Highlights from the 2015 Innovation in Pedagogy & Technology Symposium

Long time no see…regularly. Yes, my blog languished a good bit during the past semester and while I was away on research in Australia. (More on the latter later. But here’s a pic of me photo-bombing ↓ some roos for now to tide you over.)

The author in Australia
Dopey hat required at all times to protect my extremely pale skin from the tropical clime. I also did research while down under, I promise.

I also taught a class, History of the U.S. Present, my second course, in the Spring. I’ll admit I lose focus on blogging while teaching. Potential post topics don’t seem to percolate as easily, and the idea of blogging on what I’m learning about teaching while teaching makes me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps there’s a blog post there somewhere. At any rate I’m back, working on the introduction to my dissertation with the help of #writingpact and weekly writing support meetings with my #TeamPhinisheD teammates. And to begin my return to regular blogging I offer you the below highlights from three sessions I attended at the 2015 Innovation in Pedagogy and Technology Symposium, which was held in May here in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Getting Your Digital Hands Dirty: Creating Interest and Engagement in an Online Course
by Dr. Valerie Jones, College of Journalism and Mass Communications, UNL

This first panel gave me a lot to think about when it comes to utilizing blogs in both online and traditional courses. I’ve used blogs quite successfully in past courses to promote the development and improvement of student writing via iterative, brief (250-word) posts with formal writing standards and citations. Dr. Jones’ guiding principles (below) were especially helpful, and offer additional strategies to increase student engagement with course content and objectives. I especially like her idea of student-produced short videos on an independent reading relevant to the course topics.

Panel notes:

Guiding Principles:

  • start w/ their interests
    • e.g. Jones teaching course on digital/web analytics so had students start a blog on their interests — then students had data on their blogs the class could use
  • make it matter
    • e.g. rewards for students who develop a following, highest return visits
    • some peer pressure to produce good content & get visits (public nature of blog)
  • provide purpose
    • e.g. bring in guest speakers (via free-trial version of Zoom video conferencing) to show students can apply knowledge in class to, for example, real-world jobs
      • zoom video conferencing has the added advantage of allowing you to build a digital library of recordings of these guest speakers
  • give them a promotion
    • e.g. had lots of reading on Blackboard; had students create a presentation/video of “fresh content” of something they’d read that was highly relevant to the class → something they wanted the other students to know
    • helps create a sense of responsibility and community in the class
      • peer feedback = part of this too^
      • e.g. on peer feedback: require 2 peer reviews throughout the semester of other students’ blog + MUST cite an article in support of their critique)
  • closing thoughts: find the insight, be brave, have fun

Technology Tools as Levers for Learning
by Faye Haggar, Technology Training Analyst, UNMC

This panel was the last one I attended at the symposium, but it really got my creative juices going. Ms. Haggar not only introduced a wide variety of digital tools with pedagogical potential; she also offered examples of ways each tool can be used to support established principles of good teaching practice. Many of the tools listed (in my notes below) were new to me, while some were tools or platforms I was familiar with but unaware of certain features. I will definitely be experimenting with a few of these tools in future courses.

Panel notes:

