Thinking about classroom problems in general

The other three-phase

Amanda’s excellent post yesterday on students not reading put me in mind of a very useful conceptualisation of classroom situations that I was taught in my training, more years ago than I care to remember.*

In essence, the conceptualisation suggests that there are three phases in our pedagogic practice, and our movement through them reflects our increasing confidence and ability: and they look not so different from Amanda’s options.

The first phase is to centre everything on yourself, the teacher. You are the sun and everything revolves around you. If students don’t get it, then it’s because you did a bad job; likewise, their successful learning is down to you and your amazing classes.

If you like, this is the rollercoaster phase, with rapid highs and lows, where the euphoria is mixed with a heavy dose of nausea.

It’s obvious that this should be the starting point, because you’re new to all this and you’re discovering your own powers: it’s a very human instinct to work from oneself, because that’s what you know best.

However, this model is not only emotionally draining but it also runs into the (usually quite swift) realisation that you’re not the only agent in the learning-teaching nexus. There’s got to be a different way of looking at things. Continue reading

My Students Don’t Read: Responses to a Classic Classroom Problem

All experienced instructors have had this happen to them: You assign an interesting reading that is pivotal to a topic on the syllabus. You emphasize to the students how important it is that they complete that particular reading, as it will be the basis of the next class session’s discussion. Walking into class, you smile, anticipating a smart, informed discussion on a fascinating topic, and ask a basic question to get things going. And then, the silence, and the signs: the blank stares, the eyes that won’t meet yours, the walls and shoes and notebooks that suddenly are the most interesting things in the room. Your smile drops as you realize the horrible truth: none of the students did the reading.

Quickly you realize it’s not entirely true: a small handful of students, the ones you can always rely on, tentatively raise their hands. Others may have skimmed the reading, or tried to do it just as class started. Still others pull it out as you ask the question, trying to do in 30 seconds what they need a concentrated 10 or 30 minutes to do. Despite this, the vast majority of the class simply did not do as instructed.

What’s the dedicated instructor to do?

I have been teaching for more than ten years, and this happened to me twice this semester alone. In one case, only one student out in my intro to IR class had read Thucydides’ short Melian Dialogue that IR teachers the world over use as an introduction to Realism—even though they had weekly reading quizzes on the material. In my intro to American politics course, none of them had read Federalist Paper #84, which outlines the arguments regarding the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution. In the moment when I realized that my students were not prepared for the reading-based discussion I had planned, I had a decision to make: how would I respond to their lack of preparation?

A few options immediately came to mind.

Continue reading

More Rashomoning: Considering truth in political communication

After our recent posts on teaching Trump, and on problematising interpretations of phenomena for students, I now find myself sensitised to such matters.

Walking through town at the weekend, I found a leaflet thrust in my hand. As you can see from the photo, this is obviously an individual with something that they feel strongly about: my very first impression was that the paper was irregularly cut, which means they have cut it by hand – no small effort.

And then you read it.

By itself, it’s an excellent piece for a group of students to discuss in class. The argument is there, but jumbled up and obscured: I’m still not sure the proverb makes any real sense (plus, it seems like a very long, and specific proverb).

But the bit that pulls one up is the arrest. How can promoting veganism get you put in jail? Continue reading

Make Your Librarian Love You

I’ve often said that librarians are the most under-utilized resource of any college or university. At one of the schools I’ve taught at, they actually went begging to faculty to be invited in to do things with students. At most of the others, they frequently advertise their services to faculty, hoping that some of us will take them up on their offer.

The usual use of librarians for a research methods course is in teaching students how to find materials for a literature review using library databases. That’s a pretty standard need. But for methods classes that also incorporate qualitative methods, I’d like to suggest a second use for your librarians: teaching a hands-on class on primary source interpretation using materials from the school’s special collections or school archives. Continue reading

What do you see?

They let me out last week, to give a talk at a schools event, about studying at university. As well as a chance for some fresh air – and to discover the back roads of Dorset – it was also an opportunity to try out some new things.

In particular, I had been toying around with how to communicate what happens in a university, as compared to a school. Central to that – I decided – was building individuals’ capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection.

So I showed them this:

Continue reading

Pedagogical Defense: Avoiding Soul Crushing Writing Assignments

Recently I’ve been working on decoupling/narrowing what I expect in my writing assignments. For those of us who teach 70+ students at a shot and do not have TAs , the prospect of grading their papers is not only daunting…it is SOUL CRUSHING.

Even if their work is well-intentioned with good editing and citation, most undergraduate student work is still under development in nearly every area: structure, readability, sophistication of hypotheses, strength of argument, etc etc etc…

In prior courses I’ve laid out complex rubrics with several categories, points, and lots of very specific feedback. The net result was not only that I hated reading blah papers, but now I had tons of blah feedback to provide which tended to overwhelm and demoralize my students more than help.

This semester I’m trying a different tack with my first-year students: Two developmental criteria per paper ONLY, plus an invitation for creativity. The first criteria is to advance the some aspect of their writing’s quality of thought, the second, to advance one aspect of formatting, the third is to save my soul.

Example: My most recent assignment is an early attempt at synthesizing and discussing the work of more than one author. (Preparatory work for eventual literature reviews) PLUS…and remember this part…I don’t want to have my soul crushed trying to read them all. Note the areas where I’m trying to stop them from killing my soul.

Author Synthesis Assignment (see what I did there?)
Cocktail Party Script: (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party with three prominent scholars who have published research related to your question. (**Questions and sources were developed and vetted these in a prior class.) Write a script that details the conversation you would have with these authors.

Content: Your script must include…
1. Your question and why it is important
2. Each author’s research and insights and how they pertain to your question. NOTE: Accuracy and specificity get higher grades, vagueness and misinterpretation get lower values.
(Writing Development Emphasis)
3. Potential disagreements and agreements between each member in the party—including yourself.
4. Humor or Drama of some kind. (Soul Crush Avoidance Technique)

Formatting: Your script must focus on …
1. Careful attention to citation frequency, format, and accuracy. (choose any style you like but be consistent) (**Format Development Emphasis)

Dazzle me with your concision and creativity! No more than 6 pages. Focus on citation and accuracy. If you’re all freaked out about margins and font size you’re missing the point. 

I’ll post results next week. Wish me LUCK!