Teaching Teaches: Managerial Skills, Constructivism

In my new move to take stock of the transferable skills I have gained in the past 17 years I have worked in higher ed - to list those that promote epistemic fluency - I am thinking I might write a series of posts to help articulate what indeed they are, as I prepare to rewrite my resume. I plan to do this regardless of whether I remain in academe. This is because epistemic fluency has become a central organising theme behind the course objectives that I design. Epistemic fluency, as I see it, is learning how to learn how to do things; the "meta" of learning. The spirit of it can be seen in Socratic dialogue: Socrates demonstrates how a certain type of questioning can be applied to any trade, to reveal some of its essential features. It was by reading Plato that I came to this idea - but once I came to it, I saw it everywhere.
Readers of this blog know that I am personally invested in course design, specifically, how to design a course to maximise the quality of material taught and student engagement with and retention of this material. As of last year, I made little experiments to my teaching style, and as I have continued to do so again this year, it occurred to me that I am also exercising managerial skills in this execution of class design.
For example, one needs to assess the quantity of resources at one's disposal (time, materials, number of invested students, for example). One needs to review pedagogical approaches and then make decisions. One can back up the shortcomings of any approach, or shortcomings in students' realisation of course objectives throughout a semester - so, make on-site changes - by calling on experience. One chooses the medium through which to deliver content, and masters new platforms where necessary. These are some examples of managerial skills.

In the teaching of my two courses on culture, I have decided on the following. As my second year students are generally receptive, it is quite an intensive course, with homework reading assignments being half overview, half a selection of primary sources. It is a historical survey highlighting a selection of different viewpoints, in detail. It is a general survey that highlights a series of more specific thematic features, not unlike Auerbach's ansatzpunkt, highlighting one issue here, some figures there, another set of events here, and so on. Presenting culture as ongoing negotiation of a number of concerns, ideas, hegemonies, freedoms, etc. The lecture period is spent, at the beginning of the year, with half the class going over bullet points of 'more important terms/figures/events' from the readings, and the other half with exercises asking students to engage with, for example, the primary sources, or a work of art, etc., and apply the ideas from class to other material, making their own connections.
For the senior class this year, I began with about four "teacher centred" lectures to model an 'academic approach'/an approach to realise the course objectives, which I explained the gist of. Students were told they would then prepare their own projects, demonstrating the same approach, on one of a series of themes presented (that relate back to the original lectures, which contained many resources as part of the reading homework). Each week, different 'phases' of the project will be discussed, as a few groups present the progress of their project in miniature presentations. It has been explained that students are responsible for all guidance given in class to the realisation of these 'phases' (which is to say that if they do not come to class, they need to be sure to catch up on what was missed).
In addition to completing these phases (e.g. picking a topic, narrowing it down, evaluating and gathering resources), there are periodic reflection logs that students are required to write, describing the subject of the phase they are asked to consider, then listing their personal response and analysis, and what they learnt. They will be given a final and different set of reflective prompts at the end of the semester.

My hope is that by encouraging attendance in this way, students will be exposed to other subjects not their own. And as they are encouraged to critique, they will be engaging with those subjects. Also, each individual project is to demonstrate an awareness of historical precedent, an Auerbachian awareness of the larger context and the interconnectivity of different areas of life. Each student will focus on two to three more specific areas (a painting, a document - together with analysis of this and what it represents) that together combine to demonstrate an understanding a larger topic. Put another way, the larger topic will be broken down into key 'points of departure' that show the various perspectives on it.
There is enough polemicising at this time in history. After reviewing the kinds of soft skills that are sought in the workplace today, I decided that the goal of the course should be to demonstrate an understanding of various, sometimes competing perspectives. (Students may convey their own view if they want to, but they must all demonstrate an understanding of other views.) In other words, they are to demonstrate good, old-fashioned comprehension skills.

