Occasional Posts

I’ll be blogging here periodically. The posts might be related to great instructional practices, specific dilemmas faced by me or my colleagues, useful resources, or interesting discussions in history, teaching, or higher education. I see this as an opportunity to think through some ideas and to do so while writing in a less formal way than I usually do.

Baseball and Teaching

As I was watching one of my favorite baseball players hang his head and make the long walk back to the dugout after striking out in front of 30,000 fans, I recalled how I feel after a disappointing class meeting.

I strike out when I assign tedious readings, give confusing directions for a class exercise, keep lecturing even though students’ eyes are glazing over, ask uninspiring discussion questions, or botch the answer to an unexpected student question. I do these things fairly frequently. It’s not a good feeling.

Perhaps I can take solace in the fact that many star baseball players strike out a quarter or more of the time. In fact, an outstanding rate for successfully getting on base is 40% of the time (think Mike Trout or Vladimir Guerrero Jr.). To be successful, great athletes must be able to bounce back from their frequent small failures. We instructors must too.

Because it’s summer and I’m an ardent baseball fan, I got to thinking about other ways teaching resembles baseball.

Even the best professionals go through slumps, and during those slumps, it’s wise to seek advice.

We faculty may drop the ball for a week, have an entire course that just didn’t work the way we hoped, or even endure a bad semester. When that happens, “coaches” can help us determine which things to keep doing the same way and which adjustments to try. The needed adjustments might be minor (when batting, raise your elbow; when teaching, take the time to plan clear directions and good discussion prompts).

It’s always wise to consult an appropriate coach. A baseball player struggling with batting shouldn’t seek out a pitching coach; slumping instructors should consult teaching center staff or an especially wise colleague instead of a bitter colleague who blames students when things don’t go well.

Stats matter.

Baseball general managers obsess over statistics. They measure all sorts of things with the goal of figuring out which players should be drafted, how to defeat an opponent (it’s helpful to know an opposing player can’t hit curveballs), or where their own team members should improve. Some players and fans dislike this emphasis on stats. They prefer to trust their perceptions and instincts, or they think that focusing on statistics spoils the fun of the game.

Stats sometimes matter for instructors too, especially the numbers from survey instruments that solicit student perceptions of teaching. How much these data matter varies at different institutions, and not all institutions are transparent about what constitutes “excellent” or “acceptable” ratings. As in baseball, an overemphasis on these statistics can be disheartening and spoil the fun of teaching.

At the same time, sometimes the numbers can help us identify areas where we’re less successful, and then we can probe more deeply into what’s going on beneath the numbers by talking more with students, utilizing mid-semester focus groups, and/or having a class observed. We might also consider “stats” to be information we glean from student performance on our exams, essays, and other assessments, which can indicate the content students are struggling with. Knowing this helps direct our future efforts.

People appreciate a good teammate.

In baseball, a team player might selflessly hit the ball to right field in order to advance a runner or execute what’s called a sacrifice fly or bunt. However, some players resist such actions because they’d rather focus only on their own glory instead of the team’s well-being. “Clubhouse cancer” is the term for arrogant jerks who don’t support their teammates. Teams can succeed in spite of some internal conflicts, but the baseball season is long, and everyone is happier when all the players feel a shared mission and make an effort to be good teammates.

What’s the comp in academia? Faculty who never volunteer for departmental service, insist on special treatment, and hijack the discussion when they do bother to show up for meetings? Lone wolfs who are nationally known in the profession but don’t get to know their colleagues? Profs who see TAs as servant-graders rather than apprentices or partners in teaching?

Academic years and careers can be long like baseball seasons, and studies suggest that that getting along with colleagues matters (O’Meara et al.). Professional relationships and a sense of community not only help departmental morale but contribute to an individual faculty member’s satisfaction and productivity. Alternatively, we might think of our “teammates” as being our students. Scholars involved in Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning assert that partnering with students in respectful, reciprocal learning relationships with shared responsibilities leads to all sorts of great outcomes, including improved student engagement, agency, motivation, awareness, and confidence.

Success depends on mastering certain fundamentals.

In baseball, scouts refer to five basic tools that contribute to a player’s potential to excel: fielding, running, hitting for average, hitting for power, and throwing. Recently some organizations have begun prioritizing other attributes, such as a “good eye” (the ability to quickly recognize discern what kind of pitch has been thrown), or a player’s coachability, mental makeup, sustained effort, or understanding of the subtleties of the game.

I’ve enjoyed pondering which five fundamental “tools” I’d be looking for in a teacher. I wondered whether the big five should mainly consist of skills (e.g., the ability to explain things clearly, facilitate active learning, or design assessments), or whether attitudes and dispositions (e.g., openness, commitment to equity and inclusion, desire for improvement) are more important.

