Constructing A “Big” Teaching Persona: Physical Aspects

The classroom’s physical environment shapes our teaching self

bigclass

Each of us develops a teaching persona over time – our way of both claiming and sharing power, authority, and content knowledge in the classroom. It involves emotions (ours and our students), behaviors, and the interplay between them and the physical environment of the classroom. This is the first in a series of posts about how we go about constructing our teaching persona.

Since 2009, I have primarily taught what my institution calls “supersections” – classes of more than 125 students, most often about 225-275 students. I had to rethink nearly every aspect of my teaching when I “went big” – some changes I had expected and planned for, but some I had not. In my case, the “big” class is Introduction to Sociology, a general education course in the social sciences and a required course for our major as well as for pre-nursing and a few other majors.

My classroom environment before I “went big” was fairly interactive; lots of focused discussions with about 40-50 students. I was a “percher”; I sat on the edge of the professor’s desk most of the time, but made sure that my eyes and attention constantly swept the room, looking directly at students, encouraging them to jump in, sometimes non-verbally stopping side conversations, etc. But “perching,” however wouldn’t work in a room the size of my new classroom*. There wasn’t a desk in the front to perch on (only a podium), but even more importantly, there was no way I could stay in eye contact with students in an auditorium-style room that held up to 350 students.

Instead, I constructed a teaching persona that involved “mobile pedagogy.” I am not the “sage on the stage” because I am out among my students. I walk constantly during a 75-minute class (my Fitbit says that I get about 5,000 steps in every class period). And I am not the only one walking! If I walk up one aisle, one of my Graduate Assistants is walking down the other aisle, and the other GA is walking across the middle aisle. We’re constantly moving, dropping into conversations during Think-Pair-Share moments, looking for technology being used (a normative violation), and being available for a student to ask a private question.

So how has “mobile pedagogy” changed how I teach? Trust me, I’m not talented enough to walk, talk, change PPT slides, and hold notes too, so I have given up notes. Instead what I do is arrive at my classroom about 90 minutes in advance of class (yes, I am know that I am very lucky that I ask for my room not to be scheduled in the time slot before my class and my request is honored every semester!) and get set up. I practice my PPTs a few times before any student arrives, becoming comfortable with the flow of the class. So once class starts, I just walk and talk and don’t ever have to look at notes (in fact, I don’t have any notes!).

Students quickly discover that because I and my graduate assistants walk around so much, that it is hard to hide in or check out from our class. A group of students having a side conversation? I’ll walk over to them and stay there for a few minutes…and the conversation stops. The back row looks a bit disinterested? Walk there and join the conversation.

But this past spring I had to relearn what I already knew – the physical aspects of a teaching persona is in part a function of the classroom environment. I taught a “small class” in another classroom (25 students). I used this pedagogical walking technique and both students and I felt like I was a caged animal, just pacing back and forth across the front of the room, because there wasn’t space to walk to the back of the room, etc. Clearly, I had to retool my physical teaching persona. . . fast, if I wanted the class dynamics to get better.

So how do you construct the physical aspects of your teaching persona? What decisions, conscious or not, have shaped how you use the classroom to your pedagogical advantage?

*Luckily this auditorium-style room has slanted floors, which makes it easier to walk, given my disability, than other rooms which have lots of steps.

How Much Required Work Is Too Much?

Will students complain about the amount of work? Brain science meets harried students

homework

My fall syllabus is done, but now the worrying starts. I believe in how I am asking my first year students to learn, but I expect that many of them will be moderately unhappy with me.

I am asking them to read the e-text and answer the embedded questions (usually from 5-15 questions – they can take these multiple times to learn the material), before class. These questions are somewhat gamified – that is to say, students can double down on questions and earn more points based on their confidence level, etc. It’s a new software for me, but I believe it is going to work well. Then they will come to class and we’ll talk about the concepts and theories. I can know which ones were the most problematic by logging onto the e-text’s software and looking at the results in advance of class. Then after class, students have 25 hours to log on to our learning management software and take a 5 point quiz on what we just covered.

