I am four months away from completing my 200-hour registered yoga teacher certification. As part of that certification, I am required to complete a 10-hour yoga teaching practicum. No big deal right? I’ve been teaching college success strategies to undergraduates for a decade. What could I possibly have to learn about teaching? A lot, apparently.
I took my first yoga class when I was eight years old. I was a competitive swimmer and my very intense coach thought that learning yoga would make us swim faster. I’ve been practicing on and off since then and developed a near-daily practice in the past couple of years. Yoga is a part of who I am.
As higher educators, teaching and learning are part of who we are. We forget that this isn’t true for everyone else, including our students. Learning may be something they do, not something they are.
As I teach my practicum courses, I ask my students if they’ve ever done yoga before. Some say that it’s their first class. I try to remember this as I introduce poses. I can’t just tell them to enter Warrior II; I have to show them exactly how to get there. Throughout my yoga classes, I return to the idea of beginner’s mind, remembering how to teach by first forgetting what I know.
Our students need and want us to be seasoned experts who live and breathe education, but they also need and want us to remember what it’s like not to be.
When I planned my first yoga class, I amply sprinkled child’s pose into my sequence. Child’s pose is a resting pose, where you begin on your hands and knees and then release your bottom onto your heels, stretching your arms forward and lowering your head to the ground. It’s one of those poses that I never want to come out of, so I figured it would be a great fit for a gentle yoga class filled with beginners.
I was wrong.
Child’s pose is a great pose for me. What I learned within two seconds of introducing it to my students is that for certain body types, this pose is incredibly challenging. There went that plan. I moved my students out of the pose and offered them another option for rest.
One of the most important things I’m learning in my yoga instruction is that no two bodies are alike and that similarities on the outside can mask differences on the inside. Rounder bodies might find poses where body parts are tightly pressed against one another (e.g. child’s pose) to be very challenging, while straighter bodies might find these poses to be restful. Some knees bend more deeply. Some shoulders are tighter. Some hips flex too much, others not enough. My job as a yoga teacher is to help my students journey into their own bodies and to respect their unique anatomical structure. Yes, all knees serve the same purposes: to enable us to bend down, straighten up, and to walk or run. But within these overarching purposes, there are billions of knees with their own individual knee stories.
Are brains any different? Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that our most important job as teachers is to help students journey into their own minds to understand how they learn best. Remembering that this will be an intensely personal experience with infinite variation can help us do a better job serving as a guide on these journeys.
Off the Mat
Before last week’s class, one of my students told me that she’d started doing some of the yoga poses she’d learned with her children. Another woman told me that she’d taught her mother cat/cow pose. One student shared that she’d been practicing some of the chair poses we’ve learned at her desk while at work.
I didn’t know how good it would feel to hear how my students are taking our yoga classes off the mat and into the world.
Isn’t this what learning is all about? What good is it if our students can correctly answer our test questions if they can’t apply what they’ve learned outside the classroom? Whether this application is with their hands, their minds or both, I want my students to carry their learning experiences with them when they leave, rather than leaving their learning at the door on the way out.
Higher education can and must do a better job of making learning move. Too often it remains static, stuck within the walls or shells of our land-based or online classrooms. Are your students thinking about, writing about or using what they’ve learned in your course in other courses, at work or in their personal lives? If not, what’s the point?
Where do I end and where do my students begin? Am I too soft? Do I serve them better by saying yes or no? I’ve been asking myself these questions for 10 years. I am, and always have been, a professor who believes in going the extra mile to help my students succeed. I am encouraging, flexible and supportive. But do I sometimes go too far? When it feels like I’m working harder for their success than they are, that’s usually a sign that I need to take a step back.
When teaching a physical practice, the recognition that we cannot do the work for someone else becomes even more apparent. I can show you this challenging pose. I can offer you modifications that might be better suited to your fitness level or body type. I can suggest that you move your foot to the left. Some instructors will even use hands-on assists. But no matter what we do as yoga instructors, we cannot enter the pose for our students. That experience is theirs and theirs alone.
