Blog Post

LSTS 1: Best Learning Experiences, Best Teaching Experiences

ENFPs should not promise to write blog post series. My attention span is somewhat better than that of a goldfish (an unfortunate misconception about ENFPs), but I do prefer to consider all the things I could write about over writing about the things I said I would write about. Case in point, as soon as I committed to addressing the six questions posed by Neil Haave in my last post, I promptly set off thinking about all sorts of other interesting things. I signed up for an archived mass open online course (MOOC) offered through EdX. I found a new (to me) presentation tool, Prezi, that I think holds a great deal of potential for communicating material to students who identify as visual or spatial learners. I’ve also started considering how to revise my syllabus for next semester; it’s time for some new primary sources and the blogging project could use tweaking. All productive lines of thought, but not at all focused on what I intended to write. Hence my delayed return to blogging and to the series of posts I sketched out in Learning Style, Teaching Style (LSTS).

Haave’s first two prompts for reflection are:

  1. Describe the best learning experience you have had as a student.
  2. Describe the best teaching experience you have had as an instructor.

He encourages readers to consider how the two answers intertwine. What similarities exist between the two experiences? And what do those similarities reveal about the choices we make about teaching practices?

Learning Experience

My best learning experiences have been in courses that challenged me to work hard for the grade or for intellectual parity with my classmates, but did not seem like a hopeless cause from the start. My undergraduate astronomy class falls into the latter category; even basic knowledge of pulsars, quasars, and simple constellations eludes me. The semester-long program I spent in London as a freshman undergraduate is one of the former.

The program satisfied the college’s general education requirements for philosophy, history, literature, and fine arts – but nothing about the program felt basic or required. Each week, my cohort of twenty-five students attended two lectures that set the historical context for the week – and then our professors set us loose in the city with assignments to visit galleries, museums, or performances and read primary sources related to the period covered in the lectures. We also met three times a week for colloquies (small discussion groups) to sort out the important themes from texts, images, and exhibits. Weekly writing assignments prompted us to pull together artifacts, texts, and lecture material into a synthetic, insightful, interesting commentary about the week’s material.

The program was wonderfully immersive and encouraged deep and intimate camaraderie among participants. I pulled all-nighters with fellow procrastinators and had my ego taken down a notch in peers by people who were clearly more thoughtful and gracious than me. (That was a necessary thing at that point in my life – and definitely still needs to happen from time to time.) The learning experience was foundational not only because the rigors of the program required me to live and breathe the material, but also because it impacted my values, character, and friendships in significant ways. It was the closest I’ve come to a holistic learning experience.

Teaching Experience

The connections between one of my best learning experiences and my current teaching practices are transparent. Each class is bookended with lecture material, but centered on primary source texts and discussion. I also include short prompts aimed at getting students to think about connections to their lives and society in some classes. More often than not, the conversation moves in that direction without my guidance and I have the privilege of witnessing a student internalizing a text or idea in unexpected ways. These are my favorite teaching experiences.

Last semester, for instance, I assigned a portion of Thomas of Celano’s First Life of St. Francis as the primary source for the class on Medieval Europe. The assigned passages relate stories about Francis’s conflict with his father, his interactions with the poor, his conversations with animals, and his audience with the pope, in which his order was given official sanction by the Catholic Church. When I read the source as an undergraduate, the professor emphasized Francis’s compassion for the poor and loyalty to the church as well as the madness of some of his actions (because, remember, this is a man who has conversations with fish). I intended to bring up similar themes in class, but my students connected with unexpected portions of the source.

Their first concern was with the conflict between father and son – and they tended to side with the father, not Francis. Their second major concern lay in the sustainability of Francis’s care for the poor (or lack thereof) – how effective was it, really, to just give someone a cloak? How many people could that really help? I later discovered, in conversation with an instructor of Global Development, that the second theme was a significant one in her course – and students were quite possibly carrying the idea over into their reading of the source. The students in my course were, with very little prompting from me, discovering their own connections and allowing the source to prompt reflection about their society. A beautiful thing, if I may say so.

Next Post

I am generally satisfied with the way my course is structured and I think students respond well to the format – especially the discussions. I do wonder, though, if I could shift my attention more often to the rigors of the course. In other words, is the course actually intellectually challenging – or is it just a lot of talking? And what would “intellectually challenging” look like for an introductory-level, required module for a program without a history major?

My queries (or worries, depending on the day) fit nicely with Haave’s third prompt, “What are you trying to achieve in your students with your teaching?”, so I’ll pick those up in the next post.