than an online course for example. Since to me it seems very unlikely that in a learning digital environment, people share their personal life/stories as much/consistent as in a classroom where informal talks are usually prevalent and recurring!

In my opinion, here the more important question is not about what medium can encourage curiosity in the students, but rather how in the first place, one can be so engaged in the learning process that he/she feels the “need” of knowing more. While personal interest and preferences in the course content play a part (e.g. you are naturally more curious about your research-related issues), yet I believe teachers’ role, the class ambiance, informal interactions and so many other factors will effect the stimulation of students’ desire to know.

Visual Creativity in Academia

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Tepper's and Kuh's Biography in Context piece on creativity caused me to reflect on how my own educational experiences have been impacted by creativity. Right now, social science in grad school hasn't presented me with any obvious opportunities to explore my creative side. I think that comes with certain pressures and expectations.

But before grad school, there was the open-ended, explorative four years of undergrad. I had the opportunity to study abroad in Ireland. I was really into shooting photography at the time and was looking to make some sort of connection between art and academics. Visual Sociology--an emerging field I was completely unfamiliar with--was a crude combination of "visual" and "sociology." Go figure. After reflecting on similar fields, like photojournalism, the course culminated in a visual essay. The slideshow is my visual essay (that actually connects back to my name tag origin story from the first day of class).

Tepper and Kuh give unsurprising numbers to describe how students in science feel like they lack a sense of creativity. This seems to be a reoccurring theme in our class discussions. (And perhaps there's not only the omnipresent fear of not meeting expectations, but also a complicity in that problem). On the flip side, I think that the authors give lofty attributes of what it means to be an art major. I think there's a happy medium to be found.

Check out the full gallery here

Check out the full gallery here

With the academic buzzword "transdisciplinary" flying around, there's hope for creativity to actually thrive in all types of educational settings. For the scientists who think that their work doesn't allow for traditional art media, I think that these might be the same scientists who fail at communicating their work to non-scientists. The subsequent discourse that responds to that problem is actively being shaped by innovative, creative means of communicating complex topics in visually effective ways. Does that mean "transdisciplinarian" looks like the crude combination of "visual" and "biology?" I'm not sure. But today's world does have a strong emphasis on the visual. With students' time spans decreasing, visual + [insert field here] might be a start at creating a space for creativity and capturing students' attention. 

Visual Sociology is a good example of social sciences getting in touch with their creative side. I can't remember the exact name for the example of creativity in "hard science," but it's roughly known as microscopic cell art. I don't have any background in biology, but I do think that creating these images takes a lot more than textbook-defined "science." I'd imagine that the instrumentation and engineering involved could invoke non-science types who feel left out to also be creative...


Stir the emotional pot on the first day

As a professor of record, assistant, associate, or full professor, we can face the same dilemma every semester. How do you engage students so they are interested in your subject. You could be a professor who doesn’t care if students are interested and engaged. But then why be a professor if that’s the case? Well it could be that you are employed at an R1 university and research is your primary reason and teaching is a thing you do to get a paycheck. I won’t rant about that this time but will instead pretend all professors care about the student and write about how to get the kids to keep their eyes and ears open for that grueling hour long class.

EMOTIONS………………………..!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Those strange things that get people mad, sad, happy, giddy, and all sorts of feels get folks moving. Main emotions I want to discuss are the knowledge emotions discussed by Paul Silvia of UNC Greensboro. The four specific emotions are surprise, interest, confusion, and awe. One can understand using interest and awe but how about surprise and confusion? Well, surprise and confusion lead to attention and desire to learn. That is the goal of teaching any course at any level, isn’t it? If every student were fully interested and in awe of learning, teaching would be easy. So easy, anyone could do it. But alas, we know that not every student is fully vested in the class subject and only there because the course is ‘required’ to graduate.

When does the process of stirring up these emotions begin? How about on day one! Syllabus day. The waste of 45 minutes covering what any student should be able to read for comprehension but for legalities sake, we will be the reader for them so they don’t miss a detail. The syllabus is that tree killing thing handed out on day one and then forgotten for the rest of the semester. Know why I won’t respond to your email……..BECAUSE IT’S ON THE SYLLABUS!!! Well maybe we could provide a reading that the students want to revisit throughout the semester. Make the syllabus exciting with great descriptions of the course. What will they learn, list all the cool ways they will be shown new information. Don’t threaten with grade scales and attendance policies but create surprise and interest. “This class will cover the fundamentals of foreign policy and diplomacy.” Well isn’t that just great, I figured that from the class title, you know the one called Foreign Policy and Diplomacy. Instead, get them emotionally invested through interest, surprise, confusion and awe. “This class will engage your mind as we travel through the tangled and twisted mazes that states use to create a foreign policy and the forms of diplomacy employed to get others to believe them.” Hmmmm…tangled and twisted mazes? Is this professor the guy from Saw? Getting others to believe them. What does that mean?

Let’s break the routine of a cookie cutter syllabus and get students excited from day one and keep them excited until they graduate. Then let the world deal with them. lol.

Curious Curiousity: A Curious Change

You may be thinking, “Wow, this guy likes alliteration!”, and you would be right! Curiousity in a classroom environment is a tricky thing to accomplish, and even harder to try and implement. I think Campbell has it right and wrong in some aspects. Sure the students should be engaged with alternative information, and they should not be under a uniform assessment. But these assessments provide a teacher with a base for their own teaching prowress.

I think these readings go in line with last week, in that alot of these things can be said but it is hard if the teacher does not even know who they are as an academic. So while giving a lecture, tests, powerpoints, readings, and modules may not be the way of the future. They can be a way for the teacher to find themselves in this profession. I think that is the biggest thing, find yourself then get creative. Implement new ideas when you are comfortable doing so. Teaching and talking about teaching are two different things.