Posts Tagged ‘ writing ’

Start with an Appetizer

This exercise is predicated on the integration and application of technology as a learning tool. However, for my freshman FYW students, I find that their access and knowledge of technology is very limited, and I don’t have the proper technology in the classroom to demonstrate and allow them to practice this method. However, the key idea behind this assignment idea is good and can provide instructors with ways to introduce tiny chunks of course concepts in such a way that student’s are able to test out what they know, what they need to know, and get peer-feedback in a low-stakes activity.

 

For those of us who teaching writing, it seems to me that freewriting prompts on particular topics that students will be covering in their former essays is a great way to start them off with an “appetizer.” You could break essay assignments into three or more in-class writing prompts that asks them to freewrite on their

  • claim (what is your claim? what assertion or idea are you arguing for? what position have you taken to argue this claim? what issue do you want to bring to your audience’s attention? Is this a claim of fact, value, policy?;
  • the next one on the evidence they might use to support the claim (what is your personal experience with this issue? what is open to dispute? how will you support your argument? what counterarguments might you address? what types of evidence would best support your claim?;
  • the third on audience (what do people already know about this? what don’t they know? what groups would be most interested in this issue? what do you want your audience to do, think, or feel as a result of reading your essay?);

Once they’ve completed a freewrite, they would discuss their choices and strategies in small groups before applying their ideas to their essay. These steps will give them writing that can be formalized in their essay, gives them in-class writing time, and allow them to discuss their choices with their peers before committing them to paper. I like this idea especially because I find that once a student writes down an idea or takes a stand in their essay, they are loathe to change it. Positioning freewriting prompts around elements of an essay has them test out ideas before fully writing them, get feedback, and then leaves them with the core components of their formal piece. Worth trying!

Hey, Academic Writers, You Can Have Style and Substance

Stylish Academic Writing

Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword. Harvard U. Press

 

Hey, Academic Writers, You Can Have Style and Substance

Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 2012.

Available from Harvard University Press; April 2, 2012; $21.95

A Book Review, by Julie Dalley

I have always been interested in the ways in which scholarly writing seems to tangle meaning with a flurry of important-sounding words. I’ve done it often in my own writing, partly because I thought it was required to establish authority and credibility, and partly because I didn’t have the training to be more creative in my academic writing. So when I came upon Maria Popova’s blog piece on the blog Brain Pickings, titled, “The Power of Simple Words,” I was intrigued. Accompanying the brief essay – composed to remind writers to keep it simple – was a two-minute TED Ed video also called, “The Power of Simple Words.” The message concerns simplifying your prose, and knowing your audience, illustrated through the comic re-arrangement of pop culture sound bites: “”No coordinates exist like one’s domicile” for “there’s no place like home” or “ambulate this direction”, for “walk this way.” Its message is important for all writers, professional or academic, student or teacher.

Students and practitioners like myself confuse big words with good writing or sound argument. The brevity of the video imparts its message forcefully: we don’t always have to “sound smart” in order to leave a huge impression. Sometimes the simplest of words or phrases, a subtle and delicate metaphor, or a brief but powerful story, can capture a broader audience.

Likewise, in Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword argues that academic writers don’t need to write in jargonistic hieroglyphics that require readers to decode their meaning. Instead, they should be open and willing to soften their writing to make meaning more concrete and knowledge more accessible. Sword’s central argument is that, by falling into the habit of writing rigid academic texts without concern for style, we are failing to connect to our own agency and voice. We alienate readers beyond our disciplines, and sometimes even within our field of study.

Dense academic writing – with few exceptions – is by definition that which takes a meandering path to come to a simple point. It is often exclusionary with its complex disciplinary jargon, muddling clear ideas and inhibiting authentic meaning-making. And yet, there are academic writers whose work echoes far beyond their disciplinary domains, whose writing reaches beyond their fields, beyond academia, and into the larger audience of the public, while contributing to our body of knowledge in significant ways.