I designed the course this way because the seniors generally think they know it all and are resistant to teacher-centred lectures. I am tired of grading essays that show that students only glossed over the material: it defeats the point of the learning at this level. So, I made the managerial decision to focus on whether students can engage, in detail, with something; can demonstrate an understanding of difference. But it pains me to recognise that some of the more factual teaching is bound to get lost in this process. For example, while students think they know it all, at least a handful of them could afford to go back to my second year class, and take it again (note: only next year will I be teaching students I also taught in the second year). I plan on simply giving directives to such groups, instructing them to look at this or that historical document, figure, etc. But that is not the same as the more colourful and filled-in overview (which is already a condensation!)
Thence the managerial skills: to make a decision. Decide on what the primary objectives are, and execute to those ends. It will not be perfect. But this is where experience comes in, to help try to fill the gaps. I have made it very clear in my fourth year class that it is dialogic: that the content will come through our discussion. I have reiterated this by using the features in my digital classroom (which is merely support for the class, not a substitute) to feature, for example, good questions students ask, and what the answer to the questions are. Students are invited to ask questions; are told that this is not a course where they will be judged as ignoramuses if they ask (there are some classes they take where this is the case); they are told that articulation of what they know and what they don't know are viewed as tools in this class.
They are tools because they will use them to make something (thence the constructivism in this title - a word I am using from its popular meaning in education, though its philosophical meaning is not lost on me, and which I have used in at least one academic paper).
We will see, though, what is indeed created by the course at the end of the semester. But I will retain my managerial status regardless; I've read enough literature on managerial skills to know that failure is as appreciated by good managers as it is by teachers who love to learn.

something about mortality

It was a summer of grief. It was only recently that I realised the word to describe it. Actually, it was on reading a novel featuring grief - and when I saw that word, it was like a strange gift, staring out at me. Grief washes at you; it is a great tsunami and you choke, maybe almost die; but when it recedes, you realise it has left you with something, all those shells on the shore... And suddenly, all of the pettiness that piles up over the years has nothing on you; you are changed forever. You continue to mourn, but this mourning saves you from the more hollow pits, and as you stare into those voids (like of people trying to frustrate the growth of your life), you are left with gratitude. And grief. At the same time. But mostly gratitude for being given the chance to live through death.
Looking back, the dying during life was the hardest; when you are watching someone dying but don't quite realise it. I was also dying in my own way. So much nervousness, fear. Periods of not being able to communicate (when I have never had a problem with that before). Last weekend, it finally dawned on me that I needed to find my peace; this weekend, I began to find it: a "coming to terms".
It is strange how death 'finds you', reminiscent of that line in Rilke's "Archaic Torso": "for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life." 
My life choices have left me scraping by in a university job in an immediate professional environment where I have not felt valued, and definitely underpaid for the conscientious approach I take. I have no money to even go on vacation. But I can run. I run 50-60 miles per week, on average. And the last two runs have been such that I was able to fully gain strength from them: the beauty of the autumn trails, what more could one ask for in life? There was no lack.

But this very morning I was stopped by a woman who asked: I see you here often, running by; what's all of that for?! Health, I said. And are you healthy, she asked? I gave her a thumbs up, and ran on, momentarily cursing her for that look in her eyes when she asked the second question, and thinking, you in your fancy clothes clearly know nothing of Socrates and even less of that platitude, in mens sana in corpore sano; you are an example of what my doctor friend with a world-recognised patent explains as the kind of person unable to draw peace and strength from nature, so sad... Then I stopped, all of those interruptions to what I am doing with my life are just so much noise that can be tuned out - like tuning out a noisy fridge when trying to sleep at night.
I feel embarrassed by writing these things. They are personal like so much wash hanging out to dry. But I've been thinking recently about how necessary it is to bring the corporeal to communication; how quickly communication becomes a cloud of specious sophistry unless it is seen in concrete ends (some kind of telos), beginning from where we are (in our telo, or тѣло; body).
Subjects I have considered recently in these musings include the EU directive on plurilingualism (what I have to say about this as a lecturer - can we not talk about intellectual aptitudes/readiness related to higher proficiency?); how quick people are to enter 'political' debate without consideration of the problems of politics (without having read, at the very least, Aristotle: politics comes after consideration of virtue, morals, the potential for corruption of self); how little is understood about civics - so, people in cities walk their dogs on long leashes and lash out at people who trip over them; drive illegal buggies wherever they want; push past neighbours in buildings; etc. In other words: how can we, with wisdom, live together? Do we even know how to live with ourselves?
There can be phases of flailing. Are we able to find compassion for this? To find love for ourselves in our fallibility, our mortality. To know when to laugh it away. I've been a slow learner in this, but I intellectually understand that not every question is deserving of a serious answer. But sometimes, the gravest of the grave cedes life.