  • #1: good practice encourages contacts between students and faculty
    • students want to feel a connection → scores go up when this happens
    • try Blackboard collaborate → virtual office hours
    • Remind 101 → send updates, reminders, other important information
      • used a lot in K-12
      • does NOT require you to give out your personal information (phone number) & is one-way communication
      • goes straight to their device
    • Screencastomatic → easy to use for an introductory video @ start of semester, set & articulate your expectations
      • up to 15 minutes
      • gives mp4
      • beta version may require download
  • #2: good practice develops reciprocity
    • document collaboration & sharing: Google docs, Office 365
    • Popplet → collaborative brainstorming (concept mapping)
      • can add links, files, images, videos, audio
      • updated in real time
    • FB class groups – “cringe” + “it’s where our students are”
      • not accessing any of their personal information this way (not friend-ing one another)
  • #3: good practice uses active learning techniques
    • TodaysMeet → “back channeling”
      • works much like Twitter but is PRIVATE
      • log in with a url
      • students can ask questions and/or leave a comment
      • can return to after class (both you AND the students can)
    • audience response: Socrative
      • similar to a clicker device
      • this^ = free and open source (currently, as are most all of the tools being discussed)
      • allows for multiple choice and short answer questions
      • students given a class poll to go to and answer Q’s
      • can do it in real time (so instructor can use during lecture)
      • can also have student-run poll to take at any time
      • Excel-format spreadsheet offered → students can be anonymous or require names (e.g. anonymous if want to show results in class to illustrate where everyone is)
      • can be set up to be taken just once or multiple times
    • Google formsexit tickets
      • can use to ask students questions at the very end of lecture (or provide most important thing they learned today)
      • students will receive a URL (you’ll need to shorten this for them)
      • *good to use to have students pick out important themes for the day (check how well picking these things out)
      • delivered to the instructor in the form of a spreadsheet → students don’t see this
      • you create the fields SO you can make it anonymous if you want
  • #4: good practice gives prompt feedback
    • consider making students use the following tools before submitting a paper (w/o checking the first submission)
    • Soundcloud → record a podcast
      • idea for audio feedback
      • free
      • sound clip can be private → can e-mail link to students or attach to an assignment on Blackboard
      • not sure what the limit is on this…
    • Adobe PDF → you can leave an audio message
      • on Adobe Pro ONLY
        • although students can listen in Adobe Reader
      • 1 minute-long limit
      • can click anywhere on the paper to add a 1-minute chunk message
    • Kaizena → works with Google Docs
      • recording audio
      • requires sign-up but is free
      • right click in Google Docs & say “open with Kaizena”
      • time limit is around 5-minute chunks → again, anywhere in the text
      • you can also type comments
      • students DO need to download Kaizena; need to tell them to do this (no e-mail sent)
      • works with any file in Google Drive
  • #5: good practice emphasizes time on task
    • TedEd → interactive presentation
      • can also create interactive quizzes
      • works with videos on YouTube
        • then insert questions into
        • give students questions to ponder & discuss
        • students can provide questions and/or feedback
        • can provide additional resources for students to look at
    • eduCanon → interactive videos
      • can use any mp4
      • load video, choose places to pause video and insert question to check for understanding, can tell it to “self-score” so students instantly know how they did
      • no limit to questions
      • get spreadsheet @ end w/ student name, score, what answers they offered
      • students cannot download the video (can always screen-capture though)
      • you can leave feedback for the students if they get a wrong answer (a prompt will come up WHEN they answer)
    • Evernote → shared notes
      • can share notebooks
      • different students assigned to take notes on different days → then can grade how students are taking notes
      • can leave feedback
  • #6: good practice communicates high expectations
    • Rubrics → Blackboard
    • (can also just google “rubrics” for some free platforms that students can download and print)
    • Google docs → group work and revision history
      • e.g. when group work is done, instructor can see via the revision history who did what revisions
    • thinglink → consider using to build an interactive syllabus
      • takes some time to build
      • build an infographic (Piktochart or Google “make my own infographic”) THEN, via thinglink, you add pop-outs that open when students click on (or hover over, scroll to ?) content (e.g. hyperlinks)
  • #7: good practice respects diversity and the different ways students learn
    • Random Name Picker → uses these for calling on students at random
      • so that “everyone gets a chance to respond”
    • Post It Plus → Digital Post-it notes
      • gives you a jpeg
      • app will “clean up” the notes
      • can group things together differently (could have the students do this in groups) → costs an extra 99 cents right now
        • has text recognition now
    • paper.li → curate material
      • students collect & build their own content
      • e.g. have students search topics (she does this in groups first) & find content (she assigns content for them to search through)
      • supplement to a class topic/theme

“Teaching Gender and Sexuality” workshop notes

“Teaching Gender and Sexuality” Workshop

with Professors Rose Holz, Margaret Jacobs, and Laura Muñoz

What challenges have you had in teaching these subjects and how have you dealt with these challenges?

Holz: don’t really think of challenges as such – teach matter of fact-ly; no need to tip-toe: just put it in there

  • let them start reading it and find out about it on their own
  • true, there will always be some disgruntled students but no need to be limited by this

Munoz: make it part of the knowing of, history of, intellectual exercise, the more students will grab on to it

  • be aware that you are a transmitter, a model of how you approach these kinds of conversations → without it being heightened, fearful
  • + often uses humor to deflect some of the fear of talking about these things

Jacobs: different if the course is specifically geared toward these topics versus working with these topics in a general course, basic history survey

  • demographics will be different depending on the course
  • being upfront with students about the reasons you are taking a certain approach
  • + students also come to classes with certain narratives already in their head (about what women’s and gender history is, what the story contains, how you will treat it)
  • likes to use humor as well to deflect any student discomfort, defensiveness

Munoz: agrees with telling students about your training and how it will impact the way they will approach the course

  • your training will come out naturally in the way you organize lectures anyway

Questions opened to attendees:

What about large courses and how to counter narratives students bring in with them (and particularly resistance to having these narratives complicated)?

