Books abound about student disengagement. We read about their apathy and indifference to the world around them. Data, sadly, support these claims. Youth voting rates are low, especially when President Obama isn’t on the ballot, and while there is some partaking in community activities, critics have noted that some of this engagement is the product of high schools "mandating" volunteerism as a graduation requirement.
My experiences – both as a political scientist and as a dean of the school of liberal arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design – suggest that we administrators and professors doth protest too much. Give our students a compelling text and topic, and they will engage.
I recently visited a philosophy class in which Plato’s Republic was assigned. The students were tackling Book Six, where questions spill off the pages about who should rule, and what qualities make for a viable ruler. Can a "rational" person, removed from impulses and passions, command and lead? How can, or should one remove oneself from temptation and emotion? Can the rational and emotive be separated? Do citizens trust those who are like them? How much of leading and governing is about the rational, and how much is about appearances and images?
As the professor and I raised these questions, I noticed immediately that the students had done the reading. We administrators read about how today’s students do not read. But these students – all of whom were non-liberal arts majors – had immersed themselves in the text. They were quoting passages and displaying keen interest, both in the text itself and the questions that were being raised. It is not surprising that Plato enlivened the classroom. But these future artists and designers recognized the power of the text. They appreciated how the words had meaning, and the questions were worth exploring.
Second, this experience, and others like it, gave me pause. We administrators may need to tweak our conceptions of our students. Sure, Academically Adrift is an important book, and yes, the data show that the degree of reading comprehension has declined. But we should not misconstrue that data as tantamount to disengagement, nor should we assign fewer readings, simply imply because there are data that show many students do not complete reading assignments. This recommendation – of assigning less reading and teaching it in greater depth – was one of the suggestions made by José Antonio Bowen, author of Teaching Naked, in his dynamic and imaginative keynote address at this year’s annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
The point here is not to debate Bowen’s recommendation – that is for another time and place. Similarly, I am well aware that this experience in Philosophy 101 may be unique, and is dubiously generalizable. (I should add that encountering students who are excited about discussing big ideas also occurs in other classrooms -- photography and art history, for example, that I have visited as well.)
This enthusiasm is not a recipe for assigning Plato in every class, although that is an idea that most definitely would generate discussion. That written, I believe that we should reconsider how we administrators and educators think about student engagement. It is more than knowledge about civics and current events. It is bigger and deeper than service learning, or a passion to work in one’s community.
Provide students with a compelling text and a professor who knows how to raise thought-provoking questions, and students will ponder, debate and imagine the world in new and different ways. They will learn how to think critically and creatively. Cultivating that form of student engagement is no easy task, but it begins by exposing students to great texts and great ideas. Engagement is more than a form of political participation. It is the core of the liberal arts.
Robert M. Eisinger is dean of the School of Liberal Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
This month's edition of The Pulse podcast examines various services that instructors can use to capture their handwriting or voice to embed into learning modules for the flipped classroom or massive open online courses.
Teaching with PowerPoint has been an exercise in frustration for me. I find that my course preparation takes twice as long as it should, and the results are more often than not unsatisfying. It also makes me feel muffled and absent from the classroom. Maybe this is a function of my poor PowerPoint form, of being a latecomer to a technology that younger faculty use with more ease and panache. In a way, it’s not surprising that I would struggle with it. Although I’m young and pretty tech-savvy at 43, I can’t associate PowerPoint with my lived experiences as a learner. I spent my whole life as a student, from kindergarten through graduate school, plucking words out of the air to put them in my notebook, or following along as my teachers scribbled on the blackboard. The most technology-forward moments involved the occasional projection of transparencies in science classes.
Last semester I decided to conduct an experiment. For years, even before becoming a PowerPoint user, my chalkboard form had suffered from a lack of discipline and focus. What if I really rededicated myself to it? I decided to make writing on the chalkboard my primary method and PowerPoint my secondary tool. The outcome of the exercise was fantastic. I felt like I was waking up from being half-asleep as a teacher.
One of the things I liked the most about the experience was how using the chalkboard freed me to be more responsive to the needs of my students. Although I always came to class with an outline of notes to write on the board, I knew that it was changeable and schematic, subject to revision by student comments and questions. If you compared my paper notes with what actually went on the chalkboard you’d discover all kinds of emendations and additions. The chalkboard encouraged me to be more attentive to classroom conversations, to be more confident about changing my script.
Using the chalkboard also encouraged me to package or process information for my students in more versatile ways. I could come to class and write bullet points on the board as a starting point, then while interacting with my students, proceed to annotate with symbols (asterisks, arrows, underlining). If they still didn’t get it, I could erase and diagram, or erase and do a flow chart. The chalkboard is dynamic, changeable, sensitive, immediate, and completely in the classroom moment. It models note taking and underlines the value of trial and error thinking and brainstorming, skills that are vital to analytical thinking.
I also appreciated the chalkboard because it is an embodied kind of learning. It synchs the bodies of the students to the movement of the body of the instructor. The fact that there is no PowerPoint file to download or pass out, and that the eraser is eventually coming around, means that the class gets in a rhythm of following the movements of the instructor. There is a ritual of collective focus and activity. The instructor has to be much more physically present because writing on the chalkboard requires choreography, gesture and tempo. This is of practical value but there’s also something deeper. In an existence increasingly defined by the virtual, it is important to reassert physical presence.
At the end of class, I sometimes looked at the board before erasing it. So this is what had happened in class in the last hour! I could see the vague outlines of my original plan overlaid with symbols of emphasis and additions that had emerged through classroom conversations. Here it was: the exciting record of a collaborative enterprise between teacher and students. The board recorded an event that could never be repeated in precisely the same way, even if I used the same notes to try to do so.
All of this may seem ridiculous if you teach in a pedagogical ecosystem where chalkboards are still prominent. On my campus, it seems like everyone uses PowerPoint. The situation is so pervasive that once I noticed that student pens only went up when the PowerPoint was projected on screen. If I wrote a series of items on the board, not very many students wrote them down. In their minds, PowerPoint was the chalkboard and the chalkboard was just a piece of furniture. All my colleagues, in talking about course preparation, use the word PowerPoint: I was up late preparing my PowerPoints … I left my PowerPoint at home … I couldn’t finish my PowerPoint today in class.
In my circles you can’t use the word "blackboard" as a synonym for chalkboard because everyone will assume you’re referring to our learning management system. This last detail is probably the most symbolically telling: in spite of hundreds of years of use, and its iconic stature as a symbol of the classroom, the word "blackboard" has been hollowed out by a corporation.
The problem with educational technology when it becomes institutionalized and naturalized is that it easily becomes a crutch rather than an instrument to enhance community and interaction between human being. What is brilliant about José Bowen’s well known "Teaching Naked" concept is that it affirms technology as a tool for enhancing a humanistic classroom interaction. Interest in PechaKucha and Prezi, screen projection formats and templates that discard the stale formulas of conventional PowerPoint, underscores that instructors and presenters everywhere recognize that we need to allow for creativity and responsiveness in our use of educational technology. We are at our best as teachers when we question the tools we are given and reinvent them. This happens everyday in thousands of classrooms when innovative teachers bend PowerPoint to their will, instead of the opposite. The real software behind any instructional technology is the instructor; don’t underestimate her ability to elevate a rudimentary tool or ruin a promising and sophisticate one.
I’m not arguing against PowerPoint tout court. Heck, I plan on continuing to use it as one tool among others. I am just suggesting that the old chalkboard still has something to teach us. If you haven’t tried it recently, you should. It’s the latest thing and you don’t have to plug it into an outlet or find a network to use it.
Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches courses in modern Latin American literature and culture.