Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Teaching at Texas A&M | Leadership, Learning, and Expecting Great Things from Your Students

Teaching is an interesting profession and teaching at a major university is even more peculiar. I always commend my friends that teach high school and junior high for their dedication to a sometimes thankless profession. They wake up early every day, give relentlessly, grade papers late into the night, and on top of all that, they are active in the life of their school. There is no way I could give what they give and survive. 

The university is a different animal. We are not necessarily responsible for the formation of our students lives. Our students are, in many, ways expected to teach themselves and are responsible for their success or failure. In the social sciences, we as teachers, have a unique opportunity to lead students to a life of deeper reflection and critical thinking. Sociology, specifically. challenges the worldview of students and challenges those structures and beliefs that reside in the realm of common sense. 

However, many college courses have reduced this opportunity to the same regurgitative learning that is expected from standardized testing in high school. Many professors complain that their students are not smart enough, don't try hard enough, can't write, and don't care. This is not true and it is our responsibility to create an environment in which learning is experiential. College students are more than capable and more than willing to push themselves to a deeper and more critical level. But, when college professors do not believe in their students abilities and/or do not push their students to that next level of thinking, they will not experience this transformative type of learning that can change a students perspective. 

This semester I have been teaching Social Global Trends. This 200 level class is occupied by mainly freshman and sophomores from a variety of majors. From preparing the syllabus to delivering the lectures and grading papers, I have been challenged to develop the appropriate balance between challenging my students and lecturing completely over their heads. I debated whether or not to use a stale text book or have my students read the complex theories that address the various dynamics that we face in this era of globalization. I was not sure if they would possess the critical ability to write insightful papers and considered resorting to multiple choice tests. I was nervous about this semester and I think that some things worked very well and other things failed miserably. My students were not engaged in every discussion but when they were the conversations were dynamic. Not every journal lived up to the standard I had set for the class but many exceeded my expectations. 

So what have I learned from this semester? 

1. Leadership:
Water Rises to the Level of it's Source

I read this line in a leadership book a few years ago. In any organization and in any leadership position, those whom you lead will not exceed your level of preparation and dedication. For example, if you want your employees to show up 15 minutes before they are scheduled, you should arrive 30-60 minutes before you are scheduled. Likewise, if you are attempting to motivate your employees to dedicate themselves to learning more about your customers, you will only be able to lead them to the extent to which you know your customers. 

How this applies in the classroom:

1.1. Engaged Lecturer = Engaged Student

I operate a discussion based class. Each day, we have a short reading about different dimensions of globalization and we discuss them in class. If this is done well, the classroom become less of a lecture and more of a conversation amongst engaged individuals. When this is done poorly, the classroom is a stale environment of lifeless conversation and boring lectures.

This semester my mind has often been distracted by my studying for my preliminary exams. Thus, those weeks that I put everything into my lectures, the class discussion was amazing (you know - those classes when you feel on top of the world when 50 minutes are up). The students were engaged and I rarely had to resort to my powerpoint slides to make the key points I had prepared. Student's would engage each other and all I was left to do was play the role of referee. 

However, those weeks that I was distracted by the 75 books I am reading for prelims, the classroom was dull and lifeless. The questions I asked to stimulate conversation were confusing and did not lead to the key points of the text. My responses to students statements lead to dead ends and the students did not engage each other in dialogue. In this type of classroom, I have been forced to lecture as students fell asleep, texted under the table, or scribbled on their notebooks. Fail!

1.2. Depth of Lecturer Knowledge = Depth of Student Learning

If we want students to engage in deep reflective reading, discussion, and learning, then we must put in a greater level of reading, discussion, and learning. Again, students are not going to learn more than their professor, in the same way an employee will not develop a deeper dedication to an organization than the employer. Water can only rise to the level of its source. 

This is where studying for prelims has made me more successful this semester. I was lucky to be assigned a course that directly related to my research area. I study democracy, citizenship, political economy, and globalization. From forming the structure of the class to choosing the readings and delivering the material, I have been able to draw upon a rich source of material that provided a deeper analysis of globalization. I used this material to structure the class and, when spending 40 hours a week engrossed in globalization literature, I was able to deliver material to the class that expanded their understanding of globalization and complicated their simple, common sense understanding of globalization. My extensive reading on the subject gave me to tools to answer different questions and allow the class discussion to flow in ways I did not originally intend.

2. Expect Great Things From Your Students:
4 Ingredients to Excellence in Thinking

This is similar to the leadership of water rising to the level of its source. Students, usually, will not perform higher than what you expect and challenge them to do. I think there are 4 key ingredients to elevate the level of your student's thinking - expectations, motivation, empathy, and feedback.

2.1. Expectations

As teachers, everything about our instruction begins with our expectations of our students. This begins with syllabus construction and reading assignments. As I was preparing to teach this class this summer, my first dilemma was whether to use a textbook or to use primary research sources. At first, I planned on using a textbook because my expectation of students in a 200 level course was that they (1) wouldn't read and (2) wouldn't be able to understand the reading. 

Although this is important to consider, what I have found is that even freshman and sophomores are willing and capable of tackling tough readings, discussing them, and critically reflecting on them in their journals. I am pleased with my decision to use a reader and proceed with a discussion based class. Although some readings may have been beyond their existing knowledge base, they tackled the readings and after a class discussion they were ready to move to a deeper level of thinking. 

My second decision hinged on my decision of whether or not to use a textbook or a reader - I had to decide whether or not to have students write a reflective journal every week or write traditional argument papers. Again, I had to decide whether or not the students would be willing and able to complete such a difficult project.

