Big Ideas

I read a recent article from ‘The Teaching Professor’ rethinking – and rebalancing – the nexus of teaching and learning. In an critique of this duality, the article’s author Maryellen Weimer posits, “I’m after big changes here—a broader and more complex understanding of learning followed by the recognition that we need to devote less effort to improving teaching and more energy to larger learning objectives.” On my first read, I was struck by the bluntness of her assessment – after all, great teaching produces learning outcomes, right?

At least that is what I used to think, too. In my statistics course – my favorite course to teach – I spend considerable time thinking about how my teaching techniques can impact how students absorb the material and apply the concepts to real-world scenarios. But learning is a thick, difficult morass to navigate, let alone define, and so perhaps it is our focus on pedagogy – on teaching – that is easier to adjust or reinvent as we refine our practice.

Yet as bell hooks comments in Teaching to Transgress, “Students leave any classroom with information whether the pedagogy has been engaging or not” (p. 159). The question is, how does our sound pedagogy align with student learning? As Weimer considers, “Learning can happen without teachers, and it often does. But teaching without learning has no justification. Teaching binds to learning more strongly than learning connects to teaching, and teachers must be responsible for both.”

I love thinking about these big ideas in the scholarship of teaching and learning. I also love learning about new techniques, innovations, technologies, and active learning practices, but I really love the big questions.

Weimer’s point, and I believe bell hooks would agree, is that our teaching can be driven by student learning, but not just learning to pass an exam, rather by learning for living. As Dee Fink writes, learning is a requirement for life; “What seems clear is that everyone, everywhere, needs to be learning all the time throughout their whole life – if they wish to live a full, meaningful, and effective life” (p. 240). Which, considering hooks, we as faculty should be just as engaged in learning as we expect of our students, and “be empowered by our interactions with students…developing sharper understandings of how to share knowledge and what to do in my participatory role with students” (p. 152). We can learn about teaching and learning, as we continually teach for student learning.

Learning to be.

I was sitting at my computer early this morning taking a moment to make my “to-do” list for the day. I am not a “list” person; some days I forget to begin a list until I have already completed 3 or 4 activities that need crossing-off! The first item on my list everyday needs to be “1. Make a list”. This morning my list consisted solely of course design activities. No grading (though I have some to do), no meetings, and only a handful of emails to write. Since the pandemic has placed me involuntarily at my kitchen counter to plan and conduct my courses, I have tried to become a list person; it seems the only way I can keep my head above water most days.

But this pandemic has also given me the opportunity to look at my pedagogy and praxis differently. I am one of those educators who thrives off of being face-to-face: the classroom is as much a social event for me as it is an arena of knowledge creation. Taking my senior-level seminars and my beloved statistics courses from “all the way live” to an asynchronous modality definitely made me feel like my wings were clipped.

In the past 10 months I have participated in nearly twenty webinars and trainings on becoming a passable – if not competent – online educator. In addition, my university offers the Online Course Design Institute (OCDI) to provide faculty with suggested guidelines and training necessary to develop a quality online course. The aim is “to enhance the online teaching and learning experiences of both faculty and students and encourage effective engagement and collaboration in the online environment.” The course is great, and I learned very much about the structure and function of an online learning milieu, but it did not do much to better empower the content of my courses.

Admittedly, I spent the last 10 months feeling like I was 30 minutes ahead of my students. There was very little time between my last key-stroke and the moment modules and lessons opened on the learning management system (LMS). And I worked seven days per week, just to crank out three courses worth of content in hopes that I served my students well.

It has also been important to ensure some level of justice to my ideal that my role is not as a “distributor of information” but rather as the “agent whereby the discovery of learning is facilitated in a student-centered environment”. So I began spending an increasing amount of time thinking about course design not as modules, discussion boards, and student self-assessments, but as a means to empower learning and the discovery of knowledge. I was spending days just thinking about how best to craft materials to activate my students.

In effect, this pandemic was a catalyst for me to rethink my teaching as I relearned just how much fun it is to do this work. Teaching face-to-face is not teaching online, and being forced to redevelop my methods and practices of teaching made for the hardest period of my career – but also the most rewarding.

There is this continued dialog between the content I create and present, and how my students understand and experience it; I have known this as long as I have been teaching. But up until last March, I have relied on my physical presence in the classroom or in informal meetings and activities – all the way live – to literally be the messenger. A manicured lecture video through a computer screen is just not the same.

But there is also the dialog I have with that same content as it is being conceived, designed, materialized, and now posted in the LMS. This new conversation between myself and the content has been incredibly rewarding and empowering, it is exciting and provocative, and hard as hell. When I teach face-to-face, I can facilitate this message live – but teaching asynchronously online, once the content is posted, it is out of my hands.

Arnold Wentzel, in his text Teaching Complex Ideas, writes of an idea of how to present information to students not as they are now, “Rather, think of them as who they will be in the future, after they are transformed by the understanding you want them to have” (p.3) In essence, the idea is learning to be not learning about.

And this is exact lesson I have learned about myself, too. Because I am learning about the educator I will be when I can once again stand at the front a room filled with bodies ready to learn about standard deviations or dialectical materialism. I am learning to be, not about.

I am taking many notes on this and other realizations I am having because not only is it going to make me a better educator when I can re-enter the physical classroom, but it is also useful as I transition to my new role as Director of Faculty Development. One of the issues that I know will be paramount will be unfurling from pandemic-era higher education on a campus known for its face-to-face instruction. There will be many of my peers, as myself, eager to get back to ‘normal’, but we will be teaching students who have yet to experience college without most of it proctored through an LMS and computer terminal. My role will be in negotiating these tensions, and providing an example of how we can take the best of our online pandemic-era teaching back to those lecterns, chalkboards, and live discussions.