Jacobs: example of Native American women, students often come in thinking Native American women were very oppressed

  • starts with a very general discussion of what students think women’s autonomy is → how are they autonomous? What is freedom? What are women’s roles?
    • Students come to understand the roles and status of Native American women = very different from that of European women at the time
  • Often MUCH easier for students to think about these issues within the context of the past

Munoz: need to tell students that everyone’s opinion matters and counts → over the course of the class move into interrogating students during discussion about how evidence supports their opinion(s)

How to make men feel welcome when teaching a mostly female course?

Holz: often jokes about this, lets them know they have a place in her course; has been told she’s “guy friendly”, not entirely sure what this means

Munoz: teaches at a regional university, had a particular course that was mostly white males

  • saw these students as interested in the lives of their female relatives → moves in to build personal connections to the material in this way, esp. using oral history interviews (as assignments)

Jacobs: interesting question – often only think about it when notice classroom composition “outside the norm”

  • a little discomfort is okay → learning experience to suddenly find yourself a minority in your classes
  • gets point of question re: wanting to make students feel welcome, able to participate

What happens when discussing women and gender and a “bomb gets thrown” during discussion in a large class, with very limit time? Don’t want to seem “un-gentle.”

Holz: when it’s issues of women, gender, sexuality = “way simpler” than dealing with issues of race

  • usually opens the floor to see what the rest of the course thinks, leave a heavy pause

Jacobs: often leaves space in class for correctives – so doesn’t feel so rushed

Munoz: depends on your style

  • tends to be pretty casual in her lectures
  • slows down, stops to have the conversation, since it’s important
    • interrogate the student, while emphasizing that you are open to conversation
    • forces student to “stand up to their own flippancy” when/if it comes out

Holz: admits to liking when students have a “backbone” and will question, debate

What about questions, comments that weren’t meant to be flippant or offensive?

Jacobs: classroom should “be a place of dialogue,” even when people say something offensive

Munoz: need to create a culture in the classroom where the students feel like they can share their ideas with you – even when they aren’t certain how to deal with them

Holz: emphasize to students that we need a space in which we can disagree with one another, yet still like each other

Breakout sessions
“Historicizing the Body” with Dr. Jeannette Jones

  • have students respond to a single question in advance of in-class discussion (online, Blackboard) → helps students deal with their tension, discomfort before class
    • “free-writes” for students → things that come to their mind first when see a particular image
  • Anne Fausto-Sterling, “Gender, Race, and Nation: The Comparative Anatomy of ‘Hottentot’ Women in Europe, 1815-1817” in Deviant Bodies, pp. 19-48; Janell Hobson, “Venus and the Hottentot: The Emergence of an Icon” and “The Hottentot Venus Revisited: The Politics of Reclamation” in Venus in the Dark, 19-86
    • + Punch cartoons
    • discuss values white people of the time ascribed to these “deviant” bodies → bestiality, ignorance, hyper-sexuality
  • + case studies re: deviance in female bodies
    • Jacqueline Urla and Jennifer Terry, “Introduction: Mapping Embodied Deviance,” pp. 1-18 and David G. Horn, “this Norm Which Is Note One: Reading the Female Body in Lombroso’s Anthropology,” pp. 109-128 in Deviant Bodies
    • Janell Hobson, “Re-presenting the Female Black Body” (title?) [makes arguments here about influence of the female body on fashion – e.g. the bustle]
  • using a syllabus for Women and Gender Reading Seminar (taught twice in the past)
  • studies American History, also interested in the history of science
  • “intersexed” – hermaphrodites as way to open discussion with students about biological sex as a construction
    • e.g. readings on intersexed children having gender assigned to them through surgery early in life → ideas about what it means to give the choice to the parents rather than the child + why we have this idea that one must “be one or the other”
    • Jones starts with the biological then moves forward from there into other “murky categories” that have nothing to do with biological (inheritance, voting rights, citizenship…)

How do you bring the body into a very basic, introductory history class?

