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Grad Idea Forum
Explorations of Teaching

10 September 2003
Introductory meeting

Summary by Corey Shdaimah
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum.

Readings:
Anne Dalke's Teaching to Learn, Learning to Teach
Peggy MacIntosh, Feeling Like a Fraud

Present were:
Xenia Morin (Biology and Chemistry), Samantha Glazier (Chemistry), Paul Grobstein (Biology), Roland Stahl (Social Work), Michael Pfeiffer (Social Work), Linda Houser (Social Work), Wesley Bryant (Social Work), Erin Tremblay (Haverford Undergraduate and Bryn Mawr Arts and Sciences ), Anne Dalke (English and Feminist and Gender Studies), Deborah Fineberg (Psychology), Cheryl Selah (Chemistry), Bridget Algee-Hewitt (Archeology), Corey Shdaimah (Social Work). (Liz Shea brought salad but couldn’t stay).

Anne started us off by saying that Peggy MacIntosh's essay tries to give a double vision. You may feel like a fraud and that's the something to work on but there's also part that's good. There's something about the structures that we need to question and work on being brave enough to claim that the way I teach is valuable. Going from thinking that what I need to do is cover a field to thinking about "uncovering" the organization, the principles and the questions. What had me caught was thinking that I had to know all the answers to the questions and this prevented me from pursuing questions of interest. This includes grading and telling students that I would refuse to rank order. This brings us back to questioning the absolute value of grading.

People shared what images or metaphors they would use to describe themselves as teachers and to think what that metaphor means for your students and then for the department, chair, field, etc.

Xenia spoke of moving from thinking what do I need to cover to what do I want students to learn so that 2 or 3 years from now they can use this. She thinks of herself as a coach or connector. Students are observers, learning how to connect. She coaches to guide them, to help them. It is important to make room for them to fail. Too often students are worried and afraid to try new things and to take risks for fear of failing.

Sam gave the image of stage lighting or lighting crew. Trying to put shades of colors or light. Lighting them with the subject matter which would be the play and they would be the actors. Notice that this means that Sam is in the dark, hidden.

Cheryl: Like a big sister, but not that personal. More experienced but not better than they are, just with more knowledge that she can pass on. There is a motherly aspect to this. She TAs for freshmen in general chemistry, and they are often nervous and scared.

Roland's first thought was not regarding his role but his way of learning. He identifies with Anne's story about the "turtles all the way down," (Dalke, 115). Especially when talking about social things. Another metaphor is standing at the river and coming back the next day wondering if it is the same river. A lot of times, at least epistemologically, about becoming vexed at a deeper level. Not so much about the preciseness of intellectual thinking which may be more important for academics but just being vexed.

Erin most of the time feels like a cheerleader, encouraging the students to speak, hopefully in French and hopefully in sentences. She TAs with freshmen who have to take lab in addition to class and it is a "rough crowd" because many of them don't want to be there.

We then wondered whether it makes a difference to teach older students who might have made conscious commitments to pursue graduate studies?

Wesley uses a social work metaphor, thinking of himself as a change agent. Changing students' perceptions of the world. A lot of times we are locked into what we are told, how we are told to look at the world. Much in America is institutionalized and a change agent can help people be critical thinkers.

Bridget: Thinks of herself as a painter of a big canvas with lots of colors that she can put on and the students get to have their take on it. There is no hierarchy here, and if there is one then the students are the art critics and then can tell her if it's bunk and make her a better painter.

Linda: A paver of a bumpy road or a paving machine. Part of her job is to pave she thinks it's related to a cheerleader. Notes that she teaches research to senior social work students who are eager to go out and change the world and they have to take research. So she sees the course and the research aspect as an opportunity to break down the perception of obstacles to marrying their practice with some sort of reflective practice.

Deborah spent many years teaching young children. She saw herself as an architect who planned thinks and most of the work was trying to fit them into her framework. By the end she was more the scaffolding to be there to help them get to where they want to go. It is harder to be the scaffolding for undergraduates who would prefer an architect than for children.

Michael: Not a travel agent but a witness to discovery, someone who takes people to new places. An adventure guide. Kind of provoker of curiosity, for things the he might not be that familiar with. An unknowing expert but interested in the discovery and the process of discovery. Might not know where you're going or what you're getting into.

Paul: Staff at Club Med. I think they're called GP for "gentile provocateur," gentile in the sense of playful.