2.2. Motivation - The Reflective Journal

Teaching students to engage their world critically requires the expectation that they can and then motivating them to step outside their worldview and consider the world from other subject positions. This is difficult for all of us to do and takes much practice and introspection. So the second decision - to journal or not to journal - required me to present the journal and the material in a way that motivated them to reflect on their worldview and assess the dynamics of globalization in a new way. 

The reflective journals are a great motivational tool. I first present the journal as a more authentic learning tool. I present the case that college classes should not reinforce the rote learning of high school. That as a teacher, I should not teach in a way that forces them to regurgitate what I want to hear, rather it should allow them to work though the complexities of the world in a way that makes sense to them.  

What I require is two pages a week in which the compare and summarize the reading and then reflect on them. I give them the freedom to discuss what is most immediate to them - what they can understand. Then I ask them to apply it to some part of their experience or worldview (what do they think about the article? Agree or disagree? In what way does it challenge what they have understood?) This is in many ways more difficult than a tradition paper because they must read everything and assess it. Also, their are no absolute guidelines - this is terrifying because we have all grown to learn within strict parameters and instructions. 

The journals are cumulative (I collect them twice a semester) and afford students the liberty to work through their thoughts as each reading influences their understanding of globalization. 

How effective were the journals this semester?

I was pleasantly surprised at the depth and diversity of insights my students expressed this semester. Even when I failed to provide for a good classroom discussion in a week the journal allowed them to flesh out their ideas. It is amazing to read how the student's understanding of the complexity of globalization developed over the semester and the diversity of ways in which students communicated their ideas. 

This is not to say every journal or every part of each journal met my expectations. A few students did not bother to move past their worldview, did not complete readings, and/or did not put much thought into the journal. These students were the exception and my disappointment was greatly overshadowed by the students that took the project seriously and developed a more critical understanding of the world. Which leads to the third and fourth key ingredients - empathy and feedback.

2.3. Empathy

A natural tendency of many of my colleagues is to focus on the overly conservative, fundamental christian, wealthy, and white composition of the students they teach. I find this to be counterproductive. No individual has the power to change the position they were born into - so blaming them for their privilege and sometimes narrow minded and oppressive worldview does not provided fertile ground for developing critical thinking. 

On the other hand, starting from a spot of empathy provides a greater opportunity for instruction. This is crucial to not only grading but also for using the reflective journal as a tool to develop a deeper way of thinking through the nuances of the human experience. 

It is easy to write of a student as narrow minded and disregard their perspective and thoughts. But, through empathy, we first attempt to understand where a student comes from - their experiences, teachings, family, socioeconomic status, religion, travels, etc. This sets us up to understand instead of condemn and thus provides the opportunity to utilize their worldview to open up other perspectives and experiences. Empathetic teaching allows us to no longer see the subject position as an obstacle and then enables us to use their worldview as a teaching tool. 

So, when a student fails to assess a topic critically and has a hard time stepping outside of their subject position we must engage them in dialogue and present feedback. 

2.4. Feedback

Here is where the journal provides an opportunity for the instructor to raise the level of the water's source. Reading these journals is time consuming and intricate. The journal is only an effective teaching tool if the instructor take time and care to understand how the student is working through the material and provide feedback. The journal provides a rare opportunity for the teacher to actually get inside the head of the student and observe how they are processing the information from the class. Thus, regardless of whether or not the student is "getting it", you as the instructor have the ability to ask further questions, present different arguments, recommend further reading, correct mistaken understandings, encourage students when they are on the right track, fill in crucial details that may have been missed, and express your thoughts on their thoughts. 

This is hard work and if the time isn't taken to give feedback then you can't expect students to put in the same effort on the next journal. If they feel like you didn't read carefully, attempt to understand where they were going, or that you simply judged them as ignorant, they will not be willing to put in the same effort to think critically and engage the material in a creative way. The goal of the journal is to provide an opportunity for the student to engage learning in a creative and open way. 

If we want our students to develop critical thinking skills than we have to expect that they are willing an able, motivate them to be great, empathize with their subject position, and then provide instructive feedback. 

Feedback is an opportunity to raise the level of the source thus raising the level that the water can rise to. In fact, without feedback, the whole goal of of developing critical thinking and changing their view of the world from simple to complex is negated. You can't ask a student to read and think critically if you don't engage their writings critically with empathy and high expectations.

3. Flexibility

I know this post is getting long, so if you are still reading I will keep this short. 

In the middle of the semester I could tell that the reading I had selected had become redundant. Even I was getting bored! I decided to substitute the scheduled readings for three reading on war and the post 9/11 world. These three weeks led to the most lively debates journal entries (about torture, drones, citizenship, democracy, public policy, and many other topics). I couldn't imagine this semester without those three weeks and I think these readings and discussions had a profound impact on the way my students understand globalization and way. 

Further, after returning to the scheduled reading for a week, I came across a speech by President Obama that addressed almost everything we had discussed throughout the semester. This seem to tie the whole semester together and provided a great teaching tool about how to use the readings to critically dissect what we read and watch in the media and presidential rhetoric.

This willingness to be flexible with the reading schedule changed the whole nature of the course. 


This has by far been the most challenging course I have taught. I have learned a lot about myself and what works and doesn't work in the classroom. Every course is composed of a different composition of student, so of course, my suggestions won't work for every class. 

What is most important is our disposition towards our students. Our preparation, knowledge, and dedication set the level of the source in which the water (our students) can rise to. Our expectations set the standard for how we will motivate our students and to what level they may rise. Our empathetic disposition enables us to provide critical feedback that rejects judgement and mindless regurgitation. 

We as social scientists have a responsibility to translate the academic language into a language discernible to the public. We have a unique opportunity to provide experiential learning that relies not on bland facts and theories but transforms the way people experience the world. 

These are just few suggestions and I hope they contribute to our ability to produce better students and better citizens.

Blogging about teaching in an era of globalization,

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