Posts Tagged ‘Teachers’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Each of the last three terms, I have taught RMU students about the Holocaust.  I created this course on history’s most infamous genocide, and it is, as compared to the most of the survey history classes our students take, extremely detailed.  To properly cover such a topic within 10 weeks is quite challenging. One hurdle to face is the seemingly simple question: Where to begin?  Should the course focus solely upon the Twentieth Century?  Or, should it range back to the earliest days of European Antisemitism; perhaps even back to the break of Christianity from Judaism?  It is a difficult issue, but, after teaching the course numerous times, I have a methodology.  The first class in the course focuses upon Christian Antisemitism and anti-Judaism from the earliest days, down to the beginnings of the early modern European world (circa 1600).

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Antisemitism as a term was first used by anti-Jewish political parties

Obviously, this is a great deal of information to dole out to students in 90 minutes, and though I think I have gotten pretty good at painting with a broad historical analytical brush, I recently realized I faced a problem in this initial course.  The first couple times I taught the course, I quickly jumped into the history of Antisemitism, using the term Antisemitism over and over during my first lecture.  Most students seemed interested, and appeared to recognize the word.  Then, maybe a year ago, when I mentioned Antisemitism for the first time in class, I noticed a furrowed brow or two among my students.  Hmmm.  Why the confusion? Then, it struck me: These students don’t recognize the term.  Sure enough, when I asked my students who knew what Antisemitism was, I only saw a tentative smattering of hands.  My mind zoomed back to my previous courses. What if the vast majority of my students had NO idea what I meant in any of those classes when I first used the term Antisemitism?

I jumped into action.  I needed to clearly define the term.  Or, better yet, I would ask my students to find a definition for me.

Understand that I write this not as a critique of my students, but as a critique of myself.  I had been making the worst assumption a teacher can make.  I lazily figured that my students have the same information in their heads that I do. The power of this classroom incident really struck home for me recently when I stumbled upon a wonderful, important article in The Atlantic titled, “To Read Dickens, It helps to know about French History and the Bible.”  Jessica Lahey, the writer of the article, is a middle-school teacher.  She realized that for her students to really understand, and hence, enjoy Dickens’ classic The Tale of Two Cities, they would need to be ‘culturally literate’ in the terms of French 18th century history and the New Testament.  To provide this cultural background, Lahey now begins each of her classes with important terms and ideas that will clarify the necessary material for that day.

Lahey does this for her 8th graders, but, this is not something that should be exclusive to age or grade level. Such introduction to ‘cultural literacy’ is a constant of thorough education. Without it, the student suffers. However, it often must be handled with kid gloves.  The introduction of ‘cultural literacy’ should never be done in a spirit of elite superiority. Let me give one personal anecdote to prove my point. I  particularly remember a graduate school instructor of mine who often portrayed the students’ lack of cultural literacy as an incredible failureJacques-Louis_David_004_Thermopylae on their parts.  One example: In his 19th century German history course, this grad professor asked me and the rest of the students about a Greek history reference we stumbled upon in a work by Nietzsche (I think). No one in the class recognized the reference. Our professor was visibly dismayed.

He huffed his frustration, mentioning that the writer was obviously referring to ‘Thermopylae” and the 300 Spartans who died there facing a vastly greater Persian force. (This classroom incident took place several years before the hit film 300 was released.)  I and my classmates  felt inadequate. According to him, we SHOULD have known about Thermopylae, and the fact that we did not illustrated an unforgivable ignorance.  Imagine how my classmates and I responded to questions from that point on.  There was always a concern of looking ‘dumb’, and facing a dismissive smirk from ‘the expert.’

I realize now that incidents like this happen on an everyday basis in a college classroom. Of course, this does not mean every professor reacts to a lack of cultural literacy in the way my professor did.  But, if we assume all our students understand a term or idea that we are familiar with, we have taken a step on that slippery slope.  Of course, some in the class do have the recognition of cultural ideas and terms from day one.  Those students will most likely be the ‘hand-raisers’.  They will ask the questions, and become invested in the class.  This is wonderful.  But what if most of the class is instantly alienated by an assumption of cultural literacy? This silent majority may lose hope, and/or interest.  Many will feel the way I felt about not recognizing the word ‘Thermopylae’.  Can they overcome this feeling? Will they take it in stride?  This is the question, and it will mean failure or success for many.

I don’t know about you, but I want all my students to be successful.

 

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty. 

I had a professor in graduate school named Dr. Daniel Melnick who rarely gave student Imagework a full-fledged “A”. He nearly always wrote, “potentially excellent, A-“. Many years later, I am accustomed to imperfection, still happy with an “A-,” still encouraged by the word potentially. Unfortunately, I still make foolish mistakes; take every post I have written for this blog, for example. Even though I have drafted and edited each at least five times, the minute I re-read it online, I spot an error.