Sword structures her book with a series of case-studies of these breakout authors, using “Spotlight on Style” portraits of those who have broken the mold without threat to their disciplinary expertise or authority – and who infuse their writing with style and voice that engages the reader and delivers thoughtful, insightful, authoritative, but most of all, accessible, knowledge. Examples include Nathaniel Mermin, physicist (38); Ruth Behar, anthropologist (45); Stephen Greenblatt, literary critic, author, and scholar (p. 83); and Robert J. Connors and Andrea Lunsford, English scholars and researchers, writing as “Ma and Pa Kettle” (128). Alongside these exemplars of stylish writing, Sword presents a guide to crafting stylish prose in a book that is short, concise, and replete with tips and tricks (Things to Try found at the end of each chapter – extremely useful for writing instructors). The author demonstrates with concrete examples and suggestions that “…the most engaging writers are almost invariably those who pay the closest attention to the real people – specialists and non-specialists, colleagues and strangers – in whose ears their own words will echo” (44).  We forget that our audience needn’t be limited to a select few academics; we should write as though our ideas have resonance beyond our disciplines, and as far as the layperson with a curious mind.

Stylish Academic Writing contains a list of specific and transferable skills for improving anyone’s writing and this guide will become a well-thumbed resource every time you begin crafting your own stylish writing piece. The list includes some basic advice: create catchy titles, use anecdotes and stories, begin with a strong opening sentence or paragraph, provide lots of examples (concrete over the abstract), and more. This is practical advice for those who believe they must compose to achieve membership in their disciplinary field: fling the lingo, obscure the simple, flaunt your mental prowess through the anguished manipulation of language and the doors to academia will swing open. There’s a better way.  Scholars have long been making the case for better academic writing, going back to the classic article (which Sword references on pages 6-7) by Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Dancing with Professors: the trouble with academic prose,” (New York Times Book Review, 1993). Limerick famously critiqued the academic snobbery that favors impenetrable, jargonistic papers that few understand, and that even fewer still will admit they cannot understand.

But what is good writing? And what does bad writing look like?  In addition to spotlighting accomplished academic writers, Sword peppers her chapters with snippets of badly written prose plucked from numerous (one thousand, to be precise) articles and essays from a broad swath of disciplines: science, math, history medicine, law, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, education, literary studies and more. She also takes aim at style guides, and their conflicting messages that can lead a writer to constrain or even limit personal voice at the expense of their scholarship. Sword isn’t alone is arguing for better writing. She pays tribute to authors and scholars such as Peter Elbow, William Zinsser, Strunk and White, and Howard S. Becker, who have championed the stylish writing cause (6).

Sword consulted seventy academics from across the disciplines who gave her a list of ideal characteristics of good academic writing: elegant, carefully crafted sentences, energy, intellectual commitment, passion, engaging prose, a compelling story, avoids jargon, aesthetic and intellectual pleasure, and originality, imagination, and creative flair (8).  She dismisses the mythological tenet that individual voice and personal agency should be eliminated from academic writing. Rather, she insists, it is through the use of personal pronouns that we connect more intimately with our audience and attach our expertise more closely to our work and immersion in our discipline: “Academic writers strive to convey a completely neutral perspective; as merchants of truth rather than fiction, we see it as our job to inform our readers, not to play with their expectations or their minds. Yet that neutrality, when closely examined, turns out to be something of a myth” (94).  Why do we research and write if not to establish our own authority in the field?

Sword’s strongest argument comes in Chapter 10: Jargonitis, a term often used as a pejorative to describe text that is “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words” (112). Here she sways the reader by pointing out the exclusionary nature of jargon in academic text (i.e., “I belong, you don’t”), how academese has reduced the writer to ostentation, obfuscation, and obscurity, and how jargon can become a substitute for legitimate thought, a placeholder for fully developed and creative ideas.

Struggling with meaning and difficult and complex ideas has long been considered an integral part of academic training; our style and authority is formed and informed by the literature we review and the research we build upon in our own work. Is it necessary? Mostly not, Sword says, “Sometimes, however, the line between technical precision and intellectual pretension becomes a fine one.” (117). Sword points to the invocation of Michel Foucault by numerous scholars, many who appear to never have engaged directly with his body of work.  “Foucauldian” references in humanities and social sciences scholarship are a straw man of academic writing, according to Sword: in most of the cases she reviewed for her study, the authors engaged with Foucault through the work of others. This twice-to-three-times removed jargon diminishes the scholarship, becomes exclusionary for the general public, and contributes nothing to a dialogue on Foucault. Ironically, Foucault’s work, per Sword, was “rhythmically compelling, relentlessly concrete, and almost entirely jargon-free” (119).