Breadth Work

I would love to share ideas and to be critiqued at work. But it is not that kind of environment. So instead, I torture myself by reading the works of authors from the past who I doubt I will ever live up to.
My experience at the educational institution where I work has been that though I inherited nothing, I am expected to give, and not say anything when my resources are poached - though that means needing to find something new to use. My view on this overall state of affairs is that I should only share some, not all, of what I have assembled. (Well, I think I actually would have spilt all my tools in the instance when I was asked to hand over sections of a course. I would have done so because in some respects I am about as advanced as a 4-year-old ripe only for board games "in which there is no strategy". Except I encountered a hostile heir, who was possibly even unable to take it all in. So in that case, I only passed some things on. Please note, what I am passing on here are merely carefully amassed resources, ranging from exercises, to expectations, to objectives, gathered out of necessity as I have found typical college handbooks to be seriously wanting. So I wish to stress that what I consider I possess is not actually my own, but rather what I have synthesised in order to pass on to students what I consider to be a full and working tool box.)
All of this to say that it is my assessment, since I am mostly self-taught in pedagogy, that I must therefore be wild and in need of serious scholastic grooming. But every now and again I come across resources that seem to spell out in neon that, even if I am untamed, I am on the right track.

One such orienting resource is the list published by Sophie Blumet guiding a study conducted with Howard Gardner (the Harvard educationalist) as to the parameters of a liberal arts education, which include:
  • Working within and across scholarly disciplines;     
  • Spanning the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural/physical sciences;     
  • Engendering communication skills in various media;     
  • Inculcating critical, discriminatory, and analytical abilities;     
  • Acknowledging the importance of different perspectives;     
  • Tackling big questions, with an eye toward continuing to pursue them; and     
  • Reflecting on ways to contribute to society as a citizen.
It almost verbatim echoes the definition of a university education forwarded by Giambattista Vico in his speech addressed to students on the meaning of a university education entitled, "The Heroic Mind".
When I began teaching, at which time I desperately strove to imitate the kinds of classes I had taken at my Ivy League alma mater, before the age of the internet, and before I became clearer about pedagogy, I had perused Jacques Barzun's Simple and Direct, and retained from that book what I will shorthand as 'breadth of approach'. The Blumet/Garnder list above captures the gist of what I understood breadth to mean, even back then. I would like to point out the ubiquity of this breadth, conspicuous even in the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy, which falls short just where it fails to conceive of the telos of education as the formation of a good citizen.
This past week, I suddenly felt a need to revisit Barzun, and am astounded by just how much what he wrote is being reformulated by the contemporary educationalists that I try to keep up on. Barzun's breadth of approach is multidisciplinary, and includes an awareness of the political implications of thought. This should be straight forward to anyone - we all know it was to his possibly more famous colleague, Lionel Trilling.