What I’ve also come to realize is that sometimes not feeling settled in a pose can be as important as the alternative. Perhaps a student needs to learn to not push herself so hard while another student could challenge himself a bit more. It’s their body, their mat and their yoga. There comes a point when, as teachers, we have to let go.
Yoga teaches us to pour our hearts, minds and souls into our actions, and then to release our attachment to the outcomes. While we have tremendous influence over our students, we do not have control over them. Understanding and accepting this important distinction will serve both our students and us.
There is great challenge, and great honor, in teaching. Ironically, it is a challenge most fully met when we are always ready to learn more about ourselves.
Karen Costa is a Massachusetts-based adjunct instructor. You can follow her on Twitter @KarenRayCosta.
Last fall, I brought my 1918 Royal manual typewriter into my Communicating Science to the Public class at MIT. I kept a box over the machine and unveiled it at the start of class as though revealing a new car. Oohs and ahs followed. “That’s so cool!” one student declared. Every one of the 18 first-year undergraduates could not take their eyes off the typewriter. Many of them were smiling. It was 9:30 in the morning, and they seemed surprisingly happy, curious and ready to learn.
(What I love most about manual typewriters is that they cannot be turned off. This 1918 Royal has been turned on and ready to write for nearly 100 years.)
I asked the students to get up from their desks to get a closer look at the typewriter. “Go ahead, you can type something if you want,” I said as they circled around the machine. One brave young man stepped forward and typed the word “hello.”
“Wow, this is harder than a computer,” he said while typing. Yep, you’ve got to put some muscle into manual typewriters and really strike down on each key, and if you type too fast the keys get stuck.
Many of the students, I assumed, were wondering why the heck their teacher brought an antique machine into a class where we read and write about the latest scientific and technological advancements. Fortunately, a typewriter can serve as a springboard for kinesthetic learning experiences, and here are two activities that emerged that particular morning.
How Do We Communicate Enthusiasm?
I asked the students to look closely at the keyboard. The familiar QWERTY layout alleviated some of the strangeness of the machine; however, as with all typewriters built before the 1970s, a certain punctuation mark was absent from the keys. I asked the students to identify the missing punctuation. See if you can spot it:
Did you find it?
It’s the exclamation point!
I challenged the students to imagine they were writing an article with this typewriter, and they really wanted to include an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. I asked them to work together as a team and generate as many ways to make an exclamation point as possible.
“How about typing a lowercase ‘l’ and then hit the backspace and then type a period?” one student asked. “Go ahead and try it,” I said. She pressed the keys. Dissatisfied with the outcome of this first attempt, another student made a suggestion: “How about typing a semicolon, then hitting the backspace, then adding an apostrophe?” “Give it a try,” I said. This pattern of trial and error continued for a couple of minutes: a student would approach the typewriter to test her ideas using different combinations of keys as her classmates waited to see whether the plan would work. They chuckled at each other’s efforts. Interestingly, none of them were satisfied with any of the aspiring exclamation points. They wanted the real thing, clean and recognizable, but struggled to create it using the available keys.
We took a break from the typewriter, and I asked them to take out their cell phones. “How could you communicate enthusiasm to someone using your smartphone keyboard?” Answers poured forth: there is an exclamation point readily available, plus many emojis to choose from. “What do you think the keyboard of the future will look like?” I asked. “Entirely emojis!” one student answered.
The author F. Scott Fitzgerald once likened an exclamation point at the end of a sentence to a person laughing at his own joke. In other words, the exclamation point implies a forced rather than generative response in an audience. I asked the students, “When it comes to science articles written for the public, rather than putting an exclamation point or emoji at the end of every sentence, how else can we communicate our interest and generate enthusiasm for the topic?” To help ground the class discussion in the reality of our work, students returned to their seats to examine their own article drafts. In small groups, they tried to identify and share instances, if any, in which they communicated excitement through words that might inspire a sense of wonder and enthusiasm in their reader.
