Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Beating down Ophelia, or Standing up to my Own El Guapo

Growing up, I continue to discover, is hard work.

Consider this: I’m a teacher. I teach. I teach online classes at Brigham Young University-Idaho. And I am at best, right now, a mediocre teacher.

Why is that?

Well, in our teaching group forums, we’ve focused a lot on curriculum: The rubrics are too vague. There is weak emphasis on revision in our student writing. Some of the assignments make no personal connection to the student, and are thus regarded as useless at worst or busywork at best.

There is, perhaps, a more fundamental problem. And Clay Shirky (yes, I write a lot about him, but that’s fine as he has a lot to say about such things) is coming to the rescue once again. But he’s only opening the door. I’m the one who has to walk in and fiddle with the bits to see what wobbles on the outside.

I’ll have to set this up a bit: Back in 2008, the government of South Korea faced unprecedented protests over reinstating US beef imports after a mad cow scare. People were out in Seoul in droves, protesting against their government’s forgetfulness in consulting them on the issue, Shirky writes in his book “Cognitive Surplus.” The people were sending a message:
In Seoul ordinary citizens used a communication medium [Internet forums] that neither respects nor enforces silence among The People Formerly Known as the Audience, as my NYU colleague Jay Rosen likes to call us. We are used to the media’s telling us things: the people on TV tell us that the South Korean government has banned US beef because of fears of mad cow disease, or that it’s lifted the ban.
With the Internet, with cell phones, and with ubiquitous user-generated content no longer controlled by the gatekeepers, Shirky says, the game has changed. He continues:
The old view of online as a separate space, cyberspace, apart from the real world, was an accident of history. Back when the online population was tiny, most of the people you knew in your daily life weren’t part of that population. Now that computers are increasingly computerlike phones have been broadly adopted, the whole notion of cyberspace is fading. Our social media tools aren’t an alternative to real life, they are part of it.
What does this have to do with teaching and, more importantly, with me being a mediocre teacher?

I’m still at the top, delivering thunderbolts, expecting students to toe the line, without really doing much asking of them, well, what do you want to get out of this? Part of that rigidity comes through the curriculum, which we are endeavoring to fix. But the lion’s share of it comes down to me as a teacher, being willing to participate more, up front, and to listen more to what my students are saying and not saying.

So part of me wants to go back to that first semester, where I interacted with the students a lot more. I felt like I was doing something for them, something with them. I was participating, not just being a blurker.

But it’s more than that. I have to remember that this class is part of their real life, and make it more a part of my real life too. And I have to foster their desire to make what they’re learning more valuable to them.

But that is a two-way street.

Early on in the course, the students read Thomas G. Plummer’s “Diagnosing and Treating the Ophelia Syndrome,” in which he urges students to develop the ability to think for themselves, rather than waiting for those thunderbolts from the teachers on high. He also offers this bit of advice for teachers:

In that same spirit, Wayne Booth in his book, The Vocation of a Teacher, asserts that regardless of whether a teacher lectures or runs discussions, the “teacher has failed if students leave the classroom assuming that the task of thinking through to the next step lies entirely with the teacher.” To this point, Booth adds three more principles that will help teachers and students avoid the Polonius role. Addressing instructors he writes,
1. You gotta get them talking to each other, not just to you or to the air.
2. You gotta get them talking about the subject, not just having a bull session in which nobody really listens to anybody else. This means insisting on at least the following rule in every discussion: Whether I call on you or you speak up spontaneously, please address the previous speaker, or give a reason for changing the subject. 3. You gotta find ways to prevent yourself from relapsing into a badly prepared lecturette, disguised as a discussion. Informal lectures are usually worse than prepared ones.
This is what I need to do more in class to encourage my students to realize that this class isn’t s separate space, but their reality, and that they are a part of it. How can I do that?
  1. Beef up my weekly presence. I don’t have to dominate the conversation as I was accused this summer, but I can do some digging and sharing each week, preferably through a discussion post in a spot where they can’t ignore it, sharing some insight into the reading that week, or some outside source, to get them thinking and talking.
  2. Get to know the curriculum better. That is self-explanatory.
  3. Help to improve the curriculum. I’d like to see more real-life examples brought in, more multimedia (maybe one of Shirky’s TED talks).
  4. Promise myself that next semester I won’t give up and quit the job, but strive to do better. 
I also need to do this: At the beginning of the semester, ask my students: What do you want out of this class? Then at midterm, ask them how am I doing? Are you getting what you want? What can I do to improve and to help you along on that goal?

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