Sword concludes her book with two chapters that deal with the more intangible elements of good writing: passion, persuasion, playfulness, making the abstract concrete, challenging the reader, engaging the reader’s imagination, abiding in elegance; in other words, “paint a big picture on a small canvas” (Chapter 13: “The Big Picture” and Chapter 14: “The Creative Touch.” 147-172).  She shares the following advice from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, which neatly packages her argument:

Do not talk down. Try to inspire everybody with the poetry of science and make your explanations as easy as honesty allows, but at the same time do not neglect the difficult. Put extra effort into explaining to those readers prepared to put matching effort into understanding. (qtd. on 157).

Noticeably lacking in this otherwise comprehensive book is any reference to the emerging trend of digital writing and the new literacies that govern those writing forms.  Some literature exists that suggests that writing online offers us a more relaxed platform, even an agency and space where voice and self become prominent, while still reflecting academic rigor (cf. Elbow, P (Nov. 2007). “Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries.” College English, Vol. 70, No. 2, pp. 168-188). As our writing worlds collide with digital worlds, any guide or work on academic writing should include some discussion on this movement and where academic writers stand when confronting style and format online. Sword does discuss augmenting text with images (108), however, that is as close as she comes to addressing multimodal academic writing.

Will this book, and other movements to redefine “writing” and literacy instruction, become influential in loosening the rigid disciplinary confines of academic writing and make academic text more appealing and available to a broader public? It’s not as though ponderous academic writing is a secret or hasn’t long been thought unnecessary; academia itself suffers from a deep-seated tradition of exclusive and territorial scholarship, and there is an intrinsic fear of diminished intellectual perception or agency that comes with making academia more accessible and less lofty. In addition, academic writing, and the research that feeds it, is the merit badge of belonging to the academy.

This is the core of the resistance to change in American education. If we do move to more stylish academic writing, Sword’s work is a informative and useful place to start: it provides foundational instruction on how to write clearly, the license to write freely, and the motivation to make the leap.

Sword’s lesson comes down to courage on the part of the scholar: you must choose if you want your writing to stand out from the crowd or conform to the disciplinary academese that both confounds and confirms you. This book gives you license to take some risks with your academic writing, and provides solid evidence of other scholars who have gained world-wide acclaim, in some cases became household names, for daring to step outside the writing box and be stylish.

Helen Sword is Associate Professor in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland.

To find out how stylish your own writing is, take Sword’s WritersDiet Test: http://writersdiet.com/WT.phph

 

Getting Students to Complete Reading Assignments – Ideas from Teachers for Teachers

The Research Academy held its first Teaching Circle meeting last Wednesday. I decided to start the semester with a topic that repeatedly comes up in teaching consultations and faculty discussion groups: getting students to do the reading and/or out-of-class work. I observed a class a year ago in which the new young instructor, finishing up the 90 minute class, asked who had done the assigned reading. Not one hand went up. She rather desperately searched her student’s faces: “No one did the reading?” she asked incredulously. No response. I knew this felt awkward for her; she was being observed (at her request) by her colleagues and she didn’t know how to handle the situation. Carry on? Cover the material anyway? Her plan had been to lead a discussion around the concepts in the reading; if no one read it, she would essentially just be teaching the material. She decided to skip the reading altogether and finish up with some group work on a different topic.