Individual Agency in the Daunting Research and Writing Process
Something else happened during the typewriter exercise. After struggling to create a satisfactory exclamation point using the typewriter keys, the students grew quiet. No one touched the typewriter, and the novelty of the exercise seemed to be wearing thin.
“Wait,” said one student. She had noticed a pen next to the typewriter. “Could I just draw an exclamation point?” Interestingly, I had done this exercise twice before in other classes, and no student had ever asked this question, even though I had intentionally placed a pen beside the typewriter each time. “I don’t see why not,” I replied. “Give it a try.” She picked up the pen and drew an exclamation point on the paper. The students laughed, and some even clapped.
When I asked the students to create an exclamation point, they implicitly imposed the false constraint that the only available resource was the typewriter itself. After all, the typewriter seems complete. The machine was built by professionals and seems to have all of the necessary parts to communicate through writing. Yet human agency is still required to operate and maintain the typewriter, and most importantly, to produce writing that impacts an audience. The remarkable student who reached for the pen recognized her own body and mind as resources for problem solving and participation.
The hand-drawn exclamation point led to a discussion of the role of human agency when confronting the challenge of producing original texts as a college student. When I was an undergraduate, I remember reading published journals, magazines and books and thinking, “How can I contribute anything meaningful to this field? Why should I even bother trying to write an essay on this topic when so much has already been written? I’m only a student.”
As novices who are expected to understand and participate in the intellectual territory of experts, students often experience impostor syndrome and may question whether their writing could (or should) be more than a patchwork of citations and paraphrases. I asked the students to try rereading a few of the articles they had read for homework through a new lens -- to identify the writer’s chosen scope, particular use of metaphor, organization of ideas, connections of seemingly unrelated information and instances in which he or she related to the subject through personal experience. That led to a discussion of the rhetorical choices that represent an author’s original perspective and approach to communicating about a range of topics, ranging from the behavior of ants to the formation of black holes.
Why Bring a Typewriter?
To state the obvious: I’m a big fan of typewriters. Although I teach at MIT, I’m a Luddite in my personal life. I enjoy the musicality of writing on a manual typewriter and how it’s always sitting there ready to be used without needing to be plugged in or have its battery charged. The inability to delete, cut and paste text propels me to ignore my inner critic and plow ahead with unpolished thoughts in the early stages of ideation.
I have no doubt that the in-class discussions described above could have occurred without the prop of a 1918 Royal manual typewriter. However, the physical presence of the antique machine launched an out-of-the-ordinary kinesthetic learning experience for students.
Although imperfect and at times unpredictable, the praxis of experiential learning is powerful. In my Communicating Science to the Public class, students could see how excited I was to show them the typewriter, which inspired them to interact with the machine and one another in new ways, to smile and move physically more than they would otherwise in a classroom, and to invest more of themselves in the subsequent discussions.
I’d love to learn from you, readers of Inside Higher Ed, about the physical objects that have catapulted meaningful pedagogical moments in your classroom. Feel free to share in the comment space below.
We can’t always bring our personal hobbies and interests into the classroom, but I think it feels good when we can. As teachers, we model for students how to engage critically with a subject, how to inspire learning, how to interact with others and even how to be excited about something.
Jared David Berezin is a lecturer in comparative media studies/writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The precarity of contingent faculty members limits their ability to make important structural changes in the academy, including responding to student demands for racial justice, writes Michelle Kweder.
For 30 years, critics have proclaimed that the tenure-track and adjunct models of faculty are broken. It is 2016, and we still have a crisis when it comes to how higher education should deal with faculty members and the roles faculty members should play.