Teaching’s Five Tools

Here’s my first attempt at a list:

  • Passion for and knowledge about the course content
  • Deep concern for all students and their learning
  • Ability to organize and plan
  • Clarity and transparency (in every aspect of teaching)
  • Dedication to honing one’s craft

What do you think? Which “five tools” are the essential ones for excellence in teaching? Does the baseball metaphor work? Are there more appropriate metaphors?

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KerryAnn O’Meara, et al., Faculty Careers and Work Lives: A Professional Growth Perspective, 2008, p. 32.

Tips from My Students (on learning in Zoom)

Students were the main reason for my positive teaching experiences in Zoom in Winter Term. They were open, hard-working, and willing to be engaged. These first-year students prepared for each class meeting, wrote thoughtful reflections on our topics, and took steps to help create a supportive learning community.

Continue reading Tips from My Students (on learning in Zoom)

I Survived Winter Term in Zoom

I was teaching a short-term intensive course during our January Winter Term. It was scheduled to meet synchronously in Zoom five days a week for three hours a day for 3 ½ weeks. Yikes. Winter Term at Elon is a challenging format.

Beforehand, I was quite nervous about how to engage the 34 students in Zoom. In a pre-course survey, students sounded a bit wary or worried too, even after having had some previous experience with online synchronous classes in the fall.

Continue reading I Survived Winter Term in Zoom

Stereotype Threat – What Instructors Can Do

What’s Stereotype Threat?

When students find themselves in an environment where they worry that they will be judged or treated negatively because of stereotypes about one or more facets of their identity, they become anxious and vigilant, combing their environment for how they are being viewed and trying to regulate their thoughts and emotional responses (like worry, self-doubt) to the threats.

Continue reading Stereotype Threat – What Instructors Can Do

What is good teaching?

While preparing a workshop about ways to do observations of teaching, my co-facilitator and I were thinking about how to adapt the traditional ways at our institution (i.e., sit in on a face-to-face class) for the many varied online and hybrid ways faculty are teaching during these pandemic days.

That got us thinking about the various benefits and limitations of any one way of evaluating a faculty member’s teaching (e.g., student ratings forms, observations, materials like syllabi and assignments, actual student work, communication and interactions in a learning management system, etc.).

Continue reading What is good teaching?

Building a learning community during tough times

I was over-the-top excited when I received my first responses from students to my pre-course survey. After spending the summer reading, adapting, pondering contingencies, and attending course design institutes and digital learning days, I’m tired of being anxious about the semester and just want it to start.

I’m also ready to interact with real students rather than the imaginary ones I’ve been thinking and worrying about all summer.

Some of the students are eager for the semester to get started too. I sent out the survey much earlier than I usually would (11 days before the first day of class), and a couple of students filled it out right away! Responses have been trickling in since then; over 90% had completed it a couple days before class begins.

Continue reading Building a learning community during tough times

Who We Teach

Musing 3 on Teaching about Race

Framework of the book

As I’ve been reflecting on teaching about race in the U.S., I returned to the framework I first encountered in a webinar taught by some great pioneers in multicultural education, Christine A. Stanley and Mathew Ouellett. (I adapted their framework in the image to the right.) For inclusive teaching, they advised we think carefully about who it is we are teaching.

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What we Teach about Race

Assuming we accept the idea that we need to teach more and/or better about race, before we start, we need to consider the fundamental question, WHAT do we want to teach?

I think sometimes busy faculty don’t take enough time considering this question. But as I wrote in chapter one of my book, choosing significant and meaningful goals is a crucial step in the process of designing an effective, well-integrated course in which students learn deeply and retain what they learn.

Continue reading What we Teach about Race

Let’s Teach More, and/or Better, about Race

White police killed an unarmed Black man. Again. The murder of George Floyd – captured on video by 17-year-old Darnella Frazer for all the world to witness in its senseless and brazen cruelty – resulted in persistent protests around the nation. Again. By now everyone knows Floyd’s name, just as we learned the names Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. (Yet too rarely do we know the names of or facts about police brutality towards Black women, as pointed out in the powerful exposé Say Her Name by the African American Policy Forum.) In 1991, everyone knew the name of Rodney King, and in the mid and late 1960s we watched frequent clashes with police as they resulted in burning cities. 

Continue reading Let’s Teach More, and/or Better, about Race

Emotions in Teaching

Have you ever before heard faculty talk so much about emotions?

Cathy Davidson, author of The New Education, asserted on the HASTAC blog that “our summer of planning for better online learning this Fall will be wasted if we do not begin from the premise that our students are learning from a place of dislocation, anxiety, and trauma. So are we.”

“Precarity, uncertainty, grief and feeling overwhelmed abound,” observed Becca Pope-Ruark in Inside Higher Education. She cautioned faculty to pay attention to signs of debilitating burnout.

Continue reading Emotions in Teaching