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...

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