Teaching Today

F-Words in the Classroom

Some words seem to be treated as anathemas when it comes to college teaching, Karen Costa writes -- and then argues why they shouldn't be.

March 12, 2019
 
 
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I was an early consumer and user of the original F-word. There were two age tiers in the close-knit neighborhood where I grew up; as part of the younger one, I got an early education in the nittier and grittier ways of the world and the various words used to describe them. With time and parenthood, my love of swearing has faded. I’m now much more interested in the new F-words. They are those that seem to be treated as anathemas in the world of higher education: fun, fear and faculty.

Fun. One of the greatest impediments to great teaching is the assumption that boredom is an indicator of rigor. Not only does this idea fail under the slightest logical scrutiny, but also no science supports it. If you wear your glazed-eyed students -- whether in an academic classroom or a student affairs workshop/orientation -- as a badge of honor, I invite you to reconsider. Boredom doesn’t mean you are challenging your students; it means your students are physically present and mentally absent. Yet somehow, one of boredom’s best antonyms, fun, can lead to dirty looks when spoken on a college campus.

What happens when we infuse our teaching with the element of fun? What do we know about the science of fun and enjoyment in teaching and learning?

In the words of Brain Rules author and scientist John Medina, “We don’t pay attention to boring things.” Without your students’ attention, how can you teach them anything? Fun is one of the most effective ways to both get and keep attention.

What would that look like in action? Start your class with a funny story or a joke. Show a lighthearted video on your subject. Play interactive games to give students the opportunity to practice course concepts. Most importantly, begin to use this F-word in conversations about student learning on your campus.

Fear. Another commonly held belief in higher education is the idea that both students and teachers should check their emotions at the door when they enter a college classroom. The assumption here is that emotions are a barrier to learning. Once again, no science supports this belief. In fact, in recent years, copious amounts of research have begun to turn this idea on its head. (See Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s The Spark of Learning.) Talking about emotions, harnessing them and helping our students to manage them are all ways to increase student learning and achievement.

What do we know about the impact of emotions on the learning process? Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has made one of the greatest contributions toward answering that question. His book, Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, summarizes research that shows how access to our emotions is crucial to higher-order thinking and decision making. In short, when we don’t feel, we can’t think.

What is one of the most common emotions that many of our new traditional students bring to the classroom? Fear. According to the work of Rebecca Cox, author of The College Fear Factor, many of the choices that our students make that might seem illogical to our highly educated minds are born of a deep-seated fear of failure. An example of this is the failure to complete assignments on time. Teachers might see this choice as indicative of a lack of motivation; for the new traditional college student, choosing to not turn in an assignment can be a self-protective choice, allowing them to avoid the anxiety of presenting one’s work for evaluation. As Cox states, “Essentially, students were afraid that the professor would irrevocably confirm their academic inadequacy.” Yet how often do we integrate conversations about fear into our classrooms? This F-word is there, whether we speak it aloud or not.

I recently attended a workshop where our presenter (the great Maria Sirois) shared a video about fear, and more important, how we can push through fear in pursuit of our goals. Some of you may have seen the movie The Greatest Showman, with Keala Settle starring in the role of the Bearded Lady. With 35 million views on YouTube, Settle’s emotional performance in front of potential investors (known as a “green-light performance,” to get funding for the movie) is something I plan to show all of my students this term. “Here’s what fear looks like,” I’ll say. “And here’s what’s on the other side.”

Faculty. In one of my former roles, I held the title of director of student success. I was nothing short of a student success evangelist. I believed that our job as higher educators was to throw everything we could at the problem of student attrition.

I was right, and I was wrong.

With time and maturity, both on a personal and professional level, I’ve awoken to the realization that in the students-first model of higher education, we very often treat faculty members as a means to an end within that equation. Any attempt to support the faculty is naturally followed by either visible or unspoken parentheses (because supporting faculty members will help students succeed). The faculty, another higher education F-word, has been eclipsed by the well-intentioned desire to help our students.

Faculty success can and must be supported in its own right. The institutions that see, support and strengthen the interdependent nature of student and faculty success will be those who truly exemplify the word “higher” in higher education. It’s time to start talking about faculty success as much as we talk about that of our students. Practically, that means funding quality professional development that leaves “death by PowerPoint” in the dust. It means planning with faculty members, not plotting against them. And planning with faculty members means including them in conversations about professional development, being proactive about meeting their needs and recognizing that quality PD is not a one-shot deal but rather an ongoing priority. It means taking faculty stress much more seriously and creating wellness programs within a larger culture of care for all members of our communities.

Are you a consumer and user of these higher education F-words? How are fun, fear and faculty treated on your campus?

Bio

Karen Costa is a facilitator at Faculty Guild and a Massachusetts-based adjunct who teaches college success strategies to first-year students.

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