Dear Dress Code

Dear Ms. Scholar, I am a new faculty member and started the year off wearing blue jeans, but now that I’m looking around at my colleagues, many of whom are wearing ties or dresses. I’m now questioning my dress code decision. What do you think?

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Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Dress Code, The choices you make in your first professional position are always a bit risky, including in how you dress: you want to be true to yourself, but also fit in.

Some departments have clear messages about what one should do in a number of realms (e.g., how you  dress, how long to be in your office each day, how to talk to students, how active to be on campus committees). They may actively mentor new faculty into the departmental culture.

In other departments, this isn’t as clear. Who do they expect you to be? What do they expect from you? As there are many ways that you can behave that are true to you, it can be helpful to ask your colleagues about their expectations. On the other hand, you can observe those people on campus who you look up to and use them as models.

Clothing tells people about us. Many of our students are particularly aware of dress, fashion, and style. What we wear may help us announce that we are competent adults rather than the kids that many of us look and feel like when we first enter academia. More professional dress may help create a boundary between students and faculty, when little initially differentiates the two in terms of age or culture. It may also communicate your respect of your students or your field. Maybe this attitude is left over from my Catholic church-attending days.

On the other hand, how much of a barrier do we want between our students and ourselves? Perhaps this is a personal choice tied to our ideas about pedagogies. Ms. Scholar has three friends who are all respected faculty members, each of whom make notably different decisions about teaching apparel.

When Ms. Scholar first took a position in academe, there were repeated stories about the relationship between dress and student evaluations. As the story went, men wearing ties earned stronger student evaluations, as did women wearing dresses (or dress clothing).

Some evidence suggests that these are not just stories. Informal dress may increase approachability, but that more professional dress may lead to higher ratings of competence (Basow, 1998). Of course, there are other strategies that can foster perceptions of competence, at least as measured by student evaluations: identify your qualifications the first day of class; nurture but don’t overnurture; and review course goals before student evaluations are completed.

Lavin, Davies, and Carr (2010) argue that the relationship between dress and perceived competence is even more complex, at least among business students. In their sample, three variables contributed most to instructor credibility: level of preparation, knowledge of the subject, and ability to prepare students for their career. However, their research suggests students expect casually-dressed instructors to use more discussion and answer questions, while more formally-dressed instructors are expected to lecture and impart knowledge.

In some ways, choosing a style of dress is tied to the other sorts of questions you ask yourself about pedagogy. Who do you want to be as a professor? What type of boundaries do you want to create between yourself and your students? How can you most effectively help your students meet their learning goals?

References

Basow, S. A. (1998). The role of gender bias in student evaluations. In L. H. Collings, J. C. Chrisler, and K. Quina (Eds.). Career strategies for women in academe: Arming Athena (pp. 135-156). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lavin, A., Davies, T., & Carr, D. (2010). The impact of instructor attire on student perceptions of faculty credibility and their own resultant behavior. American Journal of Business Education, 3, 51-62.


If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com

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The Language We Use

– Jeanne M. Slattery and Melissa K. Downes

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Jeanne Slattery and Melissa Downes

Words matter. Words can hurt another person’s feelings. The words we use and the words we hear can hide people’s strengths or help people recognize their abilities (e.g., pathology-focused vs. Person First Language). Sometimes we “don’t mean” what is heard – we don’t intend to hurt the other person – but bottom line, we still did.

Because our job includes serving as mentors, guides, coaches, and advisors, we need to be thoughtful with our language. We can’t perform these tasks effectively when we allow our students to believe that they can’t learn or that they have little responsibility for the learning process, or that learning, when it happens, is done to them. While we need to help our students listen better – and we need to listen better ourselves – the words we use when we evaluate and respond to to our students can either hinder growth or open new possibilities.

Here is a common example of poor language: “How could you give me that grade?” We don’t give our students grades, they earn them. We don’t fail our students, they fail to do the work (or fail to show us the work). We aren’t hurting our students’ futures when we assign particular grades, as grades reflect the skills they failed to learn

When we write syllabi and assignments and when we talk with our students, both of us try to communicate that our students are active contributors to their learning and the way the class goes. We also want them to know that we’re with them in this endeavor. For example, in Jeanne’s classroom, instead of hearing her say, “I’m going to discuss…” you’d hear her say “We’re going to discuss…” (Melissa does this, too.)

