Reflections from Some Colleagues’ Classrooms

Steve Volk, March 12, 2018

All images from Geometrical psychology, or, The science of representation: an abstract of the theories and diagrams of B. W. Betts (1887) by Louisa S. Cook, which details Benjamin Bett’s attempts to model the evolution of human consciousness through geometric forms. Full book, to see how it’s done, here.

Last week offered me the opportunity to sit in on some colleagues’ classes as part of “Open Classroom Week.” Rarely, if ever, do I get a chance to attend someone’s class unless it’s part of a formal evaluation process, either as requested by the faculty member (formative) or as part of a larger, departmental, evaluation (summative). We don’t sit in on colleagues’ classes simply to learn from what they do as teachers. Other than those who are visiting to pass judgment on our teaching, the only guests we have in our classrooms are prospective students and their parents, some Kendal residents, or the occasional emeriti who, having forgotten that they no longer teach in that room, wandered in. it’s not surprising that we remain wary about having “outsiders” in attendance. Which probably explains the brief flash of panic that crossed the face of one colleague who, after setting up in the front of the class, looked up to see me happily installed in the back row!

My take-away after attending five classes during Open Classroom Week? Absolutely fantastic!

In this post, I’ll provide some feedback on my experience, which I know was shared by many of you who took part in the program and wrote me. I will also braid in some insights provided by the always-inspired Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach. My observations are far from original, but might serve some purpose even if you’ve heard them many times. My schedule allowed me only five visits; I wish I could have attended the classes of all 17 instructors who participated in the program; I know most of you had even less time available. I picked classes from the College and the Conservatory, and from all three divisions in the College.

Some years ago, Ken Bain wrote What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard 2004), a frequently cited text. Well, here’s what I observed our best teachers doing, and I have no doubt that I  witnessed only a tiny sample of the kind of teaching taking place across the campus every week, teaching that highlights the same quality, intensity, and deep level of student engagement as that which I observed.

Teaching in Your Own Skin

In the first place, there is no one way to teach. All the instructors brought their own style of teaching to the classroom. You could say, “well, duh” (I did warn that nothing I say will be particularly original), but one of the hardest things to figure out when one is beginning as a teacher is what will be your teacherly style, how will you be able to teach in your own skin? We come into the profession greatly influenced (for better and for worse) by those who have taught us, by our mentors. We may even spend our early years trying to imitate our mentors, a process that can easily go south. We know what they did that worked for us, but when you come right down to it, we’re kind of weird. Many of us were already deeply engrossed in our fields and could already picture ourselves standing where our teachers stood. On the other hand, relatively few of our students will follow our path into the professoriate – the times they are a- changin’ – so understanding what will make them engaged and excited about their learning is not the same as recreating what our grad school mentors did, what turned us on.

And it’s not that easy to find your own teaching persona. We hear a colleague lecture and we say, “I want to be like her.” Of course, the question is who will we be as teachers? Teaching “in your own skin” is not quite as straightforward as “being yourself,” since teaching is a performance: who we are as teachers is not always the same thing as who we are outside of the class in our “civilian” lives. Those teachers whose classes I had the pleasure to visit had all figured this out to the great benefit of their students.

The classes I visited were all taught by experienced faculty, and they shared a comfort in what they were doing which was expressed in their very different styles. Parker Palmer advises that “we teach who we are.” Teaching, he writes, “like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse.” In the end, he concludes, “knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge.” So, good teaching, at some basic level, requires self-knowledge. I can’t comment on what “self-knowledge” those I watched brought to their teaching, but I can say that each brought something different, and that all had different ways of engaging their students that demonstrated their great comfort and ability to teach who they are. Funny or serious, in motion or stationary, talking or listening, prodding or standing back: each had a different approach, and all demonstrated how deeply they were paying attention to the rhythms of their class and their students.

In Love with the Subject

Spanish, biology, psychology… In each class that I attended the deep affection (I think the word is appropriate) that all held for their subject was completely evident. They wore it on their sleeves, pinned to their clothes like so many badges. You, students, are not being introduced to secondary dominants in music theory because you “have to” know them (ok, you have to know them), but because they are fascinating. “Saccadic eye movement velocity” is not a term that’s thrown out to impress or to be memorized. It’s offered as a fascinating way to begin to identify panic disorders experimentally. De rerum natura? Who knew Lucretius could be so enchanting.

We are all drawn to our subjects, or, as Parker Palmer would say, our subjects chose us. Palmer found meaning by reading C. Wright Mills who taught him to view the world through the lenses of social theory, since “by putting on new lenses, we can see things that would otherwise remain invisible.” Falling in love with our subjects is often about coming to understand our own place in the world and what it is about our particular discipline that helps us comprehend what we were aching to understand. Some of us, like Palmer, come to it through books, others through experiences. I think I came to my own subject when, as a 15-year old high school exchange student in Chile, I took a night-long trip south from Santiago. We pulled into a small town at about 3:00 AM to use the bathroom and, as I stumbled out of the bus, I saw three kids, probably 6-8 years old, sleeping on the sidewalk. Trying to answer the question of why they were there was probably what drove me to study history.

However one comes to it, in every class I sat in on, the instructors were clearly in love with their subjects and communicated that affection with their students. To be sure: this won’t happen all the time. Sometimes we are in intense dislike of our disciplines because they fail us, they resist providing us the answers we demand. And, frankly, sometimes we’re too tired to manifest passion of any kind; that’s how life is. But bringing students into a discipline, i.e., into a “disciplined” way of looking at the world, is something the best teachers do with much love, not because their chosen way of understanding the world is the only one available, but because it is the one that chose them and they are eager to pass that along to their students.