Trilling writes that if politics is not understood as imagination and mind, imagination and mind will become a kind of politics we don't like. That kind of statement can only be made if one is attempting to gain a grasp of the bigger picture. Trying to see it requires asking bigger questions. As I mentioned, Gardner (in his recent work) is a proponent of the need to tackle big questions. One of his recent posts, asking, "Should we require all students to take philosophy?" ends by responding to attacks on philosophy as lacking practical knowledge by calling on its ability to ponder life's bigger questions in the best possible way.
I would add to that defense what I feel to be of burning importance at this time: the need to tell all students - regardless of their field of study - that philosophy, as conceived by Aristotle, has an ethical prerequisite involving exercises in discernment. Without this, no politics for anyone!
So, going back to Barzun, consider this: "And when the mind has grasped in several contexts the effect of circumstance, the nature of partisanship, the role of chance, and the influence of leaders and bunglers, the student of history who has discussed with others these potent imponderables may become not only a better judge of public policy and politicians, but also a more tolerant person." What a beautiful summary of how broad (so also historical), attentive reading can be an exercise in character building - or should I say character bildung (sorry, bad Humboldtian pun).
Another gem essay of Barzun's, which outlines another of the values on the Gardner list cited above, is entitled, "Math and Science are Liberal Arts".  It demonstrates through effective examples how basic compositional skills are needed by scientists if they are to get their point across. It also shows how the lack of common sense in the teaching of these subjects leads to their popular demise. It shows many interesting things that he says so effectively, summarising it does it a disservice.
And while comparing one's own capacities to those evinced in such works shows just how far one has yet to go, others would have educational goals narrowed at this time. For example, a green colleague who was asked to list the various ways in which a topic can be approached, claimed that any kind of list is off-putting, including those that serve as reminders of the topics of invention. Yet not one breath later this same person wanted a list where this would narrow down their job. So, the problem is not in lists but in the work of the responsibility of the freedom of having options.


"Life itself, which is a membership in the living world, is already an abundance," Wendell Berry writes in a lecture printed in The Way of Ignorance.
So much can take away from this abundance, such as that terrible movie screen that is also crammed with the victimising, materialistic, and ego-fuelled junk that poisons our minds, seas, and water tables. Speaking of that which is "victimising" is trauma, which "violates aspects of the person's self and world". Trauma is contagious. Among the syndromes listed as defining organizational trauma, Pat Vivian and Shana Hormann is "stress and anxiety contagion" (emphasis added). The traumatised can be better versed at multiplying destructive negativity than their vital talents.
But as a degree-bearing philologist (one who loves words), I task myself to improve articulacy (the necessary joints) to relate from the confusing temporal appearance to the abundance that is essential, and life-giving.

We are all naked to begin with - and under whatever clothes we do our social posturing in. What is essential can be reached through "baring"; through uncovering to reach the core of something.
Want has the potential to strip away, and so does trauma - if one can bear it, and hold out like an 'initiate of life': if one takes the leap of faith into that which is life-bearing. The alternative is to believe in destruction as a terminal inevitability. In that context, consider this phrase: "a smile, an inheritance, and laughter is a gift."

Who has not felt the sweet release from the gerbil-wheel of depressive thought?  A single smile, help along the trail. Life is like a thru-hike. Or, an endurance run. What I'm trying to say is that we pick our destinations. In other words, whether we accept responsibility for it or not, our actions demonstrate which destination we serve. (Yes, I am referencing Aristotelian τέλος.)

Many times, because of the glut in which we live, if we are not facing hardship, we need to impose on ourselves some form of austerity to reach the essential. This is why people choose thru-hikes. Stripping away the bells and whistles that distract us, we can better appreciate that which is already abundant in this life, like just how beautiful it is to be warmed by the sun (...after a cold night out at camp). Read about a much more compelling experience of the same, along the Altiplano Traverse, here (by Ryan "Dirtmonger" Sylva; it's his quote about the smile, above).
But other times, sickness and injury strip us down to the same result (hear one such account here). Personally, I am coming out of a summer filled with myriad traumas, with two ongoing, and feel a great need to reconfirm the kind of destination I want to be headed towards. I discovered (again - it's funny how much amnesia can occur, for weeks even, until the nervous system calms down) that one can even feel abandoned in hard times. This isn't to say that abandonment is real. But...we can make it real, if we don't watch out. Anyone who doesn't know what I am talking about should count their blessings.