Both students and teachers need to investigate the terms they use and the assumptions behind them. When students say they didn’t learn anything or that they’re bored in class, whose responsibility is that? Boredom is mostly internally generated. Of course, we contribute to their learning process with our passion, by choosing examples and metaphors that help them understand ideas better, but we can’t make them learn. Going to class every day helps, but students need to actively engage to learn.

Just as we ask our students to think critically, define their terms, and be aware of the assumptions behind their words, we too need to be conscious of our language and its impact. What do we mean when we say that something is unacceptable or is not quality work?

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Table 1. Fixed vs. growth mindset (Dweck, 2006)

We need to be aware of our language as well as theirs: When students say they “can’t write well,” both of us frequently tag their complaints with “yet”: You can’t write well yet. Professors can hurt students when they let them believe that they aren’t good at writing or math or whatever and that they can’t get better. What’s the largest difference between “good students” and those who aren’t? It’s what they believe about themselves (fixed vs. growth mindset; Dweck, 2006) and what they do (e.g, time invested, strategies used; McGuire, 2012). See Table 1. Given this, we need to talk about the things they can do to learn how to write well or master other challenging skills. Both of us sometimes describe the difficulties we had when we first started seriously writing.

You can’t write well yet.

You’re not good at math yet.

You don’t have effective study habits yet.

While Dweck (2006) argues that we hurt our students when we say or let them say that they aren’t good at math (or writing or whatever), we can also hurt our “A students” when we say that they are “smart,” or “good at math.” Such language helps create a fixed mindset and undermines grit when the going gets tough (and it always does). Emphasizing the work they’ve put in – You really worked hard on this paper! – creates a growth mindset and builds grit, persistence, and resilience. We want our students to recognize the necessity of hard work and to persevere even when an assignment is “hard.”

Sometimes our culture belittles careful or inclusive language as “politically correct,” perhaps suggesting that such language obfuscates a situation or out-and-out lies. The statement, You can’t write well yet, would be inappropriate if it were untrue. We should be genuine and truthful.

We need to be careful how we talk to students about their learning, but we also need to be careful in how we think about them and this process. If we don’t really believe that our students can learn – when they put the work in – they will recognize the lie for what it is.


Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching. She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

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Finding My Why

– Paul Woodburne

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Paul Woodburne

I liked Leah Chambers’ piece in HIH about ‘finding her why.’ I like teaching and always have. My parents knew from the time I was young that I would be a faculty professor. I enjoy the work, but Leah’s piece asked me to reflect on WHY I do it. I was initially unable to answer that seemingly simple question. It was not until after some very nice brain picking, aided by generous dollops of caffeine and congenial company, that something like an answer began to surface.

I think that the experience of the last several years has contributed to my misplacing my ‘Why’. Over the past few years we have been hit with many things with which we feel legitimate dissatisfaction. Morale has been lower than it has ever been, and folks are, understandably, less than interested in doing work beyond that required when we have felt undervalued and underappreciated. When we get together, the conversation often revolves around dissatisfaction with our jobs. This has become the glue that holds many of us together.

This attitude is not healthy for us. Many of us find it impossible to generate and expend the energy to do good work for ourselves, the students, the university and community when our glue is a negative glue.

If this situation has caused many of us to misplace our ‘Whys,’ then we need to find a new glue, our reason for being here. Most of us got into teaching to teach, to reach new minds, to mold thinking, to excite young people about what our fields have to offer, etc. Over the past few years we have been distracted by frequent crises. Students, and our teaching, used to be much more central to our life.

To recapture a lost ‘Why,’ I need to intentionally and deliberately put my effort back into my students and my teaching.

Clarion is among the top schools in PASSHE in attracting transfer students. These students are a main driver of increased enrollment. These students were somewhere else and were dissatisfied. They are ‘finicky’ shoppers and have the least initial connection to Clarion. They are also some of our most important students at this juncture in our history. This current situation is a challenge, but it seems also to be the light at the end of the tunnel.

We have to work hard and teach well if we are to hold onto these students. Fortunately, if we do this well, we will attract other first-time-in-college students, who have been our bread and butter for most of our 150 years.

Doing ‘good teaching’ has many aspects. Among these are to be enthusiastic about the field, to treat students with respect, to stretch students’ thinking, to be clear in getting points across during class, and to be well versed in the best pedagogy and apply that pedagogy in class. All but the last are under our own control, though they may suffer under the conditions described above. The last aspect often requires some outside expertise, and/or faculty development.