Accessing Deeper Understandings

It seems a little gratuitous to say that our faculty know what they are teaching. (Another “duh” moment.) What impressed me was how they shared that knowledge with their students. Let me explain. Part of the process of coming to know a subject is to understand its complexities, intricacies, and uncertainties. To “know” history is to know more than what happened when. To “know” chemistry is to know more than the chemical notation for potassium. Knowing how complex our subjects are, we are cautious about simplifying them because we know how easily the simple can become simplistic. (It’s easier to do with fields that aren’t our “own,” and I’m quite aware that It’s something I do all the time in these articles, probably much to the annoyance of the cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists among us.) I think this is probably one of the reasons that popular science writing is so challenging: those who write or explain science for a broader public (Ira Flatow on NPR’s Science Friday: I’m looking at you!) are doubly careful about maintaining the integrity and intricacy of their subjects while helping a non-specialist audience understand what they are talking about.

That said, what I saw in all the teachers I observed was an ability to present complex ideas in a manner that helped students grab on to them at the level they are at without sacrificing complexity. There are certainly many ways to do this, often subject dependent, but, in the classes I observed the faculty usually did it by deploying a repertoire of thoughtful and appropriate analogies and carefully chosen metaphors. Some of these probably occurred to them on the spur of the moment, in response to a specific question. Others have likely been developed over time and are held in the ready, like arrows in a quiver, to use a metaphor.

Both figures of speech are extremely helpful in bringing students into complex subjects. Think about what a metaphor does. If we go with Artistotle’s definition, and why not, we read that “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else” (Poetics (1457b). Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor (1978), writes: “Saying a thing is or is like something-it-is-not is a mental operation as old as philosophy and poetry, and the spawning ground of most kinds of understanding, including scientific understanding, and expressiveness.” Metaphor and analogy take something from one domain and place it in another. Teaching with metaphors and analogies allows the best teachers to replace the complex items in their subject with appropriate examples in a domain that is more familiar to students. Each of the teachers I observed had his or her own way to use these devices to make their subjects accessible and interesting.

Connecting to Students

Metaphor and analogy are means by which effective teachers map their domain of knowledge onto a student’s domain of interest. Like much of what we do, its success depends on context and appropriate usage. Sports metaphors can become truly obnoxious if the idea behind them is that everyone loves football. But thinking about Cortez’s encounter with Moctezuema II on a causeway into Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519 as the equivalent of two athletes taking the field but playing completely different games and by fundamentally different rules, can bring some students to a deeper understanding of what their momentous encounter was like because it taps into their set of interests.

A lot of literature on successful pedagogical approaches emphasizes the importance of being able to connect to student interests. And yet, such an approach often smacks of the purely transactional and, frankly, is very close to pandering: We’ll show students we care if we play their music, dress like them, or learn the latest slang. Maybe we should only teach to their interests? Goodbye to most of our subjects!

Connecting with our students is no more about imitating them than being a good teacher is about imitating our mentors. This doesn’t mean that one can’t explore their “vernacular” as a way into deeper understandings. Hip-hop, to take just one example, can and has been used as an important pedagogical approach (see, for example, Hill and Petchauer, Chang, or Akom).  But helping students find fascination in a subject doesn’t require becoming an 18-year old. As often is the case, Palmer explains this best. “What we teach,” he writes, “will never ‘take’ unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students’ lives, with our students’ inward teachers.” What he means by this, I think, is at the heart of what we value so highly in a liberal arts education. It means turning extrinsic motivation (the external, the transactional, learning for the job) into intrinsic motivation (internal, meaningful, learning beyond the job). It is what we mean in our quest to shape “live-long learners” rather than adopting a singular focus on seeing that our students can land their first job after college. This doesn’t separate learning from career – anything but (and stay tuned for more on this). But it does speak to the importance of connecting to our students’ “inward teachers.”

Again, what I experienced in the classes I visited were a variety of ways, some profound, some whimsical, that faculty connected to their students’ lives and interests. They connected through their subject matter: An upper-level genetics course examined the marketing of BiDil, which Arbor Pharmaceuticals calls “the only heart failure medicine specifically indicated for self-identified African American patients,” generating a discussion about race and genetics. A history course explored how medieval writers connected ideas of sex differences with how they configured the world. Others brought the esoteric into a more common resonance through little “factoids” thrown out like bonbons: Do you know what “appoggiatura” means? Probably not. Did you know that it proved to be the winning word in the 78th Annual National Scripps Spelling Bee? Others brought in popular culture to teach particular points, listening to a YouTube video to hear how a pop singer from southern Spain aspirated her “T’s”.

Finding Our Authority

I’ve talked in the past about challenges to our authority in the classroom, challenges that are often socially determined and rooted in the ways that students (and we) perceive power. Let me close by returning to the notion of authority, once again by way of Parker Palmer. For Palmer, the ability to cultivate our “inner teacher” is a question of finding a comfortable way into our authority as teachers, into our “capacity to stand [our] ground in the midst of the complex forces of both the classroom and [our] own” lives. Authority, he points out, is not meant in the external sense of power, working from the outside in – the authority we bring to a classroom that is expressed by the fact that it is we who will determine our students’ grades. Rather, he references authority as “coming from a teacher’s inner life…as people who are perceived as authoring their own words, their own actions, their own lives… Authority comes,” he argues, when one reclaims one’s own “identity and integrity, remembering my selfhood and sense of vocation.”

What I saw in my visits were the many ways that these teachers brought their authority into the classroom. I know that the teachers whose classrooms I visited are just a few of the many here who teach with similar truth, conviction, and authority. So, my final take-away is to hope that we will continue to allow ourselves to be inspired and instructed by the many wonderful teachers who surround us and who, by authoring their lessons in the classroom, are helping our students to author their own lives.

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