This is hardly a singular experience. Nearly every (every?) teacher has faced a class of students who are unprepared. They didn’t read, they didn’t watch the video, or do the review. Luckily, there are definite ways to handle this. First, why don’t students do the reading? Our group, squeezed into a library classroom, brainstormed the following reasons behind the student-didn’t-read phenom:

  1. There is no pay-off. Students are very strategic about their work load. When assigned readings are not tied to any evaluation (grades) or when the teacher covers the material anyway, they know that they can get away with not reading with no penalty.
  2. The reading isn’t connected to course material in an obvious way, or the teacher has not helped them make the connection. When assignments seem to be arbitrary, that is, not tied to course work in an appreciable way, students lose motivation to complete it. They do not see the reading as an extension of the course work or core to disciplinary understanding, so they shrug it off.
  3. Students don’t know how to read academic texts. This, unfortunately, prevents them from contributing to a discussion even if they did TRY to do the reading. They may not have understood what they read, did not know what was important (highlighted EVERYTHING ON THE PAGE), and are afraid to sound “dumb” if they discuss what they read. Students receive very little training on how to read academic texts. They don’t know the jargon, they don’t know how to identify what’s important, they don’t know how to summarize the text. This level of reading can be intimidating.

These are some of the primary reasons that students don’t complete assigned reading. It is important to know why they aren’t reading because this directly informs how you can make some alterations to instruction in order to address these issues.

The participants offered some ideas on what they are doing to counter the no-reading issue:

  1. Mini-quizzes on the reading at the beginning (or before the beginning) of each class. These are conducted online, through Blackboard, and take about 10 minutes. Quiz grades count towards overall course grade.
  2. Guided reading – questions to answer as they read, using Socrative, an online student response system. Socrative allows teachers to set up exercises and questions, multiple choice or open-ended, graded or not graded, that the students can answer from any connected device (phone, laptop, tablet). They can see each others responses if the teacher deems it important, or the answers can be anonymous.
  3. Model good reading strategies, especially for research-oriented or academic level text. One professor has them highlight only the portions of the text where they felt lost or began to lose track of what the text was saying. These points of confusion can guide class discussion, provide fodder for small-group work (students work together to grapple with meaning), and can let the teacher know what students struggle with the most.

As you may have guessed, there is a lot of research and expertise available that supports our group’s ideas of how to get students to read, as well as provides some additional ideas. What the experts say:

From Karl Wirth, Malacaster College (http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/metacognition/activities/27560.html):

Reading Reflection

After completing the reading assignment, write brief responses (i.e., at least several sentences) to 2 out of 3 questions:

  1. What is the main point of this reading?
  2. What information did you find surprising?  Why?
  3. What did you find confusing?  Why?

Too often, when we read the words on a page we do not fully integrate that new information into our existing knowledge structure, and so we fail to gain new understanding of the world around us.  Research in cognitive science and learning tells us that “deep learning” requires that the learner reflect on new knowledge and create personal meaning from it.

To help us reflect more deeply on readings in this course, we will use reading reflections.  These reading reflections are designed to help the reader engage with the material in a deeper way, and to construct new meaning from it.  The reflections also have the advantage of providing the instructor with detailed information about your learning in the course.  This not only helps guide the daily preparation of course activities, but also helps connect us as a community of learners.

Your response need not be long, but must clearly indicate careful reading and thoughtful reflection.  You must respond to two of the questions.

What is the Main Point?
Reading assignments often contain a lot of information.  What is the main concept that the author is trying to get across?  This may, or may not, have been explicitly stated in the reading.  Why did the author choose to emphasize this point, and not some other?  Your response is not a summary of the chapter, but an analysis of it in a way that creates new meaning for you.

What is Surprising?
Your response to this question should be reflective.  Did you learn something that is in conflict with your previous notions of the world?  Did you learn something that fascinates you in a way that you didn’t expect?  How does this new knowledge connect with material in other courses, or with other parts of your life?  Responses must also clearly explain “why.”

What is Confusing?
Responses to this question require careful reading and reflection; it is only though the process of reconciling new information with our existing knowledge structure that we become aware of inconsistencies, or “gaps” in our understanding.  Responses to this question should be specific and actionable – that is they should outline a clear path to understanding.  Responses must also clearly explain “why.”

Rubric for Evaluation
10 points         Responses to both questions are labeled and clearly indicate careful reading and deep reflection.  Responses submitted before class meeting.

5 points           Responses are not specific, do not clearly indicate reflection, or are submitted soon after deadline.

