Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I'm Learnding

Used under the fair use doctrine for educational purposes.

So, I have a lot to learn.

That’s no surprise. That I knew about the Ophelia Syndrome before I signed up to teach this course doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t occasionally stumble into its pitfalls. But as Lucy said to Charlie Brown in the Peanuts Christmas special, “that I recognize I have a problem means I am not too far gone.” That’s good, right?

I’ve already confessed to Tyler that I’m having a hard time adjusting to teaching this course because, from 2006 to 2009, I was taking online courses with a group of highly-motivated grad students. Now I’m on the other side of the looking-glass and see that the students I’m dealing with don’t quite have that level of motivation. Some do – don’t get me wrong there – but there are some who don’t. And it hurts to see. Not that it’s hurting me, but I hate to see them hurting themselves perhaps without recognizing it.

So what to do? Tyler’s suggestion that we study the language we use as we interact with our students is an apt one, because I’ve seen in all sorts of interactive situations – from the online courses in which I was a student, to email exchanges I have with various SMEs at work and through the sometimes contentious exchanges I have with fellow co-workers at Uncharted, a social media group I’m involved with – that it’s communication and the words we use that sometimes inflame and sometimes calm contentious situations.

This is the part where I start to sound like Uncle Rico from “Napoleon Dynamite,” as if I’m completely legit, like I’ve got all the answers. I don’t. This is just what I’m seeing as important and what I’m seeing I need to work on.

Firstly, Elder Bednar says in his presentation “Seek Learning by Faith” (I’m trying to model good citation format for my students here; gotta keep in practice), “[A]nything you or I do as an instructor that knowingly and intentionally draws attention to self – in the messages we present, in the methods we use, or in our personal demeanor – is a form of priestcraft that inhibits the teaching effectiveness of the Holy Ghost.”

Ouch. Priestcraft. You know, that’s just like, as Steve Martin says, the word ‘hemorrhoid.’ Neither is a word you want to become associated with. But as I read that portion of the article, I recognized myself in it a little. On paper like this, I’m loquacious. Logorrheic, in fact. And I’ve probably stepped on a few toes strutting about in the cockpit of language, making myself sound bigger than I am. So then I read what Elder Bednar says and I’m humbled. I’m also reminded of what one of my writing heroes said:

The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course, it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. As the author of the Theologia Germanicai says, we may come to love knowledge – our knowing – more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar’s life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.

That’s what CS Lewis says in “Learning in War-Time,” a sermon he delivered in Oxford in 1939.

So between CS Lewis and Elder Bednar, I can see I’ve got some humility to learn.

So what am I doing to learn it?

Well, I’m here, virtual hat in hand, hoping to learn from the rest of you. This is my first semester teaching anything outside of Primary or Elders Quorum, so I’m green as bamboo. I’m ready to be taught.

I’m also doing a little self-exploration, thus following one of Elder Bednar’s admonitions: “Learning by faith cannot be transferred from an instructor to a student through a lecture, a demonstration, or an experiential exercise; rather, a student must exercise faith and act in order to obtain the knowledge for himself or herself.”

Here’s what I’ve found out:

Mark Canada, in “Students as Seekers in Online Courses,” offers good advice, as Tyler has already pointed out: “To help students adjust to working effectively as independent learners, professors should emphasize the pursuit of knowledge – perhaps even using words such as “seek” and “explore: -- when communicating with their online students.” I’m trying to do that – my word of the semester is “challenge.” I know each of the students I have in this section are capable of doing the work that’s being asked of them. Over the past two weeks, we’ve spent time together learning, and I’ve learned which students are the eager beavers and which ones need a bit of cajolery. Thus the challenges – dig deeper into the articles, find what you like, what you don’t agree with, and share it with the class. These challenges are calls to action – something Alan Murray, Uncharted’s president, urges us to do all the time as we try to take our creation at www.uncharted.net and turn it into a successful social media platform. We can unfurl the flags and put out the welcome mat and pay jugglers to stand at the doors, he says, but until we ask our visitors to do something – to submit a story, upload some photos, etc. – they won’t feel obliged or encouraged to do so, even if they’ve come to us of their own free will.

Note I use the word cajolery here. That’s for shorthand purposes, not meant to bear the baggage the word brings with it. One of the things I hope to emphasize with my students throughout this semester and, BYU-Idaho willing, further semesters, is that no matter their chosen major, they’ll need to be effective communicators. I plan on pointing them to a paper called “Do Scientists Understand the Public,” written by Chris Mooney for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Mooney’s thesis is that scientists in general either need to do a better job of communicating with the public in order to convey the import of their scientific research or to solicit the help of professional communicators to do so in a way that leads the public to positive calls for action, rather than leading them to preconceived notions or knee-jerk political opinions of science because the principles haven’t been clearly communicated.

Mooney, in his paper, commends the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission as an example of a scientific agency that has “undertaken new measures to strengthen public support of its activities.” Part of that includes a careful watch that cajolery or condescension doesn’t enter into the picture. Mooney writes: “According to Janet Kotra, head of the NRC’s High-Level Waste Public Outreach Team, these steps include improving the ability of government scientists to engage with citizens in well-designed, effective public meetings. As Kotra put it at the American Academy meeting: ‘I will never forget a former colleague who said, ‘You mean, I have to dumb down my presentation for Ma and Pa Kettle?’ And of course, the answer to that is, yes, if you see it that way. But if you see it that way, I don’t want you talking to them.’”

So as I issue my challenges and calls to action, I’m trying to do it in a manner that encourages my students to act, rather than to be acted upon. “Learning by faith and from experience are two of the central features of the Father’s plan of happiness,” Elder Bednar writes. “The Savior preserved moral agency through the Atonement and made it possible for us to act and to learn by faith. Lucifer’s rebellion against the plan sought to destroy the agency of man, and his intent was that we as learners would only be acted upon.” I hope my choices – and the Spirit – help me avoid such situations.

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