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.

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