0 points           No response, or response submitted more than one class period late.

From the IDEA Center, Idea Paper #40 – Getting Students to Read: 14 Tips, by Eric H. Hobson, Georgia State University (http://www.theideacenter.org/research-and-papers/idea-papers/idea-paper-no-40)

1)   Using appropriate texts:

  • Why am I using this particular text?
  • How does it help me meet my course goals/educational outcomes?
  • What do I mean by “required”? How does it contribute to students’ success in the course? “Nist and Kirby (1989) wrote that documented reading assignment compliance rates among college students (20 to 30%) “could be partly due to the fact that students quickly discovered that they did not need to read and study their texts in order to do well in the class. Perhaps attending class and studying lecture notes were sufficient for acceptable performance” (p. 327).”

2)   Rate your reading material: (e.g. absolutely essential, good supporting material, exotic, appealing to experts, or idiosyncratic choice). Only material that is essential should be labeled “required” and students will be held accountable for reading (such as graded reading assignments or readiness quizzes). Consider not using a text if no text can be categorized as essential; instead, build a course reading packet that supplements and complements the course. Any additional texts can fall under Recommended Reading.

3)   Course readings should show up as part of in-class presentations (yours or the students), factor into course projects, or appear on exams. Connections between the course and the reading should be obvious.

4)   Scaffold your reading assignments. Aim most assignments at “marginally skilled” readers, slowly build up the difficulty level of the readings, have students identify concepts or terms they struggled with for group/class discussion. Develop necessary reading skills and interpretative/inter-relational analysis skills. Preview the readings; relate them to course activities; practice reading skills in class (marking text and understanding why certain things are marked, summarizing concepts, identifying confusing or unclear ideas, forming questions).

5)   Use the syllabus as a teaching tool: “Effective syllabi do more than identify required reading materials; they provide background about the materials so that students understand why the reading assignments contribute to learning and how they relate to other course content and course activities (Grunert, 1997; Maleki & Heerman, 1992).”

Source: Turn to Your Neighbor (Peer Instruction Blog): http://blog.peerinstruction.net/2012/09/04/how-one-professor-motivated-students-to-read-before-a-flipped-class-and-measured-their-effort/

Peer Instruction (at least concerning homework and reading assignments) emphasizes effort over getting it right. So, in class, students would compare answers and work together towards a correct answer.

1)   Questions associated with the reading.

  • What did you find difficult or confusing in the reading? What attracted your attention, or you found most interesting? What questions do you have?
  • Content-specific questions where students must justify their answers.

2)   Students will be prepared to be called on to lead discussions on the reading. Assignment is random (cold-calling). Set up communication climate to establish trust and openness for ideas in the classroom.

3)   Make the reading MEAN something. Reading should ALWAYS be separate but related to the class material, else what’s the motivation to read it?

4)   Credit (grade) for Reading Assignments.

Works Cited

Grunert, Judith. The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach. Bolton, MA: Anker, 1997. Print.

Hobson, Eric H. “Getting Students to Do the Reading: 14 Tips.” IDEA Center, Idea Paper #40, (2004), 1-10. Print.

Maleki, R.B. & Heerman, C.E. “Improving student reading.” IDEA Paper No. 26, Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development, 1992.

Nist, S.L. & Kirby, K. The text marking patterns of college students. Reading Psychology: An International Quarterly, 10 (1989), 321-338.

Schell, Julie. “How One Professor Motivated to Read Before a Flipped Class, and Measured Their Effort.” Turn to Your Neighbor, Peer Instruction Blog. 4 Sept 2012. Web. 2 Oct 2012. <http://blog.peerinstruction.net/2012/09/04/how-one-professor-motivated-students-to-read-before-a-flipped-class-and-measured-their-effort/&gt;

Wirth, Karl. “Reading Reflections.” Carlton College, Science Education Resource Center. 29 May 2012. Web. 2 Oct 2012. <http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/metacognition/activities/27560.html&gt;

Our Best Teaching Moments – Writing our Teaching Philosophy

Courtesy of DiscoverySchool.com. Copyright © 1998 Mark A. Hicks. Originally published by Mark A. Hicks. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Our Best Teaching Moments

by Julie Dalley

Our last Teaching Circles meeting of the semester was April 24, a Tuesday. There were only four of us present physically, one virtually, through email. The discussion began with our “best” teaching moment, when we knew we had kicked ass and taken names when delivering our lesson – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and I choose to close out our meetings this semester with some positive stories and experiences because, of course we want to end on a good note, and because, good – and bad – experiences are what form us as educators and turn us into teachers.

