I have been wrestling with how best to sum up my approach to teaching, why I teach and what the social impact of teaching can be. I want my students to appreciate their education and not simply see it as a way to a job. I think an instrumentalist understanding of education is poisonous to democracy and doesn’t inspire creativity or innovation. Fun allows learners to access content and curiosity within a safe environment. By contrast, workforce training education and instrumentalist thinking gear student attitudes to a stressful compliance with drudgery. I never want my students to think of our class as drudgery but I do want to inspire them to work through the material and grapple with advancing their existing abilities. Fun allows students to relax a little and advance in ways they may not recognize in the moment. The greatest challenge for me has been incorporating fun within the typical humdrum classroom environment of Introduction to US Government and Politics. I’ve tried using stand up comedy or other multimedia, and these have been nice little teaching aids but they only work for so long. A larger, more creative change was needed to drive up student engagement this semester.
One of the major impediments in my class this semester has been the physical environment. We began the semester with 40 students squeezed into one of those windowless rooms in McBryde. The second floor of McBryde contains rooms better suited for brainwashing than learning. There are a few exceptions, but I was unable to secure a room of suitable size that has a more fluid seating plan. I favor the Socratic method which allows students to construct the class dialogue while I facilitate discussion through asking targeted questions about the readings designed to stimulate critical thinking and student engagement. The typical grid formation of desks in the room does not lend itself well to this method primarily because the students can’t look at each other and attention is directed to the podium at the front. The whole physical environment seems to communicate obedience to the sage on the stage with the PowerPoint and, I think, favors the regurgitative model of learning. We tried it for the first week or two but the sleepy faces and disengaged students forced me to reconsider how our environment would facilitate learning. We first tried breaking up into groups to answer a few broad questions about the text. This isn’t a bad reorganization, by any means, and it got them talking to their neighbors but I found that a lot of the weren’t moving their desks to face each other. I typically float around and check in with the groups to see how they’re getting on and I would move a desk or two to sit with them, but they weren’t pick up on how strange it was to be working in a group with your back to someone. But, at least they were talking to each other and getting excited about the ideas in the text.
I try to vary class organization to keep from being too predictable. I find a little bit of spontaneity in the day-to-day stuff helps break up the monotony of what can easily turn into a grind. We have a 5 pm Tuesday and Thursday class so they’re always tired and burnt when the come in. I’ve tried to communicate to them that it’s not my class, but our class and they are to exercise some agency in it and its content. The group thing was working for a while but the discussions were becoming unfocused as the temptation to talk about the weekend or whatever else is far more attractive than Sheldon Wolin and managed democracy. I came in a little early one day and asked the few students there to arrange the desks in a circle and then left the room. I don’t know if it was just getting up and moving around, making eye contact with each other or that I was now sitting with all of them on the same level, but student engagement seemed up. The discussion started ping-ponging around the room and students who don’t regularly speak got into the conversation.
Last Thursday we got a bit more daring. I had assigned a dreadfully boring – though forgivingly short – chapter in Wolin. The class environment was healthy but I wasn’t sure if they were really getting the text. Wolin is usually assigned in upper division and graduate courses but I thought him accessible and stimulating enough for an intro class. I didn’t want to bore them with this latest installment but I did want a no-pressure diagnostic of their understanding. I gave them all chalk, asked them to split into work groups and then asked them to draw his main argument to date. I put on some music and let them get to it. They’ve never smiled so much. It looked like they were having a genuinely good time going through the intricacies of Wolin’s argument. I noticed that they supported one another and complimented each other’s skills. Some remembered the argument better, others had stronger organizational skills and others did the drawing. After 30 or 40 minutes we did a debrief. I told them why I had asked them to do this. What I had hoped they learned and that their pictures didn’t need to be perfect. Each group then had a turn discussing their picture with a short Q&A. I was blown away by what they had retained and the multiple ways they had represented the argument. They had not only learned from each other in their groups but also created an environment during the debrief in which they taught each other.
They have a collaborative essay due in a few weeks and I’m excited to see what they turn up and how they organize their information. I’m hoping that these next few weeks will support their writing it, but I may have to get a little more creative with the class environment and exercises. I want them to feel a deeper enfranchisement in constructing the class and working through the material but I’m not sure if they feel like they own the class yet. I’ll have to experiment a little more.