  • Male and female bodies, free versus un-free bodies within the context of slavery → get students to understand the body as a site for inscribing power
  • coverture
  • Native American + white women’s bodies, differences, similarities
  • the gentleman body versus the workingman’s body → primary sources from the 18th century re: workingmen’s bodies – central to way early American and modern Americans thought about the body

history of medicine and science, “well they just didn’t know then,” couldn’t understand the way we understand the body now, how to get students to think historically about the body

  • bring in the social and cultural history of medicine and science → WHO are the people who are making these statements, who is being excluded
  • science’s understanding of certain topics change over time – “science as situated knowledge”
    • show was knowledge not superstition, was “common knowledge”


“Effective teaching statements and teaching portfolios” workshop notes

Below are my notes from another of UNL’s Office of Graduate Studies workshops, this time on the subject of creating an effective teaching statement and a teaching portfolio. The workshop was held on Thursday, February 20th.

A teaching portfolio = “a coherent set of materials including work samples and reflective commentary on them compiled by a faculty member [or graduate student] to represent his or her teaching practice as related to student learning and development.” (Hutchings, 1996)

  • a useful tool for…
    • identifying areas for improvement
    • developing your teaching methods/approach
    • documenting your teaching experience
    • preparing for academic interviews
  • focus today = preparing for the academic job interview
    • “the product of preparing a teaching portfolio may not be as useful to you in the long-run as the process

Portfolio content:

  • depends on the purpose
    • job search
    • awards application
    • promotion & tenure
  • varies across disciplines
  • linked to your goals for teaching & learning
  • three primary components:
    • roles & responsibilities
    • teaching statement
    • evidence of effective teaching

(1) Teaching responsibilities:

  • include: course number, course title, brief course description, course level (first year undergraduates/sophomores/juniors), date(s) taught, enrollment (number of students in course, maximum number allowed), description of your role in the course (recitation leader, instructor)
    • list these in reverse chronological order
      • be sure to update constantly, just as you would your C.V.
    • if haven’t taught courses, think about including very specific information on courses you would like to teach
    • a good option for your portfolio = to list these courses in table format (for easy browsing of your experience)

(2) Teaching statement:

  • need to get to the point where you can articulate “why you teach the way you teach” within a 30-second “elevator speech”
  • 1-2 page (single-spaced) statement that addresses:
    • What do you want students to do/learn? (learning objectives)
      • e.g. “I want students to become effective writers. I want them to formulate and articulate a stance through and in their writing.”
    • How do you help them learn? (methods)
      • e.g. “I use brief, in-class writing assignments to help students synthesize and critically evaluate information.”
    • How do you know if they’ve learned it? (assessment)
      • e.g. “I evaluate students’ blog posts in terms of content, synthesis, and relevance. Students are given examples of good posts and the grading criteria prior to the assignment.”
    • How do you measure your effectiveness?
      • e.g. “Every three to four weeks, I end the class by asking students to respond briefly to two questions: What’s the most important thing you learned today? and What questions still remain unanswered? Their responses help me identify what they understood from the discussion and what concepts are still unclear.”
  • NOT about telling your general “teaching philosophy” –> show, don’t just tell
    • the person(s) reading this statement are interested in what you’ve accomplished, learned, thought about more than simply what you think/believe
  • Keep in mind that a good teaching statement is:
    • concrete, personal/individualized, vivid, discipline specific, somewhat humble, all about student learning
  • Remember: Not all teaching takes place in the classroom. Think broadly about your contributions to student learning.
    • e.g. mentoring of undergraduate students can be included because it IS teaching; same for tutoring, for example

(3) Evidence of effective teaching:

