obligatory pedagogical reflection
This term I spent a lot of time reconfiguring one of the broadest facets of my teaching: the epistemological framework that I use to justify my pedagogical practice. This framework relates how people “produce” knowledge and experience learning; it’s what I use to both predict and design appropriate contexts that facilitate specific learning outcomes. As a tool, I use this framework to make assumptions about the most appropriate course of action when I’m performing as a teacher/facilitator/instructor/etc.—in other words, this framework constitutes a facet of my subjectivity. In working with the course material for P155: Public Oral Communication, I’ve come to appreciate an understanding of how students should embody an ethic and model a literacy in the workshop environment. I have yet, though, to refine the techniques I use to specifically shape a subjectivity for my students that provides them with ethical strategies for both answering self-inspired questions and motivating independent learning. Put another way, I would like to develop strategies for strategies because at the moment, it feels as though I have conditioned my students into utilizing me as their primary tool, rather than as a reference to refine their engagement with course texts and other tools.
My students and I have an unhealthy relationship. At some point this term, I became the primary strategy for my students to affect their performance in the course. This was probably very early on; in their search to discover a viable routine for solving problems related to their coursework, scheduling an appointment to meet with Iris supplanted all others. My evidence for this is visible in three ways; first, my peers and I regularly observe that other Associate Instructors (AIs) don’t experience near the same volume of student traffic that I do on a weekly basis. Second, when I ask, most students regularly admit that they have not made time to review course lectures and materials before coming to class. Third, some students tell me—in fewer words, perhaps—that they don’t believe in their own ability to reflect critically on their work, and they rely principally on my feedback. When I work with students one-on-one, the relative consistency and predicability of student questions and comments suggests that there exists a facet to our communication symptomatic of system failure. When my students first started to struggle with learning in a flipped classroom environment, no one noticed any inherent problems with the way they approached basic problem solving tasks.
From the first day of class, I made uncritical assumptions about how students understand their learning practice. I forgot, perhaps, how it came to be that I developed different, more efficient strategies for learning over the course of my undergraduate education. I took for granted and neglected to account for the scaffolding that others laid for me in my intellectual development. I didn’t realize that asking my students to read the textbook or watch a lecture wasn’t actually what I wanted them to do; and yet, I tasked my students with these activities because I assumed that these activities were synonymous with listening to the material. Ratcliffe’s articulation of rhetorical listening is helpful here; Ratcliffe describes the act of listening as a process that lays information side by side, and asks the listener to identify relationships between two (or more) rhetorical texts (cf. 1999). In listening to my own students describe their confusion with various concepts and tasks, the cause is almost always related to an erroneous and superficial relationship they think exists between different modules of information that intersect in the constitution of a particular context, concept, or idea. While students clearly and regularly perform this act independent of a classroom—comparing what they think they know to other models or configurations of knowledge—I think it’s a mistake on my part to obscure an explicit model for listening that exists independently of direct, teacher-to-student conversations.
Students have enough practice dialoging with living people (and their simulacra), but few students exhibit a similar confidence in rhetorical engagement with a text. More commonly, teachers recognize this inability to comprehend material (the explicit modeling of relationships that exist between different ideas) as a problem that manifests in the absence of a literacy. Perhaps because teachers aren’t often confronted with feelings of illiteracy when engaged with their topics of study, they are inclined to a blindness in the many ways in which students are asked to be literate in the day-to-day process of learning. Considering that students commonly struggle with practicing critical media literacy in upper-division level courses, is it any wonder that my students would also struggle, initially, in learning how to utilize online course tools? A tool does not exist outside of a context; when the context changes, the user re-learns how to use the tool. When the tool changes, the user learns to understand a familiar context in a new way. When both the tool and the context are unfamiliar, students naturally struggle with the time that they are afforded to learn and explore both the tool, and the texts rendered accessible with the tool.
We might understand literacy as a kind of knowledge that configures users, their tools, and a particular context. In this way, we can cleave some of the responsibility for learning away from a student, and we can recognize an inherent and unfair dis/advantage that some students may have given various socio-cultural and/or medical backgrounds. Students who have been afforded more time to work with both tools and their relevant contexts may appear smarter or better adept with the material, when in reality their situation is also informed by past or preparatory experience. Obviously, the natural variation that diversifies and benefits a classroom environment obscures when student achievement is a facet of pedagogical design; however, there are steps that I can take to try and level the experiences of students with different strategies for working in the classroom. I can assess the pedagogical infrastructure I build for my classroom on how comprehensive the guided opportunities are that help students practice listening. When I observe students to dis/engage with course material in a patterned and predictable fashion, I might assume that a problem lies in the structure and introduction of my course, and not in the problem-solving capabilities of a student. One of the assumptions that I make with this constructivist approach is that students inevitably cope or teach themselves strategies for working with course material; this process, without guidance, is necessarily haphazard, inefficient, and aggravating. Perhaps, by assessing the strategy I employ to model or communicate what strategic learning is, I can better anticipate the challenges students must overcome in learning to process new kinds of information.
Okay. So, to address the way I teaching strategy, I plan to adjust my pedagogical practice in these specific ways:
- The first week of class will serve as a training simulation. The syllabus for my lab sections will be laid out in an identical fashion to the online course lectures and tools, and they will be tested in a similar fashion to help prepare them for the style of language that will inform weekly quizzes. This means that I will video record my overview of the syllabus online, provide them with a slideshow as a take-away, post the syllabus online, and test them with a quiz over the weekend.
- I will also utilize the online forum so that students should expect to ask questions about the lecture on Wednesday nights, and come to class on Fridays having reviewed questions asked by their peers. I’ll also provide students with an opportunity to earn participation points if they come to class on Friday ready to answer some of the questions raised on the forum. Currently, students use the forum as a repository for information, rather than a resource they can use to dialogue with each other about John Arthos’s “usable concepts.” By more cohesively integrating forum participation with the classroom, I hope to redefine how students relate the relevance of the forum in their learning practice. Students regularly demonstrate a need for this kind of feedback by addressing me with these questions in class, but this ethic of addressing all questions to me in class marginalizes their opportunity to practice extemporaneous speaking.
My goal with these adjustments is to demonstrate my expectations to students with regards to the ways in which they should approach the identification, signification, and application of knowledge in class. It is my hope that these changes establish both an ideal work ethic for approaching hand-in and in-class participation assignments, and a common language to talk about applications of knowledge and praxis. Metaphorically speaking, I want to experiment with laying down breadcrumbs and observing whether or not students experience a difference in how and when they earn their academic achievements. When students fail to meet expectations, hopefully it won’t be after the completion of a high-value assignment as often; further, if students can isolate underdeveloped facets of their approach to learning, then perhaps students will utilize resources on campus more readily.
Although the effect of these changes should be immediately apparent in the techniques that students use to perform in their first few assignments, I also plan to assess the course by asking students periodically about their experiences and preferences. I hope that by asking students to reflect on how they would prefer to use time in workshop—through surveys and minute-papers—that students will advocate for more speaking opportunities. For me, this will differentiate future classes from the ones I currently teach that consistently express a preference for group discussions about concepts discussed in lecture. For me, evidence of a positive change may not necessarily manifest in different grade distributions, but simply a change in the tone of conversations students have with me about their struggle to overcome anxiety and failure in P155.