Teaching

Small things are what often make a liberal arts education meaningful (essay)

Liberal arts education is often thought of in terms of a balance of knowledge across a range of fields and disciplines. Such an approach results, so the story goes, in the well-rounded individual who has an appreciation for the sciences and the humanities, who can work, at turns, with raw data and with subtle hermeneutics, and who understands history as well as the complexities and nuances of the contemporary moment.

This understanding is relatively accurate as a zoomed-out view of how the liberal arts work. But then there are other parts of a liberal arts education. Smaller parts.

David Foster Wallace, in his Kenyon College graduation speech, talked about some of the more weighty benefits of liberal arts, such as learning to recognize the difference between cultivating awareness and sensitivity, on the one hand, and sliding into the mindless mode of the rat race, on the other. But I’m not talking about this sort of heaviness.

When I think back on my own liberal arts education, I realize that many small things contributed to my overall experience. Those things weren’t necessarily planned in advance nor did they show up on my transcript. But they were absolutely meaningful for me.

For instance, I recall when my English professor drove me up to Ann Arbor, Mich., to hear poet and essayist Gary Snyder read some of his new work. Our little college was about 45 minutes south of the University of Michigan, and we were far less likely to get a speaker like Snyder.

Another English professor, an early modernist, took sympathy on me for my lack of curricular planning. She agreed to do an independent study on Shakespeare and nature so I could satisfy a certain graduation requirement.

Then there was the time a favorite philosophy professor went along with a gaggle of us students to see the film The Matrix when it first hit theaters. We saw the movie and then went to a pub to discuss the film in relation to various readings and class discussions we’d had.

In the spring when the weather turned nice, my Latin professor would take us outside with a big bucket of colorful chalk, and we’d do our translations on sidewalks around the quad, in garish pinks, yellows and blues. That may seem entirely whimsical, but it made some pedagogical sense, too: changing the context of learning to make the lessons stick.

Doubtless, many other small things shaped my education, as well -- but I’m focusing here on the ones that involved my professors. As a professor myself now, I often find myself thinking about all the aspects of the position that go unremunerated but that are also immeasurably part of the job.

This might be a last-minute, unplanned “office hour” with a student that ends up being a walk through the park on my way home. Or it might be helping with a senior thesis, which is a voluntary overload credit in terms of a teaching assignment but which ends up (usually, hopefully) as a student’s capstone experience, reflecting in unpredictable ways the sum total of her or his education thus far. Or it can simply be a coffee or a beer that I buy for a student over an impromptu session of giving life advice or calming near-graduation trepidation.

Such small things add up in at least two ways: they are the uncompensated and incalculable parts of the job, and they are also the things that can result in lifelong memories for students. They are the aspects that can make the whole enterprise seem worth it -- when you actually help someone make a good decision or at least avoid a bad one.

As my own university goes through a prolonged and at times painful financial equilibrium process, dovetailing with a general assessment phase, I am trying to keep all this in mind. I do that both in terms of being aware of the small things I do (and trying not to overextend myself) and in terms of simply remembering that such small things make my position meaningful -- especially during salary freezes or threats of across-the-board cuts.

It is an economic paradox of sorts that the parts of this job that are about uncompensated giving are also those parts that give back -- and that these things might also be the very measures by which we defend this model of education. If we are truly interested in educating the whole person, then we have to be whole people, too -- knowing that this sometimes means delayed gratification and generosity beyond calculation.

Being a professor is still a great job for so many reasons. And a lot of those reasons will always necessarily remain unquantifiable. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to be fairly compensated or to try to find ways to recognize much of what we all do.

But it means that we should also acknowledge that many things we do on our campuses (and off) for our students will always fall through the cracks of assessment and reimbursement. Yet they will nevertheless benefit our students in inestimable ways. It’s the small things that count.

Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans.

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Professors can help increase students' self-esteem yet not coddle them (essay)

Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Everett Piper posted a message on his college’s website titled “This Is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!” in response to a student who was offended during a sermon and feeling victimized. He declared that his university is not a “safe place” and excoriated the student for being self-absorbed and narcissistic. With a tough-love stance, he recommended that the sensitive student consider going elsewhere for his education.