I am a ceaseless critic of my students’ work, by necessity, but also of my own work and life, generally. It has a lot to do with the training I received in undergraduate and graduate school, and I am grateful for the capacity to be critical, but I must defend against my proclivity to become overly so (I am sometimes referred to as the “Dream Killer” when rushing to identify problems instead of pausing to provide encouragement). Recently, I did what I too often do: I jumped to the fault. I pointed out the one tiny error in a truly useful info-graphic my friend Hanna made for a class for which she was to be a guest speaker. Only after realizing how ungrateful my behavior was did I retreat and praise her efforts and thank her again for kindly sharing her expertise and advice with my students, devoting both her time and her knowledge without pay. In my haste to correct problems, I must remember not to diminish the larger accomplishment.

Perfection is not attainable, despite what my friend Ian’s mother might say. I share the truth as embodied by baseball batting averages; a phenomenal batting average is .400, orImage “batting 400”.  I discuss the implications of this statistic with my students. In ten attempts, we should expect six failures, hope for no more than four successes. I find this analogy immensely comforting. Nevertheless, I feel foolish when what I write contains errors since I am supposed to know better. Well, I suppose I do know better, I just don’t do better. Fortunately, this realization does not paralyze me with fear because my colleague and fellow turtle member, Paul, has given all who write for this blog the gift of a revolutionary idea: “perfect is the opposite of done.” This motto allows us to accept the inevitability of flaws as part of the larger process of building something that has lasting value.

My friendships are the best example of something spectacular I have built over the years. Coincidentally, friendship provides a different perspective on flaws. The longer a friendship Imagelasts, the more accepting friends are of each other’s foibles. At some point (around about the one decade of friendship mark, it seems), something rather extraordinary happens: the flaws and eccentricities and imperfections become what we love most. When I behave in my peculiar way; lining up M & M’s in color-coded rows, insisting Chris Rock was not in that movie, packing seven scarves for a three-day weekend, or arriving entirely too early for a party, people who have loved me for ten years are charitable enough to view these quirks as part of my charm. Flaws are noticeable, often painfully so, but being loved in spite of, or even because of, our flaws creates a powerful connection established in the understanding that though we are imperfect creatures, we are magnificent, too. Besides, when a thing is flawless, there’s really nothing left to say. 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

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Socrates

I love Socrates.  It is hard not to.  In an age when physical beauty was all-important, Socrates was notoriously unattractive.  Big head, bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, pot-belly and dirty feet were his physical attributes.  When we say ‘true beauty is on the inside’, Socrates helps us prove the cliche is more than just talk.  It was his brain that made the man beautiful.  Of course, that beautiful brain would earn Socrates a death sentence.

In 399 BC Socrates drank a small cup of hemlock and died in seconds. Infamously, the reason he was put to death was for ‘corrupting’ the youth of Athens, and for introducing new divinities into the polis.  But, the real problem was twofold.  First, he kept company with men who would become enemies of the Athenian city-state.  These men admired and loved Socrates, and so, the philosopher was painted with the brush of disloyal collaboration.  Second, and more importantly, he simply asked too many damn questions that ticked off powerful people.

The questions Socrates asked were difficult to answer, and his dialogue partners often found themselves in the embarrassing situation of realizing that they were not quite as wise as they thought. Granted, Socrates asked some toughies. He wanted to know: What is virtue?  Why should people be good?  What is beauty? What is truth?  As he walked the streets, he understandably looked for those that society proclaimed as wise, powerful, and virtuous to get his answers. But, as he would frame his broad questions to chosen Athenians, he found (and so did they), that they had little idea how to respond. This embarrassment led to anger; anger led to punishment.

I always get excited to introduce (or reintroduce) Socrates to my students in Western Civilization and Comparative Worldviews.  In comparison to other great philosophers, his arguments are quite accessible and his hypothetical situations are made for classroom discussions.  (I find the Ring of Gyges is the best for heated debate.)  But, I realized there is something else that makes Socrates so understandable and easy to empathize with: Every student has known a Socrates. Every student has even been a Socrates themselves.  Then they grew out of it.

Raising my own children has provided me with a perfect, recognizable analogy for Socrates.  At about three, our girls both turned into mini-Socratic thinkers. They grasped the wisdom that the only thing they knew was that they knew nothing. And so, what do little 3 and 4 year olds do?  They ask ‘why’?  “Why this, and why that”; why everything.  “Why do you go to work, daddy”?  “Why do you garden, mommy”? “Why are we Americans?” “Why do I need to go to bed”?  “Why do people die”?