Lots of new brain science research has shown that this repeated querying about the topic can cement new pathways and increase learning. I know that it works.

But this is a change in how I have structured my class. I used to have what now will be the post-class quiz in the learning management class before class. Students suggested moving that to a post-class assessment and I resisted that until this new e-text software was developed, which allowed me to create pre-class assessments as well as after-class assessments.

I believe that frequent quizzing which requires students to retrieve information, assess it, and apply it to real-world circumstances is the best way to learn course content. But from a first year student’s perspective, my class requires them to be active between 3-5 days a week, including coming to class twice. With 3 to 4 other classes, they might feel that I am asking too much, given that they want to dive into the college experience, especially the freedom to live life on their terms – and their time! I’ve had non-sociologists do the reading and for most of them, the pre-class requirement took 30 minutes to complete (reading the assigned pages and the answering the questions just once – again, students can retake questions as much as they’d like) and the post-class quiz has a 20 minute time limit. So I am asking for up to an hour or more twice a week for the pre-class assignment (depending on their reading speed and how often it takes to answer all the questions correctly), 40 minutes total for the post-class quizzes, and two 75 minute class periods. I believe that is reasonable, but I don’t think some (many?) students will.

So for the last two weeks I have had this battle in my head: “Students will say this is too much work.” “No, it’s how to best assure that learning happens.” Of course, the reality of our comments back and forth will probably be more nuanced. Some students likely will complain about too much work, while other students will see the benefits of this learning plan. One other type of student complaint I hear in my head is “Why do other Intro Soc sections do so little work compared to our class?” That’s a harder one to answer; colleagues have the right to design classes as they see fit.

Most of the time the “depth v. breadth” debate in higher education is about the amount of content which should be covered in any one class. But what we don’t often talk about is trying to look at the amount of work we require across all the students’ classes. Is this something faculty should consider? And how can we even know what others are requiring? It might be easier to predict when students are juniors and seniors and primarily taking major-only courses, when we can more easily talk with colleagues. But when they are first-year students, it is much more difficult to contact all faculty and to have these conversations.

It’s why I like teaching in first-year learning communities. Students take three general education classes together and faculty share syllabi, create at least one assignment which asks students to see the connections between these academic disciplines. We try to cooperate, for example, not testing all on the same day, etc. At least here I can see the amount of work other faculty are requiring and how that impacts my own students.

Still, I worry about balancing best practices for student learning (repeated retrieval of information over time) with my students’ other academic responsibilities and their social lives. How do you think through this issue in your classes?

 

An experiment: The power of handwritten words

The last two evenings I have spent much of my time reading Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James M. Lang. On most pages, I felt like I was meeting an old friend, but every now and then, something he said was like a lightning strike of inspiration. Lang talked about the role of emotions in teaching and how faculty need to be cognizant of how we talk and act with our students; what do our words and gestures mean to them? Is it what we meant to say?

That got me thinking. Day one of a supersized class (N=250+ students) is so packed with trying to share how sociology sees the world by some real world application, but also there’s lots of administrative things to do, like attendance sheets getting passed around, being sure everyone has a copy of the short syllabus, answering questions, etc. I always return to my office thinking there has to be a better way of just connecting with them on day one.

So this morning, I made a promise to my students, though they, of course, don’t know it yet. I’m going to send every one of my students a postcard to arrive via campus mail the day after they move to campus, inviting them to class, assuring them that I believe in them, that our class will be work, but productive and yes, even fun, work. I’m just back from a big-box office supply store; I bought card stock and they cut them into 4×6 inch postcards. I have 100+ students already enrolled, with another orientation later this week. I’ve already written ten. I’m trying to be spontaneous, enthusiastic, and genuine and not sound too rote: I do want to meet them; I do want them to do well in our class. Then during the semester, I’ll send every student at least one more card. Some will be just randomly selected every week; others will be after doing terrific on a test or maybe having a difficult day in class.

fountain pen

I know I could do this electronically; could even save a lot of my time and just send the whole class one email. But I believe in the power of handwriting – of calligraphy – to catch students by surprise and make them wonder about the person (and hence the class that person teaches) who took the time to write them individually.