Students in higher education are becoming increasingly vocal and powerful with requests for more sensitivity to their needs. Some professors, viewing their students as thin-skinned, are condemning that trend, and Piper’s voice is but one of many exasperated educators. Earlier this year, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote a piece in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” concluding that student requests for trigger warnings and increased protections are a disaster for education and mental health. More even-tempered than Piper’s rant, the article is no less harsh when it comes to castigating students for creating an atmosphere of what the authors call “vindictive protectiveness.”

I agree that shielding students from difficult material and discussion is a mistake. But Piper publicly humiliated a student as a means to remind everyone that higher education must be challenging. I question the need to berate a student for asking for more sensitivity. If we perceive that some of our students are hypersensitive, we should teach them how to gain strength rather than scold them for being weak.

In the recent film Whiplash, J. K. Simmons plays Fletcher, a music professor who uses drill-sergeant tactics -- including humiliation, intimidation, degradation, physical torture and mind games -- with an aim to push students beyond their comfort zones and force their potential. This professor drives some students to greatness, but the collateral damage includes suicide and violence. Although a work of fiction, Whiplash highlights a real situation: educators have the potential to push vulnerable students over the edge.

Several years ago, I lost one of my students to suicide. I had not known that she was struggling with mental-health issues. The loss was devastating. If she had told me that she required a heightened sensitivity from me in the classroom, I hope I would have been receptive. I hope I would not have castigated her for not being strong enough to handle her problems.

There is not much value in education if students are taught to hate themselves. Removing a student’s self-esteem is not necessary to challenge him or her. Can we, as educators, be positive without coddling? Is it possible to increase a student’s self-worth while simultaneously challenging that student’s comfort zone?

Focusing on Talents

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Piper, Lukianoff and Haidt, is Chris Ulmer, a Florida special education teacher who recently posted a video on his “Special Books by Special Kids” Facebook page showing his distinct way of complimenting his elementary school students before the start of every class. He writes that “instead of focusing on deficits, I focus on talents.” Ulmer reports that, over time, practicing overt positive reinforcement creates better results in his students’ schoolwork. In addition, the positive environment develops support among the students.

Ulmer’s practices for elementary special ed students may not be the answer for higher education, but there is something to be learned from him here. Being positive allows students to accept teaching more readily. Rather than condemning his students for being self-absorbed, Ulmer raises their self-worth before introducing the day’s lesson plan. If he teaches challenging material one day, he has built strength in his students and they are better equipped to handle it.

As a theater professor and stage director, I have adopted similar techniques in my acting classes and play rehearsals. In his 1984 book A Sense of Direction: Some Observations on the Art of Directing, William Ball writes that actors (and, by extension here, students) carry with them a “starvation for approbation.” Ball says that we, as mentors, must discipline ourselves to “praise ceaselessly” and to “praise whatever is there.” Since “habitual admiration is not usually a natural tendency,” Ball recommends that we become “purveyors of praise.” If we want the best out of our students, he says that “fear has to be superseded.”

That is not unrealistic, overly optimistic advice. It is a reminder that we tend to overlook the positives because critiquing and criticizing come much more naturally. We must strike a balance. We must work at learning how to recognize the positive stuff in front of us. Pushing a fledgling out of the nest is not the only way to promote strength. Building self-esteem has its merits and should not be ignored.

Whiplash’s Fletcher tells his students, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” I disagree. We are not coddling our students if we compliment, affirm and recognize their strengths.

I am not advocating for trigger warnings or easing up on provocative course work in order to make students’ lives less stressful. But we should look more carefully at those students who are demanding these protections. If a student struggles with personal issues and asks for help, public shaming will not teach the student to cope. It is a cruel world out there. Must we model that cruelty in order to “toughen up” our students?

Domenick Scudera is a professor of theater at Ursinus College.

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Concrete ways faculty can work with other colleagues to improve their teaching (essay)

The need to “educate for judgment” is as urgent for those of us who teach at universities and professional schools today as it was for Aristotle. Twenty-five years ago, three expert professors at Harvard Business School reminded and guided their colleagues in the professions to do exactly that. C. Roland Christensen, David Garvin and Ann Sweet, the editors of Education for Judgment, rightly noticed that the way we professors teach our students often discourages them from learning how to exercise independent judgment in their scholarship, in their professions, in their lives. The first step in turning this around is for teachers themselves to learn how to reflect on their own practices so that they can encourage their students to exercise judgment, too.