Institutionalized faculty development has been one of the major casualties of the past few years of fiscal decline. I know that I have stagnated pedagogically during this time. I learned new techniques in years past. Some I still use, and others I do not. The ones that I still use are now 10-15 (or more) years old. With my time, intelligence, and attention distracted in different directions, my once favorite pedagogy may have fallen from favor. If so, I do not know it.

Fortunately, some bright spots exist. There are a number of individuals and groups on campus who fill much of the gap left by declines in institutional support. Partners in Teaching, Learning and Assessment has met for more than 20 years and held yearly workshops, recently with no financial support. The Learning Technology Center has sponsored two to three workshops per year for many years. The Center for First Year Experience is also reinvigorating the teaching climate at Clarion University. The new Freshman Inquiry Seminars were deliberately created to infuse high-impact practices into the classroom. I have learned a lot from the opportunities each offered.

I don’t have a timeless ‘Why’ I teach, but I have found a current ‘Why.’ After nearly 20 years at CUP, my current ‘Why’ is to redouble my efforts to teach as well as I can, to make students like my field, and leave college thinking like an economist about topics where that mindset is a good thing. In particular, I want to learn as much as I can about teaching effectively to those students who are currently those least connected to Clarion. The better I can reach those least connected, the better I can reach all my students.

In this age of limited funding, the main resource we have at Clarion is each other. Even if we have limited institutional funds for professional development, we have each other. We have the collected wisdom of a large number of committed faculty in a wide range of fields about what has worked and what they have learned. In this environment, perhaps we can make our own support. My ‘Why’ is to lead where I can, follow where I can, join where I can, contribute where I can, and do what I can do to connect to those least connected to Clarion University. I hope my colleagues will join me.

I will see you Friday afternoons at Michelle’s as often as I can.


Paul Woodburne is an associate professor of Economics at Clarion University. He challenges his students to think critically and deeply about economic issues. He has written an intermediate money and banking text that he uses in his classes. About six years ago two freshmen in the dorms heard horror stories about how difficult his classes were and got together for mutual support and study. They found they liked each other and, having graduated and gotten good jobs, are now happily married.

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Reflections on Discussion-Based Classrooms

– Melissa K. Downes

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Melissa Downes reading poetry to an audience of children and adults.

When I was being interviewed for my job here at Clarion, one of my soon-to-be colleagues asked me what I would do if no one talked in my classes. I told him I found it difficult to answer such a question since it had never happened to me in my then-seven years of teaching. After fifteen years of teaching at Clarion, I have a better sense of what he was asking and why. I have had days when getting a conversation going with my students was more than difficult. However, such days are few and far between. Why?

Let me let you in on a secret: my students make my classes. Discussion and what I call lecture/discussion are at the heart of many class sessions for almost every course I teach. I try to ask good, open-ended questions. I tend to have back-up questions that approach the issues I want to address in case students have not done or have had difficulty with the reading. I listen to my students, and I use what they say to build what happens next or to create my next question. I also make connections or show important contrasts between the different points my students raise. I facilitate my students as they make meaning. Is it any wonder I love my job?

I think active discussion is an important part of learning, and I think there are ways to make discussion effective across disciplines, though the smaller class size of many English classes certainly facilitates this approach. In all of my classes, in order to reach my goals and outcomes, I use lots of directed in-class discussions in various formats. I often use short in-class writings tied to a question prompt to give students more time to reflect and develop their answers and to allow my shyer students a script to aid them in adding their voices. I find these practices open up the conversation. Some part of creating effective discussions is enthusiasm (on the part of teacher and students), but such discussions are also tied to asking good questions from a range of approaches.

So what is a good question? As one might expect, open-ended questions (why, how, etc.) usually build discussion more effectively than closed questions. When I use closed questions, they are more often used to poll responses or as a springboard into an open-ended question: if yes, why? if no, why not? I try to avoid loaded or judgmental language in my questions (or I make fun of myself and highlight the bias as I ask). I also find it useful to reiterate some key point I want them to remember as part of the set-up for the question. This reinforces that key point, but also frames the question, putting it in the context of larger course issues. I also like questions that make connections across texts:

How would you compare the fictional Wife of Bath to the real Margery Kempe or to the Margery of Kempe’s work? How might you compare the Wife of Bath to the other Alison in “The Miller’s Tale”?