Surprisingly, it was much harder to think of a “best” moment – that is, a moment that stood out. I can remember feeling great about a class, remember wonderful conversations, but it was harder to fill in the details than when I thought of my worst moments as a teacher. Classes gone amok were much clearer, which makes me part of a 2.6% who find positive memories harder to recall, or I could be mildly depressed? Perhaps I was more emotional, and stressed, by the bad classes, which is most likely. Either way, remembering these classes became important to my development as a teacher, and is a crucial way to build our teaching philosophy. My goal was to share these stories, tap into our memories – good and bad – and use this material as fodder for crafting our teaching philosophies.

As my post, Our Worst Teaching Moments, detailed, we have all failed spectacularly in front of a classroom of judgmental and amused students. Mostly though, after the judging and laughter wore off, students felt sympathetic to our struggles, and this show of humanity – we all fail sometimes – helped to ultimately create stronger bonds with our students. We became better because we fell on our faces.

When it comes to our best moments, often they are connected to true engagement with you, the instructor. Yes, you! Not just the material, the content, but how you deliver it, how you invite them to challenge, explore, experiment, or even be shocked by, the lesson is what made that day, that class, special. Our first story came from a professor in Classics & General Humanities. He talked about how he asked students to compare the United States Constitution with the ancient Greek Athenian constitution. Their surprise on how similar the two documents were resulted in a lively debate about the roots of our country’s ideas about democracy borrowed from the ideals perpetuated in ancient societies.

Our next speaker talked about her experience teaching Music Theory. This topic – rich in dense vocabulary and foundational knowledge – became personally viable to her students when she invited them to bring in their own music which they then connected to the theory or practices they were learning at the time. This made the class more engaged and personally connected to what was otherwise dry instruction.

Our computer science faculty member shared that his best classes came when students could engage in hands-on application of knowledge. Once past the point of introduction or theory, applying what they knew and trying out concepts, building programs, really became the nexus of pedagogy and student engagement.

My best moment teaching came during a discussion about the roots of racial inequality in the United States. I was teaching an American History junior high school class, and we were role playing the Civil War. When the conversation turned from then to now, a student made the statement that race “wasn’t a big deal anymore” because “I have lots of black friends who I don’t view in any different way.” She was shocked when several of my black students spoke up and quickly rebutted her statement with “just because we hang out with you, doesn’t mean we’re friends or equal.” I let the conversation roll, despite my internal fear that it may get out of hand and it was a topic I wasn’t sure I was capable of moderating with poise, but it turned out to be one of the best learning moments I’d ever had in my classroom – for me and my students. We really talked, without anger or recriminations, and we discussed perspective – personal, biographical, historical perspective. Everyone was respectful while connecting the issue at hand – racial inequality in the United States and its historical roots – with their own personal experience.

The four stories above share a common element: engagement with the personal. We surprised our students with knowledge they didn’t expect (finding similarities between the old and the new, always a shocker to the young, who invented everything!), we went off plan in our lessons, and we invited them to engage personally and emotionally (sharing their personal taste in music).

This post is related to my post of Worst Teaching Moments because these are rich stories that make for a wonderfully personal orientation when developing our teaching philosophy. For faculty hoping for tenure or re-appointment, or for new graduates looking for a full-time appointment, teaching philosophies are critically important in articulating our experience, our goals, and our understanding of what it means to teach and learn in our disciplines. By reflecting on our experience with both success and failure in the classroom we are conveying that we paid attention to what worked, what didn’t, and what we learned from it. It needn’t only be limited to our teaching experience either; new graduates may have limited teaching experience, but as this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, we’ve all been students. We know what we liked as students, what we didn’t, and why we chose to become educators.

