Monday, March 29, 2010

TLI Common Hour Wrap-Up, Independent Learning Experiences

It's something of a truism that independent research is good for undergraduates. College students today learn much more actively than they did 20 years ago, in large part due to the self-motivated projects we foster. But these projects are fraught with their own challenges. How do different disciplines address the question of how to foster research? How do we encourage independent thinking and work throughout the curriculum, from the first-year core to senior theses? Last Wednesday, the TLI held a Common Hour dedicated to exploring this issue. Thanks to our thoughtful speakers--Lynne Edwards (Media and Communication Studies), Walter Greason (History), and Tony Lobo (Biology)-- and thanks to all of you who gave up your lunch hour to join in the discussion! A brief summary and some questions from the audience follow below:

Walt Greason is an expert on mentoring independent studies and internships,having worked with over 25 students in his six years at Ursinus. Walt began with a discussion of mentoring, especially the challenges of mentoring students at different skill levels and preparing them for longer research projects. He encouraged us to consider the range of preparation of high school and early years of college--even in a class of one, each student will need different tools to come up to speed, and the "speed" will be different for everyone. Walt laid out a structure for independent research with students that I found admirable. He suggested that one might begin with a critical assessment: 1) What do I bring to this project? 2) Develop a clear and sustained plan, with benchmarks and achievements for which students are held accountable. The third step: modeling professionalism--showing the student what you do in your field, as a scholarly practitioner. Finally, Walt noted to the strengths Ursinus faculty bring to mentoring: our map for lessons, from the 50-minute hour to the structure of the semester; our willingness to share our passions with our students; and the institutional support that helps make independent work possible (Summer Fellows, Study Abroad, internships). He also encouraged us to consider areas of improvement: why not consider the campus as classroom? Ursinus College as a lab for urban/suburban development? Walt offers a model for helping students to think critically about their locations as students at a residential college in a rapidly changing suburban landscape; how eye-opening it could be to consider the Collegeville/Montco region as an advantage, rather than an impediment!

While the disparities Walt mentions of skill level, engagement, and sense of inclusion within the college community affect the success of independent research across the board, they are particularly pertinent for students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and first-generation college students in a majority white, middle-class institution. Even the act of visiting office hours is laden with cultural capital, as is the level of agency needed to complete an independent project. As faculty members, we should be aware of the obstacles that exist to students' agency--and the self-conscious mentoring Walt discusses models how to meet students half-way.

Lynne Edwards followed with a discussion of inter- and intra-personal challenges that can occur during independent projects. Independent projects, she noted, are required, but can also be transforming, rewarding, and terrifying (to us and to them!). The mandatory nature of the ILE can become another obstacle to agency--students may see these projects as a hurdle rather than an opportunity. To make them less burdensome to us, Lynne made several recommendations: first, is the student passionate and prepared? Have you taught this student before and assessed his/her capacity for self-motivation? (She has a "top secret" assignment to help assess this--but if I described it, she might have to kill me.) Second, Lynne recommended we distinguish between teaching and mentoring--hearing students rather than simply talking to them, and moving toward a dialogic exchange. Lynne also discussed the long-term value of generating student excitement: many of the students who work with us have never imagined the academic life. Some man have never developed their own task, or learned to work from insight, intuition, or a sheer interest in something odd or unusual. Intuition is hard to teach--we've honed ours through years of experience. Yet Lynne showed that it can be modeled, and that modeling can be inspiring.

Tony Lobo wrapped up our discussion by talking about the differences that exist--or appear to exist--between mentoring in the sciences and the other disciplines. Tony considered whether the typical science model, in which students work on an existing project, constitutes an "independent study." In the science model, students are mentored from early to upper-level courses, and upper-level students assume a role in mentoring students earlier along. He then discussed the benefits and drawbacks of this model: there is a focus in this kind of research on products, teaching students to generate results, in order to write a successful grant to fund more research. Is peer mentoring beneficial? (The lab, as Tony noted, is set up like a grad school lab, in which advanced students mentor beginning ones, and the PI is off writing grants--is that a good model for an undergraduate institution?) And--as Lynne mentioned--are students conducting research because they want to, or simply because they have to? Despite Tony's critiques of the lab structure, this made me think about how humanities students, who tend to work in isolation, might benefit from such partnerships.

There were a number of excellent questions that came up, which I would love to hear your opinions about (maybe they could become a topic of a Common Hour next year):

What do you do with students who aren't self-motivated?

Internships: what might you do with them? Becky reminded us that there are all kinds of curiosity, not just academic.

How much independence is necessary to describe something as an ILE? (Projects discussed here ranged from Summer Fellows to a 2 1/2 year project.)

How do others set objectives and learning goals in independent study projects?

After the independent study/internship has taken place, how do you evaluate the student's growth, academically and personally?

There has been a significant shift in the relative importance of research and teaching over the past 2-3 decades (at least in the sciences, maybe more broadly) in undergraduate education. Are we now spending too much time and faculty resources on classroom teaching (at the expense of actual learning)?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review of Teaching Positions by Elizabeth Ellsworth

**The following is the first of occasional book reviews on pedagogy. These books were purchased by the Mellon TLI, and if anyone would like to review a book, please contact Meredith Goldsmith.**

“How should I teach?”

Elizabeth Ellsworth poses this question in the introduction of her book, Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address. But if you’re expecting her to answer it with a rundown of pedagogical techniques, you’d be wrong. Instead, Ellsworth’s response comes in the form of a surprising paradox: “Teaching is impossible…and that opens up unprecedented possibilities” (18).