While  the content of the questions we ask will vary across disciplines, these basic heuristics will apply often in most fields.

In a recent College Writing class session, after we had read Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid” and watched Sherry Turkle’s TedTalk, “Connected, but Alone?”, I only had to ask two prepared questions to get quite a rich discussion going:

  1. What are all the positive things you can tell me about your smartphone and your use of it?
  2. What are the negative aspects of smartphone use?

By the way, I think that asking these questions in that order strengthened the discussion; many of my students are deeply attached to their phones and resent the implication that their phone use could be detrimental. They were much more willing to discuss their own concerns or respond to the concerns of others after their values had been heard.

Discussion-Group-headsIn my field, part of asking good questions is to avoid building questions that assume only one right answer. (I know this approach might not work as well in all aspects of all disciplines.) There are multiple valid ways to interpret texts or to approach writing. I also try to undercut assumptions (in myself and in my students) that the answer to a question is the only point: part of the point is the process by which we get to an answer and the importance of hearing both different, reasonable answers and different processes for getting there. Such issues seem fundamental to inquiry and critical thinking.

An important part of good discussions is listening, on everyone’s part, but especially on the part of the professor. Many of the discussions in my classroom are generated spontaneously, from the needs or ideas of my students (what I call planned-for spontaneity). To make such spontaneous discussions effective one must listen well, use what students have to say, and purposefully build a web from their interconnected ideas.

It is not that I don’t prepare: I know my material well. I always reflect on where I want my students to arrive and plan the arc for how I think we might get there. However, my written lesson plans are more often lists of things I want to make sure not to forget – terms, concepts, dates, and points of emphasis that might get lost in the excitement of a classroom discussion if I don’t have them noted down.

Many of my courses are labor-intensive for both students and teacher. I purposely infuse the course with humor, visuals, and lots of large group and small group discussion in order to make the labor more enjoyable, if not lighter. However, for a while after I created pretty PowerPoints and Prezis to model some of my department’s new outcomes associated with multimodal argument, I found my students being more passive and myself doing more lecturing than lecture/discussion. I have moved some of those multimodal lessons to outside-class reading/viewing and am much more conscious now when I use them in the classroom not to let them lull us into teacher-centered practices: I have flipped my classes back to what they need to be. Still, I sometimes struggle to find the balance my students need (even more so in a content-heavy class like the early British literature survey), and I wonder how others find a balance between content and discussion.

Jeanne Slattery observed me some years ago: when she noted that I “generally operated by raising questions that [I] expected [my] students to think about and respond to, although these questions were not raised in a rigid order, but appeared often to be in response to the students’ own thoughts about the text,” she identified the center of my teaching practice: my students and what they say are the material around which I build the class. Because of this, even on my most performative or “sage-like” day, my classrooms are student-centered.

There are many rewards to a student-focused, discussion-based classroom. One of my favorite moments from this year (so far) was when one of my students stayed after our smartphone discussion to ask, “Are we going to have more of these discussions? This was fun!”

For further reading:

Getty, A. (2014). Letting the students lead class discussions. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/letting-students-lead-class-discussions/

Gonzalez, G. (2015). The big list of class discussion strategies. Cult of Pedagogy. Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/speaking-listening-techniques/

Lang, J. M. (2015). Building a better discussion. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Building-a-Better-Discussion/231685


Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching. She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

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In Memory of a Gifted Mentor

– Rhonda Clark

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Everett Slavens

“Well, tell me….” Everett Slavens always began our meetings with that familiar refrain. I marched into Dr. Slavens’ office in the fall of 1983 as a first-term freshman at Ouachita Baptist University (Arkadelphia, AR), to ask why I had missed certain points on an exam and, strangely, to object that I had been given points I felt I did not deserve. By the end of that conversation, a bond had begun that lasted more than thirty years. Dr. Slavens was my academic advisor and, though I never really adjusted to saying “Everett,” even twenty years after I graduated from OBU, he was my friend.

