Tuesday, October 15, 2013

479 matters

A question that's been on my mind lately is the following: To what extent do highly idiosyncratic and personal characteristics like charisma, energy, etc. play a role in a teacher's success as a teacher?

This past week I had the dubious distinction of being called to another institution to serve as an external reviewer for a case before that school's post-tenure review committee. Over the course of three days I observed one faculty member's teaching in his several classes and crafted a report detailing his strengths and weaknesses and offering ways he can improve his teaching.

It seems to me that one of the biggest difficulties he was having was in connecting with his students. While to me his concern for his students and their learning is genuine and strong, and while his teaching philosophy is a sound one that's proven effective when implemented well, he struggles to bridge the gap between his students and him. I think that gap is made more wide by the fact that he's simply a naturally quiet person, not prone to public displays of passion.

It's never a bad thing to show passion and excitement for what one does, particularly when one is trying to motivate those who might lack intrinsic motivation for whatever it is they're supposed to be doing...but does this make public and prominent passion a sine qua non of good teaching? I wonder...I'd love to hear folks' take on this.

What else is on my mind?

I've spent some time this semester working on ways to encourage conversation in classes built upon discussion. Given my relative lack of experience in managing such classes, I've asked my students for feedback: what works for them? The other day my HON 479 students hinted (in class and in their reading responses on the nature of a democratic classroom) that they might like to see greater variety in the means we use to structure conversation in class. I therefore put it to them today to offer alternatives to the structure I've used regularly during the semester so far, which generally includes
  1. a brief opportunity for individual reflection (often driven by low-stakes writing),
  2. a chance to share ideas in small groups (to offer all a chance to share, and to minimize the difficulty of speaking in front of a large group),
  3. a brief "reporting out" by sharing ideas on the board and/or by assigning spokespersons to brief the whole class on the small groups' thoughts, all followed by
  4. a reconvening of the whole class as a plenary body.
Though this has worked well, a little variety never hurt anybody. The students offered that they liked the chance to write on the board as ideas came to them, and they liked the idea of small groups but they wanted each group to be tasked with a particular theme to talk about. After a small-group conversation, the groups would be rearranged and reformed, some folks staying behind from the first round to kickstart the conversation in the second round. At the end we would reconvene as a large group, continue discussion, and finally conclude with an opportunity for everyone to go around the circle and share one idea with the class as a whole.

As far as I can tell, it worked very well (HON 479 folks, feel free to chime in in the comments if you disagree). We ended up generating a mess of questions we would like to pose to Cornel West when he visits our campus in a few weeks. (He was supposed to visit tomorrow, but his travel's been delayed by a family emergency.)

Namely, when asked what one question the students would ask of Cornel West, I received the following responses:
  • Do you believe that our international politics have changed for the better under Obama, aside from the obvious benefits of improving the image of America internationally, as we don't seem like a bunch of hick hillbillies as we looked under the Bush administration?
  • Would you prefer to live in another country?
  • Is there a way to reduce the hostility surrounding political issues that prevents people from entering into dialogue?
  • What role could spirituality play in democracy, if any?
  • How can we combat the apathy present in our "democracy"? Is the idea of democracy still relevant when so many people are apathetic or uneducated?
  • How do we get (back) to America as a "cultural democracy" then we're so entrenched in the political mechanics of democracy?
  • At the end of the first chapter [of Democracy matters], you advocate the need for another democratic awakening. What do you think that should look like for this generation? What do you think are the ideal circumstances to make us stand up?
  • Would we know/understand global issues/views if our media did not control the input we receive, assuming the media is controlling? Would we care if we heard/were exposed to the truth?
  • How do we move beyond political partisanship and polarization?
  • What, in your opinion, is the single biggest, specific, practical way to improve America's democracy?
  • How would you explain the political apathy of our (new/upcoming) generation, and how can we begin to combat this suppressing force?
  • How can we reasonably overcome the apathy obstructing democracy?
  • What can we do to make people feel as though they have the individual power to change things in our society?
  • Who do you see as responsible for our current government issues and why?
  • [What do you believe] the future of politics is? More parties? Different system? Is any system better?
Whew! The students have enjoyed reading Democracy matters; I only assigned the first chapter, since I was only informed of Cornel West's visit long after the syllabus had been set and the readings chosen. They recommended that it be substituted in for one of the other texts the next time this class is taught, and I believe I'll take them up on that. This makes four texts I'd like to add in, requiring me to take a few out. I'm thinking that next term the following might be the line-up, including three holdovers from this term and four new ones subbed in:
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism
  • Michelle Alexander's The new Jim Crow
  • Cornel West's Democracy matters
  • Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the oppressed
  • Allan G. Johnson's Privilege, power, and difference
  • Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi's Food justice
  • Mindy Thompson Fullilove's Root shock
Not necessarily in that order. If you have other suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them, in the comments section.

One more question, about which I hope to write in a post of its own soon: to what extent do academics measure professional success by their ability to replicate themselves in their students? Subquestion: is this measure (and the things faculty do to succeed by it) really unhealthy or really fucking unhealthy? Discuss.

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