While I don't have the luxury to go where I will, I run long distance (my typical run is over half a marathon, so I can get to the forest and lift up my eyes - I reference the motto of my first boarding school, from Psalm 121). As much as I would love to quit my job (which gives me more and more work, and less and less pay), I will instead endure it a little longer, to gain better eyes for the abundance that life already is.
There is nothing like being told you will get help at work and instead being given a helper who not only lacks basic training (an assistant with a degree in politics who doesn't know what rhetoric is!) but who is also resistant to learning, and then going for a 26K jaunt in nature and being bathed by tree upon tree, casting their fiery shadows upon you, and forgetting your worries in that light show... The random willow in the little park just means so much more when it weeps for you.

Saint Nikolaj Zicki is said to have valued his days of imprisonment in Dachau above all else, for it is there where a simple ray of sunlight meant the most to him.
It is interesting how someone whose life was spiritually rich also benefitted from a baring: a release from 'things'; situation. 
I hunt for the golden stag.
You may smile my friends, but I pursue the vision that eludes me.
I run across hills and dales, I wander through nameless lands, because I am hunting for the golden stag. 
You come and buy in the market and go back to your homes laden with goods, but the spell of the homeless winds has touched me I know not when and where.
I have no care in my heart; all my belongings, I have left far behind me. 
(from Rabindranath Tagore, The Gardener, 69)

Image (of painting) source: Pier Fracesco Mola "Oriental Warrior" wikimediacommons.
To my adolescent imagination, when I first saw this painting in the Louvre, I thought, this is someone who's hunting for the golden stag. His eyes are lifted (Ps.121); at least, aimed for more distant goals.
He's always looked to me like a janissary, though it bewilders me (I now refer to the definition at that link) how someone who is kidnapped "willingly" does anything.

Reflection and Reflexion on the Classroom

It is thanks to a blogger friend that I have returned here to give an update. Please note, though, that what is below is but a first-draft; if I edit, this won't get published 'til mid-August (though if I somehow find time, I will edit and remove this disclaimer).
Without reading old blog posts, I felt as if I had left this chrysalis behind, because so much of the breadth in thinking I had been working on here came into place, and I know that when I look back on older writing after reaching such plateaus, I only have an eye for all that was missing of the foundation (elementary ideas) that went into reaching that plateau.
But I claim to be a lover of process, so this means leaving in sight (as opposed to discarding) the earlier steps.
And the premise of what I am about to write is also based on 'what came before', for when I review the changes I made to my classrooms this past semester, I was very aware just how much past experience was there to temper the changes.


In my largest intro class, I added two online components: reading based online, and students required to comment a few times during the semester online. Their comments could be summaries to their own links on the weekly topics they found useful or interesting; insightful questions on the material; analysis. I also gave students the opportunity to set their own colloquium questions: there were about thirty they contributed, from which two appeared in that test. Early in the semester, I tried to 'lecture' the material through asking students questions and bringing their answers or observations into how I covered the material, but students found that too intimidating. I then experimented a few classes with setting them group exercises using additional source material, structured so that the exercise would review key points from the reading. This worked for 1.5 of the three classes. But my experience obviously told me that this was not a good way to go on (so many students need more structure and modeling and help - at this level - identifying what hey points are), though the students were happy for the change of dynamics. I ended the semester by delivering 20-30 minute lectures, followed by group class exercises. These varied in their content: asking students to find topics from the reading/lecture in song lyrics; giving them images asking them to expand on what they learn from that image and connect it to the reading, then share this information in brief presentations; etc. Such exercises are very labour intensive because, especially when choosing groups to share, I need to remember which groups are doing better with the exercise and call on those groups. It is also necessary to end class with a brief recap, which means tracking all the students said and being sure to include anything they may not have commented on. Etc.

