ISA Creative Teaching Workshops

At the ISA’s annual convention last month, ALPS members led two of the Creative Teaching Workshops organized by Carolyn Shaw of Wichita State University. My colleague Sally Gomaa and I led the Teaching the World Through Authentic Writing Assignments workshop. Here are a few of our thoughts on the experience:

First, we were pleasantly surprised by the diverse crowd. Sally and I met Carolyn, Simon Rofe, and Mary Jane Parmentier in person for the first time and reconnected with some of the ALPS crew. But participants in our workshop took diversity to an entirely different level — graduate students to senior faculty from a variety of academic disciplines, at least eleven different nationalities, and employment or study at a wide range in institutional environments.

This diversity demonstrated the truth that there is no universally-applicable solution to making students learn, whether through writing or any other means. Case in point: in the U.S. system of higher education, I am free to formally assess my students as frequently and in whatever manner I want, which allows me to use writing assignments as a stick to force students to read information that I provide. People who work in other systems don’t have this freedom, and writing exercises might have to be organized as ungraded classroom activities — which assumes students 1) attend class regularly, 2) see value in the activities. Another example: the instructor might not be  teaching in his or her primary language, which complicates the process of evaluating and providing feedback on students’ writing.

A second observation: the standard conference panel is a terrible way to learn about new pedagogical strategies. Its “I talk, you listen” format contradicts nearly every principle of active learning. Our panel, about teaching, was the usual affair with little time for give-and-take with the handful of people in the audience. The contrast with our workshop, where a much larger group of people applied themselves individually and collaboratively, frequently lobbing “What if we tried this?” and “Have you thought about this?” questions at each other, was stark. Nearly all of us teach, and for many if not most of us, teaching occupies the majority of our work time. So why are conferences structured to be mostly irrelevant to the careers of most academics? (Nina, Amanda, and Simon have discussed this subject previously).

Last item, related to the previous one: as is my habit, I did some participant observation while walking the hotel hallways and attending events. I noticed the young, bright-eyed, sharp-dressed graduate students, performing the rituals that they have been led to believe will gain them entry to the professoriate. It made me feel a bit queasy, because for many there will not be a pot of career gold at the end of the graduate school rainbow. The labor market for academics in many fields has collapsed. From my position of privilege as a tenured faculty member, I write about this subject periodically, like Cassandra of Troy. For someone else’s perspective on how the academy in the USA exploits the (sometimes willfully) naive, read Kevin Birmingham’s essay in The Chronicle.

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