These two meetings were meant to be exercises to help us frame our teaching philosophies. In the Fall, we will hold a formal workshop with hands-on writing exercises to polish and get feedback on writing our teaching philosophies. I hope these ideas of reflecting on what worked and what didn’t were helpful in at least getting you thinking about your teaching experiences, and to perhaps write a few sentences on what you considered a success, and what you thought failed, and what you learned from each. Every stand-out teaching philosophy has, at minimum, those three elements. For more resources on writing your teaching philosophy, please check out the following resources. Have a wonderful summer!

“How to Write a Statement of Teaching Philosophy” by Gabriela Montell, retrieved from the Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 2012: http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Write-a-Statement-of/45133/

“Writing the Teaching Statement” by Rachel Narehood Austin, retrieved from Science Careers, from the Journal of Science, May 11, 2012: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2006_04_14/noDOI.14633728089694563528

University of Minnesota, Background and Contexts for Teaching Philosophies: http://www1.umn.edu/ohr/teachlearn/tutorials/philosophy/background/index.html

The Ohio State University, University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Writing a Philosophy of Teaching Statement: http://ucat.osu.edu/teaching_portfolio/philosophy/philosophy2.html

 

Our Worst Teaching Moment

Siddhartha Bautama by Suta Sila Dham. Courtesy of Fotopedia.

Our last Teaching Circle meeting, I decided to try a more guided discussion, and asked guests to bring their worst teaching moment to share with the group. I have to admit, I think we probably had worse ones than the ones we actually shared, but that’s okay, because the point was two-fold:

  • Build community through stories;
  • Identify our weaknesses as teachers and how they’ve made (or can make us) better.

The reason for sharing our worst stories first is so we can – right out of the gate – admit that we are all human and that every educator has moments, or days, possibly a full week, when they don’t, exactly…shine.

Sharing our stories was cool, and I mean that in the sense of Chester Cheetos-like cool, because we laughed at ourselves without feeling our stories diminished us at all as educators. How we handle these moments became the take-away from this meeting, and how they can form, and inform, us as educators became teaching philosophy fodder. Because this is the point: none of us is perfect and it’s important for us, and our students, to know that. Don’t lose your cool! Students love it when they can bond with you over a little SNAFU in class, come to your assistance, or otherwise pull together as a group to solve a problem (I’m quite surprised technology implosions didn’t feature much more largely in our discussion – we did have one instructor discuss her experience with full system failure though). Though some students may view it as an opportunity to dismiss you as an authority with knowledge to share, most students will rally around you if you show a sense of humor and some humility about life’s little jokes.

Here is a brief rundown of the funny and humble stories featuring times we felt less than great about our teaching or inter-action with students, with each of us presenting different moments revealing our unique yet 0h-so-common teaching bonds. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, how well you know your topic, how utterly fabulous you are as an instructor, you will at some time have the teaching gods frown upon you. I began by owning up to a particular lesson in a high-school economics class, where my students ended up schooling me on a simple math equation. Don’t remember the context, the exact lesson, or the math I couldn’t do that day, but I distinctly remember the embarrassment. We then talked about how to handle these situations; I handled it badly by NOT addressing it with my students and pretending I wasn’t a complete math ignoramus, but it was okay, because eventually I could look back and recognize how I should have handled it, and how I would be better prepared for these moments in the future. Something to write about in my teaching statement, which I have done. Nothing says, “I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from them” than an honest story that reveals what we don’t know about teaching and what we want to learn, yes?