  • include materials from:
    • oneself: syllabus, teaching sample, narrative reflection
    • colleagues: observation notes/summary, syllabus or material reviews/letters by recommenders
      • letters by faculty/other recommenders can be a particularly strong part of your teaching portfolio IF they are specific about your teaching
    • students: course ratings, comments, products/evidence of learning outcomes, letters, individual samples and aggregated summaries (anonymized & showing progress over the course of the semester)
      • offer raw data from course evaluations (to offer a fuller representation of your evaluations by students) BUT include samples that promote you as a teacher
  • other examples of evidence: list of courses taught, sample syllabi, sample assignments, sample quizzes/exams, teaching awards, evaluations by peers
  • when including student ratings/evaluationsbe selective:
    • choose items that link to your major claims
    • use a matrix/table to display and organize the evaluation questions you are using
    • provide mean (and median) ratings
    • include narrative commentary –> write about some of the feedback you’ve received to respond to criticism and/or illustrate ways you’ve responded to criticism and changed your teaching as a result
    • include selection of student comments that relate back to some of your major teaching goals
    • if appropriate, include complete evaluations in appendices (depends on the discipline)

Portfolio organization: (physical copy)

  • narrative description of teaching roles & responsibility
  • teaching statement
    • description of select teaching methods and strategies
    • highlighted teaching outcomes
    • insights/reflections and new goals
  • appedices (supporting data, documents, letters, etc.)
  • could maintain a physical copy to take with you to a job interview, although it will probably be infrequent that you will be asked to provide a physical copy

Qualities of a “strong” portfolio:

  • readability: format, headings, coherent, cohesive
  • storyline or “picture”: memorable fact/image, clear examples given
  • linked system of objectives, efforts, outcomes, adjustments: evidence that efforts do pay off or are changed

Revise, revise, revise:

  • remember your teaching statement = a work in progress
  • consider the suggestions of others and rewrite your statement over time
  • proofread carefully
    • remember that your statement is a writing sample –> you will be judged on the quality of your writing as much as the content

Final tips:

  • start now
  • be selective
  • don’t make any claims about your teaching you can’t document
  • don’t create your portfolio in isolation
  • consider it a work in progress
  • make cumulative tables & annual review narratives

The case for extra credit at the college level

In discussions of pedagogical practices at the university level the issue of extra credit can be a contentious one. Sooner or later one is bound to hear some stern-toned iteration of the statement “I don’t believe in extra credit.” Somehow this statement has always brought to my mind the mental image of a puffed-up politician, declaring his intention to be “tough on crime” once he assumes office. One is never really sure about the specifics of what he means, but could still be moved to rally behind him by the sheer force of confidence with which he expresses his “tough” (i.e. anti-“soft”) stance. But even if the anti-extra credit statement is issued in one such self-assured tone, accompanied by a hostile, arms-crossed posture, it would be unfair to dismiss some of the anti-extra credit camp’s arguments. We should expect our students to work hard, do their best, behave professionally, and not try to invoke the pity of professors to make up for their own mistakes. They are in training to be career-holding adults after all, and the so-called real world is a difficult place. What we shouldn’t do, though, is let our fear of being or appearing “soft” make us expect our students to be just like us.

Some of the students who come to us will be just like us. As a self-professed nerd I like to say to my family and to others outside the academy, as a way of explaining what the culture of the academy is like, that you could think of most academics as the nerdiest of the nerds you knew in high school. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way. Academics love learning. We work hard to pay attention to what our mentors have to say, we constantly seek out new information, strive to be as productive as possible, and consider self-improvement a favorite pastime. Many of our students share these traits and, as a member of the human species, it’s natural to feel greater affinity for those most like us.

But many of our students won’t be like us. Many take our classes only because they have to, are much more interested in the college party scene than productivity, and genuinely believe other aspects of life should come before learning. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to instill the qualities of responsibility, attentiveness, and accountability in our students that we know they’ll need as they move forward in life. Of course we should. We should demand they achieve a certain level of proficiency in the content and methodology of our given fields as well. But since one of our basic responsibilities as educators is to ensure we serve all of our students, we must strive to move beyond our natural-born affinity for students like us and recognize the different interests, goals, backgrounds, and challenges our students come to us with. Consider some of the below recent data.

[R]ich kids without a college degree are 2.5 times more likely to end up rich than poor kids who graduate from college.

[O]nly 34 percent of high-achieving, low-income [what I like to call our “walk on water”] students attend a selective college versus 78 percent for high-achieving, high-income students.

The average Black student attends a school where the percentage of low-income students is 59 percent. The average White student attends a school where the percentage of low-income students is 32 percent.

The average high school graduation rate for Black students is 62 percent, compared to 81 percent for White students.

Low-income students are less likely to graduate from high school than more affluent students, less likely to enroll in college after high school and less likely to graduate from college after enrolling. Only about 1 out of 10 Americans whose parents were in the lowest income quartile held four-year college degrees by age 24 in 2011; the comparable share for people from the highest quartile was about 7 in 10.