This phenomenon is approached and explained in various ways throughout the text. Decidedly against the limited thinking about education solely as a social science, Ellsworth draws on a multitude of scholarship from fields within the humanities. Her main expertise comes from the area of film studies, but she also cites literary criticism, psychoanalysis, feminisms, and cultural studies.

Ellsworth uses the paradox format as a springboard for discussion and explanation in each chapter. One of her major paradoxes deals with mode of address, a film studies term that asks “Who does this film (or, in terms of education, this curriculum, school, teacher, etc.) think that I am?” The paradox, Ellsworth writes, is that our conscious and unconscious perceptions of our students consciously and unconsciously shape the way we address them, and try as we might, we can never be fully successful in making our students “learn” what we’re trying to communicate to them. In other words, “We teach, with no knowledge or certainty about what consequences our actions as teachers will have” (17).

Ellsworth thus proposes radical revisions to the goal of Western pedagogical thought, which she believes is for students to accumulate knowledge about all there is to know. Instead of answers, she believes in posing “moving questions” and using the technique of juxtaposition to explore the power of discontinuity (13).

For example, she cites an account of an incident where a near-victim of a lynching, James Cameron, sees one of the white men who wanted to kill him happily riding a bicycle with his daughter. Cameron wonders how this carefree man could be the same person as the one he saw capable of such rage and hatred. Ellsworth suggests that this story reveals how “whiteness is always more than one thing…it is never the same thing twice,” and how it is “staged as historically situated and context specific.” She feels that Cameron’s retelling of this story “is pitched to an array of seats in the theater of U.S. race relations” and “those multiple seats are moving.” This broad mode of address “manipulate[s] readers into taking on responsibility for the meanings they make” (156). Taking on responsibility for the meanings we create is an interesting way to think about education, having less to do with traditional “learning” and more to do with acknowledging one’s own participation in creating cultural constructions.

Teaching Positions is a highly complex and theoretical book that is about uncovering the way we think about education, looking for new ways to conceive it through various disciplines in the humanities, and exploring the possibilities those new ways present. Fortunately, however, the book reads much more smoothly than might be expected. It’s clear that Ellsworth, as an educator, is familiar with the effective tactics of storytelling and using examples to demonstrate her points; for example, she contemplates the film Jurassic Park in order to explain mode of address. She also often restates her points in different words in an earnest attempt to be as clear as possible while dealing with complex abstractions.

It’s probably a bit ironic that I’m trying to summarize what I’ve learned from Ellsworth’s book, since she herself states that “any unproblematic, direct, reflective, total exchange of knowledge [is] impossible” (65). However, even if what I’ve taken from Teaching Positions cannot be exactly what Ellsworth had in mind, she is correct in concluding that the impossibility of teaching opens up new possibilities, for what I feel I’ve learned is that I have new things to think about.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Common Hour, March 24

Just a note to announce the next Common Hour sponsored by the TLI, Wednesday March 24th in Pfahler Auditorium:

The topic: Fostering Independent Research Across the Curriculum
Our speakers: Lynne Edwards (Media and Communication Studies); Walter Greason (History); Tony Lobo (Biology)

Our speakers will each discuss their experience of independent research for 5-7 minutes each, and then open the floor for questions. The February Common Hour was dynamic and generative; we hope to see you on March 24th at noon!

Building a Better Teacher (NYT Magazine, 3.2.10)

Last weekend's New York Times Magazine takes up the topic of "Building a Better Teacher," focusing on the innovations in K-12 education documented by Doug Lemov, the director of Uncommon Schools, a nonprofit that starts up and manages urban charter schools. I found several of this article's observations particularly striking:

First, the contrast between good teaching as an innate gift v good teaching practices as identifiable and reproducible techniques. Lemov's contention, as the title has it, is that inborn charisma or dynamism will not simply make one a better teacher. As journalist Elizabeth Green explains,

"There have been many quests for the one essential trait [of good teachers], and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try. When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching,” Gates said. “I’m personally very curious.”

When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. “Stand still when you’re giving directions,” a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once."

My second observation hinges on the example above: what can we, as college teachers, learn from k-12 instructors? "Standing still" and giving precise directions seem like the simplest things in the world to do, yet we know when we stand in front of the classroom how difficult these things can be. When students don't follow our instructions, is it worth considering how we might convey those instructions more clearly?

The final thing I was struck by has to do with the effort to come up with a kind of knowledge that is specific to classroom teaching, that can be classified as neither "content knowledge" "pedagogical knowledge." As Green writes of the math education specialist (also Dean of the School of Education at the U of Michigan) Deborah Loewenberg Ball:

"...Ball began to theorize that while teaching math obviously required subject knowledge, the knowledge seemed to be something distinct from what she had learned in math class. ...Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less. This was neither pure content knowledge nor what educators call pedagogical knowledge, a set of facts independent of subject matter, like Lemov’s techniques. It was a different animal altogether. Ball named it Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, or M.K.T. She theorized that it included everything from the “common” math understood by most adults to math that only teachers need to know, like which visual tools to use to represent fractions (sticks? blocks? a picture of a pizza?) or a sense of the everyday errors students tend to make when they start learning about negative numbers. At the heart of M.K.T., she thought, was an ability to step outside of your own head. 'Teaching depends on what other people think,” Ball told me, “not what you think.'”

One might think that here's where the distinction between ourselves and K-12 instructors comes in. Yet many of us may have experienced the struggle to determine, or get past our own assumptions, about what students think and know. Is there a"knowledge for teaching" in our respective disciplines? I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this subject.