Tenure-track faculty models overemphasize a very narrow definition of research and do not encourage or provide accountability for quality teaching or improvement of teaching. Studies demonstrate, for instance, that only 25 percent of faculty members excel at both research and teaching. Such models also hamstring institutions to paying wages beyond traditional retirement age to faculty members (who aren’t required to retire at 65) and to supporting fields of study where enrollments may no longer exist.
Of course, the reality is that almost three-quarters of faculty members today are not on a tenure track. And a faculty workforce with a significant number of adjuncts provides no institutional stability for the teaching force, brings in droves of fluctuating employees with limited or no experience teaching for the institution, and leaves students without faculty members available for office hours and mentoring. In addition, adjunct faculty are left out of institutional discussions about learning goals, course assignments or textbook selection and are typically excluded from professional development, evaluation and feedback.
Meanwhile, the adjunct model clearly has human and moral costs. Such faculty members are often living on poverty wages, with no benefits, job security or career trajectory -- and all this after they’ve received a Ph.D. from a university that never told them about the low job prospects.
As part of Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, we have long highlighted the need to better support faculty off the tenure track as a short-term solution to the larger faculty crisis. But that is indeed only a short-term solution -- one with increasing popularity but limited long-term utility. While it can eradicate some of the most egregious problems that have resulted from higher education’s overreliance on adjunct and contingent faculty, we have to rethink faculty roles for the long run. The academy simply can no longer ignore this essential work.
What should the faculty look like in the future so we can overcome this crisis once and for all? To respond to that question, we recently surveyed key stakeholders across higher education -- including boards, policy makers, administrators at all levels, faculty of all types, disciplinary societies and unions -- to examine their perspectives on what the future for faculty should be.
One current stereotype is that faculty and administrative views of this issue are so diametrically opposed that discussions of future faculty roles are not possible: as faculty members (and unions) cling to tenure-track roles, administrators driven by neoliberalism want to deprofessionalize all faculty into adjuncts.
But the survey findings debunk that stereotype. We found many points of consensus among all those surveyed -- including unionized faculty members -- that seemed to indicate a shared vision and some clear ways forward for academe. Some of their key points of agreement included:
We need more full-time faculty. The academy needs to decrease its dependence on part-timers and have more full-time faculty, although not necessarily tenure-track faculty.
We need to professionalize the faculty. Institutions can do that through ensuring for faculty members academic freedom (potentially outside tenure systems), inclusion in shared governance, professional development, a fair and equitable system of promotion, and decision making related to curriculum and students. (Those surveyed saw these actions as vital for any type of faculty member, whether tenured of adjunct, full time or part time, senior or junior.)
Nontenured faculty members need longer contracts. Semester to semester and year to year is just too short. Those surveyed thought three-, five- or seven-year contracts (with longer ones given over time) were more reasonable.
We need more emphasis on teaching. Institutions must make that happen, whether through tenuring faculty members for teaching-only positions or hiring full-time faculty members on long-term contracts who focus on teaching.
All faculty members should have a scholarly role. Although that role typically would not involve conducting original research, it would include attending conferences and keeping up with developments in one’s field.
Differentiation and customization of faculty roles are crucial. Not all faculty members need to teach, conduct research or perform service. Also, faculty members should not do the same thing their whole career. Perhaps they should focus on teaching for a while and then move more to service and administrative roles or to research.
Faculty members should have greater work flexibility. Such flexibility could include stop-the-clock policies, part-time tenure-track positions and job sharing. That kind of approach is vitally needed to accommodate families and create better working conditions.
Faculty roles should emphasize collaboration. Faculty members should work across departments, units and outside groups to foster student success and cross-disciplinary research and service.
Faculty members should focus on student learning as the most central activity. They should particularly work to support and ensure the success of first-generation and low-income students.
Our survey asked not only about potential faculty models or faculty roles in the future but also the feasibility of those features becoming part of the enterprise. Here those surveyed expressed pessimism: they doubted there would be adequate funding to support this vision for the faculty and believed bureaucratic complexities would hamper such approaches. While difficulties in altering policies and contracts can certainly arise, I was surprised by these comments -- especially given the reality that some campuses are already doing this work.
