What we do in the classroom affects the world into which students graduate. Increasingly I see accounts, like the recent article in Psychology Today, decrying a general decline in problem-solving skills, attributed by many to high-stakes testing. And on the more scholarly side, champions of Liberal Arts education like Martha Nussbaum warn against skills-based educations turning graduates into “useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations” unable to critique authority.* Between these two narratives, I see the debt contemporary education owes pioneers of democratic, engaged teaching like John Dewey and Paulo Freire. As a consequence, I frame my duty to students not just as imparting the best information I can, but also as equipping those students to see how actively participating in their educations empowers them.
*Nussbaum, Martha. “Political Soul-making and the Imminent Demise of Liberal Education.” Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 37.2, (2006): 301-313.
As a product of the public education system, I have a strong sense of personal obligation to contribute to the education of our society. At a state-funded institution, I feel that a professor’s responsibility to society is not only to educate the students enrolled in his or her courses but also to reach beyond the ivory tower and make knowledge accessible to people at all levels. I believe that a basic understanding of scientific concepts is essential to being a responsible member of society, no matter one’s vocation. And, I recognize the responsibility of liberal arts institutions to provide an education rich in science, as well as other disciplines, to produce the next generation of informed citizens. To accomplish this goal, my teaching engages the students by making the course content and assignments immediately relevant to their lives and useful to the world as a whole.
Two young fish — undergraduates — were on their way to class one morning when an old professor swam by in the other direction. “How’s the water, boys?” the professor fish asked.
“Fine, Dr. Mackerel,” they said, smiling politely at the professor as they continued.
Once they were safely out of earshot, one turned to the other, troubled, “Uh, dude, what’s water…?”
[based on a joke told by David Foster Wallace in 2005]
Our students are swimming in a medium that, by and large, they do not recognize. For a fish, water is as banal as it is vital. As I see it, a good portion of my job—that is, if “Ph.D.” still stands for a teacher who is a friend of wisdom—is to help them actually consider that basic, unquestioned, banal, vital reality.
A disturbingly large portion of what we all take for granted turns out to be off somehow—stories about things that never happened, stories that make us feel like we are something that we are not. And those myths that we collectively tell ourselves, stories about famous people in the past, for instance, ripple out to homes and voting booths and statehouses, to policy decisions that impact people in the present and future. The past isn’t past because the past is also us.
So as a historian, teaching is the way to unmask what is hidden in plain sight. It is the wonderful and terrible task that we at the university have to profess: “This is water… this is water.” And if we don’t point it out, no one else will.
As an applied linguistic specializing in second language acquisition and foreign language pedagogy, I am deeply committed to promoting our students’ global competence. All my courses and the courses I supervise as French Language Program Director (basic and intermediate) focus on the acquisition of intercultural communicative competence and on creating a foreign language learning experience centered on meaning-based communications to enable students to use the language for real-world purposes. The curricula I have developed for beginning, intermediate and advanced courses reflect my teaching philosophy, which is grounded in a socio-constructivist approach to learning. Classroom practice is invariably centered on students who contribute to their language learning through initiative-taking and active involvement in the discovery of answers, development of interpretations and new insights to enable them to become autonomous language users. All courses use projects to capture learners’ interest, engage their creativity and imagination through collaborative and dynamic digitally-enhanced productions and performances.
In both freshman composition and literature surveys, I emphasize two related points consistently during the semester: the experience of reading and the transformation of the humanities student. Many students enter a course with the mindset that literature “needs to be decoded” and that class is about uncovering hidden symbols. Instead, I stress that the experience of reading literature grants us insight into the human condition and rewires our mental and emotional circuitry. I like to quote Barbara Kingsolver, who explains, “the power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down inside someone else’s point of view.” That’s why we call these classes the humanities: they help us explore the human condition. The students expect that the texts we read—from Puritan captivity narratives to 19th-century slave narratives—to grant insight into the culture in which they were written. They are often surprised and delighted to realize that these texts also help them understand their own culture. With this in mind, I strive to teach my students that literature has a terraforming effect, transforming us into more empathic and complete humans.
Both physics and astronomy education research have identified challenges addressing, and reversing, widely held student misconceptions, and shown the efficacy of active learning techniques to correct commonly held student misconceptions. Over the past 10 years, I have been improving on, and incorporating, new forms of active learning techniques to effectively teach introductory physics and astronomy classes. The active learning techniques I use include 1) Asking multiple-choice clicker questions to bring misconceptions to the surface, allow students to discuss and analyze their thought process, and then ask students to revise their answers before revealing the correct answer. 2) Linking in-class demonstrations with a predictive clicker question, peer discussion before students invest in their predictions, then reveal the often-surprising outcome of the demonstration enabling further peer discussion, helping students to overcome the persistent misconceptions that led to wrong predictions. 3) “Just-in-time teaching” by asking challenging questions based on assigned reading. In class, I then address misconceptions and other problems revealed by the answers to the challenging questions.