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Nemesis

How do parents respond?  We usually get frustrated.  “Stop asking”!  “Why? Because it just is”!  “I said so, that’s why”! Or, we buy them off. “Wouldn’t you like some ice cream”?  Such responses are based upon more than simple annoyed exhaustion.  Parents realize that once three or four consecutive “whys” are thrown our way, we don’t really have an answer anymore.  Parental frustration stops being simply about answering questions, and soon becomes self-examination of our lack of wisdom. We stop children dead in their tracks with logical fallacies, and the changing of subjects because we want to keep living within our caves.  We find that our children’s  questions can make us squirm with discomfort.

We are able to buy children off with some frozen treats, or scare them with raised voices.  For those in Ancient Athens, Socrates was not so easily disabused of his questions.  Ice cream wouldn’t do it.  Anger wouldn’t do it.  Socrates argued that he was the only thing keeping Athens awake and aware, and would never stop buzzing around them with questions.  So they killed him.

Athenian democrats silenced a voice that made them feel uncomfortable, frustrated, and frightened.  They never had to hear those “why” questions from the old man again.  Ah, but fate is fickle. Nemesis, the Greek goddess of divine retribution brought comeuppance. Though Athenians killed him off, a new Socrates was born in Athens everyday.

by Jenny Jocks Stelzer, English Faculty & Chair of the Sustainability Council

“Education should reflect the world we live in.” Who said that? Some famous educator? A successful business person? Oh, it obviously comes from the back wall in Room 303, right?

Nope. It was said by my student, Kayla Moore.

This quarter, I’m doing something new. Not because I, as a professional educator, thought of something new to do with all of my “education” or “experience.” Not because I read about it in a pedagogical periodical or went to a brown bag workshop or webinar. I’m doing something new because my student, Kayla Moore, approached me and said. “I have a lot of thoughts and ideas about education. It must be changed and I think I know how to do it!” Now, as the “professor” in this situation, my professionally acceptable responses would be as follows:

(1) “Well, focus on graduating first. Answer all of the questions, write all of the papers, and take all of the tests, then we’ll talk.” [Subtext: “Think the way I want you to first. Then, and only then, should you start thinking differently.”]

(2) “Change education? You need to be formally educated to understand what needs to change in education!” [Subtext: “Join us here in ‘the system.’ You’ll see.”]

(3) “That’s nice, dear.” [Subtext: “That’s nice, dear.”]

I’m a professor, right? I’m supposed to be doing the educating. I’m supposed to have the answers. I’m supposed to teach my students how to, when to, and what to think, right? Before you quickly (and smugly) claim “I don’t teach them what to think! I teach them critical thinking!” (as I did), consider these ideas, that I’ve been lucky enough to explore with Kayla in our independent study this quarter:

We’ve explored different “landscapes” for education, instead of the classroom.

We’ve explored teaching students to think of terms in the unexpected, instead of anticipating “what’s on the test”.

We’ve explored embracing social media and welcoming it in the classroom, instead of forcing students into a “phone-free” zone.

We’ve explored technology in a way that pushes education forward, letting it evolve into something beyond software that prevents “cheating” and facilitates “course management.”

We’ve explored changing the focus of education from “They need to get these ‘fundamentals’ down,” to “They need to learn how to innovate and develop new ‘fundamentals’ themselves.”

We’ve explored switching up the teacher-student relationship, and that is exactly what happened for me with this experience. I’ve learned that I don’t have all of the answers, or the best career advice, or the right opinion to hold. I’ve learned that there are innovative ways to get students engaged (like microblogging! Yes, Tweeting, in class!). I’ve learned that there are different ways for me to share the awesome stuff that I learn with my students (by interacting with them through social bookmarking, like we are peers who respect each other or something. Imagine that!)

I, a “professional educator,” have learned more about educating from my weekly discussions with Kayla than I have from most of my 11 years of experience because, for once, I relinquished the control.  I didn’t set up “objectives” or “learning outcomes” or “assignments” or “tests” for this independent study. I invited my colleagues to join in our conversation and (gasp) learn from Kayla’s insights as well (Thanks, Paul Gaszak, Gerry Dedera, and Tricia Lunt!). Instead of “teaching” her, I let Kayla’s ideas guide us, and she will be ending this quarter with an active blog on innovative thinking, a video that communicates her blog and draws the world to her ideas, a thesis that is evolving as we speak, focused on changing the educational system to help students become innovative and creative thinkers, on using what she calls “Academic Networking” to get students to learn in ways that mimic the world they have embraced and live in, and a formal plan and proposal for educators, to help us decide that, even though we are the “professionals,” it is time for US to get inspired: to let our students lead the way.