In fact, for those institutions that have implemented new models, it is has been fairly easy. I have spoken to senior administrators and faculty members at dozens of campuses and departments that are quietly revising their approach to faculty work to look much more like the emerging shared vision of those we surveyed.
But those same administrators have voiced a fear about being too far out in front of what those at other institutions are doing. Campuses do not embrace this work with a sense of pride -- as being leaders.
The time has come for institutions to stop being quiet and start seeing this work as one of the primary drivers for advancing the broad mission of student and institutional success. Ample evidence suggests that the future faculty model outlined above would be much better to support student success. There are national calls (see the Aspen Institute Initiative-New College Leadership Project) for campus leaders to make student success a primary focus, and championing these new faculty models would be clearly aligned with these efforts.
I hope that institutions will proudly promote their work to implement new faculty models that support student learning and outcomes and institutional goals. And I hope that foundations and policy groups will find ways to support this work by bringing it out of the shadows and demonstrating not only that it can be done but that it represents a high priority for the future of academe.
Adrianna Kezar is a professor for higher education at the University of Southern California and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education. She directs the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.
College campuses have been somewhat quieter so far this semester, after a turbulent fall in which many campuses saw student demonstrations for racial justice in higher education. We’ve certainly not seen the end of such protests, however.
Last month, for example, minority students at Harvard Law School occupied a student lounge and criticized the administration for not supporting an office of diversity and inclusion, not promoting staff of color, and not taking a number of other “steps that are necessary to accord adequate and equal dignity to marginalized students and staff.” And last week, demonstrators at the University of Missouri, where students set off the nationwide movement last fall, marched once again over what they saw as inadequate efforts by the administration to improve the university's climate. Indeed, an annual survey of incoming college freshmen by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles has found that interest in student activism is at an all-time high, especially among black students.
The fact is that the students usually have a point. On many college and university campuses today, dynamics like implicit bias, stereotype threat, racial anxiety and microaggressions generate systematically different experiences for underrepresented groups in higher education -- dynamics that affect interaction and decision making. Yet because many (typically white) administrators and faculty members don’t see those dynamics, they don’t understand what is driving the anger, frustration and demands of the protesters.
Paradoxically, an old sexist and racist cartoon character, Popeye, the white, hypermasculine aging American sailor trying to adapt to civilian life in the 1930s and 1940s, offers a way to understand how underrepresented groups (racial and ethnic minorities and women) experience higher education in America. My aim is to in no way trivialize the important concerns that the protesters are raising, but rather to show why Popeye might have some relevance today as a metaphor.
I never particularly liked Popeye, except for one bit in which Popeye is left to babysit cute little Swee’pea. Inevitably Swee’pea would escape Popeye’s watchful eye and crawl obliviously right into some dangerous place like a lion’s cage or a factory. Swee’pea would be at the constant risk of falling into a vat of molten steel or right into the path of a conveyor belt with a giant slicing blade. Amazingly, Swee’pea would move at just the right time, or he would simply glide through the Rube Goldberg-like workings of the assembly line, so he never fell or got crushed; he would simply continue moving ever forward through the danger zone.
In contrast, Popeye would race to catch Swee’pea, only to get smacked, stuck or crushed in the moving parts of the assembly line. The different pathways of Popeye and Swee’pea through the same factory metaphorically illustrate how perceptual biases operate in higher education and lead to conflicting views of the academy for different groups.