All who took Dr. Slavens in college knew the basics – that he was blind, but could perfectly spin the narrative of a history lecture on myriad topics from memory (dates and all!). Of course, there were all sorts of rumors that he actually could “see” anyone acting up in class – that he had called out students who left the room or misbehaved. However, the students who shared multiple conversations with Everett understood that he so dearly loved learning that he made the process of academic inquiry infectious. He so highly valued the evolution of one’s mind that he fostered a magical oasis of creativity. And for that reason, on a nearly weekly basis over three and a half years, I trekked to his office nestled in a squat, no-frills building constructed as temporary housing decades before. In the heat of the Arkadelphia days, we would sit and just talk – talk for an hour – punctuated by the ringing of the chimes every quarter hour and the click of Dr. Slavens’ watch opening, so he could feel the watch face and tell the time.

The adventures we shared tell a story of an unconventional instructor. During a Model UN trip to St. Louis, he spirited me away in the school car to tour “his” town (he had been a graduate student there) and to experience the beauty of a cathedral. I know, you are asking how a blind man did this: though he had not lived in St. Louis in decades, he still had the street map memorized, so he gave me directions and we drove all over town. It all worked well—except for that one small incident where a four-lane avenue had been changed to one-way sometime after he left graduate school.

From attending orchestra concerts to experiencing new foods, these school trips became opportunities for me and many other students to explore. Here was a man who once had to define for me the word “provincial,” but never judged my journey. He valued all sorts of learning, backgrounds, and mindsets. Our rapidly expanding worlds in college were not an indictment of rural life, but opportunities to expand on our already rich journeys by experiencing others’ worlds.

To say this man was encouraging is an understatement. There are countless students who would come forward and attest to his sense of authenticity in supporting a student’s intellectual journey. I don’t know how many times, when I doubted something would work out, he made it happen. I remember when I realized I wanted to study Russian literature and language, I felt there were no options. Keep in mind we lived in Arkadelphia in the early 1980s. There was no Russian program, no internet, no easy way to travel to any programs. But we searched for options and found a correspondence course from The University of Oklahoma, Norman, where I could begin studying Russian. And then, through the generous funding of the Honors Program, I was fortunate to be named the first Ben Elrod Scholar. OBU (and my parents) funded my trip to Russia to study in the summer. This was 1986 – Gorbachev, Glasnost’, and, unfortunately for me, Chernobyl. I thought the trip was off for sure, but Dr. Slavens calmed me down and talked me through my panic carefully. We determined the risks were manageable and the trip was still on.

Rhonda and Dr. Slavens

With Dr. Slavens

That summer I had a lot of firsts – I had never been away from home for any real length of time – never been on a boat, a train, a plane, in the north, away from my twin…. And my dad, who firmly believed in travel, said, “we’ll see you off at the airport.” Despite my assurances that there was air travel between Little Rock and New York City, he packed the family in the station wagon and drove me to New York, all the way to JFK, so my first flight on a plane was from NYC to Helsinki. Upon my return, Everett helped me locate an instructor of Russian in Little Rock. He made calls and, through connections I never fully understood, found me Nina Krupitsky, a wonderful Ukrainian immigrant living in Little Rock, who was fluent in Russian and trained as a language teacher. I did not have a car in college until senior year, when my parents lent me one, in part so I could pursue these lessons. I would drive home 2 ½ hours to where my parents lived in Russellville every other weekend, work Friday and Saturday nights at the local yogurt shop, make enough money to pay for my Russian lesson, drive back via Little Rock, and stop to take the lesson. I can attribute a lot of this “make it work” success to Dr. Slavens’ encouragement.

And then we applied for graduate schools that year and dreamed big. Dr. Slavens navigated me through the sometimes frustrating waters of graduate applications and we ended up with an assistantship (funding!) for an MA in Russian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

I also had the great fortune that Dr. Slavens and others had secured a wonderful Fulbright professor from the University of Helsinki, Dr. Martti Haikio, to teach in our political science department. Dr. Slavens played an integral role in making sure that this Fulbright instructor and his family felt right at home.

Part of the wonder of the relationship with Dr. Slavens was his ability to describe and enjoy other people. His awareness of the depth of this opportunity came through in our talks. He taught me to evaluate, appreciate, and understand those moments. Years later, on a couple of different trips to Russia via Finland, Dr. Haikio welcomed me to visit with his family and helped me trek from the airport to my ferry from Helsinki. He became a part of our little joke, somewhat true I think, that “all roads go through Arkadelphia.”