Will this small act of writing change the dynamics of our class? Will it shape the emotional temperament of our class? Stay tuned as the semester unfolds. I promise to report back on how this goes. But here’s my challenge to you: What’s one small thing you can do to try to make classroom dynamics better? Let’s share ideas and build up a “small things” dataset.

Lang, James M. 2016. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 

When is it okay to focus on “the Me” in teaching?

Twenty-nine and a half years of teaching…yet I feel like I am just beginning to understand what pedagogies best work for my students. It’s June 2016, two months from the start of our semester, but I am meeting some of them on my institution’s Facebook page for the class of 2020. They are hopeful, excited, and many seem anxious. Would they be surprised that I feel the same way – especially that I am very anxious?

I worry; will the semester outline that I have planned “work” for them? Will it meet their needs in terms of sociological content? In terms of helping them to transition to college? Will I be able to make a big class (possibly over 300 students) “small enough” that no one gets lost? That’s probably my greatest fear – that something I do (or don’t do) injures a student’s sense of ability to do sociology, to do college. As a sociologist though, I try to talk through my anxiety, arguing that no single interaction is likely to retain a college student – or push her or him to leave. But I don’t want to be even a factor in a student’s decision to leave college or transfer to another institution.

But increasingly, I am finding that there’s another social actor involved in my pedagogical planning: me. That’s awkward to write and know someone else will read it. But I am a social actor in the educational experience in our classroom too. And some ways of teaching I don’t do well; should I use them because they might work for my students? Is it okay to sometimes put myself at the center of my planning? It can – and does – feel selfish. But one thing I have learned over my years of teaching is that I have to “sell” whatever I want the class to do – to my students and also to myself. Emotions flood the classroom – ours and our students – and we have to realize that means it is okay to sometimes prioritize our own needs.

Well, I know that in my head, but it’s hard for me to implement, when I am planning class. It’s hard to say, “that’s a busy week for me” and so I might move an assessment’s due date or adapt the schedule in other small ways for me. How about you? What is hard about putting yourself first in your pedagogical practice?

 

The big decision

This weekend, my husband (also a professor) and I made a decision: when we will likely retire from the institution where we now teach. It’s been dinner conversation on and off for about a year, but last week we got an email about setting up a meeting with a financial planner and we both looked at each other and said “we should do this, because” and we both said the same end time. That was Tuesday. On Friday, l looked around my office, and just started going through file drawers, throwing out old research materials. I’d thought it would be hard to end that part of my life, but it wasn’t. I’d pull out a file, see what it was about, and think, “I’m never going to write on that topic again…let it go.” And I did.

But teaching – that’s different. Teaching will be hard to walk away from, I fear. It is such a part of my personal and professional identity. I have a love-hate relationship with teaching. When it is going well, it feels so good. But when it doesn’t go well, we’ve all been there. What I want to do in this blog is to write about what I have learned, what I wished I had learned years ago, and how I want to support individuals in their teaching. I don’t have all the answers (God, I hope I don’t!), but I have asked a lot of questions and taken a lot of wrong turns in my teaching as I have tried to become a better pedagogical practitioner.

Who am I though? I am a sociologist of religion by training, but whose research has taken me into the worlds of professional wrestling, kudzu as a social problem, adolescent Satanism, religion on talk shows, and so on. But always, I come back to thinking and writing about the scholarship of teaching and learning. I’ve won teaching awards at my institution, at the state and national levels, but to me, they are less accolades and instead, are commandments to become better and to share more. So here I am – winding down my teaching career by becoming even more pedagogically introspective. Thank you for reading and feel free to join in the conversation.

One more thing: all thoughts are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of my institution, Valdosta State University.