Just 29 percent of the poorest students ever enroll, and only 9 percent ever finish.

These are just a few examples of the challenges and realities our students face. Yes, some students might choose to use extra credit to pad their already amazing midterm score, or, as an excuse not to study as hard for the final exam. But extra credit can also provide disadvantaged students the opportunity to repair the damage that late-night family emergency did to their attendance score, give them some breathing room for those two part-time jobs they have to work after they leave your class, or let them know you recognize that it might have been difficult for them to pay attention to your lecture while their brother, mother, or aunt is struggling with substance addiction. Maybe students with an anxiety disorder will take advantage of your extra credit to show you that although their disorder often inhibits them from speaking up a lot in class discussions, they really can work hard and are just as intelligent as their peers.

Perhaps you won’t decide to offer extra credit to your students for any of these reasons but instead as an acknowledgement that you, as their instructor, don’t always communicate everything perfectly, that you sometimes make mistakes, have bad days, and get distracted too. Awareness and recognition of your students as people who are often much different from you won’t make you “soft.” It will make you a better educator. When thinking about how to best serve your students consider the case for extra credit carefully.

white noise reduction

Ground rules for civil discourse

white noise reduction

As I look toward the freshman survey I’ll be teaching in the Fall and reflect upon my experiences leading recitation sections, serving as a teaching assistant, participating in graduate seminars, and arguing politics with relatives, a handout for my students with some basic guidelines for civil discourse seems ever more like a good idea. Below is a pdf of the document I developed, which I plan to discuss with the students in the first days of the course. The survey, which will be capped at 25 students, will be heavily discussion-oriented and should therefore provide many excellent opportunities for the students to practice civil discourse and learn its value in everyday life. As always, I welcome comments and recommendations.

We do not recite in recitation

I’m not sure who originally thought “recitation” would be a good descriptor for college-level discussion sections, but it seems high time to abandon the term. After all, we don’t want to give enrolling students the impression that they’ll be expected to attend lecture two days a week and recite lecture the third day. No, our expectations for them in these discussion sections – and for ourselves as instructors – are much higher than that. We want our students to come to discussion sections prepared to, well, actively discuss. The discussion section should be a time for students to receive more individualized attention to their learning needs. It should be a time set aside for refining and honing each student’s understanding of the major concepts, themes, and ideas presented in lecture and the connections between lecture and course readings. It’s a time for both the instructor and the students to think on their feet. Therefore active discussion – not a mere parroting of lecture – is central to any successful discussion section.

I certainly don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about the best pedagogical methods for discussion sections, and I welcome any and all comments on the subjects (especially recommended readings and helpful teaching resources). But I have learned a few things from the three semesters I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a t.a. assignment that includes the teaching of discussion sections as one of my central responsibilities. And last semester at least one of my students anonymously nominated me to receive an award from UNL’s Teaching Council and Parents’ Association for making a “significant contribution to their lives at UNL.” This was a great honor, one that solidified for me the notion that discussion sections offer unique opportunities for reaching students – on both an educational and a personal level. Discussion sections are a space in which we, as instructors, have the opportunity to make an enormous impact on students’ college experiences. Below I’ve outlined some of the major lessons I’ve gleaned from my experience teaching discussion sections, including some things I changed just from last semester to this one.