After college, Everett and I stayed in touch. At first, we would send long letters on cassette tapes. Throwing them into an envelope and writing “free matter for the blind” on the stamp area, our conversations shifted from the hot, humid climate of the South to frigid Minneapolis. I knew I “wasn’t in Kansas anymore” in those first few days in the city. I so enjoyed sharing these moments with Everett. Through my first marriage to a Russian man, to my Ph.D. in history, to my first teaching job, the death of my father, my divorce, my second marriage – life marched on and so did the consistency of this friendship. I remember one time Everett was in upstate New York visiting a dear friend. I lived in Erie at the time, so I said, “I’ll come get you,” and, in our typical OBU adventure spirit, I raced to Rochester and said, “how would you like to see Niagara Falls?” He said he would love to, so within a few hours, we were standing in the roar of the falls, being sprayed with the cool water and soaking up the summer multilingual sounds of tourists. It was a nice day.

There is really no substitute for knowing someone deeply cares about you and your journey. I cannot say that Everett Slavens was the only one at OBU who did this. Many others also had a tremendous influence on my development. There certainly were many committed teachers and mentors at Ouachita. My co-conspirators on my journey also included my suitemates and hallmates, friends, boyfriends, bandmates. All our journeys were enriched and, in my case, made possible, by the support of my family, friends, and my mentor, Dr. Everett Slavens. Everett, I will carry your lessons forward, learning to listen more and talk less, and always waiting for the possibilities from that simple refrain, “Well, tell me….”


Rhonda Clark began her academic career in a small college in Arkansas, studying history and then moved to Minneapolis to study Russian Aria Studies (MA) and Russian History (PhD) at the University of Minnesota.  She added an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh to capitalize on her love of archival and historical resources.  She teaches in Clarion’s Department of Information and Library Science in the Local and Archival concentration.  She lives in an oil-era historic home in Titusville, PA.

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Student-centered and Teacher-centered Classrooms

– Jeanne M. Slattery

I used this John Francis TED talk below in my freshman inquiry seminar, Living Life Well, because it raised interesting questions about wellness. Was Francis well? By what definitions? He didn’t talk for 17 years – does that make him more well or less? Was he a good person? How would you know?

Many of my students found Francis an odd duck. He didn’t speak for 17 years? He didn’t drive or use a motorized vehicle, even though he could, instead walking across the country? However, I admired his thoughtfulness, motivation, commitment, and passion for the environment. He didn’t just talk about saving the environment, he lived it. To me, Francis is a paradigm of wellness.

My freshmen had a particularly difficult time with the idea of Francis not speaking while teaching his classes (though he communicated nonverbally): Professors need to talk because how else can they teach? Even after a semester sitting in a circle, with our class being a discussion among peers and between professor and students, they had a difficult time believing that they could be in charge of their own learning. At that time most students could not see that perhaps the most effective learning occurs when students take ownership of their learning for themselves.

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Figure 1. Differences in the teaching and learning paradigms of student- and teacher-centered classes.

Inquiry seminars are strange beasts for most freshmen, as they are student-centered classes rather than more traditional teacher-centered learning. See Figure 1. However strange they are, they are important to our students’ transitions to college, as our students begin to become active and empowered learners.

For most of our students’ lives, they have been taught using the teaching-centered paradigm where the Teacher is Authority and Expert. In such classes, faculty pour information into passively-accepting and sometimes grateful students. We can perform Teacher as Sage thoughtfully and engagingly, but our students are rarely expected to be active parties in their learning process. Many students believe they can text, sleep, or daydream and it doesn’t matter, as their learning is a function of their professor rather than themselves. This attitude puts them at risk in all of their later classes – and in life – when we expect students will actively question, create, decide, analyze, and produce.

Inquiry seminars adopt a learner-centered paradigm. In inquiry seminars, faculty are  facilitators of discussions, and questioners and provokers of other ways of thinking about problems. They may assign readings, but encourage students to take ownership for the direction that they go with the course. Rather than directly answering student questions, faculty may turn student questions to the other members of the class. Inquiry seminars offer and model a different kind of learning than students are used to and comfortable with.

My students, like John Francis’s own initially, had a difficult time believing that learning could occur if he did not talk in class. Yet, he said that two weeks into the semester, students were fighting to get into his course. If our student-centered teaching strategies make them uncomfortable, should we avoid them? I think not – at least when they have positive impacts on their learning.