Popeye’s experience is like the experience of underrepresented students in college. His getting stuck in the stamping machine parts while Swee’pea crawls on is like when a professor implies -- often unconsciously -- that some students (white men) are inherently better at math or science than others (women and students of color). When Popeye gets squeezed through rollers on the conveyor belt while Swee’pea passes through unscathed, it is like the research showing that faculty advisers (both male and female) are much more likely to respond to white male students’ requests for mentoring and to offer key lab assistant and leadership positions to white male graduate students -- which enhances their CVs that put them more in line for the next range of opportunities (e.g., fellowships and prizes). Even when Popeye keeps himself moving past these challenges into the ranks of the professoriate, he still may be hit in the face with a plank of wood, such as the evidence that women and faculty of color receive systematically lower student course evaluations, which affect tenure and promotion files. No single one of these barriers may be enough to completely stymie Popeye’s progress, but cumulatively they slow him down and put him systematically behind Swee’pea.
Meanwhile, Swee’pea’s path is similar to how white men experience higher education, moving forward but mostly oblivious to the ways that the status quo supports them. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that means life is easy for these Swee’peas. Successful white men often bristle, and rightly so, at the suggestion that because they do not face the same biases, they did not have to work hard for their success.
Swee’pea is persistent, even dogged in pursuit of moving ever forward; he is not “carried.” Indeed if Swee’pea stopped moving forward he would be in as much danger as Popeye -- much as every man who successfully graduates from college or traverses the academic “factory” of pursuing a Ph.D. and tenured professorship has had to remain focused on moving forward.
Yet Swee’pea’s head-down, dogged pursuit of moving forward means that he never steps back to see the machinery moving. So he never has any sense that the structural conditions around him facilitate his path through the gantlet of higher education. Not only is he unaware of how the structural conditions affect him, he is also completely oblivious to how those same structural conditions affect Popeye differently.
Popeye, however, is very likely to notice the gaps and inequities between his path and Swee’pea’s after he falls through the air or is stuck in concrete. For the minorities and women in academe who feel like Popeye, that recognition has both behavioral and emotional consequences. First, just keeping his head down and working hard to move forward doesn’t work for Popeye, because sometimes he finds himself hindered by the machinery -- just as minorities and women often feel like they have to work twice as hard to be considered competent.
Second, and maybe more important, underrepresented students and faculty members who traverse through higher education like Popeye does the factory -- wanting to keep their heads down and stay focused, but having to watch out for microaggressions and implicit biases that knock them off the conveyor belt -- experience a significant emotional toll. The frustration that the Popeyes of the world feel toward the Swee’peas, for both the trajectory they have as well as their obliviousness to the structure, is understandable. It is not surprising that some Popeyes -- that is, too many women and minorities -- decideto exit the factory entirely.
Solutions Must Be Systemic
Though Popeye may provide a cute metaphor for understanding the challenging experiences of women and underrepresented minorities in higher education, his quintessential act of gulping a can of spinach to overcome the challenges he faces is not the solution for inequality in higher education. That is, recommendations that focus on making individual Popeyes stronger via individual action and responsibility (e.g., additional training and thicker skin) are not only inadequate, but offensive. What is needed are changes to the systemic conditions that foster environments of stereotype threat and racial anxiety and that enable factors like implicit bias to operate.
For example, practices that facilitate access and full participation broadly, such as round-robin classroom contributions instead of hand raising, rotating lab positions and anonymous review of CVs can reduce the extent to which implicit bias can operate. They can also enable all students to both gain needed experience and demonstrate their skills in a less-competitive environment. More generally, creating communities that encourage diverse groups to work together on a variety of tasks -- sometimes explicitly related to race, ethnicity and gender but more often simply related to common interests -- facilitates more positive interactions and reduces racial anxiety and stereotype threat.
Some of these practices can be put in place relatively easily, while others, such as ensuring the inclusion of diverse groups at all levels of higher education, require long-term institutional commitment. Without that institutional commitment, and concerted efforts both inside and outside higher education, the academic “factory” will continue to be a harrowing path for Popeye, while Swee’pea remains oblivious to the girders that helped him along the way.
Denise Anthony is vice provost for academic initiatives and a professor of sociology at Dartmouth College.