From here we returned to more general discussion:

Deborah noted that teaching statistics, students tend to be very protective and uncertain of themselves. It can be hard to get them to create a structure with her. Cheryl had the same sense. She noted that she has had different experiences teaching freshman and post-baccalaureates, groups that have different perspectives, generally speaking. Freshman want to be told what to do and get scared when they are asked a questions, especially if they are asked to be creative. Not used to being asked, "how would you do this?" "What do you bring to the table?" Post-baccalaureates, generally speaking are more confident and not as afraid to make mistakes even though they do make them.

Sam shared with us a vision of teacher and students, all afraid, yet all sharing the same goal. Each has the fear that they don't know what they are doing; yet this is unspoken and invisible.

We talked about how is it that we can make "making mistakes okay." Anne noted that she has had experiences teaching freshmen that are so na´ve that they'll say anything. And then she won't see them for a few years and they'll cycle back as seniors and they've gone silent because they've learned that there are right answers.

Corey brought up the question of whether subject matter made a difference. When teaching subjects that we can and do declare have no right answers in some ways we have the luxury of allowing students to make mistakes. Who am I to say they are wrong even if I disagree when there are different opinions held by experts and they can back these up.

Paul disagrees that the subject matter makes a difference but rather it has more to do with intent. Science proceeds by being wrong. You cannot advance science by being right. He does not avoid telling them that they've made a mistake. Conversely they get told that it's okay and that we expect to be wrong and to rely on teaching something that's mushy to avoid this.

Corey notes that rather than say students are wrong she will question students to get them to explain their conclusions whether they are right or wrong and walk through the process with them.

Anne (I think?): We're also able to be found wrong. That fear that they're going to ask them a question and saying I don't know.

Paul: And if we understand that there is no right. The question is whether your wrongness is more informed than theirs.

Roland: Notes the difference in teaching statistics as a doctoral TA, there is a number, a range of possibilities, questions that they might ask and then have to provide an answer. This is not the same as questions about social constructs. We also have to think about the consequences of being wrong. He tells students that in his class it is almost impossible to fail because you just have to continue to work on the papers until it is okayed.

Paul returns to educational intent, again disagreeing that the subject matter makes a difference. In one case you are trying to get people to exhibit a predetermined performance. In the other the intent is to get people to transcend.

Are some subject matters more prone to skills learning? Some fields are more often taught that way and more people with those inclinations may teach in them. This also gets back to the grading thing.

Why can't you teach statistics that way (i.e. the reworking that Roland talked about)? What are the further consequences of teaching that way? You will be expected to run.... do I have to make sure they can do certain things? If so then I have to make sure they can do it. But then you could have the same problem with writing skills.

Corey: brought up the question of helping students with competencies that they can (and are expected to use), interwoven with the idea that when we give a grade it is used by other institutions to judge students and creates expectations about their abilities.

Paul: One problem with starting to teach is that it is as if you have an audience over your shoulder: your colleagues, your professional association, and your doctoral faculties. The most important thing to learn is that our audience is I fact in front of you. It is not my obligation to get students to a level for someone else.

Bridget: How do we fit this into the larger schema of things. We all will be looking at different sites and we need to learn to think about them but when confronted with my preliminary exams I will be asked about very specific details - when I'm the professor how do I rationalize that to the students?

Paul: You can either exhibit "hostage" behavior and say I was oppressed in this way and therefore you must be or you can say pedagogically this makes no sense and I'll change the way it gets done. When asked if there are any colleges that have taken the latter route, the answer is yes but very few. Up until 3 years ago every naval cadet had to show proficiency in using a sextant. There was no reason to learn to use this no circumstances in which this knowledge will be practical. A lot of what we think we need to do is like that.

Sam wonders how do you keep from feeling like you're going off a cliff? When you see no sense in the way things are done and then you don't know what to do.

Paul: this is the best place to be.

Cheryl: Going back to the sextant example, is there any value just to exercise your mind?

Paul: Maybe, but that's not the intent.

Corey: Talks about constraints, that sometimes we have to think about the consequences for ourselves, and some people may have more freedom to ignore senseless conventions, student evaluations and reviews than others. As Anne notes in her book, there may be advantages to being adjunct faculty.

Wesley: We have to think outside the box. How can we ask students to think outside the box when we don't?

Corey: Not that I consciously tailor my teaching while I am doing it according to these constraints, but it is na´ve to ignore them entirely.

Roland: I don't think there is much disagreement about what our goal is or should be. But I do have available a certain number of resources and I think about which fights I pick. And then there is strategy. If you teach in a statistics class in an entirely different way, what if I need this class?

(Speaker?) : What is our responsibility as teachers? How much of it is dictated by what happens outside the classroom.

Anne: What about pleasure?


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