Toward the end of his talk, Francis suggested to the teachers in the audience, “If you weren’t learning, you probably weren’t teaching very well.” For me, one of the perks of using a more student-centered approach to teaching is that I am always being provoked to think about things in new ways.

My experience with the inquiry seminars, including our discussion of Francis’s TED talk, were transformative. I can no longer teach an inquiry seminar, as there isn’t enough time in my schedule, but I continue to find ways to integrate the lessons I learned there.


Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill; and most recently, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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Dear “Disrespected”

Dear Ms. Scholar, I clearly tell my students that there’s no texting in class; nonetheless, there’s a small group in one class who do. This bothers me for several reasons: it feels disrespectful, my student’s performance in class is compromised, and their peers are distracted. Any suggestions?

writing

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear “Disrespected,” I wish there was an easy answer to this one. People 18-24 years old text more than twice as often as the average cell phone user – which includes them as part of that average (Smith, 2011). Our students tend to see cell phone use as normal and without consequences for themselves or others. Ms. Scholar, on the other hand, perceives a break in eye contact, attention, and focus when students text. She is also distracted by some student texting and disturbed that research shows class grades are negatively correlated with texting (Duncan, Hoekstra, & Wilcox, 2012). Even having someone nearby texting can be distracting;  performance under these circumstances is poorer (Tindell & Bohlander, 2012).

Furthermore, such behavior is not acceptable in the workplace and, to the degree that we think about our goals as including teaching professional behaviors, Ms. Scholar wonders whether we should include and enforce policies consistent with the professional cultures students hope to enter in the future (Fulbright, 2013). Would you want your doctor, your psychologist, your priest to text when meeting with you?

Some faculty respond to the increasing influx of cell phones in the classroom by using them to support their classes (Fulbright, 2013). Perhaps they conclude, if you can’t beat them, join them! Such faculty may use phones as clickers (e.g., sites like Poll Everywhere). They may also encourage students to use their phones to answer the range of questions that get directed to us in any single class. We should get better at directing these back to them: “What does ‘pejorative’ mean?” “Good question! Let’s look that up.” If our goals include helping students engage with our material and develop a sense of agency, these could be useful and effective strategies.

Ms. Scholar would like to ban open cell phones and laptops in the classroom (although she also recognizes that she always has her laptop out when she’s at a conference or workshop). Nonetheless, she also thinks about the role of classroom culture: while open cell phones and laptops interfere with creating a positive culture, so does forbidding them. She is uncomfortable with the idea of setting up a situation where she needs to monitor the use of electronics and administer some sort of consequence.

Ms. Scholar has attempted to take a middle ground between allowing and banning cell phones. In her advanced courses that develop listening skills and other professional behaviors, she discusses the problems with cell phone use in such situations. In her lower-level courses, she discusses putting away cell phones as one of a number of learning-positive strategies, including previewing, asking questions while reading, and studying with Bloom’s taxonomy in mind. In some semesters, she has tossed this dilemma back to students: What do you think about cell phones in the classroom? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having them out?

Ms. Scholar starts this discussion as early as her syllabus:

You can use your computer to take notes on the PowerPoint, but be aware that the research suggests that we learn best when taking handwritten notes. People are also more likely to be tempted to multitask when their computers are open – which few people do successfully….

The research suggests that even having your phone out interferes with your learning and that of your classmates.

Ms. Scholar wonders whether a professor’s response to texting should be different than our response to any other off-track or “disrespectful” behaviors. What do you do when students sleep, talk to fellow students, or study for other classes in class? Why do you do it? It seems that whatever we do – and reasonable people may disagree – we should base our decisions on our course goals (e.g., empowering students to take ownership for their learning).

Given there’s no clear recommendation out there, tell us what do you do and why. Please leave a comment. – Ms. Scholar

References

Duncan, D. K., Hoekstra, A. R., & Wilcox, B. R. (2012). Digital devices, distraction, and student performance: Does in-class cell phone use reduce learning? Astronomy Education Review, 11, 010108-1-010108-4.

Fulbright, S. (2013). Cell phones in the classroom: What’s your policy? Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-classroom-management/cell-phones-in-the-classroom-whats-your-policy/

Smith, A. (2011). Americans and text messaging. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/09/19/americans-and-text-messaging/

Tindell, D. R., & Bohlander, R. W. (2011). The use and abuse of cell phones and text messaging in the classroom: A survey of college students. College Teaching, 60, 1-9.


If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com

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