Blog Post

LSTS 2: What Are You Trying to Achieve?

(You can read LSTS 1: Best Learning Experiences, Best Teaching Experiences here.)

The third question posed by Neil Haave (see Learning Style, Teaching Style) reads, “What are you trying to achieve in your students in your teaching?” I’m not overly fond of the way the question is articulated; the idea of achieving anything in my students strikes me as very odd. (What instructor, really, has any measure of control over her students’ internal states of being?) However, I think the question at its heart offers an opportunity to reflect on what I hope my students will learn in a given course.

The benefit of having delayed this blog post is that the end of the spring semester has provided greater clarity in terms of my goals for the World Civilizations course I instruct. Students’ exams, their final round of blog posts, and some intriguing Facebook posts to our class group illuminated what students have learned this semester – and what they have not.

I was encouraged to see their collective ability to identify the major themes of the course improve from the first exam. The final blog posts also displayed tighter writing and more diligent citations. And the links, posts, and comments students’ shared on Facebook for extra credit points suggested greater willingness to look for the connections between the past and present. These skills served as neat reflections of some of the course goals stated in my current syllabus, particularly my hope that they become “savvier media consumers” (and producers) through use of the blog and Facebook group.

The exams and posts to both the blog and FB group, however, also revealed two significant areas of concern.

First, most students still struggle with chronology – which is a bit problematic for a history course. Understanding the order of events is essential to comprehending the significance of a given person or event. My guess is that my emphasis on overarching themes and the freewheeling nature of our primary source discussions in class often obscures the order of events – or at least makes chronology seem less important than concepts. My goal for next semester, then, is to strike a greater balance between concepts and chronology. I’m already considering replacing exams with more frequent quizzes (probably multiple choice) to reinforce material, so it should be easy enough to test students’ understanding of chronology within that format.

The second area of concern is more worrisome and undoubtedly requires a more complex solution. In some of the posts on the blog and FB, I noticed a lack of cultural sensitivity – articles or comments that described a particular practice as “weird;” rituals, family ties, or beliefs that were outright condemned. For example, a sticking point this semester was Mongol marriage laws. Within Mongol society in the thirteenth century CE, sons are legally and socially permitted to marry their father’s wives (i.e., their stepmothers of sorts) if the father dies. Students were genuinely puzzled and shocked; this went against their conceptions of who could and should get married and they struggled to understand why this would be allowed. The problem was, they weren’t asking why the practice was allowed within Mongol society at that time; they were considering why it would be allowed anywhere by anyone at all. The context, in other words, was not influencing the questions.

I partly understand their shock, condemnation, and bafflement over the way ancient and medieval people have lived; I have and do experience those emotions myself at times in relation to certain material. And I want to create an environment in which students feel safe and respected enough to grapple with those reactions. I don’t want students to think they all need to share my opinions – or anyone else’s.

However, I do want to encourage them to ask, “Why was it like this?,” before they ask, “Do I agree with this?” There are practical reasons for this. You can disagree with slavery, but that tells you very little about why it was so commonly practiced in the ancient worlds – which in turn leaves you with very little knowledge about why and how to prevent or overturn modern instances of slavery. And, to play the globalization card, learning to respectfully consider the practices and beliefs of past societies is very good practice for respectfully considering the practices and beliefs of present societies in this interconnected, diversified world my students and I inhabit.

Again, I do not want them to agree with everything – but I do want them to understand as much as they can.

The difficulty is figuring out how to foster that particular outcome. I can adjust my material to account for the times when I am insensitive or too quick to condemn and I can be more explicit about that aim on my end. But how best to give my students the opportunity to practice cultural sensitivity? How best to respond to moments, posts, words that lack sensitivity? I suspect I will be wrestling with those questions for years, but it is good, I think, to have these goals.

And for these goals to influence my summer reading list… Would any fellow educators care to recommend good reads about fostering culturally sensitive/compassionate/respectful classrooms and courses?

Next Post:

As I’ve already (at least partly) answered question four, “Why is this important to you?,” in this post, I’ll plan to address question five, “How do you achieve your objectives?” in the LSTS 3 and then I’ll wrap up with the last question, “Why do you use these particular teaching strategies as opposed to others that are available to you?,” in a final post. Ideally the next installment will be up in somewhat less than a month this time…

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.