  • Come to discussion each and every week organized, prepared, and with several specific goals in mind. Set the tone for your discussion sections from day one. If you arrive disorganized and unprepared and your questions seem unfocused or disjointed your students will (understandably) take this as a sign that you aren’t serious about the work they are being asked to undertake in discussion. This negative impact on the students’ perceptions of discussion sections will sour the classroom climate and, although this can be corrected with time, you’ll lose precious teaching ground in the process. So consider using the very first day of discussion – when students are still “course shopping” – to explain what purpose the discussion sections serve for the course as a whole, what they will be expected to do each week in order to be successful (including what it means to actively participate), how participation will factor into their overall grade, and what role YOU serve in your capacity as their t.a. Dress professionally, provide an overview of your teaching philosophy, gradually let them get to know you a bit as a person, and be consistent and clear in your plans for each week.
  • Be your best self. I’m interested in becoming a professor because I’m invested in both research AND teaching. I believe I have a responsibility to pass on what I learn not just about history but about professionalism, navigating the structures of academia, understanding diverse perspectives, media and digital literacy, and an array of other skills that will be beneficial to my students beyond the discussion section or course I am teaching. Because the best teachers I know are also mentors, I strive to be both for my students. If you aren’t interested in teaching your students will notice and it will impact their expectations not only of you, but of themselves and of the course as a whole. So begin each teaching day by asking yourself what’s important to you about teaching, share your teaching philosophy with your students, and work hard to be the best version of yourself that you can – especially when you are in front of your students. Even if you only had three hours of sleep, are having a really bad day, have oodles of other work on your mind, make a concerted effort to be in the teaching moment. Of course there will be some students who, for a variety of reasons, will be beyond your reach but if you give your students your best and let them know you genuinely care how they perform (and notice when they don’t), you might be surprised at the effort they’ll put forth.
  • Seek to engage, not entertain. Many students, though certainly not all, will arrive with a desire or an expectation to sit and be passively entertained. This can be particularly true for freshmen, who are still learning what a college education means and what the college experience is all about. Naturally one of your primary tasks on day one (see above) is to divest them of this expectation for entertainment. Discussion is not lecture and education is about engagement, not entertainment. This doesn’t mean you can’t be entertaining as a means of promoting engagement, but you must walk a careful line. For example, I like to think I have a good sense of humor, and I think that sharing this sense of humor with students can be beneficial in certain situations. At its best, humor is a tool that can help establish connections between people. Revealing your sense of humor, if you have one and it’s good, can show your students that you are more than just an instructor: you are an actual human being, you have a personality, and you can relate to many of the experiences of your fellow human beings. Inserting a bit of humor every now and then, especially if the discussion for the week is a bit grueling or students are stressed about an upcoming paper or exam for example, can be a way to promote a healthy classroom atmosphere. Too much humor, however, and your students will become rambunctious and distracted. And bad humor, like any form of unprofessional behavior, will spell far worse for both you and your students (hence my use of italics above for emphasis and warning). Using humor to promote engagement means entering a balancing act that demands constant monitoring, plenty of skill in classroom and self-management, and a good deal of instinct and common sense to move effectively from one teaching situation to the next. Don’t enter into the task lightly.
  • Require the students to take a turn leading discussion in small teams of 2-3. This is one of my strongest recommendations for discussion sections, particularly those offered at the freshmen level. Requiring the students to take a turn leading discussion helps alleviate a degree of the passivity some students enter the course expecting to get away with. Thinking on your feet is hard work and a vital skill. Active discussion provides one opportunity for students to learn to voice their ideas and arguments orally, in response to changing circumstances and contradictory viewpoints, but leading discussion is when I see most students really get a grasp on what’s involved in and important about this skill. Allowing them to lead with teammates hopefully diminishes any nervousness or intimidation they feel at the prospect of leading their classmates, plus it forces them to be responsible to one another and collaborate to come up with discussion questions. This does not, however, mean the instructor is “off duty” and can simply kick back come class time. The students need to be provided with very specific instructions on how to effectively lead discussion, what their responsibilities are, whether the discussion questions they’ve come up with are true discussion questions and connect to the larger themes of the course, and they need to know that their instructor will be there to help guide them and interject when necessary. I outline my plans for discussion leadership during the first week of classes, allow my students to choose their own date for leading discussion, provide them with tips for leading discussion (which I post on Blackboard as a permanent course document available throughout the entire semester), explain and warn against plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty, and I require them to submit their proposed discussion questions and a “plan of action” to me in advance so that I can provide them with feedback. Most students do an excellent job leading discussion and supporting their fellow students by participating in active discussion regularly. I believe they also emerge from the course with a greater understanding of ways to effectively collaborate and communicate their ideas to others.

I hope you found some of this post useful and repeat my invitation for comments and recommendations for readings on pedagogy and teaching resources.

*Please note that, due to my upcoming comprehensive exams, this will likely be my last blog post until at least Friday, March 29th (after the written portion of my exams is completed). I have a few more blog posts on the brain, especially on the subject of pedagogy and mentoring, but precious little time to compose them. I completed this post in transit – on a couple of bus trips to and from campus. I may be able to do the same for another post sometime before the end of March, but unfortunately cannot make any promises…