Bringing everything to the table: Where do we go from there?

This year I devoted the first session of both my graduate classes to everyone giving extended autobiographical introductions, for the reasons described in an earlier post. E.g., in the Critical Thinking course, we took 4 minutes to explain “How I came to be a person interested in learning more about critical thinking–how to do it myself and teach/foster it in others.” Each introduction was followed by “connections and extensions” feedback using this form, which asks students to give one point of intersection with the listener’s interests and one direction the listener could imagine the speaker’s work being extended. Read more of this post

What leads us to change our teaching so it departs from how we were taught?

A feedback slip at a recent faculty teaching workshop I ran asked the title question of me personally. Some thoughts:
1. A colleague who shifted during graduate school from ecology to science education studied science faculty who made a big change in their teaching (towards being more interactive, activity-based, etc.). He concluded, as I recall it, that each person had their own biographical reasons–there were no generalizations.
2. I have often found myself saying that I haven’t systematically looked at my own development as a teacher. I don’t have a coherent narrative to offer anyone else.
3. It is the case that I have tried to articulate my guiding themes ever since I had to prepare material for reappointment/promotion reviews. Doing this made me, in turn, more conscious of what I was doing (see and precursors).
4. But being reviewed may not be the explanation — indeed, colleagues advised me to focus on publications because teaching doesn’t really count. At about the same time, I had stumbled into being the advisor for graduate students teaching writing-intensive seminars (because I had started such teaching for extra $$ one summer). In that role, I observed their classes and had to invent ways of reflecting back what I saw — some of my themes about teaching arose from doing that. From that experience I convened a “teaching co-op,” in which faculty and grad. students observed each other’s classes.
5. But commenting on the teaching of colleagues may not be the explanation, given that I had already instituted a practice some years earlier of having students take turns to stay after class and give feedback.
…and so on.
6. I think a key connecting strand here is that my research has always been about problematic boundaries of complex situations and I have sought and made use of opportunities to teach interdisciplinary courses about life and environmental sciences in their social contexts. This teaching gave me the chance — or made it a necessity — to formulate my own distinctive interdisciplinary themes. In short, reflection on my teaching practice was less some virtuous approach to teaching and more something I had to do intellectually.
(More thinking, remembering, reflecting is needed here…)

disConferencing, a five-and-a-third-hour model: Session 1

Hour ? to 1.00

Session 1, Getting Here & Exposing Diverse Points of Potential Interaction

This activity emphasizes Respect—for yourself and others—from the outset, making it more comfortable for you to Risk talking about your personal journey.  You may gain insights—Revelations—from what you hear yourself include in your stories.

A circle gets going as soon as it has filled:

  • Welcome from circle coordinator (=an organizer or a volunteer arranged by the organizer)
  • Initial 7-minute activity (guided freewriting on hopes for the dis/Conference)
  • 30-second introductions (= name or handle & hopes for the workshop)
  • Autobiographical Introductions: “How I came to be someone who would end up at a dis/Conference on this topic” –equal time for everyone (=5 minutes or less if the group starts late).
    • Gives participants an opportunity to introduce themselves in narrative depth, their current and emerging work, and learn more about each other
    • Coordinator goes first to model
    • Everyone encouraged to take notes on points of intersection, interest, curiosity. After the first four introductions stop to draw connections and discuss with a neighbor what is emerging.
  • Last 5 minutes: Decide as a group and print on large PostIts one common thread and one tension among the participants.  Print these on large PostIts (Blue for commonality and Red for tension).  Coordinator collects these and posts them on the board for Session 1.

(Page 1 of the handout has the instructions above plus instructions,, & space for guided freewriting.)

(continued in next post)

Unsettled by the dialogue process (as used in classroom discussions)

My own thinking is often unsettled by the dialogue process used in classroom discussions—issues get raised that I have not positioned in some framework that I would be able to convey to others.

The dialogue process, in short, involves structured turn-taking so that participants can listen well to each other as well as to their own thoughts that had been below the surface of attention and to their responses to what others say.  In some of the graduate classes I teach I schedule this process to give us—the students and I—an opportunity to express our responses to a reading or a topic, such as, “participatory action research and theory in relation to action” (link).  The themes that emerge are never predictable—even when the topic of discussion is one I’ve assigned for a number of years.  And, as I began by saying, my own thinking is often unsettled by these dialogue process discussions.

My unsettledness and lack of a framework could be attributed to intellectual fuzziness and flakiness—a more disciplined scholar would know how to make sense of the issues relevant to the topics they include in their course syllabi.  Perhaps.  But my experience could also point to the hidden complexities that lurk below the customary frameworks and our performance of them in classrooms and seminars.  We know more, I have often said, than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge.  Knowledge that might be left in an unprepared state includes autobiographical experiences, undigested expeditions into a wider world, and questions we left aside, especially questions about apparent contradictions or tensions between what we write or are able to put into practice.  Might we even keep ourselves as busy as we are so as to avoid delving into such questions?  (This post is the first time that I’ve gone beyond feeling unsettled by a dialogue process and tried to write down my thoughts about that experience.  [In addition to the post, I’ve adjusted the guidelines I use for dialogue so as to include a phase before the closing go-around in which each of us writes for a few minutes to gather the thoughts that have arisen, lest too many of them slip away when the dialogue ends.])

A particular kind of unresolved question unsettles me, namely, the intersection of the biographical and the structural. How can I make sense of the diverse things I’ve done in terms of “biography as a crucible of social forces” (Bob Young‘s words)?  All of us, I think, manage to perform our roles in educational settings most of the time without articulating the intersections and processes and “forces” mixed in the crucible.  The dialogue process, for me, takes the lid off the crucible—do crucibles actually ever have lids?—and shines lights from various angles into the bubbling concoction.

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