Inquiry Seminars: Am I Teaching?

– Paul Woodburne

Paul Woodburne

In the fall of 2018, I taught my first Inquiry Seminar on computer games.  I first discussed this class some years ago when Shannon Nix was still here. 

Usually when I start a class in a 15-week semester, the first couple weeks are hard on my voice.  I don’t use my ‘teacher voice’ in the previous summer or winter term, and my throat hurts for the first week or two of the new term.  This did not happen. 

Had I not taught this past term?  What had I done this whole semester? 

I have defined ‘teaching’ in my last 20 years as lecturing.  I am pretty good at condensing ideas, showing connections between those ideas and others that may not seem obvious.  I think I am pretty good at teaching.

This past term caused me to rethink the ways that I see myself and teaching.

Economics, as a field, is full of facts/data, correct interpretations, ideology, revealed knowledge, received wisdom, and ‘stylized facts.’  See Table 1. Near as I can tell, this is true in every academic field.  Most of our teaching is very top down, very authoritarian.  Faculty bestow our seal of approval when the learners have proven sufficiently adept in what we tried to teach.  As students progress, the goal of teaching is, in part, to enable students to apply and extend the field via research.  The method used in most fields is revealed while teaching content. 

Table 1. Differences between my standard courses and inquiry seminars.

This contrasts sharply with what goes on in Inquiry Seminars.  In these classes, the pedagogy – the method – is the content.  What would normally be considered the content of these classes, in the case of my course – monetization within video games and the proliferation of e-sports – is merely a vehicle to have students work in groups to learn about information literacy and source validity, to work collaboratively to conduct research and inquiry (asking of questions), to synthesize information and to present findings that answer a central question. 

What Do They Learn?

Celebration of Learning

At the Celebration of Learning, where all Inquiry Seminar posters are presented at the end of the semester, I heard some faculty deriding some presentations: students did not clearly delineate between a continent made up of many countries and various countries within the continent, or made, perhaps, too sweeping statements in their summaries.  Others rebuked the presentations for being shallow (interviewing grandparents or 20 fellow students about a topic) and the like.  I think that this sort of critique often misses the point (misses the forest for the trees), and is made without recognition that these students are freshmen, and without appreciation of the place from which these students started upon entering Clarion. 

All fields have their method of analysis, and their own important issues.  Often I am ignorant of the importance of their issues and am likely to deride these issues as not being important.  I have to remind myself of the time when Sarah Palin ranted about wasteful government spending, on “I kid you not, on fruit flies” (Siegel, 2009).  It turns out that at least three Nobel prizes have been won in fruit fly research.  It is also the case, something I had not known, that fruit flies can be used to research Alzheimer’s and autism, among other diseases.  It is easy to miss the consequences of someone’s work in a quick overview.

I urge my colleagues to take these students, classes, and presentations where they are.  My students, for example, wrote in their reflections that they were glad to find out about the Library’s EBSCO portal where they can do research and can filter it by academic work, as well as by important and valid popular sources as well.  They were used to simply googling and accepting the first five things that popped up. 

It is true that many freshmen show fairly limited research in their projects, and that their questions and answers can be superficial.  It is also true that the themes of some of inquiry seminar classes are better suited to this kind of research/inquiry seminar class than are other classes.  However, we hope that these freshmen will bring skills that faculty will notice in their own sophomore level classes.  Faculty should ask themselves “how are these students compared to previous years of students?”  I don’t believe their work will be perfect, but I do believe it will be better than it has been. 

Was I Teaching?

Three of Paul’s students

I began this piece by reflecting on whether I really taught anything in the fall.  I did not lecture in my normal style, that is for sure.  However, I did teach nearly 50 students how to use the library’s research portal to do better research than they have ever done.  I did guide students to ask and refine questions, to create an argument for why some sources were good, and why others were not.  I showed nearly 50 students to do an admittedly simple annotated bibliography.  (I did not have to do even a simple version of one until graduate school).  I got students to think about the economic concepts of price discrimination and market power in a framework they would not otherwise have been exposed to.  They were able to meet and interact with these topics in a milieu (video games) where they lived.  Students did four presentations in front of their peers.  They evaluated each other’s work, and evaluated their own work within the group, and the group’s work as a whole, at the end of each presentation.  Two of the presentations were electronic (PowerPoint or the equivalent), and two were poster presentations where each member of the group had to present the entire thing, and could not rely on groupmates to bail them out. 

I do not think I can teach my principles or intermediate level economics courses as an inquiry seminar.  I can, however, use aspects of the freshmen inquiry seminar in my intro and intermediate level classes.  Particularly useful will be the methods I used to teach question creating and source obtaining and checking.  The inquiry seminar brought home to me just how much time I have to devote to building research skills, if I want them to exhibit high-quality work. 

References

Siegel, V. (2009). I kid you not. Disease Models and Mechanisms, 2(1-2), 5–6. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2615159/


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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1 Response to Inquiry Seminars: Am I Teaching?

  1. DrOlivas says:

    What an awesome reflection, Paul!!! I think this is an experience that makes you proud of both your students AND yourself!!!

    Like

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