Next came stories of language barriers – especially relevant for our international scholars and professors who struggle with accents and pronunciations in front of American students ( and for the record, I myself have practiced pronouncing many words that I don’t speak regularly but are difficult for any English speaker; for example, homogeneous is often mispronounced, still can’t confidently say the names of Tacitus or Aeschylus; just about any word with a lot of vowels…); “things students say in class” that catch us unawares -forcing some quick thinking and instant ability to react wisely! (“Oh, prof, I won’t be here for that class; I’m going to Coachella.”; “Oh, okay. <long pause> Have fun.” = awkward!); lapses in basic knowledge (see my math freeze above), inability to answer a student’s question coherently, razing by jerky students who know you are “fresh” – this WILL happen to you as a new or younger teacher. We heard a story about a mathematician of renown, possibly still teaching, but the story is of old, who simply shrugged off his calculation errors in front of students, and put the onus of knowledge on the students (that is, he let them figure out the problem; he already knew how to do it, why should he do it for the students?). Would that we all had that confidence and aloofness, yes? We discussed our frustration when students don’t “get it” and how we struggle to make meaning for them – is it us? them? How can we make it clearer? It seems so OBVIOUS!  We decided that we – yes, us teachers – are of the homo sapiens species after all, thus prone to error. We were able to turn these mini-crises into really pivotal and critical teaching and learning moments, ones that we ALL share as educators.

We also talked about the Flipped Classroom, Google+ versus Facebook, whether or not we should interact with students on social media sites (that was a resounding NO as I recall, but we did agree that setting up professional “teacher/colleague” profiles were a good idea when you did want to create a space online with your students). We ran out of time before we got to some writing exercises for tying all of this into our teaching philosophies, but I hope we can get to that next time.

For our next meeting, I plan to guide us to the flip side of the teaching coin-  our best teaching moment – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and we pictured Cate Blanchett playing us in the Oscar-winning movie of 2026 on inspiring teaching stories that bring a tear to the eye (dream sequence)…so, I thought, let’s end our semester with some positive stories and experiences, and what they can tell us about our teaching, about our students, and how these experiences (good and bad), are integral parts of being awesome educators.

We’d love to hear from you out there: what was your best or worst teaching moment? What did it teach you about yourself as an educator? Join us!

The Power of Simple Words – Reblog

I gravitate towards all things writing, especially the how and why. A rather excellent blog, Brain Pickings, often has very insightful posts on a broad range of topics, mainly creativity, arts and science, and words of wisdom for the masters who came before us.  The truth is, you never know what they will send you, but it is always superbly written and insightful. Plus, they always have the coolest images breaking up their text, and they know how to direct your attention from words to images and back to words in a seamless style. They aren’t afraid to mix up the modalities, and it makes for good reading/viewing/listening.

This morning I had a chance to read their latest newsletter and the feature article, The Happiness of Pursuit: What Science and Philosophy Can Teach Us About the Holy Grail of Existence, by Maria Popova. You can read the piece for yourself, but what stuck with me most was the last line:

“When fishing for happiness, catch and release.” – Shimon Edelman. Very simple, right? When we find happiness, we should let everyone else around us experience it as well. I strongly recommend you read this entire post – it’s just a lovely way to start the day.

Nestled cozily within this brilliant morning read was this little gem: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/03/20/the-power-of-simple-words-ted-ed/

This brief snippet led to viewing this, a short 2-minute video on using simple words and knowing your audience:

For writing teachers, I think having students view this brief video is a great way to introduce rhetoric, and styles of writing. Often students confuse big words with good writing or sound argument. This video, which integrates contemporary culture to makes its point- “Ambulate this direction!”- is short but meaningful: we don’t always have to “sound smart” in order to leave a huge impression. Sometimes the simplest of phrases can capture national attention.

On blogging in the Digital Humanities

I have nothing to really add to this excellent blog post on why we academics, scholars, and teachers should be blogging, now:

http://ullyot.ucalgaryblogs.ca/2012/02/24/on-blogging-in-the-digital-humanities/

“Blogging in the social, pure, and applied sciences is a common enough practice that two members of the London School of Economics’ Public Policy Group said today that it is “one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now” — namely, circulating ideas-in-progress to readers in more immediate and (yes) more interesting forms than traditional academic publishing.

It’s no less important in the humanities, even if it’s less common. But in a research field like the digital humanities, blog posts and tweets are the primary way — for many, the only way — that scholars and students disseminate and learn about new questions and methods.”

Read the full post at: http://ullyot.ucalgaryblogs.ca/2012/02/24/on-blogging-in-the-digital-humanities/

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