Obvious? Perhaps. But Richard Elmore’s observation in the foreword to the book is not that far off the mark today, noting that “teaching is seldom taken as a subject for serious intellectual discourse in universities.” In fact, most of our students, if they knew, would find this amazing, even troubling: we college teachers have never been taught how to teach, and we generally work in isolation on improving our practice.

If we were lucky, we were teaching assistants in graduate school, placed in charge of smaller discussion sections for the lecture classes given by the famous professors. If we were really lucky, the senior professor gave us some guidance on our pedagogy.

Yet most of us started as college teachers woefully inexperienced and unprepared. Some colleges and universities have recognized that lack of preparation in recent years and have created centers for teaching excellence, offering lectures, workshops and maybe the chance to have your class videotaped. But Education for Judgment signaled a still-missing ingredient needed for learning how to practice our craft wisely: structured ways that those of us who are experts as well as novices can reflect on our ongoing teaching practices.

Outside of academe, this approach is not rocket science. Firefighters routinely do post-incident reviews in the same ways that athletes review videos of the game they just played. Novice public school teachers practice teaching with trained teachers. That’s also how interns and residents learn doctoring. Continuing mentoring and coaching are essential for even expert musicians, singers and athletes.

But when professors start teaching, they are largely isolated in their own classrooms. Worse, with the criteria for tenure traditionally being “publish or perish,” collegial reflection about improving our teaching expertise is not encouraged. Indeed, young faculty members who show a serious concern about their teaching are often warned about “misplaced priorities.”

Many professors would like to improve their expertise in leading discussion classes and lectures so as to foster understanding, deep engagement with the material, curiosity and wonderment, and a passion for lifelong learning. They want especially to foster students’ capacities to exercise the judgment they need to apply their learning to their lives and work. But college and university teachers -- any teachers -- can only develop the judgment that expertise requires the way any expert develops such judgment: by working with mentors, coaches and colleagues to continually reflect on their own practice of teaching.

There is already some coaching of faculty going on. Some colleges and universities (including Swarthmore) assign senior faculty members to mentor young faculty, bring in outside teaching coaches on a paid basis or hold workshops that instruct teachers how to be sensitive to diversity or to teach more effectively. Yet we and some of our colleagues at Swarthmore wanted to go further: to teach faculty to be peer coaches for each other, to combine one-on-one coaching with group reflection, to privilege ongoing observation and coaching over onetime or short-term encounters, and to create a continuous process that could renew and improve the wider culture of pedagogy at the college.

The Faculty Teaching Seminar

Thus, several of us recently set out to identify ways to do just that. We asked ourselves, could we design a structure to foster such learning through reflective practice? Could we figure out a way to learn how to mentor and coach each other -- and then do it at a low cost and in ways that would create a culture of learning about pedagogy across the college?

We decided to make ourselves mutual apprentices -- peer coaches -- observing each other’s classes, reflecting together and practicing again. Instead of the presumption that “teachers teach and students learn,” we flipped the paradigm to “teachers as learners.” What could we learn about the kind of reflective learning we wanted to encourage in students by putting ourselves in the position of learners?

We convinced the college to offer some free food and a token honorarium, and 12 of us (out of 20 applicants) signed up for the ride. The Faculty Teaching Seminar, supported in part by a development grant from the John F. Templeton Foundation and an operating grant from the Aydelotte Foundation, combined peer coaching and observation with tri-weekly faculty seminars.

We faculty members were divided into six pairs, each of which observed classes of our peer coach for the whole academic year -- a minimum of 10 coaching encounters, although many people did more. Every three weeks, the 12 of us would meet for three hours to discuss what we were observing and learning. Among the things we focused on were:

Creating a safe, supportive environment. Almost every faculty member who joined the seminar expressed fears about having another faculty member in their class on a regular basis. Many heads nodded when a senior faculty member laughingly admitted: “As someone afflicted by the impostor syndrome, I had some reservations that I might be found out -- that I wasn’t living up to Swarthmore standards.”

This fear was a central obstacle that had to be overcome. The only way you learn good judgment is from experience, Will Rogers famously said, and most of that experience is the exercise of bad judgment. If trial and error is a necessary condition for such learning, then that meant taking on a demon that plagues collegial relations at most colleges and universities: the continued high-stakes evaluation for promotion and tenure.