In sum, I used a combination of didactic and flipped classroom techniques. I continued to use aspects of the blended classroom, but as in previous years, did add a grade component to encourage more use of the internet (which essentially means, putting the graded homework component online). I used Google Classroom, but did not use it to the fullest extent. For example, it was important to me to see which students were being thoughtful in their online comments - so I did not have Google tally up the homework points.
The way in which I included the online component did not save me any time - if anything, classes became more labour intensive. Not only did I lecture, but I also had to come up with exercises, and in addition to grading, I had to scan the online comments and enter in that work assessment manually. I also took attendance, which took time to be entered.
However. I think that this was the way to go in terms of getting the results I wanted from students. They were engaged, actually did the work ! , and seemed to enjoy the class (I do ask students to assess the class, but one always wonders about evaluation re. truth).
The final thing I will add here is the importance, in my opinion, of having very clear epistemic goals if this approach is taken. For example, in a course on culture, I decide about which events/figures/themes/etc. are the bare minimum I want students to know - but in addition to that, I also decide on the set of abstract skills I also want students to practice, eg. comparative analysis. I ask myself: assuming students will forget most of what is taught in this course, what is the gist you want a vague trace of to remain in their minds?

Most of what I have written about in this post reflects classroom elements I have been using for years; this is why I began by referencing the importance of experience. Experience tempered my introduction of change - when I saw students not being as self-directed as I thought they might be (I admit I did wonder if new generations would indeed be as far-more-internet-savvy-than-their-professors, as some media implies), I re-introduced the more didactic, modelling element to class.
For undergraduate classes, I think it is appropriate to continue to begin class by establishing the gist of what one wants students to take from the class - but to leave time for students to articulate their own understandings, extrapolations, comparisons, etc.
The hardest aspect of these courses comes with the upper level (fourth-year, ie. senior-level, courses, where something as simple as having students summarise a variety of texts they will use as the foundation for their analysis, is a challenge for some. I teach this in those classes that last two semesters, hoping students will master this by the second semester. Those students who make the effort to engage with class always make immense improvements. But what happens is that some seniors seem to check out after the first few weeks of the second semester. It is this dialogic element plus analysis that some seem to wish to skirt past - though, in my opinion, this forms the basis of the liberal education, an skirting by it means a lower level of literacy. And civics.

I am the kind of instructor that aims for a 100 per cent success rate, which is why I am concerned about this: others might look at the 20 per cent or so students who make great progress as success, and call it a day. In fact, the large majority of my students make progress (I am thinking of the numbers this year). But it is the few students who don't, or that single student whose final work was worse than the mid-term work, that cause me to want to keep things fresh and reconsidered in terms of how I teach each new year.
It is probably because of this that sometimes I feel a little burned out (like now, when I am supposed to be marking papers). It also does not help that in academe there are other things that need to be dealt with, like backstabbing colleagues (though this does not mean the backstabbing is personal; merely, that one is in the way of someone else's ideas of how things should be done), or like all the research papers to be written. This comic says it all (via Piled Higher and Deeper).
I don't know if my way is sustainable: as it happens, this past week I have totally (accidentally) missed out on two important obligations, which aside from being mortifying for someone like me, makes me wonder if I can go on like this. I was given more than an average course load, but still...
To conclude, I will be thinking about one of the best essays I have read in an age (and one, those who know me, might say it could have been written by me: just swap out the art and book references to mine from hermeneutics, the message would remain the same). It is by Jenny Odell, entitled, "How To Do Nothing". Among other things, the essay raises the question of maintenance (or what we could call sustainability) vs. development. It is my secret wish that this author will want to co-author a paper with me. I will be keeping the idea of maintenance in the back of my mind as I mark those papers...