We intentionally aimed to create a supportive community of practice. In recruiting the participants, we avoided (with one exception) having people from the same department. We also avoided pairing junior and senior faculty members. We explicitly talked about how to break the culture of evaluation. We worked to keep our discussions confidential.

In two humorous but poignant sessions that senior faculty members first led, we used storytelling to share our worst learning experience as students and our worst teaching experience. “Once those disasters had been publicly aired,” said one faculty member, “we had little to fear from exposure -- and we could all see that moments of failure are an inevitable part of the pedagogical landscape.”

Learning how to coach each other. Being a good teacher does not make someone a good coach of other teachers any more than being a good athlete or musician makes someone a good athletic or musical coach. With the exception of one faculty participant -- the women’s softball coach who provided us with valuable guidance -- few others had much practice coaching, and none had practice coaching other teachers. We recognized that “the coaches themselves must be coached” (with a grateful nod to Marx’s Third Thesis on Feuerbach).

We developed a preliminary script to scaffold the pre- and post-conversations each coach had with their peer. We performed a live coaching session with each other in the first seminar to model it and get reactions. Before: What are you aiming at in this course, in this class? What obstacles and challenges will you face? Is there anything you want me to pay attention to? After: What did you think worked well and not so well? I noticed you did such and such -- what made you decide to do that?

Then we tried our hands at observing and coaching. We reported back at subsequent seminars on what worked and what fizzled. Actually learning how to see and listen to what was happening in the classroom was a crucial skill that the participants gained and found important. “Once I learned how to listen actively, I was able to observe the flow of the lecture and identify key moments. The skill of coaching started to focus on, ‘What does he find important, and how can I help him reflect on those issues?’”

Combining reflective practice with skills building. We didn’t need a faculty seminar to know the importance of skills like good listening. Indeed, many of us thought of ourselves as good listeners -- that is, until we did a listening-skills training exercise. We broke into groups of three. Each of us took a turn at being a speaker, a listener, an observer. The listener had to summarize the speaker’s core ideas and feelings. The speaker let the listener know whether he or she had been understood, and if not, they had to try again. The observer then commented on what was happening. We all had to try again: listening was harder than we thought. We all needed more practice and reflection.

We did readings about the traits, skills and techniques of good teachers and coaches. But the central pedagogy was moving in a circle from theory to practice to coaching and mentoring each other -- then re-evaluating the theory or technique and then practicing again. We improved our skills by practicing, observing and questioning each other: When did you ask and when did you tell? What were you thinking when you interrupted that energized conversation? How did you choose whom to call upon today, and why did you allow so and so to talk for so long? That was an interesting learning puzzle you set up in class -- what were you aiming at, and how did you think it up? Let’s discuss some of the tough choices you made when you were grading the last set of papers. What were you balancing?

The synergy between the peer coaching and group seminar discussions became clearer throughout the year. The coaching was vital for improving our teaching. What we observed gave us the grist for an educated dialogue in the seminar on how we learn and teach. And the seminar discussions and exercises fed back into improving our peer coaching and teaching.

Fostering an academic culture that encourages learning about learning should certainly include approaches less labor intensive than our seminar-peer coaching model. Lectures or workshops about teaching methods as well as insider tips can be helpful. But creating a culture that encourages us to continually reflect on and improve our pedagogy -- turning a college into a learning organization -- requires that faculty as well as students find ways to learn from the trial and error of experience. That demands creating a safe, supportive environment where we can observe our teaching practices and learn the skills of reflection, analysis, coaching and mentoring.

We in American higher education can’t just hire brilliant Ph.D.s and expect them to be brilliant teachers. The Faculty Teaching Seminar at Swarthmore is only one approach to help teachers learn the judgment they need to educate their students for judgment. Colleges and universities committed to quality teaching need to explore other ways to institutionalize such reflective practice if the teaching at the heart of a liberal arts education is to be nourished.

Kenneth Sharpe is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and co-author with Barry Schwartz of Practical Wisdom (Riverhead Books, 2010). Elizabeth Bolton is a professor of English Literature at Swarthmore and author of Women, Nationalism, and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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